Sometimes the Christian life is reduced to accepting a certain set of ideas. Even worse, sometimes the Christian life is reduced to a mere onetime decision. According to some, being a Christian means you simply believe that Jesus died for your sins and choose to receive his forgiveness. That’s it, that’s all.
Now don’t get me wrong: I think that Christian beliefs matter and one’s response to Jesus matters. But the Christian life is emaciated if it’s reduced to simply believing the right things and making the right, onetime decision. Dallas Willard calls this emaciated version of the faith, ‘Vampire Christianity.’ These are some of his thoughts on it:
Many think it is quite reasonable to be a vampire Christian. One, in effect, says to Jesus: ‘I’d like a little of your blood, please. But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven.
Vampire Christianity is a dangerously sad substitute for the life that Jesus encouraged people to embrace. There is far more to the Christian life than just believing the right things and making the right, onetime decision.
Christian beliefs are certainly important. They are an integral part of the Christian life. But what’s sometimes either ignored or under-appreciated is that these beliefs are not meant to be abstract sets of propositions off in the clouds that have no real implications for the way we see ourselves and the way we live our lives. Christian beliefs are meant to continually change us because—if they are really believed—they are thought to truly represent reality. I’m stating the obvious here, but we must remember that Jesus taught what he thought to be most real, and lived according to a reality that he referred to as the ‘Kingdom of God.’ And so, the Christian life involves continually learning to live according to this reality. It involves the ongoing commitment of re-forming our ideas and our attitudes, our behaviours and our character, our identities and our relations, our minds and our hearts, our wills and our works, our hopes and our longings, to accord with reality as it has been most powerfully presented by the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. That’s a lot, I know. But that’s my point.
Deciding to receive forgiveness from Jesus and depend on his intervening grace is also important. We cannot move forward without honestly understanding ourselves and God, without owning our failings and seeking his assistance. But that’s just it: we are supposed to move forward, still. Deciding to be a Christian is really to decide to become a disciple. And the word ‘disciple’ literally means ‘learner’ or ‘student.’ So being a disciple of Jesus involves willingly becoming his student and apprentice. It is a commitment to continually learn his ways from him, as one’s teacher and master. Discipleship, then, is a lifelong journey and process, not a mere onetime decision. The decision is really just the beginning of an entirely new way of life that has its own ongoing choices and challenges.
So our ideas definitely matter. And our decisions definitely matter. But they matter in the Christian life because they are supposed to be parts of a larger whole, a whole that involves our entire selves, along with our thinking, acting, being, and future. If you’re thinking that this is a huge task, you’re right: it is an all-encompassing, lifelong journey of becoming. But this is what the Christian life is supposed to be—a enormous endeavour that is only possible by the presence of God’s active and intervening grace. And personally, this is what I long for: something bigger than myself, larger than myself, truer than myself; something far more grand and extraordinary than I could accomplish on my own. That’s why only the fullness of the Christian life will do.