Did you ever come across any of those tiny, hard-hitting Christian comic-strip booklets? Years ago I saw them often, sometimes in rest areas, sometimes at truck stops, often dropped on a sidewalk or left on a counter beside the cash register.
These booklets were always black-and-white, drawn in adventure-comic style. They always had the same theme: no matter how good you think you are, you’re a lost sinner, and you’re bound for hell unless you follow the author’s Bible-verse instructions.
Another tract, with diagrams rather than cartoons, was more positive. It taught you the “four spiritual laws,” which assured you that God loves you and has great plans for you but that sin has separated you from Him, and the only way to reunite with Him is through Jesus. There was even a printed salvation prayer you could pray, and you were encouraged to unite with a Bible-believing church.
The first tract gives a very negative view of God, but the second was a good resource then, and it still is today. I’m sure that thousands of people can point to the four laws as their first step on the road to personal salvation. But that’s all they are—first steps. And, as with any journey, if you take those steps and then stop or wander off the path or imagine that since you’ve checked off the “salvation thing” you can now go on to something else, you’ll end up in the wrong place.
It’s as if I were to say to my wife, “Shelley, give me a list of four steps on how to be a good husband.”
She would give me a strange look, and maybe come over and feel my forehead. “Steps? What are you talking about?”
“I want to be a better husband,” I’d say. “I need a checklist to make sure I’m doing that.”
A worried wrinkle would show up on her brow. “I think you need a psychiatrist.”
Do you see how silly that would be? Shelley and I got married because we fell in love, not because I fulfilled a checklist. If minimal-requirement checklists were the key to a good marriage, think of all the happiness we’d be missing out on!
It’s the same with salvation. There’s so much more! Here are some steps I’ve taken to make sure I’m not missing out.
1. discover what God is like
Let’s say I told you that Fentworth P. Feckle loves you and has a plan for your life. You would probably respond, “Who is he, and why should he care?” Unfortunately, many people have a preplanned answer to that question when it’s about God. Some think of God as a chuckling Santa Claus who just might give us what we want if we’re nice and not naughty. To others, He’s a dangerously grouchy tyrant, smiting Old Testament people here and there.
Perhaps the world’s most crucial question is not, How can I be saved? but, Does God get stomach acid when He thinks about me?
So where do we get our opinions about God? We should get them from the Bible, but we don’t—not at first anyway. We get them from our parents. And that’s true whether or not those parents are Christians. My mom and dad were the kind of Christians who believed that our heavenly Father is truly loving. They never, ever, hinted that God was storing up wrath for me.
Instead, by their own actions, my parents modeled a safe God who—like them—loved me devotedly and was never happier than when I was close by. Even when I was in college, Mom loved to reach out and give me a hug. And that’s what God is like. Mom and Dad, like God, did their best to prepare me to avoid making foolish life decisions—and they sometimes warned me about these dangers with tears and earnest voices.
Lucky me, right? But what about those parents who don’t act out God’s love? Or worse, what if they threaten us that God or His Son won’t love us if we’re bad?
My parents weren’t perfect. Dad was deeply sensitive and painfully shy. Part of his insecurity resulted from the fact that he’d attended only one week of high school and then went back out to the farm to help his dad drag the land out of post-Depression debt. So the more education I got, the more tongue-tied he became. He thought and felt deeply over that incongruity, but he had a hard time putting those thoughts into words. I’m sure this is partly my fault, but I never remember ever having a long, deep-level conversation with him.
But God isn’t shy and inarticulate. He has a lot to say. So where can I go to get a good picture of God and His character?
2. go to church
This one is a matter of life and death: you need to see His character played out by real people who are reflecting His love. The author of Hebrews said, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). The Day, of course, is Jesus’ return.
When I was a boy, I knew a family who didn’t go to church. Instead, they sent off for reel-to-reel tape recordings of a hoarse, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, and they played these tapes every Sunday morning in their living room. Needless to say, this didn’t make the four children—or their mom or dad—happy, well-adjusted Christians. And one by one, when the kids turned 18, they left home and moved far away, where they had to rediscover faith apart from their family’s influence.
The little country church I attended was where I met grown-ups who reflected God’s character. None of these good people were perfect, but George listened thoughtfully to what I had to say, paused, and then gave me carefully reasoned responses. Thank you, George, for reminding me that God listens carefully. Archie’s joyful 80-year-old grin showed that he loved my siblings and me just like his own grandchildren, and he taught me that God smiles when He thinks of me.
Dan’s eyes twinkled, and when he read the Bible aloud, his thick German accent helped me hear God’s words in a new way. Through Dan, God spoke to my heart through His Word. Gottlieb always urged me to add olive oil to cooked potatoes, which I do to this day. Gottlieb helped me understand that God loves the fellowship of a good meal. Helen was in constant pain and worked hard at a part-time job that didn’t even pay minimum wage, but she always spoke with gentle dignity about her faith. From her, I learned that God comes close to those who are barely getting by. In non-preachy ways, these men and women introduced me to a God whose love sometimes brought me to tears.
And the more I realized that God loved me and respected my ideas and offered me absolutely free choice—and got just as much joy out of a frolicking puppy as I did—the more gratefully I could accept the parental advice in His Ten Commandments and His Son’s sermon on the mount. I saw those four spiritual laws lived out in real life by real people. In fact, a big part of the reason I’m a pastor today is that Russell, another of those churchmen, tapped me on the shoulder when I was 19 and asked me to get a sermon ready. Since then, I’ve preached more than 1,000 brand-new, from-scratch sermons. So attending a Bible-believing and Bible-preaching church has fleshed out my salvation experience.
Here’s one more experience not to miss out on.
3. make friends with the newly converted
Like a lot of kids who grow up in Christian homes, I couldn’t really point to a dramatic moment when I was converted. I’d gone through such steps as the four spiritual laws, but I didn’t feel the sharp, overwhelming love for Jesus that Bob and Alice did (not their real names). They changed my life.
I was in my mid-20s when I met them, and they were near my age. We lived next door to each other, and I quickly learned that Bob and Alice couldn’t keep Jesus out of their conversations. They’d been recently converted from dramatically different lifestyles, and they felt a breathtakingly joyful adoration for the Savior who had rescued them—an adoration that brought freshness to my more traditional faith.
So when it comes to salvation, make sure you’re not missing out on God’s best. Find out what God is really like by attending a Bible-believing, Bible-teaching, Bible-preaching church. And if you want your faith jolted and jump-started, get to know someone who’s recently been saved. Ask them to tell you their story. And keep praying that God will revive you so that you won’t miss out on all that He has to offer you.
Maylan Schurch is pastor of the Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bellevue, Washington, USA. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times® magazine.