The offer of a new name, a new life, new citizenship, and forgiveness is not exclusive to Christianity.
For a couple of centuries men who joined the French Foreign Legion received these benefits. Conquering military leaders have offered defeated enemies the opportunity to change sides. Although generally merciless, Gengis Khan sometimes gave captured enemy leaders a choice of death or loyalty. If they chose to join him, he brought them, their families and their tribes into his protection and service.
I sometimes wonder whether we Christians misrepresent God with open offers of unconditional forgiveness through Jesus. It is certainly true that God will forgive any sin, but there are conditions. In one respect, Jesus is no different to any other victorious conqueror who offers forgiveness. He demands a change of sides and a loyalty to the death, which takes priority over family, friends and every other legitimate call on time and money. His call to a lifetime of disciplined service is every bit as serious – and requiring every bit as serious a consideration and response – as that demanded by any other leader.
The benefits of following Jesus are immeasurable, but they are benefits for those who surrender to Him. True, some camp followers, who look for the gleanings of a victory without joining the army, may well pick up some small trophies along the way, but that is usually incidental and not a part of the deal.
The most basic demand on any follower of Jesus is to accept God’s will and relinquish their own. The prayer we call the Lord’s prayer – one of the first things Jesus taught His disciples – sets the priorities for our petitions. It is only after asking that God’s kingdom should come and for His will to be done, that we go on to the request for forgiveness. Even that request has a condition –in turn we are to forgive all others of any offence against ourselves. That is only common sense. If two people come to God, accept His will, and ask for forgiveness, He will be prepared to forgive both of them. If they then refuse to forgive each other, in effect they are refusing His will, which in turn revokes their own request.
I may be a bit naïve, but it seems to me that if we pray that prayer, we cannot really include any opt out clauses. Can it be legitimate to ask God to bring about His will for everyone, except me, the one making the request? Or can we ask God to forgive us, but not anyone we have an issue with? Can you imagine a new recruit to the Legion, staying in bed after an order to be on parade, with the excuse that he only joined for the benefits not the responsibilities?
If we speak about Jesus, and emphasise the love and grace of God, but omit to put an equal emphasis on the need to fully accept His will (which includes unconditional forgiveness for others) then we will find ourselves misrepresenting the gospel. We will also probably find that we spend an awful lot of time trying to explain to any that have responded to our message, why Christianity does not seem to work. But when you think about it, it is fairly obvious. You cannot get much more basic than the Lord’s prayer. We may gloss over what it says, but it is surely a bit unreasonable to expect God to do so as well.