All of us have seen a church marquee. We have seen the amusing maxims. Years ago I saw one which read, “Prevent truth decay; burn a Living Bible.” Some are not amusing. They are pithy and true: “A Family Altar Can Alter A Family.”
One that I have seen increasingly is “Come as You Are,” or some variation of it. This is an example of a statement that is true, but one which leaves so much unsaid that it could easily create a false impression. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. It needs more. The statement is a welcoming statement. “You don’t need to change in order to come to this church. Please, come just as you are.” There is even a famous old gospel song titled, “Just As I Am.” This is precisely what Billy Graham entitled his autobiography. The message isn’t only that we should come to church just as we are. It’s also that we should come to Jesus just as we are. Jesus accepts us just as we are.
I’ll briefly explore this idea and show how it is both necessary and insufficient.
You Must Come as You Are
It is correct to say, “Come as you are.” The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. In fact, Jesus told the Pharisees that he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Mk. 2:17). Actually, what he was really saying is that he was not calling the self-righteous. Everyone is a sinner. We all stand in need of salvation. The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Because we have sinned, we stand under God’s judgment. We have broken God’s law, and we must pay the penalty for breaking his law (Rom. 6:23). The message of judgment is not popular today, and it never has been. The message of judgment is especially unpopular today, because people are taught that they’re entitled to feel very good about themselves. But the fact is, the Bible says a great deal about judgment, more than you might expect. It probably says as much about the judgment of God as it does the love of God. We today do not take judgment seriously because we do not take sin seriously. Sin is a severe affront to God. It not only breaks his law. It breaks his heart (Gen. 6:5–6). When we sin, we rebel against our loving Creator who wants only the best for us. But we don’t want what is best for us. We want what we think is best for us. This is sin.
But God loved us so much that he sent his Son Jesus Christ, to bear the penalty for our sin on the cross. One of the most touching statements about this is in Romans 5:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (vv. 6-8)
We might sacrifice our lives for good and virtuous people. We would die for our spouse or children, especially since they’re committed to us and love us. We might even die for a good person, even if we did not know him well. But it is very difficult to believe that we would die for those who hated us or who lived depraved lives: alcoholics, prostitutes, rapists, murderers, and gang members. The Bible says that God loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for sinners, not for righteous people.
In fact, in Romans 4:5 we read that God justifies the ungodly. That is, God declares righteous those whose lives are filled with anti-God living. He declares them righteous by their faith. We are justified, declared righteous, by faith, not by works.
The reason that we must come to God as we are, is because God is the only one that can clean us up. We cannot come to God in any way except as we are.
This is also why we invite sinners to church. We invite them to come as they are. They cannot clean themselves up before they come. Only the gospel can clean them up. That’s why they need to hear the gospel.
There are some churches that are more like the Pharisees than Jesus Christ. They want a pretty church. They want a church where everyone looks beautiful and lives an upstanding, virtuous life. If a prostitute or alcoholic or dope addict or gang member attended church on Sunday, they would be scandalized. But why shouldn’t we want sinners to hear the gospel? Of course, sinners can — and should — hear the gospel outside the church, but often sinners feel a keen need, and the first place that comes to their mind to help them is the church. They assume that they can hear about God and get their lives changed. They’re quite correct about this. God is the only one that can change them. But if we want a church that is not friendly to sinners, we want a church that cares little for the gospel. The gospel is to call sinners to repentance. Therefore, it is entirely correct to say: Come as you are.
You May Not Stay as You Are
But I must quickly add, though you may come as you are, you may not stay as you are. This is the point that Peter makes with white-hot clarity:
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:13-19)
I want you to get Peter’s drift. God is holy. As his creatures, made in his image, we are to be holy also. But we have sinned. How can we be holy? Peter tells us: by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus died to make us holy. We don’t often hear it put that way today. We hear that Jesus died to take us to heaven, and that is true. We hear that Jesus died so that God could justify us, to count us righteous. That also is true. But for some reason very few people emphasize Peter’s fact. Jesus died to make us holy.
You may have heard the old song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” written about the American War Between the States. One of the refrains is, “As Christ died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Whatever we might think of the second part, the first part is true. Jesus Christ did die to make men — all of us — holy.
Peter talks about the previous lives of the members of the church. Before they came to Jesus Christ, they were unholy people. They were filled with selfishness and lust and unbelief and divisiveness, and an undisciplined tongue, and rebellion. These are sins, and unrepentant sin is not compatible with holiness.
When Jesus prayed his great high priestly prayer in John 17, he asked the Father to bring his disciples into communion with the Trinity. This is the great goal of the Gospel: to restore the blessed communion with God that was broken in the Garden of Eden. But God is a holy God, and to commune with him, we need to be a holy people.
It is important to understand that Peter is not talking about what some people call imputed righteousness. Others call it positional righteousness. This is the righteousness in God’s courtroom. We are declared not guilty when we trust in Jesus. Christ’s righteousness substitutes for our unrighteousness.
But this is not the holiness that Peter’s talking about. He is talking about our holiness, our obedience in purity: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” (v. 14). Jesus Christ poured out his precious life’s blood to bring us to the Father. He is our new Father, and he calls us to a new obedience by the power of Jesus’ blood.
Unfortunately, we have an entire class of churches today whose motto seems to be: “Come as you are, and stay you are.” But we do not come as we are in order to stay as we are. We come as we are in order to be changed. We are called to obey in the Father’s house. We are called to abandon our antinomian (lawless) ways.
An abundance of professed Christians today live in unrepentant pride and unforgiveness and unbelief and rebellion and fornication and adultery and homosexuality and pornography, and they seem to think they can still be Christians. The Bible refutes this idea. Paul writes:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor.6:9-11)
“[T]he unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If somebody asks you, “I don’t want to give up my sinning, but I still want to go to heaven,” you can tell them that that is impossible. God saves us to change us — to make us holy.
The good news, the gospel, is not just the Jesus forgives our sins. The good news is also that he cleans up our sins. You must come to Jesus as you are, but you may not stay as you are.