What does it mean to be a Christian? How do you become one? I’m glad you asked. First, let’s look at three ways you cannot become a child of God. That’s right. How not to become a Christian.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12–13 esv)

You cannot be a Christian simply by being born into a Christian family. I’m amazed at how some people, when asked how they know they are Christians, will answer, “Because I think my grandfather was,” or, “Because my mother is a Christian.” It’s as though they believe their family somehow has Christian “genes.” Having Christian parents is a great privilege. It’s a wonderful thing to be raised with biblical values and to develop a Christian worldview. But you still must personally believe in Jesus. You cannot live off the faith of the family.

You cannot make yourself a Christian by your own will. Not only does faith have nothing to do with your family background, it has nothing to do with desire. You can’t just say, “From this moment on, I am a Christian!” Becoming a Christian involves putting your trust in God. God is the one who saves you, not yourself. It would be like a drowning man trying to save himself. Becoming a Christian involves turning away from sin and trusting Jesus and Jesus alone for your salvation. It involves saying “yes” to God’s invitation to change your heart.

You cannot become a Christian by compulsion. No one in the world can make you a Christian. No minister or priest can make you a Christian by mere baptism or a sacrament. You cannot be reborn through a ceremony, or by reading a creed, or by standing up or sitting down, or by going forward, or by kneeling at a bench. None of these things, in and of themselves, will make you a Christian.

Now that we’ve covered how not to become a Christian, let’s look at how to become one. We find the answer in the verse quoted above: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

Being a Christian is not merely following a creed, though it would include that. It is not merely believing certain truths, though it is that, too. It is receiving Christ into your life as your Savior and Lord.

There has to be a point when you are awakened to your spiritual need and say, “God, I know I’m a sinner. I know I don’t measure up. Your light has crept into the crevices of my life, and You have exposed my spiritual nakedness. You have shown me my vulnerability and my need. At the same time, I know I can’t become a Christian in my own strength. So I am coming to You on Your terms. I am turning from my sin. I believe that your Son, Jesus, the Word who created all things, became a man and walked among us. I believe that He died on a cross for my sin. I put my trust in You. I choose to follow You.”

Becoming a Christian is not unlike having a gift offered to you. God is offering you a gift, but you need to accept it and open it to understand what it is.

People are funny about opening gifts. I think it is a complete waste of time to wrap a gift for most men. While a woman will admire the wrapping job and perhaps even carefully unwrap the gift hoping to use the ribbon later, a man will tear through the brightly colored paper as an obstacle. To them, wrapping is in the way. It’s just keeping him from the thing he really wants, which is what’s in the box. That’s all men generally care about.

My wife, on the other hand, enjoys—and will often prolong—the unwrapping process. I don’t understand it, but when someone gives Cathe a gift, she’ll say, “Thank you so much!” Then she’ll set the gift aside for a while. I can’t do that. If someone gives me a gift, I want to open it immediately. I want her to do the same, so I ask, “Cathe, are you going to open your gift?”

“I’m going to do it later,” she’ll tell me. “I’m going to eat dinner first.”

“The gift?” I remind her when dinner is over.

“I am going to have dessert.”

“The gift?” I will ask, halfway through dessert.

“I am going to have my coffee.”

“Open the gift!” I say, unable to stand it any longer. “How can you just sit there in the presence of an unopened gift?”

In the same way, God has given each of us a gift, but it’s not any good until we open it. The gift is just sitting there.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I’ll get to it later. I know it’s there. It gives me a good feeling to know it is there. I just love the fact that it is there.” But wait a second. You need to receive it. You need to open this gift. Until you have done so, you are not experiencing what God has in store for you.

You can say, “I know Jesus is the Lord. I know He is the Creator of all things. I know He died on the cross. I know He has the answer to all my questions. I know He can forgive me of my sins. He is there knocking. It’s nice to know he’s right there.” But that’s not enough. A gift is only good if it’s being used. So reach out and receive the gift.

Your Christian family can’t do it for you. You can’t do it for yourself just by saying, “I believe in my own way.” You have to say, “Lord, I receive Your gift of eternal life, happily and gladly. I trust in Your promises and I choose to follow Jesus.”

Have you done that yet?