The hymn “Just as I Am” has become shorthand for a type of easy, feel-good religion. But what does the Bible really teach about becoming a Christian?
“Just as I Am” is one of the most recognizable hymns in Protestant Christianity. Charlotte Elliott wrote it in 1835.
The story of “Just as I Am”
As the story goes, she was once visited by a Swiss preacher who asked her if she really was a Christian. This made her uncomfortable. She later admitted to him that the question greatly troubled her, and she told him, “I want to come to Jesus; but I don’t know how.”
The preacher answered simply, “Why not come just as you are? You have only to come to Him just as you are.”
Years later, Miss Elliott thought back on this conversation and penned the hymn “Just as I Am”—which eventually became a standard in Protestant hymnbooks. The hymn has seven stanzas, each beginning with the phrase just as I am and then describing aspects of Miss Elliott’s understanding of what it meant to come to Christ.
Nearly 99 years later, a young Billy Graham converted to Christianity after hearing this hymn at a revival meeting. He later became one of the most prominent evangelists of the 20th century.
Billy Graham would rent large venues for his crusades, work with the local pastors of many denominations and give powerful sermons centered on “coming to Christ.” The crusades would end with a stirring altar call where Mr. Graham would urge attendees to come forward to publicly accept Jesus as their Savior.
As hundreds filed down to make this profession, “Just as I Am” would play in the background. Some estimate that almost 3 million people have responded to these altar calls—but how many of those people remained committed churchgoers is debatable.
“Just as I Am” and feel-good religion
The “just as I am” approach has come to imply that there is no need to change, and it is just a symptom of a major trend in today’s Christianity.
Many churches teach and practice a feel-good religion. Instead of focusing on commitment, struggle and character growth, many churches teach an easy form of Christianity. All one has to do is accept Jesus. Jesus loves you just as you are and just wants you to feel better about yourself.
Becoming a Christian is portrayed as being as easy as coming forward for an altar call or repeating a prayer for Christ to “come into your heart.”
Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist, researched evangelical Christianity for years and authored the 2012 book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. In an interview with Christianity Today, she summed up modern evangelicalism this way: “What people want from faith is to feel better than they did without faith.”
In simple terms, it’s all about feelings and experiences.
Jesus’ message was very different
If Jesus was walking the earth as a man today, would His ministry be anything like the modern evangelical approach? Would He preach a “just as I am” message that focuses primarily on positive feelings and asks people to just believe on Him without making any changes in their lives?
His purpose was not for them to stay just as they were—but to help them become entirely new people.A central theme of this column is that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). We evaluate modern beliefs and practices by His words and example. We genuinely hope that our readers will reevaluate their beliefs and practices to make sure they align with Jesus Christ’s.
Sadly, the modern approach neglects many elements of the calls to action Jesus actually taught. Jesus interacted with and taught people who were looked down on in society for their moral failings—tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10). But, as we will see, His purpose was not for them to stay just as they were—but to help them become entirely new people.
Consider these elements of Jesus’ message that are often missing in the modern approach.
1. A strong call to real repentance.
Modern evangelical Christianity emphasizes belief and profession.
Believe on Jesus. Just accept Jesus. Give your heart to Jesus.
Of course, believing Jesus in faith is a crucial part of Christianity—but belief cannot stand alone. What is often less emphasized is believing and acting upon what Jesus actually taught. There is an immense difference between just believing in Jesus—and actually believing Jesus!
Jesus Himself lamented that many people believed in Him (calling Him “Lord”), but did not believe or do the things He said (Luke 6:46).
We mentioned above that Jesus at times would associate with sinners and was even harshly attacked for doing so! But when you read the account, you learn that He likened Himself to a physician (Matthew 9:12). He wanted to make them better—to raise them to a higher standard—to call sinners “to repentance” (verse 13).
Jesus’ message was all about a call to repentance from sin (Mark 1:15; 2:17). That requires identifying exactly what sin is—“the breaking of law” (1 John 3:4, Holman Christian Standard Bible). That is why the 10 Commandments must be regularly taught. If churches don’t teach about God’s law, people won’t even know what to repent of! Teaching about God’s law and sin should produce guilt. Not the kind of guilt that debilitates and festers in our lives; it should produce the kind of guilt—or “godly sorrow”—that motivates us to repent and change (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The apostle Paul strongly taught that we must change: “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:19). Unfortunately, in an effort to get away from the “fire and brimstone” messages of past preaching, many preachers today focus entirely on a feel-good, “just as I am” message. God does love you, but He doesn’t want you to stay just as you are. He wants you to fundamentally change your life through true repentance.
To learn more about this often neglected message, study our articles on “Repentance.”
2. The necessity of baptism.
Many churches do practice baptism in various forms. Some practice full immersion; others, sprinkling or pouring. Others bypass any form of baptism altogether and encourage new converts to simply make a verbal confession of Jesus Christ as their Savior.
But if we accept the premise that Christianity should be based on following the example of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:21), then we can easily cut through the confusing melee of modern practices. In Matthew 3 we read that Jesus came to John the Baptist and was baptized. That baptism was clearly by full immersion because Matthew describes Jesus coming up out of the water (verse 16).
Technically, Jesus had no reason to be baptized. Baptism is a symbol of repentance (verse 11)—and Jesus had no sins to repent of. But He did it to set an example.
Just as His ministry began with His own baptism, His work on earth ended by giving His followers the command to make disciples and baptize them (Matthew 28:19). The rest of the New Testament shows many examples of the early Church following this command closely (Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12; 18:8).
It is to modern Christianity’s shame that true repentance and baptism have been replaced by many churches with a shallow, spur-of-the-moment verbal confession of belief. To learn more about biblical baptism, read “What Is Baptism?” To learn more about the kind of belief Jesus desires, see “Believe in the Gospel.”
3. Christianity is a struggle.
The acceptance of a feel-good, “just as I am” Christianity has also veiled another important part of Jesus’ message. Jesus did not describe Christianity as just feeling better about ourselves because we have been forgiven. He did not portray His Church as a place where Christians go to feel good and be entertained.
Jesus described Christianity as a struggle—a lifelong battle against sin!Jesus described Christianity as a struggle—a lifelong battle against sin!
Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily [an analogy of self-sacrifice], and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, emphasis added).
When Jesus talked about self-denial, He wasn’t talking about penance—punishing or denying the self in an attempt to achieve forgiveness. He was talking about a life of battling against sin.
In one of His most shocking teachings, Jesus said that if our eye or hand causes us to sin, we are to “pluck it out” or “cut it off” (Matthew 5:29-30).
This was a powerful word picture to show the importance of fighting sin. Our eyes and hands don’t literally cause us to sin; sin begins in the mind. If our mind is dwelling on sin, we have to remove those sins from our mind. If we are practicing sin through our body, we have to make drastic changes to stop.
The Christian life isn’t built around just feeling good about ourselves and avoiding guilt. It is a continual, disciplined struggle against sin and a proactive effort to develop the character of Jesus Christ with the help of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 9:27; Romans 13:14).
From “just as I am” to “just as He is”
The whole premise of today’s “just as I am” approach misses the mark of Jesus’ teachings. Christ’s message was not that God wants you to stay just as you are—but instead that God wants us to become just as He is. This means struggling, day by day and year by year, to inch closer and closer to becoming “perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)! Jesus set the ultimate standard for Christians very high.
Will you embrace His standard or stay just as you are?
We have prepared two booklets that explain how to begin the process of becoming just as He is. Download and study Change Your Life! and The 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today to learn more about how to fulfill God’s high standard for you.