“Just as I Am” is one of the most recognizable hymns in Protestant Christianity. Charlotte Elliott wrote it in 1835.
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.
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?
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).