One of my favorite professors in seminary use to say, “Fuzzy thinking does not help anyone. Be clear about what you communicate.” That is a good saying. Now, I admit, I am not always clear in what I communicate, but I want to try to answer the question, ‘what is a Christian?’ Why spend the time with this? Simple. In today’s world, there seems to be confusion (fuzzy thinking) of what a Christian really is.
Here are just a few ideas that many have about Christianity and classifying who is a Christian.
- Christians are those who go to a church that uses the Bible or talks about Jesus.
- Christians are those who have been baptized (infant and/or adult)
- Christians are those who believe in God and Jesus
- Christians are those who live in “Christian” countries and come from “Christian” families.
Are all or some of those true? Are those the requirements to be called a Christian? Well, I think it is best to answer this question by going back to original source. Like in the game of telephone, where a message is passed from one person to another till the original message is changed over time, I think this is what has happened to the answer of this question. We have lost the original answer by letting culture, religion, and opinions change the original meaning of what it means to be a Christian.
So, I want to go back to the original source: God’s word (the Bible) and see what He says a Christian is. That way we can do away with the “fuzzy thinking” my former professor spoke of in class.
First of all, a Christian is someone who believes that Jesus is God. Jesus was clear on who He was while on earth, and the Bible clearly states that He is God.[i]
In calling the tax collector, Matthew or Levi, Jesus went up to him and said, “Follow Me” and the Bible says, “And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” So, in this account we see that being a Christian involves at least two things. Making a decision to follow Jesus, and then actually doing it.[ii]
In a conversation with a Jewish religious leader, Jesus says, “…unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Later in the same conversation Jesus says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So we see in this conversation, Jesus explains more to us of what it means to be a Christian. First, that person must begin a new life. In His illustration of being “born again” Jesus is telling the religious leader that in his current state he cannot see the kingdom of God, no matter how religious he seems to be. This leads us to the second verse, which is, the religious leader must believe in Jesus to have eternal life, or he will perish in his sin and unbelief. This implies one very important truth: religious acts, no matter how sincere, cannot erase our sin before God. Only Jesus can. So, being a Christian is believing that Jesus is the answer, not our religious works, and then actually placing your faith in that truth.[iii]
James, the half brother of Jesus, made a very important observation when it comes to faith in God. He says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder!”[iv] The context of that verse has to do with understanding that genuine saving faith results in a transformed life that produces “works.” In other words, one who follows and believes in Jesus will live in such a way that seeks to bring Him glory in all they do.[v] Also, genuine faith will produce a life that does not have the continual habit of living in sin. Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”[vi] So, works do not save a person, but they are the result of genuine faith.
Now, there is one major truth that we need to formulate in our hearts in order to know what it means to be a Christian. We are accepted by God as one of His children only by His grace. There is nothing we can do as far as good works in order to make it into His family. We are all sinners, and without forgiveness from God, we do not have the right to have access to Him, not matter how many or what kind of religious things we do. We can walk up the largest set of stairs in the world on our knees, saying a prayer one each one, and it will do nothing to gain us God’s favor. This is the message of the whole Bible. But, because of His great love for us, He made a way for us by sending His Son Jesus to die on a cross as punishment for our sins, so that everyone who believes on Him, is forgiven of their sin and can have free access directly to God (we do not need Mary or a “saint” but have direct access through Jesus Christ). This is not because we are so good. We are fallen sinful people. But it is because He is a merciful, gracious, and good God. It is all because of grace, not our good deeds. The Bible says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[vii]
So, while this is not a full explanation of what it means to be a Christian, we can conclude several things about what a Christian is.
- One who believes that Jesus is God
- One who has made a decision to follow Jesus and has made steps to follow Him.
- One who places their faith in Jesus for forgiveness of sin and salvation, not religious deeds and good works.
- One who has begun a new life with Christ (“born again”). Without this, it is impossible for one to enter the kingdom of God.
- One who believes more than simply Jesus exists. Demon believe that. A Christian is one who has immersed themselves into Christ, by faith, to the point where Jesus becomes the Lord and Master of their life, and they begin to produce spiritual fruit from their life that glorifies God. A person who says they believe in Christ, yet sees no change in their life because of that belief, Jesus says that they are not His. James calls it “dead faith” (James 2). Transformation is the natural result of a change in ownership of one’s life.
What can we conclude about what does not make on a Christian?
- Being a member of a church does not make one a Christian.
- Baptism and/or confirmation does not make one a Christian.
- Having Christian parents and coming from a Christian family does not make one a Christian
- Being born in a “Christian” country does not make one a Christian.
- Performing religious deeds and good works in a Christian setting does not make one a Christian.
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”[viii]
What is the Father’s, who is in heaven, will? That we believe on His Son Jesus who He has sent to bear our sin and guilt upon a Roman cross 2000 years ago. “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”[ix]
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”[x]