What is a Christian?
Paul Derengowski, ThM
In a world where words continue to change, if not simply lose, their meanings, one word which has evolved to the point where it has almost completely lost its original meaning is the word “Christian.” Anyone wanting or claiming to be a Christian is one, even though many of those making the claim have no idea what a Christian believes or even how a person becomes a Christian. A typical false conception is that as long as a person acts a certain way, where self-justification takes place, and maybe goes to church once in a while and wears a cross around her neck, then by default that person must a Christian. Or if a person belongs to a religious organization that has “Jesus” or “Christian” fixed to its moniker, then once again, that person not only assumes that makes him a Christian, but the organization itself as well.
Such faulty thinking, though, is perhaps more a sign of the times, where relativistic thought rules the day, than anything else. Because of biblical illiteracy that has been influenced and encouraged by postmodern thought, Christian and Christianity are less a matter of what the Bible and God has to say about them than are one’s immediate feelings. In Bill Clintonesque fashion, “what is” is not about “what is,” but what one wants it to be. False projection has become acceptable, even if that means completely distorting terms to the point of non-recognition of the real McCoy. The sad irony of the loss of meaning and propagation of falsehood as the truth is the vitriolic objection that often follows if such is pointed out to be untrue. All of the sudden absolute “truth” is appealed to, even though such absolutes are rooted in personal preference, rather than an actual appeal to the truth.
This article, therefore, will answer the question of what a Christian is from a biblical perspective. What the requirements are, what it means to follow Christ, and how to know if one is truly a Christian. Some will scoff in diabolical derision, asserting that no one has the right to judge whether or not anyone else is a Christian, and completely miss the reality that defining the terms and conditions have already been set. It is just a matter of whether or not those doing the scoffing will admit their own hypocrisy and abide by those already established standards. Standards which clearly expose the scoffer as someone who is not a Christian, yet feels compelled to judge God’s standards according to the very feelings that have led to the erosion of the meaning of the words Christian and Christianity in the first place.
It should be noted at the outset that to be a Christian during biblical times was not a term of endearment. It was an object of derision. The Roman historian Tacitus reported that while the Christians were being put to death by Nero’s order, “Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”1 Suetonius wrote, “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.”2 Pliny the Younger appealed to the Roman emperor Trajan on what to do with the Christians after punishing some who admitted to being Christians. He inquired upon forbidding their meeting together, “After receiving this account, I judged it so much the more necessary to endeavor to extort the real truth, by putting two female slaves to the torture, who were said to officiate’ in their religious rites: but all I could discover was evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.”3 To be a Christian was not glamorous. Up until Constantine most Christians lived their lives on the run, as pagan officials mocked, scorned, tortured, and murdered them for who and what they were. So, what was a Christian and how did a person become one?
A Christian then, as he is even now, is a person who first of all has been drawn by God.4 The reason for such intercession is that “all have gone astray” (Isa. 53:6; Rom. 3:12). Since all are sinners, then no one has an inherent desire for either God himself or the things of God. All are spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, walking “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2). And when fallen man has a religious moment, it is for a counterfeit, patterned after him. “God” is made in man’s image, in other words, whereby the idol can be manipulated to obey his lusts and desires. Therefore, it requires the supernatural intervention of God to raise the dead from the vanity of his mind. He does this first by mysteriously regenerating the sinner unbeknownst to him, as He draws him into a reconciled relationship that, prior to God’s initial act, the sinner would have never considered on his own.
The whole drawing process is best explained by none other than the person of Jesus during an exchange he had with the leading Pharisee Nicodemus. Jesus called it being “born again” or literally to be born “from above” spiritually. It was an absolute necessity if anyone is to see the kingdom of God. Interestingly when Nicodemus first approached Jesus there was no mention about heaven, salvation, or entrance requirements into God’s kingdom. All Nicodemus did was heap praise upon Jesus for performing signs (miracles) that only God’s teacher. Jesus turned that praise into an opportunity to inform Nicodemus of his spiritual need for God’s regeneration; a spiritual need which is found in every sinner’s life.
In an illustration that many, including Nicodemus, manage to miss, Jesus likened being born again (i.e. becoming a Christian) to that of being born naturally into the world. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit,” he stressed. Jesus would then further emphasize, “Do no marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:7-8). The point is that a human being would be nothing in the physical world without first being born naturally to his biological parents, and a person will be nothing in the spirit world of heaven without being supernaturally born to his heavenly parent. In both circumstances the “offspring” is passively acted upon. As the physical child offers no input to his biological parents concerning his approval or disapproval over them bearing him, so the spiritual child does not dictate to his Heavenly Father either. Only after birth when the child is mature enough to recognize and acknowledge who his parents are is there any discussion. Nevertheless, what has been wrought is permanent, with the genuine child of God or Christian no more capable of becoming anything less than one of God’s own than is the human child capable of becoming anything less that the child of his human parents.
What is frequently confused as a privilege and byproduct of being born again into a mandate and prerequisite for becoming a Christian is the whole concept of following Jesus Christ. Such is regularly seen in the cults, as the norm is turned into obligation. Christianity, or at least entry into it, is seen as nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts, rather than as a fulfillment of God’s continued movement in the Christian’s life as He orchestrates the activities to make the Christian to act and look more like the original image that God created him in, in the first place (Eph. 2:10). Granted, all Christians should be obedient toward God and his commandments, but not as a requirement to be saved. Since the Christian is saved by grace through faith, and not of any kind of self-righteousness that he has performed (Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5), then he must live by grace through faith as well. Commandments are kept out of love, not to merit a salvific standing before God.
To be a follower of Christ, therefore, is to be a disciple, or one who has not only acknowledged who brought him to be as a Christian, but acknowledges who it is that maintains him as a Christian as well. The Christian follows, not as some kind of mindless lapdog, but as one who utilizes his “whole mind” in loving devotion of the one he recognizes as Lord. Although he also acknowledges that there are those of like-mind whom the Lord has placed in his life for instruction and guidance, those whom he does recognize are always seen as second-class in comparison to Jesus. Following Christ implies a knowledge of Christ which is objectively received through a study of God’s Word as the Spirit illumines the mind of the Christian to understand. Conversely, those rejecting a diligent exercise of the mind by actively and constantly reflecting upon God’s special revelation cannot know the person of Jesus as they should, they cannot fully know what it means to be a follower of him either.
So, if God is solely in control of a person’s salvation, then what about “accepting Jesus” and how does a person really know they are a Christian?
First of all, “accepting Jesus” is born out of the eighteenth century revivalist nonsense of Charles G. Finney and his “anxious bench.” No one “accepts” Jesus, as if it was some kind of autonomous choice made by someone walking through a buffet line in a favorite local restaurant, unless of course one also thinks that God is at the mercy of the sinner, as He waits for him to decide while contemplating the circumstances in his sinful mind. Finney was one who apparently thought that God’s salvation was not about God, except in a secondary manner, but was instead up to man. Therefore, amid all the revival excitement Finney came up with not only the “anxious bench,” which is used to coerce people into confession, but the “invitation,” whereby people would be given the opportunity to come forward and “accept Christ as their personal savior.” Neither concept is found in the Bible, much less are they in conformity with what has already been discussed about being born again above.
Instead, when a person acknowledges what God has done to bring them to absolute belief and trust in the person of Jesus, then that person confesses that to men both in word and deed. It is not a matter of “accepting Jesus,” since that implies not only an autonomous will equal to that of God’s, but a power equal or superior to God’s which is capable of circumventing God’s plan and purpose in the universe. It is a matter of spiritually maturing to the point where the sinner-turned-saint acknowledges (i.e. confesses) God’s sovereign action to righteously and justly bear the sinner into His kingdom because of both the finished work by Jesus at Calvary and the life-giving activity of His Spirit during regeneration. Such is analogous to the first time a human child looks at his human mother or father and utters “Mama” or “Papa.”
Second, it is only when a person comes to the realization of just Who is responsible for his spiritual regeneration that that person has any assurance of his Christian identity. And when he does give full credit where credit is due, and does not want to hold back something for himself, whether it is cloaked in some kind of legalistic effort or hidden behind a façade of “free will,” then he will no longer have a doubt just who his master truly is and the security that is provided by genuinely being “in Him.” Those arguing to the contrary, claiming that on such and such a date they made the decision to accept God’s free gift of salvation, or that God’s is so in control of all things (except of course, their salvation), are merely engaging in self-delusion and unrighteous conduct by attempting to steal from God that which is rightfully His, while attempting to gloss over their hubris with pseudo-piety and sanctimonious hot-air. Conversely, those who are willing to say, “Yes Lord. I praise you for what You have done to redeem me in spite of myself. Thank you. I shall now proclaim to the world of the grace which has set me free,” are those can say with the apostle John that they know that they have believed on the name of the Son of God and now have eternal life (1 Jn. 5:13).
To be a Christian today has all but lost its meaning. Although some around the world are losing their lives for being Christian, for the most part to be a Christian has been watered down or equated to the point of non-distinction. Or it has been so badly caricatured that it does not even resemble what was intended when Jesus told his first disciples to follow him. Add to that the growing biblical illiteracy both in and out of the church, and the loss of what it really means to be a Christian is not likely to come back into view very soon. People would rather be “Conservative” rather than Christian, since the former props up an image more suitable for the autonomous and neutral-minded. Plus to be “Conservative” is more nebulous and less offensive than is the real meaning of Christian, and offers more of an opportunity to seek and serve political surrogate for societal answers than it is seek and serve Almighty God.
A Christian, though, in the genuine sense of the word, is one who has been called, drawn, and spiritually regenerated by God. Jesus made this clear, and there are no adequate substitutes. Moreover, one is either a Christian or one is a pagan. There is no middle ground with God. And what God does to bring a person into His family cannot be undone or thwarted by the feeble mind or effort of man. Those who become Christians stay Christians, whether they slip-slide away into backslidden immorality or they steadily grow to maturity in the grace and mercy of God. Clearly salvation is rooted in mystery, but those who see the after effects of salvation from God’s perspective can readily acknowledge what God has done as easily as seeing what the wind has done after it moves across the land.
1 The Annals of Tacitus, trans. by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (Franklin Center, PA: The Franklin Library, 1982), 344.
2 Suetonius, trans. by J. C. Rolfe, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 2:107.
3 The Letters of Pliny the Younger, trans. by William Melmoth (BiblioBazaar, 2007), 235.
4 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:44); And He [Jesus] was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted to him from the Father” (Jn. 6:65). The word “drawn” in the first reference is a translation of the Greek word helko, which can carrying with the meanings of to “draw” or “attract” (Jn. 6:44), remove (Jn. 18:10), “haul” (Jn. 21:6, 11), “drag” (Acts 16:19; 21:30), or force (Jam. 2:6). In other words, despite contentions to the contrary from some who seem to think that man is so independent and “free” that God depends on man’s fallen nature to decide his eternal destiny, Scripture is quite clear that if God wishes to “drag” man kicking and screaming into heaven, then He has that prerogative. Sadly, though, those same people believe they are autonomous—while also believing that God has no right to do with His creation as He sees fit, even if that means redeeming a person amid his fallen state—are the same ones attempting to save themselves through a variety of merit systems. Hypocritically, though, they speak of God’s grace and wondrous salvation, when neither is true in their lives, since they are too busy taking credit through their “free will” and meritorious effort. Jesus made it quite clear that unless a person is drawn by God unto redemption, then no one would ever come.