Often folk wonder who or what makes one a Christian? - some thoughts for your consideration.
There are so many that claim to be Christians in the world today, yet it is very difficult to reconcile what we observe people doing with their lifestyle choices day by day, versus what we know and read about in the Bible. One of the most common criticisms leveled at the church and those calling themselves Christians is that they are just a bunch of hypocrites.
Why is this? Let's see if we can shed some light on what qualifies one to be called a Christian.
First some history. We read in the Bible where the term was first used:
25Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. Acts 11:25~26 (emphasis mine)
So here we see that it was others that made the decision to call someone a Christian, it was not a label or title that Barnabas and Saul chose for themselves. From this we can logically conclude that there were certain characteristics and observable behaviours that set these men apart and thus they were called “Christ followers” - i.e. just like Christ – Christians.
During this time in world history there were no hospitals or social welfare systems like we know today. It was very much survival of the fittest. Furthermore, there was little understanding of how disease or plagues occurred and certainly no modern medicine or vaccination available. Yet a brief look at the early church shows how they defied the common myths and behaviours of the time and cared for the poor, sick and diseased, slave or free, male or female.
Followers of “The Way” as it was referred to, demonstrated a practical love for their neighbours, often at great personal cost, even giving their lives to help comfort and nurse others and demonstrate practically this love that God has for them.
So does doing good to our neighbour make us a Christian?
No, however Christians should be clearly identified among those doing good for their neighbours in the world. Those that do harm are definitely not qualified to be described as Christian as are those that are self absorbed and ignore the plight of others.
5"And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7"Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! Matt 18:5~7.
8But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death." Revelation 21:8
In Matthew, Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven and mentions a number of things that will prevent us from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Hypocrites are mentioned as are the rich (multiple times), as unlikely to make it and Jesus talks about the imperative need for them to change. He also tells us that it is only by the grace of God that this change is possible and He tells us that what is impossible for man is possible for God.
Jesus also says that unless we receive the Kingdom of God like a little child we will not make it. So it is obviously not difficult, otherwise childlike behaviour would not “get it” or qualify.
In summary so far, Christians should exhibit behaviour in this world that clearly sets us apart as people that love and care for our neighbours as well as for this world that we have been given dominion over. So the character we develop in our lives drives our behaviour, and that behaviour should be aligned with “the way” demonstrated by Jesus when He walked on earth.
Secondly, you may have noted that it was “disciples” that were called Christians. Disciples are those that actively learn and follow the disciplines of their master or teacher. In this case we are referring to Jesus Christ's disciples – those that learned, knew and understood and then practised the things that Jesus taught.
So our lifestyle can demonstrate that we follow the teaching of Jesus, yet we see that just living and behaving in certain ways are still not sufficient to qualify as a Christian.
18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 21"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' Matthew 7:18~23
This is a very serious text, and seldom talked about. Apparently there will be those that to all appearances are Christian, they were doing the stuff, but Jesus says that He never knew them. He uses the same root word for “knew” as used to describe a husband intimately knowing his wife. This speaks of having a very close relationship.
So we now know that a Christian should be learning and following the teachings of Jesus and practically showing his commitment to “the way” by how his life is lived. A growing and developing alignment of word and activity with the teachings of the Bible.
Wow – our actions need to match our words – just the opposite of hypocrisy!
From our discussion so far it would appear that really being a Christian depends upon what we do and what we say and that these are to be in alignment with what Jesus taught in the Bible. This is certainly part of the definition, however it misses a vital prerequisite.
Jesus also stated that we need to born again – a term used and possibly abused by churches in recent history. More specifically He stated:
5Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. John 3:5
Just like with our natural birth an event needs to occur – a rebirth that takes us from the sinfulness of our natural selves to becoming children of the living God, infused and empowered and actively living and walking in the Spirit. (Why this is needed is discussed here.)
This event is likened to walking through a door or gate. Before the event, you're outside, after the event, on the inside. However, many then think and act like they have arrived, that once this transaction has taken place that all is well – no other action needs to occur. Once on the inside, one can continue to live and act like before. Not so, as we have discussed, there needs to be a visible out-working of the invisible transaction. Learning, growth and practical development and action must also occur – our lives should show a change, visible to those around us.
This misunderstanding may be likened to getting a vaccination, just enough of the disease is introduced into our bodies so that our immune system can build up antibodies and thus prevent us from catching the real deal. For so many millions of people, they have taken the first step, moved from outside to the inside, but have missed the rest of the message Jesus taught. Enough to be immune to the real deal. Hence the issues and questions that so many see and ask that led us into this discussion in the first place.
A significant matter that is unpopular and difficult to accept is that part of this transaction of re-birth implies a death of the old nature. Thus our natural tendencies work in defiance of and against the new life of the Spirit. Jesus speaks of picking up our cross (an instrument of death) on a daily basis, the need to recognize that we are no longer our own, we have been bought or purchased at great cost and thus belong to God. So many then continue to live as if they can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, what they can or cannot do. During the time Jesus lived, the society he lived in understood very well what this kind of transaction meant. They understood the concept of being a love slave, someone that chose to remain a slave and work for their master out of love for them and the family. The concept of a lord and master and the loss of our personal freedom to choose between pleasing God or ourselves is not well understood and not widely accepted.
To be known by God we must love Him. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God. 1 Corinthians 8:3 this provides the answer to the dilemma of Matthew 7:23. He said he never knew them and thus they were not permitted entry - if we love God, we will be known by Him. Reading this in the Amplified version gives an outline of what this really means.
The transaction called being born again is the vital prerequisite to being considered a Christian, however Jesus told his disciples that our task was to make disciples - not converts!
Finally, let me try to summarize. There is an initial transaction that has to occur, Jesus refers to this as being born again. Then He proceeds to show and tell them that having taken this initial step they need to daily deal with the battle of their old sinful nature and learn to walk in the righteousness of their new nature led by the Holy Spirit that comes to live inside us as we accept Him into our lives. Thus we daily grow to love Him more and become more like Him and known by Him.
Can we earn our salvation? Clearly not, it is a free gift from God to us, entirely paid for by Jesus, God made flesh, crucified, dead and buried and risen again, ascended into Heaven to sit alongside God and make intercession for us.
The initial transaction however is only like boarding the plane ready for the journey, the Christian life really means that we launch the plane, begin the journey, learning and developing the character attributes that Jesus demonstrated, and showing by a life style that more and more closely should resemble that which Jesus modeled in His life on earth.
Does this mean that it costs us nothing? Also clearly not – it actually costs us our lives, just as it did Jesus. Just as He did only what He saw His Father doing, so we too need to grow develop and mature in our walk in the Spirit so that we too do only what the Father tells us.
Someone that has recognized their sinfulness, that they are doomed to die separated from God unless they accept that the blood of Jesus alone cleanses us from all sin. That they confess with their words and actions that Jesus Christ is Lord. That having been purchased and cleansed by the blood Jesus spilled on the cross, the only possible response is one of loving gratefulness and thankfulness, demonstrated by our willing obedience to His word in the Bible and through the leading of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and empowering us to live holy and righteous lives as active members of the Kingdom of God each and every day.