What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

When believers are asked if they are of the Christian faith, most would have no problem confidently answering by saying, “Absolutely.” However, it is when the questions become more probing that some feel lost as to how to respond.

This primarily occurs when they are asked the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” What most people who are curious about Christianity mean when they ask this question is, “What had to occur in order for you to become a Christian?

Have you ever been asked this question personally?

If you are a believer in Jesus Christ and are outspoken about your faith, eventually you will. There are two overarching problems that cause many evangelicals to answer this question wrongly. First, there is the problem of tradition. And secondly, there is the problem of bad theology. Both of which I will address in this post.

When asked how they became a Christian, most people resort to answering that question by thinking back to personal experiences or the external traditions that surrounded their conversion. While traditions are not in and of themselves a bad thing, they can at times be elevated above the scriptures when not kept in their proper perspective.

In the South, the most common answer given by many when asked how they know that they are a Christian sounds something like this; “Well I’ve said a sinners prayer, I joined the church, and I stopped cussing.” All of these things are well and good, but none of them are correct when telling someone how to become a Christian. And much of this error is attributed to elevating man-made traditions over the Bible.

Sadly, there are even church websites that claim that the two things one must do in order to be saved is recite a prayer of invitation to Jesus and then to join a local body of believers. Again, both of these are good things, but they are not what makes a person Christian. And furthermore, Jesus doesn’t need an invitation to save.

As one pastor rightly said, “When God saves you, He doesn’t do it because you gave Him permission. He did it because He’s God.”

It is a good thing to pray to God. However, no where in the scriptures does it say that our words have the power to make us righteous before the Lord. And just because a person has a membership in a church doesn’t mean that they are saved.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, ““Going to church won’t make you a Christian any more that being in a garage makes you a car.”

If we tell people that we’ve gained our salvation by praying a prayer and committing to regular church attendance, it is telling them some of the effects of salvation but not the cause. It is not Biblical truth, but rather human tradition. We’ve made these very good things into God things.

There are many pastors that hold this formula of “A Sinners prayer plus church membership equals salvation” in such high esteem that to question it would be viewed as sacrilegious in their opinion.  Our traditions are often given more authority than they deserve. Let me use an example to illustrate my point.

Sam loved it when his wife cooked her infamous roast beef. The recipe had been passed down from generation to generation in her family. But Sam noticed that before cooking the meal, his bride always would cut off the very end corners of the beef.

One day out of curiosity, Sam asked his wife, “Why is it that you cut the end corners of the beef off of the meat before cooking?” His wife answered that her mother had taught her to do it this way and she assumed that it was done to make the meat more moist.

At the next family get together, Sam asked his wife’s mother why it was that she always cut the ends off of the roast beef. His mother in law responded that her mother had taught her to do it that way, and she assumed that it was to make it more appealing to the eye.

Finally Sam asked his wife’s grandmother why she cut the ends off the roast beef. Sam said to her, “Your granddaughter said the reason is because it makes the beef more moist, and your daughter said it makes the meat more aesthetically pleasing.”

The old lady responded, “It doesn’t make the beef more moist and it has nothing to do with appearance. I cut off the ends off of the roast beef because my pans were always too small.”

When telling someone how to become a Christian, it is important that we answer them with truth, not tradition. Jesus said that a person must do only two things. That is to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to repent (or turn from) our sins (Mark 1:15).

But what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to repent of our sins as a result of our believe in Christ? This leads us into the theological fallacy that causes Christians to stumble when presented with questions regarding their faith.

Imagine that a pastor comes to the house of one of his partitioners who hasn’t been to church in a few months. During his visit, the pastor learns that this man has been out drinking and partying, and these sinful actions have kept him from having time for church.

Feeling guilty in front of his pastor, the man responds, “You are right pastor, I need to just stop going to the bars and quit the womanizing and starting coming to church.” Although these may be the exact words that the pastor wanted to hear, the answer was prompted by guilt, and not true repentance.

Essentially what the man was saying to the pastor was, “I know that I need to stop chasing after the sins that I love and begin doing the righteous things that I hate.” Constantly throughout the scriptures we see that God is not so much interested with our external actions as much as He is with our internal motivations for those actions.

Unless people understand The Gospel and the amazing grace of God they will never desire biblical repentance in their lives.  It’s not enough to just tell people to repent. Because even repentance is something that must be granted to man by God (2 Timothy 2:25). We must lead them to feel the weight of their transgressions by exposing them to  the holiness of God. And this is done with God’s Word.

Once a person begins to grasp the holiness of God, a right view of our sin comes clearly into focus. Once they begin to understand the undeserved grace that the Lord extends in spite of their sins, repentance becomes a desire rather than an unwanted burden. For more on this topic, see our book study on J.C. Ryle’s ‘Holiness’. 

It isn’t behavioral modification that leads men to repentance. It’s a proper understanding of the Gospel. It is the love and kindness of God that leads a person to view repentance as a delight and not a duty.

“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4.

Finally, the question that tends to theologically stump many believers is when they are asked, “Why is it that God saves men?”

Many would say that the reason God saves men is in order to have fellowship with them. Others have said it was because He loved us so much. And although our salvation does bring us into fellowship with God due to His great love, neither God’s desire for fellowship or love for man were His motivations for saving. Both of these reasons given for why God saves are wrong because they center around us rather than Christ.

First off, God does not need us in order to have fellowship. We bring nothing to the table and are no benefit to God. To say that God needed man in order to have fellowship is to essentially say that there was harmony lacking within the Godhead. It is to say that there was not perfect preexisting fellowship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and that what was lacking was man. This is blasphemy.

There is perfect fellowship within the trinity, and it has existed eternally. God didn’t save man because he needed something from us.

“…and human hands can’t serve his needs–for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need.” Acts 17:25.

And although God is love, His love for man is not rooted in us, but in Christ. God the Father doesn’t save because of His great affection for people, but because of His great love for Jesus. Our salvation is rooted in the Father’s love for His Son. Consider the words of the high priestly prayer of Christ in John 17.

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.  And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.  For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.  

All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.  And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” John 17:1-11.

Notice in the prayer of Jesus how many times Christ referred to believers as “...those you have given me. In eternity past, God the Father gave His Son a gift. The Father gave the Son a people, that He would receive glory, honor, and praise from them.

If you are a Christian, it is not because of something you did by your own power. And it is not primarily because God loved you so much that He just couldn’t live without you. We are Christian because of God’s great love for His Son Jesus. And as a result of this love, God the Father gave a group of people (believers) to the Son for no other reason than for Him to receive all honor and glory.

God doesn’t save because of us. The Father saved man because of His love for Christ the Son. There are those who have considered this truth to be extremely offensive. But this is only so because in our flesh, we want to view ourselves as the center piece to God’s affection.

The sole purpose of God creating man was so that Christ would be glorified by them.

“Bring all who claim me as their God, for I have made them for my glory. It was I who created them.'” Isaiah 43:7.

In our sinful flesh we would rather take Christ off of the throne and seat ourselves upon it, having Jesus then act as a servant to us. Sadly, this is a picture of a great majority of American Christianity. The cross was not a secondary reaction to man’s sin. The cross planned by the Father for the glory of the Son in eternity past.

“But God knew what would happen, and his prearranged plan was carried out when Jesus was betrayed.” Acts 2:23.

Christ is the centerpiece and the reason for the grace of God. And this is such an amazing thing for man. Because that same eternal love God the Father has for His Son covers all of those who are in Christ. God no longer sees believers as being covered in their sins, but rather covered in the precious blood of Jesus. The blood of Christ marks the believer as loved, righteous, and justified before the Lord.

What does it mean to be a Christian?

It means that we are eternally loved, forgiven, and kept by God the Father through Christ the Son. It means that we have been given a righteous standing that we could have never attained on our own. It means that we’ve had a change of mind, and we now desire the very righteousness that we once hated. It means that Jesus died in our place, and for our sins.

It means that we see the salvation that we’ve been given as something that we did not earn nor were we entitled to, but rather as an undeserved gift. And it means that we find our greatest joys emanating from conformity to Christ. Our salvation is of the Lord, and our reason for being is found in glorifying Him.

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