As the weekend comes to an end, we celebrate the independence of our nation and the freedom we share as Americans. American pride is never higher than around the 4th of July, and for good reason. We celebrate freedom in diversity, yet are all united under one flag as one nation. But underneath our banner sits a layer of confusion when it comes to identifying a Christian from any other person. Studies show that around 70% of Americans would identify as some version of Christian and most countries would identify us as a “Christian nation.” Yet, if you were to ask 10 people on the street the simple question, “What is a Christian?” you may end up with 10 very different responses.
So what is a Christian really? To answer this question, let’s start with stating three main misconceptions of defining a Christian:
Misconception #1: A Christian is someone who goes to church, reads the Bible, and practices religious tradition.
“If they look like a Christian, smell like a Christian, and do religious things, they must be a Christian!” This thought process not only exists in our current culture, but has existed in the history of mankind. Religious obligation and practice has ruled as the indicator of the soul and tricked countless people into a Styrofoam faith that looks great yet holds zero weight. Many of us may have experienced people (and may be people) who have made a golden calf of their religious services and duties and yet have no desire for the Kingdom of God.
Jesus saw right through this when he looked at the Pharisees and the other religious elite of his time. “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. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Misconception #2: A Christian is a good person. Someone who does good deeds for others, remains moral, and accomplishes humanitarian acts.
Many have made the thought that if “I am good/kind enough, God will accept me and love me in the end.” But the counter question is, “How good is good enough?” Jesus answers this plainly when he says, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” Matthew 5:48. He even goes as far as to say that you have to be more righteous than the best of religious leaders in order to be accepted by God (Matthew 5:20).
How good is good enough for God? Perfection. Not being “as good” as your most religious relative, but better. Being perfect like God Himself is perfect. So what does this mean? It means you must be as righteous as God to be accepted by God.
Misconception #3: A Christian is defined by belief that Jesus died on the cross. Belief or faith in a higher power known as God.
Belief is a funny word that seemingly has changed over time (like the word “Christian” has). Belief in the Bible was always associated with a deep sense of conviction for something that then led to an action. In the same way that we say that “love” is a verb, God has always treated “believe” as a verb.
James writes to the greater Church on this distinction: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
This distinction is the most harmful of all. Nothing is more destructive than a person who claims to believe in the gospel of Jesus and yet lives a life that is contrary to that belief. Hypocrisy is distasteful to non-believers, frustrating to believers, and obvious to God. God is not fooled by empty belief.
So the question still stands. What is a Christian?
Truth: A Christian is a person who LOVES Jesus because of a transformation of the heart and LIVES for God out of an outpouring of joy in Christ.
Christians do religious works like reading their Bible and praying. Christians do humanitarian works and strive to be good. Christians believe in Jesus, what he said and did on the cross, and in the resurrection. At the root of all these things is the singular love that believers have for God Himself. Christians love because God first modeled love on the cross (1 John 4:19; Romans 5:8).
Christians read the Bible because they love to know the God who so greatly loved them on the cross. Christians enjoy the perfection that they attain through Christ’s perfection as God and man. Christians believe the Gospel with their hearts and are driven to act because of the deep love that they have for their neighbors. This is what it means to be a Christian.
Bottom line: Love is the fuel that flames a Christian’s desire for God in religious service, moral behavior, and belief and trust in the Gospel. Love makes us Christians, everything else is an indication of that very love.
With this reality, here are three action steps:
1. Pray fervently that the lost who don’t know Jesus would love and treasure God for who He is. Don’t be fooled into accepting church attendance as the end goal. The end goal is a deep love for Christ.
2. Live every moment for Christ in full joy (Hebrews 12:1-2). Repent from living a robotic, legalistic, faux Christian life and step into a joy filled life of genuinity.
3. Send yourself, send your friends, build disciples to send to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). We send because we love the lost like Jesus loved us. We want to see all people love Jesus and be transformed by the Gospel.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing…” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)