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What Does it Mean to be a Christian? July 3, 2015

Posted by TJ Friend in Encouragements.
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As I’ve been thinking about this topic, I am realizing that “Christianity” is difficult to define. The word itself gives hints to its meaning, but to say that a Christian is a “little Christ” or “Christ-follower” is not specific enough. The main problem is that there are so many different ideas on what it means to be a Christian. For those outside the Church there are a wide variety of stereotypes of Christians. Some see Christianity as a religion of hate and intolerance. Others see it as a crutch for the simple minded to lean on. For others, Christianity is seen as an extension of its activity in society, so that it looks like a social justice institution. For most though, there is at least an idea of what Christianity should be. A lot of people recognize that Christians are not perfect and may not accurately represent Christianity. For these people they would say that Christianity is about love and compassion.

It is no surprise that people outside the Church would have misunderstandings of what it means to be a Christian. We, as the Church, have not done a good job in representing the Gospel to the world, either in word or deed. We have shown the world a lot of hypocrisy and such a watered down message that I am amazed people have any idea what Christianity really is.

What bothers me the most though, is that there are so many different views on what it means to be Christian from people who claim to be Christian. I fear that in a society where we choose our own truths, the idea that there even is a “true Christianity” is heretical. We are in a time where however people want to define Christianity and live it out is their own personal choice. The reason why the world consistently accuses Christians of picking and choosing parts of the Bible they want to follow while ignoring others, is that this is exactly what a lot of people actually do. People live one way on Sunday and live completely different the rest of the week. Because of this, we are in a place now where there are many people who think they are Christian, but are only Christian in name and do not accurately represent what it means to be a Christian.

I realize that in calling out people who are not living by the sort of Christianity I am about to set forth, this puts me in a place of “judging others”. This as we know is the cardinal sin in Christianity…except that it’s not. I believe that the Bible gives clear principles on what it means to be a Christian. I believe that God has clearly revealed, through His word, what it means to be a Christian and this is the standard by which we should strive to line up with. What I am about to set forth, is not some new or idiosyncratic view of what it means to be a Christian. I am simply relaying what God Himself desires in those who claim to represent Him. If you have questions with what I am describing, look at the Scripture for yourself and see if what I am saying is true.

I want to look at three “requirements” I see in the Bible that relate to what it means to be a Christian. I see a doctrinal aspect, a transformational aspect, and a relational aspect. Before getting into these though, it is important to recognize that “salvation” is not a one-time occurrence. Once we accept Jesus we are saved, but that doesn’t mean that we are then free to live however we want. In Philippians, Paul tells us,

12 ”Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil 2:12-13)

We have a responsibility to discipline our lives and live and grow as Christians from the moment of salvation till we die.

Doctrine – Do you believe the core elements of the Gospel?

The first aspect of Christianity is doctrinal. We can’t just believe whatever we want and claim to be Christian. One of the biggest issues the New Testament Church had to deal with was false teachers. Paul is continually warning against false teachers. He tells the church in Galatia that even if an angel proclaims to them a different message (like Mormonism proclaims) they are to reject it:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Gal 1:6-9)

There are a lot of doctrines that churches and individuals have established over time. There is no way we will agree on every single point. What we should at least agree on are the essential doctrines of the faith. If someone at least believes the core elements of Christianity, even if they are off on other doctrines, they have the foundation and can grow from there. If people are missing core elements, or have such a skewed understanding of them that they no longer mean what they originally meant, then that person cannot claim to be a Christian. If we don’t have distinguishing doctrines then how can we even know what Christianity is?

The list of the core doctrines could be potentially long, depending on how nuanced one chooses to go. I do not intend to give an exhaustive list here, just some examples of the kind of doctrines that fit in this category. One of the biggest issues is the means of salvation. In Ephesians it says, 8 ”For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9). A lot of clarity can be gained from this simple passage as to what it means to be saved. Anyone who claims that you need to do any type of “work” to earn salvation is proclaiming a false gospel. Salvation is a free gift, not something you can earn. Some other core doctrines are the fact that Jesus was fully God and fully human, that He died, was buried and rose again as a substitutionary atonement for our sins. I would also add to this list a belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. I don’t see how someone can claim to be a Christian and deny the very book that reveals what that means.

There are a lot of doctrines that are secondary to the core understanding of Christianity. Some of these are as minor as what type of worship music to play, or whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. There have been huge debates over free-will vs. predestination and the Charismatic movement. While there are people who would say that you have to believe one way or the other on these issues in order to be a Christian, I don’t think this is necessarily true. Just because you don’t believe that miracles still happen today doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing your best to follow God and live for Him. What we need to do is have more dialogues about what we believe and use the Bible as our standard of truth. Disagreements in the Church happen, but as long as people are holding to the core doctrines we shouldn’t allow these smaller things to divide churches.

Fruit/Works – Is there evidence of transformation?

The second aspect of Christianity is that of “fruit”. Matthew 12 talks about good trees and bad trees. Each tree is recognized by its fruit.

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt 12:33-37)

When you become a Christian there is a change that takes place inside of you. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone the new is here”. It is like a “rebirth” where we begin a new life that is different from our old life. If someone has no evidence of a changed life, they should examine themselves to see if they are actually saved. Here are some examples of what this transformed life should look like:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

“Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. (1 John 2:9)

15 ”Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)

26 ”Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:26-27)

14 ”What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 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? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” (James 2:14-24)

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:19-21)

As we can see there are a lot “evidences” of a transformed life, from loving one another, to watching our words, and not hating people.

Obedience – Do you know God?

This third and final aspect is simply a question of knowing God. Matthew tells us that the way of salvation is difficult to find.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matt 7:13-14)

There are a lot of people who may think they are saved, but according to this verse there are many who will not find it. Just a few verses later we are told that, 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matt 7:21-23) The only ones who will make it in are those who “know God”. Doing miracles, or casting out demons does not qualify you to make it into heaven. A Christian is therefore someone who knows God.

The way that we “know God” is by…

Doing what he commands:

“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands.Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:3-6)

Not sinning

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:6)

Loving one another

7 “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)


I want to send out a call to all Christians. I would first of all challenge you to read the Bible and know what it says. It bothers me when those outside the Church know the Bible better than we do. We are way too easily swayed by false doctrines, because we are not familiar enough with the truth. And, I am not talking about knowing all the proof texts for certain doctrines. This type of splintered reading of the Bible creates a false methodology and misses the over-arching themes of the Bible. We need to have an understanding of the “big-picture” of the Bible. This only comes from reading all of it a book at a time. It amazes me, when non-Christians bring up passages that Christians are not even aware are in the Bible. The Bible is our revelation from God on who He is and how we are to live. We can’t limit ourselves to only hearing a few verses on Sunday mornings and then neglect it the rest of the week.

Second, we actually need to live like Christians. If you don’t know where to start, just live out the verses I have shared here. The world needs to see Christians acting like Christians. We are only hindering ourselves when we live by the actions and values of the world around us. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Let God’s spirit lead you and guide you to do the things He has for you.

Finally, we need to stop sinning. This is a hard call, and technically not possible this side of heaven, what we can do though, is eliminate chronic sin patterns from our life and put boundaries in our life so that we don’t fall into big sin issues. God doesn’t want us to be weighed down with addictive behavior. He came to set us free. We need to cultivate an attitude of repentance, so that when we sin, we are quick to move forward and not dwell in condemnation. Of course no one is perfect, but we can’t claim to know God and then live our own way. All that does is show the world a false representation of who God actually is.

All of this comes down to one word – “Love”. God loved us and gave himself up for us to redeem us from the power of sin. Because of God’s love for us, we can know what love is. We start by loving God. If we love God we will love His word, because it is a reflection of who He is. We can then allow God to love us, by changing us from the inside out into the people He made us to be. This love should also stop us from sinning because we don’t want to God. Finally, as we are filled with God’s love it should overflow to those around us to such a degree that they are hungry to know our Source and we can point people to the one who, by definition, is Love.