If you’ve been going to church for years, or even if you’ve never been before, you have no doubt got some sort of an opinion about what you think a Christian is. Everybody does.
If you’ve never been before then your definition probably falls somewhere around ‘being a good person’, showing the ‘love of Jesus’, ‘getting baptized’, ‘being a judgemental asshole’, or some other such variation of this.
Even if you have been going to church for years, there’s a reasonable chance your opinion still falls into one of the above mentioned.
However, most of us church goers are a bit more sophisticated than this. We love God, and we know that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. It is ‘by grace alone through faith’ (Eph 2:8-9) that we are saved.
This is good.
It’s true that Christians are saved by grace. It’s true that it is a free gift from the Lord.
Salvation is received by those who believe that Jesus is their Lord and saviour (Rom 10:13).
There is an alarming proportion of the church today being taught that this is pretty much all there is to it. A running theme in popular Christianity today is that not only can we do nothing to earn our salvation, but there is little else that’s required of us also. According to many, being a Christian is all about God’s love and nothing else. No personal responsibility, just love.
God is our healer, our helper, our salvation… and our crutch. Monstrous churches are being filled worldwide with Christians raised on a watered down, people pleasing message that emphasises the grace of God, to the neglect of the rest of the Gospel.
One article even explains that it’s all about being “Christ focused, not sin focused”. Which is odd, considering Christ was sin focused.
This is not a new idea. There is much teaching in the Bible dealing with it. I am also certainly not the only one recently to identify and talk about this issue. Known as antinomianism, this is a teaching that severely overemphasises grace to the neglect of other critical biblical doctrines. This problem not only neglects other critical teachings, but because those other teachings are crucial to understanding grace, it produces a faulty understanding of grace itself.
The result is Christians that are merely at face value, loving, positive, real and always happy. They’re not judgemental or hateful. They aren’t cynical or argumentative and they are absolutely not saved by works.
This shallow, self-help, grace-mostly teaching is intellectually empty and resists critical reflection.
One of the particularly damaging results of avoiding necessary biblical principles and apologetics, and trying to claim that it’s all about the ‘luv-a-jesus’, is that it produces indifferent, insincere young people. These young people go to university and learn about the ‘truth’ of science and evolution and other ‘respectable’ intellectual pursuits and quickly throw their faith down the toilet.
All of a sudden their primitive, ignorant, face value ‘faith’ is easily pushed aside in favour of an obnoxious sense of intellectual superiority, which easily justifies their new found party lifestyle and sexual freedom. Freedom which, for many was already rolling along beneath their fake Sunday smiles before they had a reasonable excuse to be honest about it.
Or, not much better, they hopelessly cling to their precious identity giving faith and instead bury their head in the sand in the presence of any challenge to their fragile house-of-cards belief system.
Obviously not all ex-Christians are the product of a weak Christian teaching. But a weak Christian teaching certainly provides an easy exit.
There are even many atheists/agnostics who took a keen interest in their faith yet over time they found the pursuit of the truth of Christianity unsatisfying. And who can blame them? I’m not targeting the youth in the church here. When the Christianity that these youths are raised on does not teach them the truth, or what is required of them, they have little to sacrifice to walk away from their belief.
In short, this is not the Christianity of the Bible.
Biblical Christianity necessarily produces, hard core, persistent, intellectually stimulating, enduring, patient Christians. A Biblical Christian is compassionate, courageous and thoughtful.
The Biblical Christian knows that God is real and not some esoteric abstract idea. Biblical Christians know what the Lord has commanded them to do, and they do it (Matt 28:19).
Biblical Christians have confidence in their faith, and the truth of Scripture because they put it to the test (2 Cor 10:5). They are not afraid to fight for the truth. They are not afraid to speak the truth, because they know how desperately important it is. They know and understand suffering either by personal or vicarious experience.
Biblical Christians praise and honour the Lord with their lips, their hearts… and their actions.
So if there is more to being a Christian than simply having faith in God and accepting his grace, what is it?
Well tell me, what good is grace if you don’t know what you’re getting it for, and why you need it?
Before we answer that, let’s just be crystal clear, it’s true that we cannot earn God’s grace, we cannot earn Salvation (Eph 2:8-9, Rom 3, Gal 2:16). Ephesians and other Bible verses make it very clear that grace is a gift from God (see how I’ve made it bold and italic, that means it’s really important (and I don’t want to be misunderstood)). If you’re new to all this, grace is not so much a thing, but simply the quality of God’s divine mercy and patience extended to us, his creation. So what’s so great about it? What is so special about it that we need it?
It’s time to pull it out. No one likes to hear it. No one wants to admit to it. Few preach about it. Even fewer want to offend anyone with it. No one wants to accept the underlying theme simmering beneath the surface of all Scripture, from start to finish.
Sin is something everyone on earth, Christian or otherwise, has firsthand experience with. We are all of us sinners, Christians and non-Christians alike (Romans 3:23).
And no, sin is not ‘your struggles’, or making ‘mistakes’. Sin is not feeling bad, it’s not smoking, or burning your toast, or having a bad day. Feeling depressed is not a sin. Insecurity is not a sin.
Sin is sin.
Sin is rebellion against God. Sin is evil. Ever since sin entered the world, we have been separated from God and are under his eternal judgement (Rom 2:4-5). Make no mistake fellas, this is a tough pill to swallow, and you wont get a glass of water from me. One of the criticisms that has been railed against Christianity is that it relies on fear-mongering. To be honest it’s a pretty fair claim. There’s no two ways about it gentleman, we are subject to God’s wrath. The Bible is explicitly clear about this (Rom 1:18-32, John 3:36).
Sin entered the world through an act of rebellion against God’s command, and rebellion hence continues till the final judgement. But more than that, Sin is falling short of the glory of God. Furthermore, once fallen, there is nothing that we can do to redeem ourselves. This is most clearly shown in Romans 1-3. Paul spends the first two and a half chapters explaining that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23) and good works are useless to save us.
So we’re all screwed, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s no wonder sin is so offensive to so many people, especially churchgoers who would prefer not to talk about it.
Men we need a deus ex machina, a hail Mary pass… we need a Saviour.
And I’ve got good news for you. Yep. It’s literally called ‘the good news’.
“For while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” – Romans 5:8.
The Lord Jesus Christ, is our free ticket to the show. The extension of God’s grace, literally expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christian culture is teeming with examples of bravery and sacrifice for a fellow brother, and Christ really sets the standard on this one. Jesus Christ was/is God incarnate, and he humbled himself and became a man (Phil 2:8). Jesus Christ was and is, without sin (he didn’t sin). Jesus Christ was crucified (not a good way to go) to pay the penalty of sin that we deserved (Romans 6:23, Romans 5:8). He then rose from the dead three days later, to prove and express his divine power over sin and death. He did this even though we didn’t ask for it. Furthermore, he did this tragically, knowing that despite his incredible sacrifice many would still refuse to acknowledge him (Matt 24).
So have I lost you yet?
We are all sinners, every one of us, no exceptions. Because of this we are subject to God’s righteous judgement (deservedly so). There is nothing we can do to save ourselves (from eternal judgement and God’s wrath). Instead, Jesus Christ offered to pay the penalty for our sin instead of us.
It should be becoming obvious why sin is an important component of all of this (and why talking about grace without it doesn’t make much sense). It’s the root cause of our predicament (understatement), not to be neglected. More importantly however, sin is not a ‘thing’ in itself, it relates directly to us, as God’s creation. Sin is our rebellion, our rejection of God’s love for us, expressed in the sinful acts that we commit against God (murder, theft, adultery etc.), and each other, that separate us from him.
Grace is God’s favour, extended to us. Because we have no hope of saving ourselves it’s described as ‘unmerited’ (we don’t deserve it). Grace is not some cheap party trick that makes us feel good on Sunday. It’s the expression of God’s eternal and perfect love extended to us, and it is exercised explicitly through Christ’s death on the cross.
So what is a Christian then?
Remember those super famous Bible verses I mentioned that you’ve probably heard, even if you’ve never been to church?
They make it very clear, in order to receive God’s grace, we must first of all, believe in and acknowledge that Christ is our Lord and saviour.
Second, they teach us that the only way to receive eternal life (the thing we lost because of our sin), is through Jesus Christ. We receive God’s grace when we believe that Jesus Christ is real and is God and hence, has the power to forgive us for our sin (1 John 1:9). Back to the part about sin. Because sin is rebellion against God, to live in sin, is to live apart from God. Which means it’s impossible for us to receive this eternal life while we’re in sin. Which means that when we believe in Christ and turn to him, we are at once, acknowledging him as our saviour, and turning from sin.
Another way to look at it is we make a life altering commitment to reject our wickedness and sin, and choose to follow Christ.
A Christian then is a person who has confessed their sins to Christ for forgiveness, to follow him and have committed themselves to a life of seeking righteousness, holiness and humility, in order to model (as best as is possible in our fallen, mortal way) Christ’s perfection. In short, we demonstrate our salvation day in and day out by the outward expression of the change that’s been made in us, by modelling Christ. Our sin has been replaced with the Holy Spirit, by God, through the Lord Jesus Christ, that we might follow him in righteousness. Therefore, when we are not seeking righteousness and holiness, when sin is not abhorrent to us, it calls into question whether or not we are really following Christ (Gal 5:16-25).
A word of caution…
Part of the inspiration of teaching grace-mostly and avoiding all the nasty unpleasantness, is to avoid the whole ‘works based salvation’ thing… which is the other end of the spectrum, and it’s also bad. The whole ‘works’ thing is what has given Christianity a bad rep historically. However, cutting out works altogether is not the solution.
The Bible has a lot to say about ‘works based salvation’, but it also has a lot to say about teaching grace to the neglect of good works. The book of James is a whole book specifically dedicated to ‘faith without works’ (faith without works is dead by the way… just, it’s in the Bible, you really need to check it out).
The point is, a funky modern Pop-Christian culture has emerged because big fancy churches, in an effort to make Christianity more appealing, have focussed on ‘grace’ because that’s the part that says ‘come as you are’ and ‘there’s nothing you can do’ and ‘God is love’.
As a result they have not focussed on sin, and sanctification, because that’s the part that says ‘you are intrinsically evil’ and ‘you’re a rebel (and not in a good way)’ and ‘now that you are here, we’ve got work(s) to do’.
I haven’t used the word sanctification yet, but this post is getting quite long and I’m pretty sure we’ve got a way to go, so I’ll throw the ball in your court here; do some googling and check it out, it’s also super important and interesting btw.
The problem with there being literally ‘one way’ to receive forgiveness and eternal life, means there’s infinitely many ways to get it wrong, do it wrong, teach it wrong, etc. and since ‘noones perfect’, this happens a lot. In fact no one (or no church, or denomination or whatever) has got it perfectly right. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get the basics right. This all I’m trying to do here. Vigorously defending the truth of scripture also means often chastising weak or faulty teaching or messages.
Now let me be really clear (actually from now on we’re just going to assume that I say this before every sentence), this is not the same as being a pious, arrogant, condescending, holier-than-thou, legalistic – um… let me know in the comments section if you can think of a couple more – Bible thumper. Nor is it the same as being a passive, all-smiles, never say what you really think (or what you should), inclusive, door mat.
It means that you know that you were once subject to God’s wrath, and you care enough about everyone else, that you want them to know about it. It’s means you should be willing to defend your faith even unto death if necessary (that makes me very uncomfortable by the way. Could I do that? Wish I could say yes, but the truth is, I don’t know, and don’t really want to find out). It means we show sin to the world, and point them to the hope they have in Christ Jesus.
Paul sums it up really well in Ephesians 2:8-10 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (emphasis added).
This website has an interesting take on it. It explains that the term Christian was a term placed on the disciples, by others. It was at the time considered a derogatory term. It was given to the disciples by their enemies. But more than that, it was a term that clearly and specifically isolated them from everyone else.
In other words, they didn’t get to choose whether or not they were called a Christian, they were identified by others because they were so different to everyone else.
You will be constantly faced with temptation. This is a big one. The very split second you repent of your sins and give your life to Christ, you will be faced with temptation of all kinds. Of course it will seem easy at first. Just like it is easy to go on a diet… for a few weeks. But once the euphoria has subsided, and your inner flashdance soundtrack has faded, it gets tougher; a week of lettuce and black coffee and that cheesecake will start looking real tasty.
Once you start to settle back into real life you realise that becoming a Christian may have transformed and redeemed you, but the rest of the world will still carry on much the same way that it did before. All your non-Christian friends are (probably) still non-Christians, work is still work, bills are still bills, and you are still a man. You are still a man and you still live in this fallen sin-tainted universe.
Your favourite porn site will still be there, as easy to access as ever.
Your (probably) non-Christian girlfriend will still be expecting you to sleep with her. Your supposed Christian girlfriend will probably still be expecting you to sleep with her.
You will not magically get an extra hour in your day to squeeze in a little bit of prayer and Bible study.
You will be tested.
More importantly, and this is something that I think a lot of Christian’s won’t honestly admit. Sin for the most part, will still be really fun. If nothing else, it will still bring instant gratification. The main difference now is you will likely feel a very real sense of guilt and shame when you give in to temptation. Chances are this is a fairly familiar feeling already. Christian or not, we were all created in the image of God, and as a result we have a conscience which even when we do not acknowledge Christ, will give us a sense of right and wrong . Non-Christians can (and many do) have good strong morals. Morality as a subject is too broad to go into in this post. Just know that it is objective (we don’t make it up as we go) and it embodies God’s perfection and holiness.
Of course there will be always be times when we fail and engage in sinfulness, especially if we are not keeping accountable or being honest with ourselves. Saved or not, we are still fallen creatures, and we live in this fallen world.
The important difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, is that through the saving grace of Christ, the problem of our sinful nature has been dealt with, because we have put our faith in Jesus Christ. If we understand this, it shows us that it is not a license for obnoxious moral superiority, but instead humility and gratitude. We do not put ourselves on a pedestal of grace and pretension, instead we extend the offer of God’s grace to those who don’t yet know it.
We vigorously defend the Word of God and Christ’s sacrifice against “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,”. We have a responsibility to study the word of God, and learn how to defend it. That means not putting our head in the sand on issues like ‘Is the Bible trustworthy?’, ‘Why is there so much suffering in the world, if God is so good?’ or ‘Does the Bible condone polygamy?’. As Christians we are obligated, nay, commanded to put on the full armour of God, and to stand courageously in defense of it.
Christianity is not a gate. It’s a path, a narrow path that leads to life, and a Christian is anyone on that path.
Are you with me?
If you are new to all this, get a Bible and have a read and seek out resources from courageous Christian men far more educated in the nuances of Christianity than I am. One good example is Dr James White over at Alpha and Omega Ministries, or Matt Slick at Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, or Bill Muehlenberg who runs Culture Watch, just to name a few.