What makes a person Christian? It sounds like a simple question, but it has been complicated by sin and history.
Jesus’ first sermon set the standard — “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Clearly, Christians are repentant people. Repentance is the primary response to the gospel and includes the renunciation of sin that all Christians make. It was enough for the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42-43) who was about to die, but it was not enough for most other people. Why not? Because most people are not about to die. Most people are able to continue in faithfulness through repentance to obedience. So the Lord expects these things to happen.
We see this in Peter’s first sermon. “Repent and be baptized every one of you” (Acts 2:38). Peter repeated the message of Jesus in Matthew 4:17, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven in near.” Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost concluded with a ringing call to repentance (Acts 2:38). Paul’s message to the Greeks in Athens sounded the same note: God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). When Paul gives an accounting of his ministry, he says, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Notice how Paul calls his hearers not simply to faith, but to faith and repentance. In the last book of the Bible, the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor all demand repentance (Rev. 2-3).
Obedience to the gospel means being baptized, among other things. There are exceptions that suggest that baptism is not a strict requirement (i.e., the thief on the cross), but it is still the general rule. Unless something prohibits baptism, baptism should be the first act of faithfulness on the part of a new believer. And with baptism comes worship, service, fellowship with other believers and participation in the Lord’s Supper. These things, of course, do not cause a person to become a Christian, but are marks of faithfulness.
The Early Church was driven underground because Christians were persecuted by the Roman state. But when Constantine corrected this error by legalizing Christianity in 325 a.d. the church again took its place as a public institution. Baptism returned to its position as a public statement, not just a church sacrament.
Apart from times of Christian persecution baptism and worship have always been matters of public expression — and rightly so. Christianity is a public religion, not simply a private affair. The effort to privatize Christianity is an effort to return Christianity to an ineffective and/or persecuted status in the public domain.
Suffice it to say that while baptism does not and cannot cause a person to be a Christian, Christians should be baptized as a public proclamation and recognition of their Christian identity. Baptism as a public ceremony is an announcement of covenantal identity. The individual, or his or her parents, are publicly claiming to be members of Christ’s covenant.
And yet, we find that not all baptized people can be characterized as faithful Christians. So, we must recognize two categories of Christian: 1) faithful and 2) unfaithful.
A person can be an unfaithful Christian. In fact, the very definition of unfaithfulness requires a prior commitment (beliefs, values, lifestyle, etc.) that one is not keeping. People cannot be unfaithful unless they first acknowledge a standard of faithfulness. Christ is the standard, and baptism is the acknowledgment.
Recognizing, then, that baptism identifies a person as a Christian, we need to mention some of the things that do not make a person a faithful Christian. A person may be actively involved in one and/or all of the following and still not be a faithful Christian:
- attend or be a member of a church.
- financially support a church, or tithe.
- hold church office, i.e. Deacon, Elder, or Pastor.
- read or study the Bible.
- respond to an altar call.
- pray the sinners prayer.
These things may (and may not) accompany faithfulness, but none of them make people faithful Christians, though these things in themselves are not contrary to faithfulness. A person can do any or all of these things and still not be faithful. Why not? Because people lie, and self-deceit is rampant.
God Changes Hearts!
Christians are people whose hearts (minds, beliefs, wills) have been changed into the increasing likeness of Christ by the power and grace of God. Becoming a Christian is an active response to God’s call (Mark 7:14, John 3:3, etc.).
Unfaithful Christians are actually in a worse position than those who have never heard the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfaithfulness is not a matter of ignorance. Whereas Pagans and Atheists may not know the truth, unfaithful Christians have actually turned their backs on the truth that they do know, which shows that becoming a faithful Christian is more than being exposed to God’s truth. Faithfulness is a matter of regeneration and responsibility, whereas unfaithfulness issues out of degeneration and irresponsibility (Matthew 13:3-9).
What about you?
Perhaps your knowledge of Christ is insufficient (who’s isn’t?). Yet, ignorance of the law will not keep you from being indicted. Or perhaps you have never really heard God’s truth (Matthew 11:15, etc.), and you are open to hear it now.
If so, you need to know that Christians share many things in common as they encounter God’s amazing grace. For instance:
- Recognition of their own personal failure and sin as shown by God’s Word, the Holy Bible. There are two things to be recognized here — your sin and God’s truth.
- Sin and failure are personally shown and acknowledged as sin and failure in the lives of believers by God’s Holy Spirit. It is not just that sin is recognized in a general way, but that Christians recognize and agree with God’s (the biblical) assessment (judgment) of your sin (Matthew 13:41-41; John 8:34, 16:8; Romans 5-8).
- Christians see their own personal helplessness in the face of their own sin and failure, and ask God for help. If you understand that you cannot change your situation, that you are caught in a web that you cannot escape without outside help, then pray. Are you actively seeking that help?
- This matter of asking for God’s help is very important. There are no formulas or set responses to follow. In fact, following a formula or a predetermined response suggests a lack of seriousness and integrity on the part of the person asking the Lord for help. Use your own words. Don’t be forced into a childish and immature response. This is serious stuff, and requires your serious attention. Go home and pray about it.
- The Bible says that Jesus Christ already paid the full price for the sin of all who submit to His authority.
- Through the Holy Spirit’s leading, Christian’s see that Christ’s payment covers their own personal sin.
- In gratitude for their own changed hearts, they continue to trust and obey God’s Word (starting with water baptism).
- Because of the mercy they have received from the Lord, they are merciful to others in return.
- Christians are humbled because of their personal conviction of failure and sin and the recognition of their own helplessness to fix it.
- Therefore, a Christian is a person who has rejected the way of sin and death by responding to Christ in obedience to Scripture.
On the one hand, it is an error to suggest that becoming a Christian requires the advice, help, or blessing of anyone other than God. Salvation is an intensely personal affair between particular individuals and God Himself through Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, salvation is not a private affair, it is a public confession. Being restored to Christ means being restored to Christ’s community, the Church — other Christians. No one can be a Christian alone, apart from other restored Christians.
But also be aware that not every professing Christian is a faithful preacher or teacher of the truths of Christianity. Faithful preaching and teaching require spiritual maturity, a commodity in too short supply in our sin-soaked, youth-worshiping world.
It is very helpful to discuss these matters with other born-again believers who are experienced in the faith. It should be that faithful Christians are members of every church, but things are not as they should be. We live in difficult times, unfaithful times. So, finding other faithful, born-again believers may be more difficult than it should be. But don’t fret. There are many, many faithful Christians in every walk of life. Connecting with them is another matter, one that we want to help with.
What is a Christian? Part 2