“What is a Christian?,” you ask, Matt. I want to change that question to the better one: Who is a Christian? And before I try to answer that question, I have a higher one: “Who decides?” Not me, not you, not your local church, not your denomination … leading to this: God decides. We better get that straight before we try to straighten out others. God, if we read the Bible, surprises us at every turn and we need to be ready for more surprises when we see who is finally in God’s presence.
Odd that you ask me this because I get asked this question about once a month. Maybe it is because the Jesus of Nazareth class provokes such a question. Who, then, is a Christian? According to the Bible it will vary on the person you ask. I think we should begin with Jesus.
First, if you ask Jesus in the first three Gospels, the Synoptics, I think you could answer the question with this: the one who follows Jesus. I could give fill a small truck with references from the Synoptics about this, but I’ll just give this one: Come follow Me, Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, James and John (Matt. 4:18-22). And then Luke 9:23 says this following is something done ever day.
Second, if you ask Jesus in the Gospel of John, you get this answer: Believe. The word “faith” or “believe” (these English words translate the noun and verb coming from the Greek root pist– in words like pistis and pisteuo). What does it mean to “believe” in John’s Gospel? Well, we can begin with John 1:12 and 3:16 (the famous one) and then jump around in John’s Gospel and we get ideas like abiding, following, trusting, and obeying.
Third, if you ask the apostle Paul — and why not just settle with something like Romans 10:9-10? — we get something like this: a Christian is someone who believes in salvation through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and who is filled with God’s Spirit.
Fourth, if you ask the apostle John — and read 1 John on this one because the answer jumps from the page — a Christian is someone who loves God and who loves others and who walks in the light of that love.
We could ask other NT writers, but I think you get what I’m getting at: Who is a Christian is answered by different writers with different language games. Do they point to one basic answer? Yes, I think so, but I don’t think it can be reduced to one of these words — like believe or follow or obey — but I also think we can reduce the whole to each of those words. I hope that makes sense. If we are careful, we can say the one who is a Christian is the one who follows Jesus or who believes in Jesus or who loves God, but when we do that we need to keep our eyes on the other writers. They’re in our NT to make sure we know there is more than one way to say important things.
Matt, you haven’t asked this question, but I know it’s coming because correspondents are always asking me the same thing: How do you, Scot, define who is a Christian? Here’s my answer, and I think this encompasses it all:
A Christian is someone whose identity is being transformed because of relationship with Jesus. I think Jesus, Paul, John, are all saying this very thing: the one who is a Christian is the one whose very being and identity are shaped by Jesus.