What does it mean
to be a Christian?

A brief study of what it means, and does not mean, to become a Christian and to be a Christian.

©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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   There is much confusion among the general public, as well as the religious community, concerning what it means to be a "Christian."

Does it mean assenting to a particular belief-system?
Does it mean consenting to a prescribed morality pattern?
Does it mean changing and improving one's behavior?
Does it mean joining a church organization?
Does it mean practicing regular rituals of worship?

   Even those who call themselves "Christians" seem to have much difficulty articulating and verbalizing what it means to be a Christian. Their ambiguous explanations often convey an amalgamated "mish-mash" of affirming the above-mentioned activities.

    What is needed is a clear Biblical restatement of the basic spiritual reality of being a Christian. That will be our objective in this study.

    In order to do so, we will divide the study by differentiating what is involved in becoming a Christian initially, and what is subsequently involved in being the Christian one has become. Thus we can consider both the commencement and the continuance of what it means to be a Christian.

Becoming a Christian

   We are not referring to "getting religious," or "joining a church," or "believing and reciting correct creedal doctrines." The issue we address is "becoming a Christian."

    What must one do to become a Christian?

    In one sense, there is nothing anyone can DO to become a Christian. Everything necessary to become and be a Christian has been done by Jesus Christ, which is why He exclaimed "It is finished!" (John 19:30). It is only by the grace-activity of God in Jesus Christ that the opportunity of becoming and being a Christian is afforded to mankind. "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8,9). There is no human performance or effort that can effect the spiritual reality of becoming a Christian.

    Becoming a Christian is not a matter of external physical attachment to a social organization called a "church." Nor is becoming a Christian effected by mental assent to historical or theological tenets of belief. Behavior modification and ritualistic repetition are not the essence of becoming a Christian.

    Becoming a Christian is a spiritual reality that transpires in the spiritual core of our being. Our "spirit and soul and body is to be preserved complete" (I Thess. 5:23) in Jesus Christ. The most basic need of man is not physical rejuvenation, or psychological adjustment, or social improvement, but spiritual exchange and regeneration. Because all of mankind begin their physical lives spiritually "dead in their trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1,5), the primary need of man is to be made alive spiritually.

    The figurative expression that the Bible uses to illustrate spiritual enlivening is the concept of being "born again" (I Peter 1:3,23) or being "born from above" (John 3:3,7). When Jesus told Nicodemus, the religious ruler of the Jews, that he needed to be "born again, from above" (John 3:1-7), he reverted to the literalism of physical obstetrics. As a "natural man," though extremely religious, he failed to understand spiritual things (I Cor. 2:14).

    Man's primary need is not more knowledge and education, nor is it self-realization and self-improvement. The need of man is to be re-lifed with the very life of God in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God gives life (II Cor. 3:6) to our spirit, causing our spirit to be alive (Rom. 8:10) with "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). One who thus becomes a Christian "passes out of spiritual death into spiritual life" (I John 3:14).

    The spiritual life that the Christian receives is the divine life of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). "He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life" (I John 5:12). This "eternal life that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:23) is the spiritual life that Jesus came to bring (John 10:10) to restore man to God's intent for humanity. Eternal life is not a commodity or state of existence that we receive after we die physically, but is the life of Jesus Christ in the Christian presently with an eternal continuum of perpetuity.

    Spiritual re-lifing, or regeneration, occurs in the spirit of man. "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). "The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom. 8:16). A spiritual union is effected whereby "one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him" (I Cor. 6:17).

    The singular reality that constitutes becoming a Christian is the presence of the Spirit of Christ in the spirit of an individual who receives Him by faith. "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him" (Rom. 8:9), i.e. he is not a Christian!

    This indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the spirit of an individual is the life and presence of the Person and Being of the risen Lord Jesus. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to evaluate whether they were really Christians, by asking, "Do you recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?" (II Cor. 13:5). The spiritual mystery of the gospel is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27); the basis on which Paul declares, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me..." (Gal. 2:20).

    When a person is "in Christ" and Christ is "in them," they become a "new creature" (II Cor. 5:17), a "new man" (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), raised to "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4) by the presence of Christ's life in their spirit. They have a new spiritual identity as a "child of God" (Jn. 1:12; I Jn. 3:1,2,10), "sons of God" (Gal. 3:26), Christ-ones or Christians.

    How does this spiritual reality transpire? How is it enacted or facilitated? There is no physical or psychological procedure or formula that one must follow precisely in order to become a Christian. It is not effected by the physical procedures of walking down an aisle in response to an invitation, or holding up one's hand, or repeating a pre-worded "confession of faith," or being baptized with water, though those may be engaged in to indicate or accompany one's response to Jesus Christ. Neither do the psychological responses of mental assent to historical and theological tenets, or the subjective experiences of human emotions constitute the means and manner of responding to Christ.

    Becoming a Christian is personally appropriated by coming unto God in faith. Faith is not believing the accuracy of certain data about Jesus Christ, nor is it having an existential experience of ecstasy. Rather, faith is a volitional choice of receptivity to the activity of Jesus Christ, willing to receive the redemptive efficacy of Christ's death on our behalf, and willing to receive Christ's life into our spirit. "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born...of God" (John 1:12,13). "Having believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise" (Eph. 1:13).

    Every person who receives Jesus Christ and becomes a Christian is assured of Christ's spiritual presence and empowering. "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20), Jesus declared. "Christ, the power of God" (I Cor. 1:24) "works within us" (Eph. 3:20).

Being a Christian

    Everything necessary for being and behaving as the Christian one has become is inherent within and derived from the One with whom we have spiritually identified and united, Jesus Christ. Being and living as a Christian is not a religious exercise of conformity to the example of the historic life of Jesus Christ, striving to be Christ-like. Attempts to pattern one's behavior after that of Jesus amount to nothing more than self-serving attempts to "parrot" or "ape" the behavior-pattern of another. The Christian life is not an imitation of Jesus, but the manifestation of His life and character in our behavior, "that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal body" (II Cor. 4:10,11).

    Living the Christian life is not comprised of going through the motions of repetitive religious rituals. Nor is it the legalistic keeping of behavioral rules and regulations in conformity to an ethical morality. Ecclesiastical involvement is not the essence of Christian living either; not church attendance, participating in religious programs, or tithing ten-percent of one's income.

    Being and behaving as a Christian is enabled and empowered by the grace of God in the dynamic of the life of Jesus Christ in the Christian. In His departing promise Jesus explained, "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:8). "God's grace is given according to the working of His power" (Eph. 3:7), providing "all sufficiency in everything" (II Cor. 9:8). Therefore, consistent with our becoming a Christian, it is not what we do to behave and live as a Christian, but the recognition of the sufficiency of the life of Jesus Christ within us. "He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).

    Jesus said, "I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). "I am the life" (John 14:6), Jesus declared. The Christian can affirm with Paul that "Christ is our life" (Col. 3:4); therefore, "for me to live is Christ" (Phil. 1:21). The Christian life is the "saving life of Christ" (cf. Rom. 5:10), whereby we are "made safe" from dysfunctional humanity in order to function as God intended by the divine impetus of Christ within the Christian.

    By His Holy Spirit, the living Lord Jesus wants to fill us (cf. Eph. 5:18) and control our behavior in order to manifest His character. This is not ethical conformity to a Christian value-system, but is the manifestation of the "fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22,23). Thereby we allow for His holy character to be expressed in the process of sanctification (cf. I Cor. 1:30; I Thess. 5:23).

    Because we have such a performance-oriented, work-ethic mentality of accomplishing the objectives of any task, there is a constant tendency among Christians to question their responsibilities, what they must do, to live the Christian life. It is not what we do, but what He does that constitutes the living of the Christian life. Jesus told His disciples, "Apart from Me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Paul, a religious activist if there ever was one, admitted that "we are not adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God" (II Cor. 3:5).

    Being the Christian we have become is not effected by increased dedication and commitment to God or the church. Nor is Christian growth and behavior enacted by "studying to show oneself approved to God" by the gnostic acquisition of additional biblical and doctrinal knowledge. Emotional experiences do not make one a better Christian. Participation in activistic causes, or serving the Lord in ministry or missions opportunities are not creditable means of enhancing the Christian life. God is "not served with human hands, as though He needed anything" (Acts 17:25). Paul credited Christ for everything in his life and ministry, when he wrote, "I do not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me" (Rom. 15:18).

    "As you received Christ Jesus, so walk in Him" (Col. 2:6), wrote Paul. How did we receive Christ Jesus in order to become a Christian? By faith! In like manner, then, the Christian is responsible to continue to make the volitional choices moment-by-moment to allow for the receptivity of Christ's activity in our Christian lives. Such receptive faith allows for the vital outworking (cf. James 2:26) of the life and character of Jesus Christ in our behavior. "Christ lives in me," Paul explained, "and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Gal. 2:20).

    What does it mean, then, to be a Christian? Christianity is Christ! A Christian is one in whom Jesus Christ lives by His Spirit, and one who allows the life and character of Jesus Christ to be lived out through his behavior, in order to function as intended to the glory of God (cf. Isa. 43:7).