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What Makes a Christian, a Christian?

There are so many who wish to group people under the banner of “Christian”. The word, which once was considered a positive sign of high moral standards, has fallen in many circles to being defined as a shrinking band of legalistic, nationalistic, subversives. As with so many terms these days, the extremes are used to label or tarnish the entire group. In the case of Christians, there are more opinions about who they (we) are as there are individuals who believe they’re on the team. Let’s take a step back, survey the term and try to provide a clear definition that has some eternal value.

Definitions of a Christian

What is the definition of “Christian”? When one asks Google Search, the purveyor of all knowledge, below are the popular responses. More importantly, if one is a Christian, does that mean they will go to Heaven for eternity?

Webster

Christian – “professing Christianity” 

Christianity – “the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies”

Sacred Scripture – “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity”

My Response – Webster seems to be saying that all Eastern, Protestant, and Roman Catholic denominations who base their religion on Jesus and consider the Bible as their sacred text, are Christians. But, what does it mean to “derive” one’s “religion” from Jesus, and how closely does one need to follow a “sacred text” to be a Christian? 

Focus on the Family

“The term “Christian”, as we understand it, refers to anyone, man, woman, or child, who trusts in Jesus Christ as his or her Savior and Lord, and who strives to follow Him in every area of life. As evangelicals, we place great stress on the importance of an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We believe that this relationship is lived out by way of prayer, study of God’s Word, fellowship with God’s people, and service to others in Jesus’ name. There’s an important sense in which Christian faith has to be expressed in the context of community with other believers. But in the final analysis, it’s an intensely personal and individual matter, not a question of church membership or doctrinal orientation.”

My Response – But, what does it mean to “trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord” and how hard does one have to “strive to follow Him in every area of life”? Further, what does it mean to have a “personal relationship with Jesus” and how does “the context of community with other believers” fit into the equation? Finally, calling it “an intensely personal and individual matter” sounds like an excuse for not being able to have a clear definition of the word.

GotQuestions.org

“A true Christian is a person who has put faith and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, including His death on the cross as payment for sins and His resurrection on the third day. John 1:12 tells us, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” The mark of a true Christian is love for others and obedience to God’s Word (1 John 2:410). A true Christian is indeed a child of God, a part of God’s true family, and one who has been given new life in Jesus Christ.”

My Response – GotQuestions is a resource I use regularly. At least this definition includes some supporting Scripture and more specifics. There still remains the question of what and how much “love for others” and “obedience to God’s Word” is needed to make the cut. 

Billy Graham

“A Christian, then, is a person who is born again by the Spirit of God as he or she wholeheartedly trusts in Jesus Christ and seeks to follow Him in obedience. There is no other way to the Father, no other way to be a Christian, than through personal faith in the Son of God. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).”

My Response – What does “born again” mean? What do the words “wholeheartedly trusts in Jesus” mean? Further, how much “obedience” is required to be called a Christian? Finally, what is the difference between faith and “personal faith”?

It’s easy to know you are a Christian, right?

Christians say that it’s easy to know if you are one of them. Are the confusing definitions above the best we can do to bring clarity and confidence to the most important question ever asked, particularly if eternity hangs in the balance?

Most Christians seem to have no problem knowing they are one. According to Wikipedia (again the source of all knowledge after Google Search), in 2021, “63% of Americans are Christian” (from Pew Research, down from 78% in 2007). They not only include Protestants and Roman Catholics but also Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Under that scenario, one could make a strong case that we are still a predominantly “Christian Nation”, or, at the very least, a nation with the majority of its citizens being Christian! Gallup strengthens that assumption from a poll in June of this year, documenting that 81% of Americans “believe in God”. 

So, perhaps the issue is more the breadth of the term “Christian”, allowing for such a broad and perhaps confusing range of definitions and theology to fit under one roof.

Are all those who call themselves “Christians” going to Heaven for eternity? 

Mormons, for example, believe the Bible was not the final revelation from God to man and have four other books they consider “sacred” (ex. Book of Mormon). They believe God is a man and lives on a planet near the sun, Kolob, and produces spirit children who are then born on earth. Jesus was the firstborn of these children. Salvation is based on works, not grace, and can be achieved after death. Finally, in their theology, there are three heavens one can enter, and hell is considered temporary.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe exclusively in their own version (more than just a different translation) of the Bible, and consider Jesus as the greatest of many lesser gods who should never be worshiped. They also see the need to earn a place in their heaven rather than exclusively accepting the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the remission of sins. Hell is nothing more than another word for the grave, as those who are not to go to their heaven are annihilated rather than experiencing punishment for eternity.

Roman Catholicism sees an opportunity for certain types of sins to be paid for in an interim place between Heaven and Hell called Purgatory, a concept not found in the Bible. The Catholic church believes in good works, beginning with baptism as a basis for salvation, rather than exclusively through God’s grace.  

Other “Christian” beliefs – Some Christians believe in Evolution, some are Pro-Choice advocates, some don’t see Homosexuality as a sin, and others see it as an automatic ticket to Hell for eternity. Some look for equality between men and women while others see a more complementarian role between the sexes. Some Christians see the Bible as a book of fairy tales while others see every word as inerrantly written by the hand of God. Some memorize Scripture as the source of all knowledge while others boil the Bible down to “love thy neighbor” as all that is being taught. Some Christians go to church whenever the doors are opened while others go once or twice a year if that. Some pray multiple times a day while others say grace once a year at Thanksgiving. 

The list can go on, but the point is that 208 million Americans (63%) call themselves Christians, yet have a very broad view of their “religion”.

So, what is a Christian?

Simply put, the word “Christian” has lost nearly all meaning, which is why I use the term “Biblical Christian” for a bare-bones theology on what I believe those who follow God through the lens of the Bible should accept as truth. However, I would suggest an even simpler definition of “Christian” without even bringing the whole of Scripture into the equation. It cuts through all the theological minefields above and keeps the main thing the main thing. 

A Christian is a person who will spend eternity in Heaven. 

Let me say that again for emphasis and clarity. A Christian is a person who, at the end of their life on this earth, will begin eternity in Heaven (2 Cor. 5:8). Denominational differences become irrelevant. It does not matter if you believe in predestination or free will, homosexuality being a sin or not, read the Bible every day or once a year, go to church or hate the church, believe in abortion or believe it is killing babies, think we will spend time in purgatory or sleep in the dust of the earth till a resurrection at the end of the age. As heretical as it may sound, it makes no difference if you think the Bible is without error or full or errors. It doesn’t matter if you think one needs to be baptized to go to Heaven or all your sins need to be fully confessed to a Priest. You can believe that Hell exists or those who don’t make the cut get annihilated at physical death. One can accept the science of evolution or believe in a six-day literal creation. Perhaps you are mad at God or think He is mad at you. Perhaps you think man is inherently good and all you need is to love your neighbor and then you have your ticket to a heavenly eternity. You can even believe God is living on one of the planets in the universe if you want. 

The bottom line is, if God sees you as one of His chosen ones to spend eternity with Him, you are, or will ultimately be, a Christian (Eph. 1:4-5) prior to death. 

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what you think is true or just (Rom. 9:20-24). God can choose to convert you just before the moment of your death as He did with the thief on the cross next to Jesus (Luke 23:43). What deep systematic theology do you think that sinner had on all the points above as he was hanging on his own cross? All he knew to say was:

“…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” – Luke 23:42

And Jesus responded, “… “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:43

What does it take to go to Heaven?

So, the question of “being a Christian” as defined by going to Heaven, is that it is a gift from God (Rom. 6:23) offered to all (1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9) but known by God (Rom. 8:29-30) to be effective for only a few (Luke 13:24, Matt. 7:13-14).

I would suggest, however, that one does not wait until their deathbed, as the thief on the cross did, to make that conversion from eternal death to everlasting life (Matt. 25:46). The Christian life on this earth brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23) to the believer. 

Salvation and eternal life in Heaven is really as simple as the definition of a Christian offered above. It is offered in various forms throughout the Bible, but two verses that stand out are as follows:

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. – Ephesians 2:8-9

First, we must accept God’s offer of eternal life in Heaven as an expression of His grace (unmerited favor), through faith, as a gift and not something we need to work at or earn. Further, God recognizes that we continue to sin so that grace continues to extend throughout the rest of our life, with an understanding that as we learn more about Him and His expectations, we repent from our sin nature as we desire to draw closer and closer to our Lord and Savior. But, the question remains, how do we accept God’s offer and what do we need to have faith in….

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. – Romans 10:9-10

So second, we need to have faith that Jesus is both our Savior (He suffered and died as a substitution for our sins) and the Lord of our lives (we need to accept and follow Christ as our spiritual leader), and that God performed a miracle in raising Jesus from the dead. We need to accept these beliefs, not just in our heads as an accepted truth, but in our hearts in the form of love for that sacrifice, and a desire to serve Him for the rest of our lives. Finally, we need to be prepared to share what we know to be true with the lost world around us. 

The Women At the Well

Of course, the Bible has a great deal more to say on every point above. And much of the anti-Christian theology which seems to have attached itself to the term should drop away as we humbly study God’s Word. But again, none of us have the capacity to see God’s perfect truth through our continuing sin nature and the veil that clouds us from fully knowing the Lord (1 Cor. 13:12) while on this earth. 

The real point for both Christians and non-Christians is to not get caught up in the weeds of social change, drifting morality, and legalism. They are things to reflect on, in our search for truth, but Heaven is not dependent on them. Both Christian and non-Christian vitriol over secondary matters like abortion, homosexuality, or who will win the next election fall away when one considers that our time on this earth is like a vapor that dries up unexpectedly at death (James 4:14), yet our eternal destiny lasts forever. 

When Jesus met the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4, she was ready with questions and challenges regarding the Jew’s racist views of Samaritans and places of worship. Rather than engaging her in the weeds, Jesus instead focused on what was important, eternal life (John 4:14). We, as Christians, need to do the same.

Christians, keep the main thing the main thing: Christ and Him crucified and risen. 

Non-Christians consider the joy that faith brings on earth, and the eternal peace it brings after death. 


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Jeff Hilles BCWorldveiw.org, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit

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