What is a Christian?

It seems like everyone has a different definition for that elusive word, "Christian."  Depending on who you talk to, interpretations range from "a nice person" to "a religious person" to "someone who goes to church" to "pretty much anyone who lives in the United States, which after all is a 'Christian country,' isn't it?"

I've even heard of polls showing that over 80% of all Americans consider themselves "Christians."  What do they mean by that?  And what can we conclude about the fact that the overwhelming majority of our neighbors self-identify with this term?

My guess is that most put themselves in that category as a default.  If you ask your average American, "are you a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian?" you'll get a lot of votes for the latter simply because it feels more familiar.  Even for the millions of Americans who don't know any of the basic tenets of the faith, our culture still bears many of the features of Christianity.  You might say that our society still remembers that it once more or less moved to its rhythm.  

Far be it from me to suggest that I have exclusive ownership over the term.  If someone wants to call themselves a "Christian" - which might mean any number of things - I wouldn't dream of telling them they were wrong.  However, I have as much right as anyone to come up with my own definition of the term.  And actually, I would claim that this isn't just "my own definition" at all: I believe it to be the historical definition, reaching back to the first century A.D. when it was first defined.

To me, a person is a Christian if they fulfill two requirements:

  1. They have a relationship with God that is based on Jesus Christ's death and resurrection as an atonement for their sins.
  2. That relationship is the most important thing in their lives.

Christianity, to me, is primarily about relationship.  Much more so than it is about church membership, culture, or even creeds.  The Bible speaks of Christians as being intimately united with Christ.  Through various metaphors we are called His servant, His friend, His child, His bride, and even part of His own body.  The love and trust that flow between God and those who believe in Him form the strongest bond the world has ever seen, or will see.  And it is the basis for communication, security, freedom, forgiveness, truth, and obedience.  Through Jesus, the Christian is spiritually joined to the living God, which is by far the most profound statement that can ever be made about a human being.

And as I state in the first requirement, this relationship is not created in a vacuum: rather, it is based on Jesus' work on the cross.  A true Christian realizes the extent to which they have morally failed to live up to God's standards.  They do not feign perfection; they readily admit imperfection.  At the same time, they accept the hard truth that God, being perfect, cannot ever accept any imperfection in what He has created.  And they recognize that God Himself has provided the only solution to this dilemma, by sending His Son Jesus to bear the punishment for our imperfection instead of us.  The Christian happily accepts this act of mercy on their behalf, and having been thus forgiven, responds to their Savior in love and loyalty.

In actuality, #1 is the only real requirement.  But I feel it necessary to add the second condition in order to clarify the first.  I've known many people who, if I asked them whether they satisfied requirement #1, would after a moment's thought nod in assent.  That's because they remember going to church as a child, or passing through confirmation, or responding to an altar call as a young adult.  And so they assume that they have the kind of relationship I'm describing.  But that relationship has no bearing on how they live, think, or act today.  In fact, some of these people would admit they'd never really considered the question before I asked it.

I don't think it's possible to be a Christian and "never to have considered the question" before.  I don't think it's possible for someone to have the kind of relationship I mean in #1, and for it not to radically affect their life.  That's because the truths described above are sweeping and foundational; if we truly seize them, we can't help but stagger at the magnitude of what has been done for us at the cosmic level.  And if we truly are in relationship with God, how can this fail to affect us moment by moment?

To be a Christian who is not radically impacted by Christianity makes about as much sense as a spouse who is not radically impacted by their marriage.  Whether one's marriage is going through calm or stormy times, there is no denying that it is a supreme fact in the lives of both participants, and one with innumerable repercussions.  Such a relationship is so close that virtually anything that affects one spouse is bound to influence the other.  And so it is with Christians and God.  No one can have such a relationship and yet fail to relate.

Years ago, if I wanted to find out whether someone was a fellow Christian, I would ask them what they believed.  "Do you think there is only one God?"  "Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?" etc.  Now, I take a somewhat different approach, since I found that frankly the other method yielded too many false positives.  Instead, I watch them, I talk to them, I find out how they live and what's important to them.  And I look for signs of relationship.  If I find someone who not only assents to the creed but who also constantly considers the Lord and seeks to please and understand Him, I can be pretty sure that I have found someone who meets my or any other definition.

Stephen Davies

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Last modified: August 22, 2006