My daughter recently brought me a coffee, and knowing that I enjoy my coffee hot, she ordered it “extra hot.” Now the meaning of this would be clear if not for the fact that she had ordered for me a Habanero Mocha. Now you can see how the extra hot might have a different meaning.
Nowhere is having a clear meaning of words more important than when discussing matters of faith. While I know what I mean when I use words like grace or sanctification or salvation, others may not understand my meaning as their definitions are different from mine. If my goal is to be understood, it is important for me to clearly define my terms.
For example, to answer a seemingly easy question like, “What is a Christian?”, I must first define what a “Christian” is. This may seem odd, for the meaning is clear in my mind. But, as I converse with others, I find that their definition can be drastically different from mine. Some use the term “Christian” as a category to describe someone’s cultural, religious, or family heritage. Other people believe that a person is a Christian because he or she attends church or was raised in a godly home. Still others, use the term “Christian” as no more than a box to check off on an application or survey form.
It is not until I understand what you mean when you identify yourself as a Christian that we can have a profitable conversation. For example, if you identify yourself as a Christian without holding to the tenets of the Christian faith, then it will be critical for us to understand each other’s meaning before we can agree on an answer to the question.
For the one who sees themselves as being a Christian because they grew up in a godly home, I would want them to know that God has no grandchildren, God only has children. The Bible tells us that each person must choose to follow Christ, they must make their own faith decisions. No one can ride on the coattails of another’s faith; not their parents nor their spouse’s faith nor their church’s.
To the one that reasons, “Certainly I’m a Christian if I go to church!” I would want them to understand that while it is true that most Christians attend a church, attending a church does not make you a Christian. It is like the old adage that says, “Going to church does not make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.” Being a member of a church, attending services regularly, and giving to the work of the church are all good things, but they do not make you a Christian.
So, what is a Christian? The Bible tells us that a Christian is anyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as a payment for their sin and who trusts in His resurrection to secure for them their hope of eternal life. Paul put it this way, “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 it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)
How does that compare to your definition? Is it similar or different? If it is different, what is the basis for your definition? Is it based in a church tradition, a gut feeling or scripture? When Jesus encounters a religious leader with a similar question, he tells him that, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
To become a Christian, we must make a conscious choice to turn away from self and turn to God. Having realized that our sins make us worthy of God’s judgment, we seek out the forgiveness purchased for us by Christ. The Christian’s hope for salvation is based solely in Jesus, God’s Son, who loved us, paid the price of our sins on Calvary’s cross, shed His blood and died, was buried, and was raised to life on the third day.
While the definition of an Extra Hot Habanero Mocha can be relative, I find that the answer to our question, “What is a Christian?” is clear from scripture. A Christian is someone who has been born again by God and has put faith and trust in Christ alone.
Eldon Peterson is pastor of the Cache Valley Bible Fellowship. His column appears on the Faith page. He can be reached at email@example.com.