Who Is a Christian? Part 2

In part one I make the point that there is an objective answer to this question—an answer that is not derived from a person’s subjective feelings which can be self-deceiving. There is an objective connection between the word of God and the true Christian. And it is difficult to pretend the kind of connection to the word of God that invariably results from becoming a genuine Christian. I may be able to convince you that I love the word of God by the way I talk, but I always know in my own mind that I am not truly passionate about the teaching of the Bible, and therefore I am no more than a nominal Christian still under the wrath of God, still devoid of his Spirit, still dead in my trespasses and sins.

Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice and follow him (see the extended discourse at John 10:1-27). They do not follow strange voices. The apostle Paul said that saving faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Christ’s voice is heard only in the holy Scriptures. It is not audible now as it was when Jesus spoke face-to-face with his disciples. The voice of God is now inscripturated, preserved in written form, and bearing the full weight of divine authority. A true Christian therefore has a unique love for the Bible, for the Bible is how God speaks in this present age. True Christians know that their Savior still speaks, but now he speaks in a written revelation, a God-breathed book that attests to its own origin and authority. One only needs to read closely such passages as Psalm 19 and 119 to catch a glimpse of what the word of God is to a true Christian.

In Isaiah 66 also we “hear” God speak: “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at my word.” Does this describe your regard for the holy Scriptures? It’s pretty hard to conjure up this “trembling” in a way that convinces other people; it’s impossible to self-fooled by the charade. Trembling, it seems to me, is an objective state of mind.

There is another objective test for genuine conversion to Christ. It has to do with one’s connection to Christ’s church. This test is a little more complicated than a simple assessment of one’s devotion to God’s word. The relationship one has to Christ’s church can be complicated by the fact that “churches” have multiplied in numbers almost beyond counting. So what church are we talking about? Any church? Does it matter which church a Christian goes to?
Christianity is defined as a spiritual but real union with Christ. Without this union with Christ in his righteous life, his substitutionary death, his bodily resurrection, his triumphant ascension and his glorious return (see Colossians 1:1-4), it is impossible to be a Christian. Every true Christian is truly united to Christ in all the ways just listed. This is the very essence of the Christian faith as set forth in the Bible.

What is also true for the Christian is that his or her union with Christ also involves a union with other people who are likewise united to Christ. This is what Christ’s true church is: an assembly of people who have been delivered from sin and reconciled to God through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Christ is identified as the Head of the body, the church (see Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18, 24). Genuine Christians are his body: a gathering of people who have each experienced exactly the same salvation. Though the individual circumstances may be quite different, every single Christian became a Christian by being united to Christ in exactly the same way with exactly the same result).
So the true Christian is profoundly connected to other true Christians by virtue of their being united to Christ. The spiritual bond established between Christian and Christian in the church is difficult (but not impossible!) to counterfeit. Believers in Jesus Christ are deeply integrated into the lives of other believers. Rugged American individualism is not a virtue in Christ’s church. Christ and his church are bound together in ways that transcend every other classification of relationship in this world. In Christ’s church there is not Gentile or Jew, rich or poor, white or black, American or European, but “Christ is all and in all” (see Romans 10:12, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 5:6).

Church is not something Christians attend. It is something they are. There is no possibility of salvation outside of Christ’s true church. Sharing a true salvation in Christ is what defines the church. There is no such thing as a person who trusts in Christ but remains outside the church: disconnected and disinterested. An inseparable love exists between fellow believers in Jesus (see John 13:35, 1 Thessalonians 4:9 and numerous other places in the Bible). Aloof individualism is dissolved. The true Christian life is about “one another.” The true church is intrinsic to true salvation.

Christians love the church. Their devotion to Christ is made visible in their devotion to one another. It is very hard to fake this devotion for an extended period of time. But many still try. I do not think they can fool themselves. At some level of consciousness, the hypocrite is self-aware of his or her hypocrisy (consider the instructive events in the early paragraphs of the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 5).
How important is Christ’s church to Christ? He suffered execution by crucifixion in order to reconcile his church to God, to wash away her sins, to present her without sin to his heavenly Father. How important ought the church to be to those who are united to Christ? The church is the only entity on the face of the earth wherein the realities of union with Christ are worked out in fellow believers’ union with one another.
The connection between believers has more meaning and significance than relationships between a believer and his or her unbelieving (non-Christian) blood relatives. This may sound crazy to those who think it a virtue that family is “everything.” For those whose Christianity is genuine, the church is everything. The church is the family of God, a gathering of souls who “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). What is the church to you?

There is something dangerously problematic here. As a word, “church” is easy to redefine when the teaching of the Bible is re-evaluated in the context of contemporary society. Postmodern principles of interpretation allow us to abandon the biblical reality of union with Christ. It is inevitable that we soon thereafter abandon the biblical reality of union with other believers. “Church” becomes something other than what is described in the New Testament. In its culturally revised format, the church becomes a fabricator of religion, an enterprise offering whatever religious experience its customers want (and pay for). Christ is not the head. What he says now falls on deaf ears. A semblance of the church continues under the rubric of religion, and although it bears all the marks of a prosperous and profitable business, it has nothing to do with a true union to the true Christ. If Christ is even mentioned, it is nothing more than lip service.

There is a dizzying number of “churches” vying for cultural ascendancy in the present age. The beliefs that hold these worldly institutions together are as diverse as the brands of breakfast cereal in the grocery aisle. Their constituents attend under the false assumption that the religion they practice is perfectly acceptable to whatever god they imagine. Typically, a somewhat charismatic leader who has the happy knack of drawing large crowds to himself convinces the assembled “Christians” that this is an updated and improved church offering a hybrid salvation without ever mentioning sin. This is not Christ’s church. To most people this simply doesn’t matter. It’s their church. That’s all that matters. “We want our church to be a place where people can belong to something that advances their earthly self-interests. If Christ can be a means to their end, they’ll sing his praises (or be entertained by others singing his praises). If Christ can inspire positive psychological experiences in an atmosphere of non-judgmental celebration, then let Christ be praised.

Here is the dangerous problem: Christ’s true church is well outside the mainstream of contemporary religion in America. This is one of the difficulties of making one’s connection to the church a leading indication of their genuine connection to Jesus Christ. There are amazingly large numbers of people who get very passionate about their church—a church that, when the qualifications of Scripture are used for assessment, is not actually Christ’s church at all. Where the Bible is regarded for what it truly is, all ambiguity disappears. The Bible is clear on who the church belongs to and who belongs to the church.
Freedom of religion is, of course, a desirable thing. Yet such freedom has been the incubator of countless variations of religion in general, and multiplied variations of Christianity in particular. We have only the Bible to illuminate the truth. I will admit something here without reluctance: the Bible is my starting point. I have no higher authority than the God who has revealed himself in his word. I cannot appeal to a higher authority than God for such an authority does not and can never exist. If this is where the conversation has to end because of irreconcilable differences, so be it.
The true Christian loves Christ’s true church. It cannot be otherwise. The Christian is, by definition, united to Jesus Christ. This union further unites Christians to all other Christians. For most people, I think, it matters what school their children attend. It matters what doctor they go to. It matters what grocery store they shop at. It matters what car they drive. It matters what neighborhood they live in. It matters what coffee they drink. It matters what brand of clothes they wear. It matters what clubs they belong to. It matters what college they attend. It matters what sorority or fraternity they connect with. But strangely, it does not matter what church they attend. It does not matter what god they worship. It does not matter what religious beliefs they subscribe to. If the Bible is what the Bible claims to be, then nothing on this earth matters more than who Jesus Christ is, what he has done to reconcile sinners to God, and what people he calls his own.