A Christian Is . . .

People001Some people are understandably confused about what defines a Christian. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, there are more and more people claiming to be Christians while holding views that have little to do with what Christ actually said and did. There have been various visitors here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction who claim to be Christians but who say all manner of things inconsistent with what Jesus said.

What I’ve recently learned, however, is that this situation is not unique to Christians. I had occasion to ask someone in a different faith community if they ever encountered atheists, and the response was, yes, within our faith community.

Say what?

The individual went on to explain that there are people in the community purely because of the culture, the tradition, but there is no actual faith.

That answer sounded all too familiar. Any number of people in the US identify as “Christian” and yet they believe very little when it comes to the essentials of Christianity. Others treat Christianity as pot luck–pick what you like best, and leave the rest.

What are the essentials that actually define a Christian, and how can they be determined since so many people who believe widely diverse ideas put themselves in the category of Christ follower?

The easiest answer is to look at the historical creeds, or sets of beliefs, ascribed to by the church from early on. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote the most basic list of things he called “of first importance”:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4).

From this, it’s clear the Scriptures are the touchstone of truth, Christ died for our sins, and He was buried and raised the third day, which means He is alive.

Two specific extra-biblical creeds come to mind that add to this list of basics—the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The former came out of a council held at Nicaena by Christian leaders in 325. The latter also dates from the fourth century and is traditionally associated with the twelve apostles. These two statements enumerate the core beliefs of anyone who is a Christian.

Other documents have come to the forefront adding to these basics, especially after the Protestant Reformation. Some of these, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Baptist Confession of Faith, written in the seventeenth century by Puritan leaders, include things not widely believed today. Yet key points covered in these confessions represent essentials for Protestants—specifically sola scriptura and sola fide.

Bibles002The first of these, Scripture alone, communicates the idea that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. The second, by faith alone, declares God’s work of justification, which pays for sin, to be a free gift, in no way earned by works but simply believed by faith.

Christians disagree on a lot of things, and some of those seem important to us, but they don’t change the fact that we are saved by God’s grace, not by our own works. That’s still at the core of the Christian faith. We know this, as Paul said, by what has been written for our benefit. For Paul that meant the Prophets recorded in what we now refer to as the Old Testament. But as early as the first century, Peter equated Paul’s words with Scripture:

just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16 – emphasis mine)

From that verse, and from what Jude said and various passages Paul wrote, it’s clear that false teaching grew up right along side the truth. From the beginning of Christianity, then, there’s been a need to discern what is truth and what is error.

Lots of people have claimed to have a newer version of the truth or a sure word from God. However there are a couple things that make it easy to identify those as false: first, they contradict something in the Scriptures Paul and Peter referred to. Second, they elevate something or someone to a position above God’s Word.

For example, the Mormons claim Joseph Smith received a later revelation from God. Never mind all the problems associated with his claims, we know the work is false because it elevates itself above Scripture and in places its content contradicts Scripture.

No surprise, then, that the Bible itself has been under heavy attack for the last century or so. No wonder there’s growing confusion about who a Christian actually is.

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