Wednesday, August 31, 2005

What is a Christian?

[This is an entry in a forthcoming reference volume. The subject is rather significant.]

A Christian is one whose identity and purpose are defined by being a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ. Since many cult members who hold heretical doctrines claim to believe in “Jesus Christ“ and to be “Christians,” it is paramount to remember that Apostolic Christianity was greatly concerned—as we should be as well—that people believe in the genuine Jesus, not some counterfeit Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1-4). The Apostle John stipulates that true and saving belief affirms that “Jesus is the Christ” (the divine Messiah) and that he “has come in the flesh,” which refers to his true humanity (1 John 2:22; 4:1-3). A Christian believes that Jesus is the Incarnate Word (John 1:1-3; 14, 18). Belief in Christ requires a monotheistic worldview. These Christological stipulations rule out any religious groups that deny the true deity of Christ (Colossian 2:9), such as non-Trinitarian Jehovah’s Witnesses or those teach that Jesus is one god among many (polytheistic Mormons) or those claiming that Jesus tapped into a universal “Christ Consciousness,” which is available to anyone sufficiently enlightened (New Age adherents), and so on. Christological errors are many (2 Corinthians 11:3-4), as is the wide path of destruction, as Jesus taught (Matthew 7:13-14).

A Christian has repented of his or her sinful ways (Acts 17:30) and has embraced the finished work of Christ’s earthly life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin, justification before God, and the gracious gift of eternal life (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:1-9). A Christian’s saving faith is proven true by his or her ongoing confession of the Gospel and by Spirit-led works that display the sincerity and genuineness of that faith (James 2:14-26). The works themselves, however, do not contribute to one’s status as justified before God through the work of Christ alone by God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8).

A Christian belongs to Christ (Mark 9:41; 1 Corinthians 15:23) and confesses Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9). “Christian” was first used at Antioch to describe disciples taught by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:26). The term is used two other times in the New Testament: when Agrippa accuses Paul of wanting to make him a Christian (Acts 26:28) and by Peter who challenges believers not to be ashamed when they “suffer as a Christian” because they “bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16). The term is taken from christos, which is Greek for the Hebrew messiah, the promised deliverer and anointed one. Christ is a title and office that exclusively refers to Jesus of Nazareth. “Christian” refers to countless people worldwide throughout the centuries who have entrusted their lives to Christ because other Christians have been faithful in making Christ known (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). The book of Revelation declares that the redeemed will include “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

Although “Christian” has become the term most commonly used for followers of Christ, the New Testament employs a wealth of other descriptions, only a few of which we can address. The book of Acts reveals that Christians are often called “disciples” of Christ (Acts 14:21), as were the first disciples in the Gospels. This involves more than being a student or a religious consumer, because Jesus stipulates that: “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Acts also refers to Christians as “followers of the Way” (9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22), meaning the way of Jesus himself (John 14:6), the way of life instead of death (Matthew 7:13-14), the way of heaven instead of hell (Matthew 25:46: John 11:25-26).

Christians of both genders are referred to as “brothers” in Christ. This expresses the bond of divine love that all believers share (Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 3:8) through their friendship with Christ himself (Matthew 28:10; John 20:17; Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11-12). Every Christian is a part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). In the New Testament church this brotherhood revolutionized the relationship between a Christian master and his slave. Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus “as no longer a slave, a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
Because the gospel claims that a person becomes a Christian through saving faith in Christ, those who have partaken of God’s redeeming grace are sometimes simply called “believers,” as opposed to “unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:15; 1 Timothy 4:10, 12). The New Testament repeatedly warns of those who profess Christian faith, but whose lives and/or beliefs belie their profession (Matthew 7:15-23; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 John 2:19).

All Christians are also called “saints,” because they are made holy or set apart by God (Ephesians 1:1), and because they become more holy (or sanctified) over time through the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:3). Their sainthood is completed when they are glorified in the presence of Christ after their earthly deaths (1 John 3:2). At the glorious and victorious Second Coming of Christ, Christians will be given resurrected and imperishable bodies (Philippians 3:22-21) and will dwell with God in a restored cosmos forever (Revelation 21-22).

1. R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker Books, 1995).
2. John Stott, Basic Christianity, revised ed. (Eerdmans, 1986).


batsis said...

Doug, I have tagged this post in the BATSIS system.

I noted that you said:

Christians of both genders are referred to as “brothers” in Christ.

I assume you intend something other than a literal translation by the quote marks around the "brothers". It would be interesting to know what meaning you intend by those marks here. For myself, I would prefer to say that Christians, both males and females, were called adelphoi in the Bible. The most accurate translation of that Greek usage would be the English word "siblings," however this word is not in common usage by all English speakers. It is also accurate to translate Greek adelphoi, when it refers to both males and females, as "brothers and sisters."

I, personally, think it is misleading to refer to female Christians by the English word "brothers." I have field tested this English word fairly extensively, and it doesn't seem to include females for the majority of English speakers, including those who speak "Bible English." The older word "brethren," interestingly, includes females for a larger percentage of English speakers.

I suspect, from what I have read of her writings, that your wife would agree with me that it would be more accurate not to use the English word brothers, even with quote marks around it, when the referent is a group that includes both males and females.

Douglas Groothuis said...


I was going by the NIV wording. I wrote this before the TNIV was available. That latter translation is the one I most support today.

Susan said...

I am surprised to see nothing referencing John 3:3 or 2 Cor. 5:17 here. It is not sufficient to have the correct beliefs and works if such do not originate from a regenerated soul. All you have written here is certainly necessary, but not sufficient.

William Law has written, "There is a denial of our own will, and certain degrees even of self-denying virtues, which yet give no disturbance to this selfishness. To be humble, mortified, devout, patient in a certain degree, and to be persecuted for our virtues, is no hurt to this selfishness; nay, spiritual-self must have all these virtues to subsist upon; and his life consists, in seeing, knowing, and feeling the bulk, strength, and reality of them. But still in all this show, and glitter of virtue, there is an unpurified bottom on which they stand, there is a selfishness, which can no more enter into the kingdom of heaven, than the grossness of flesh and blood can enter into it."

further, Ray Steadman:
"Many people think that the mark of an authentic Christian is doctrinal purity; if a person's beliefs are biblical and doctrinally orthodox, then he is a Christian. People who equate orthodoxy with authenticity find it hard to even consider the possibility that, despite the correctness of all their doctrinal positions, they may have missed the deepest reality of the authentic Christian life. But we must never forget that true Christianity is more than teaching - it is a way of life. In fact, it is life itself. "He who has the Son has life," remember? When we talk about life, we are talking about something that is far more than mere morality, far more than doctrinal accuracy."

and finally E.Stanley Jones,
"...our faith must be everything or nothing. It must control the whole of life or none of it. I must not merely be a way - it must be the Way. And it must be the Way for everything and everybody, everywhere and in every circumstance. Life must become a single piece - a whole."

We cannot even begin to move in this kind of "single-piece" existence without becoming new creatures through the mighty power (Ephesians 1:19-20 !) of the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

In reality, the definition of "Christian" was not fully determined by the end of the first century AD. You quote from a variety of biblical books on the assumption that all were equally normative. But the process of agreeing on a canon did not even begin until the mid-second century. Meanwhile, there were many Christians of varying beliefs.

For clarity's sake, I should say that I am not referring to Gnosticism, which likely did not exist, in its full-blown form, prior to the second century. I am simply referring to the diversity of Christian beliefs in the apostolic era.

James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, makes the case quite persuasively.

When Paul and the others at Antioch first accepted uncircumcized Gentiles as full members of the Church, they touched off a crisis. Paul was vehemently opposed by a more conservative element centered in Jerusalem. On the most natural reading of Galatians 2, the apostle James was the head of the opposing camp; and Peter and Barnabas were swept along in it, at least for a time.

This battle continued throughout Paul's life without resolution. There is clear evidence of this in the book of James, which takes direct aim at (a distortion of?) the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith alone. The differences between Romans and James are not as superficial as evangelicals like to suppose; the books represent two distinct schools of Christian thought.

In subsequent generations, some Christians still failed to make a decisive break with the Jewish law. Ultimately they were branded heretics (the Nazarenes), but for a long time they were simply one among the variety of Christian groups.

As for the deity of Jesus, that has been a contentious matter throughout the centuries. In particular, it is difficult to maintain that Jesus was divine while also maintaining that Christians are monotheists. As a result, there has never been unanimity on the point at any time in Christian history.

I think you would resolve that problem by declaring that all who deny a high christology are therefore not Christians. At least, that would seem to be a logical inference from your statements.

I conclude that your definition of "Christian" is entirely too exclusive. You are making the word far more restrictive than the first Christians did.

nancy said...

Q - You mention that Dr G's definition of a Christian is "entirely too exclusive." Would you elarborate on which statements you disagree with and why?

Also, would you specify what you deem to be "authoritative" and why with regards to the Christian faith?

Yes, the canonization process did not begin until around 150 A.D. and the process began in part as a response to heresy rather then a proactive attempt to catagorize the writings. However, we do know (and I know you know this) that much of the New Testament,whether oral or written, was deemed authoritative by the end of the first century.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I didn't express myself very well with respect to the canon. I didn't make a clear point.

During the first century, and beyond, each community possessed only part of what we call the New Testament. For example, if you lived in Corinth you would have Paul's letters to your church; but you might not have the letter he wrote to the Galatians.

That isn't a problem, of course, as long as each New Testament document agrees with all the others. But, as I argue in the rest of my comment, it wasn't so.

A community which possessed only Matthew and James would have a very different definition of "Christian" than a community which possessed Mark and a couple of Paul's letters.

Not that I know which communities had which documents. But it is clear that some individuals and communities were more Jewish than others, in terms of their adherence to the law.

What Mr. Groothuis wants to do is harmonize the whole New Testament, picking a distinctive verse from one book and adding it to another distinctive verse found in a different book: and make the sum total the measure of who is a Christian.

It is a completely non-historical approach to the question. If each and every point he lists is required, there were no Christians whatsoever for many generations after Jesus' death and resurrection, No one was familiar with all of the verses that Mr. Groothuis would make normative.

Which specific points do I disagree with? I disagree with the whole approach, and think we must leave people some (considerable!) latitude to define "Christian" according to their own conscience and their own reading of scripture.

Which brings us to your question about authority.

I do not believe there is any authority of the sort you mean. Evangelicals are quite right to insist that the doctrine of inerrancy is critical. If the Bible contains errors, and one book contradicts another, there is no infallible source to direct us.

However regretable that may be, one can only look at the evidence and follow it where it leads.

I hope no one is offended by my input here. I am not trying to undermine anyone's faith. On the contrary, I expect any student of Dr. Groothuis to be quite resistant to anything I may say.

But I do think you're being given a one-sided perspective on these issues. I hope you can get some value out of reading another perspective, even though we disagree at a fundamental level … and will likely continue to do so.

nancy said...

Q - I enjoy the chance to dialogue here. There is no threat to my faith and I joyfully pursue seeking out the Truth. Dr. G encourages all students to read from those with whom they would disagree. I'll have a tough time surviving in his class if I merely parrot his stance and statements.

Getting back to my original questions: which statement do you disagree with and why? And what do you hold as authoritative? You state that “I do not believe there is any authority of the sort you mean,” yet you do not state what you hold to be authoritative or true.

You state that one should, “define "Christian" according to their own conscience and their own reading of scripture.” Yet, we both know that this opens the door to any type of spirituality being called “Christian.” At this point then the term loses any clear sense of meaning.

Your critique of Dr. G’s “method” is predicated on the either the notion that one is held accountable for that which has not been revealed (clearly this is not the case - Luke 23:43) or that some segments of the 27 unique books of the New Testament are not reliable in what they reveal.

Stephen (aka Q) said...


Thanks for being open to a dialogue. I'm not sure how far to take it, because this is not my blog. I don't want to hijack the agenda, and this conversation could easily open up far beyond the subject raised by Dr. Groothuis.

Dr. Groothuis is employing a method to answer the question, "What is a Christian?" Do you deny that? (I ask because because you put "method" in quotation marks.)

My rejection of his method is predicated on a denial of the inerrancy of scripture, yes. I think the cumulative evidence to that effect (many contradictory details, few of any great moment taken in isolation) is compelling.

But the point I'm really arguing is that each community had a distinctive theological orientation, and the New Testament documents which circulated in any given community were shaped to conform to that community's ideals. That is, each community had its own ideas about "what is a Christian?"

I have been discussing one specific example at length: whether Christians are bound by "Jewish" laws (circumcision, Sabbath, clean / unclean, tithing). To bring the point home, how about Seventh Day Adventists? Do they fit within the category, "Christian"? Or does their insistence that Christians are bound by OT laws make them something other/less than Christian?

I emphasize this particular example because it was the first great theological controversy in Christian history. Not Gnosticism, not the Trinity, but whether Christians are bound by the law of Moses.

And the biblical answer is … there was never any agreement on the point. Some Christians followed Paul's radical liberty from the law; others continued to insist on circumcision, etc., as incumbent upon all Christians.

This becomes a paradigm that we should continue to respect. There is room for divergence in areas of theological controversy.

When you ask about authority, you're looking for a sharply defined dividing line between truth and heresy, Christianity and not Christianity. But reality is rather messier than that.

At either extreme, the answer should be clear for all to see. I agree that anyone who believes all the things listed by Dr. Groothuis is a Christian. On the other hand, a Jew who rejects the New Testament entirely is not a Christian.

Thus I disagree with your statement, we both know that this opens the door to any type of spirituality being called "Christian."

But I insist that the middle ground is not so clear. Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, declare allegiance to Jesus and attempt to live according to behavioural norms that I think an evangelical would applaud. On the other hand, they deny the deity of Jesus and (I hear) they think they can merit God's favour by their good deeds.

I assume Dr. Groothuis would pronounce judgement and say they don't measure up to his stringent standards of "What is a Christian". But I am not prepared to pronounce judgement. Let them obey the dictates of their own consciences, and leave the judgement to God.

I think it makes no sense to call yourself a Christian if you do not declare an allegiance to Jesus Christ. "Allegiance to Jesus" is the primary authority in my belief system: i.e., a measure which separates Christians from non-Christians.

I also regard the New Testament as authoritative in the sense that anything we know about Jesus is contained therein. A Christian should study the New Testament documents as the only source that can flesh out the concept, "allegiance to Jesus".

But the New Testament is not inerrant, or internally consistent. So the believer is inevitably thrown back on reason and conscience: for example, on whether women must cover their heads, or be silent in church (1Co. 14:33b-35).

nancy said...

Q – Thanks for the clarification…perhaps we wrap up this thread with an agreement on our disagreements.

It would seem that a primary point on which we disagree is the inerrancy of scripture. Perhaps Dr. Groothuis will post on the inerrancy of scripture and we can pick up that portion of the conversation then.

Getting back to the original post, we also appear to disagree on the issue of truth. Since the question of whether or not one is a Christian has eternal consequences, it is in the best interest of each individual to relentlessly seek out the truth even if that means questioning received dogma and critiquing the conscience. Is it not better to point out to the JW the verifiable error in JW translation of John (among many other errors in JW theology) rather than to “Let them obey the dictates of their own consciences, and leave the judgment to God?”

Stephen (aka Q) said...

It is in the best interest of each individual to relentlessly seek out the truth even if that means questioning received dogma and critiquing the conscience.

I agree completely. I don't mean to imply that truth doesn't matter, and we can be casual about distinguishing truth from error. I work very hard at discerning the truth. I have come to different conclusions than you, but not without agonizing over the evidence.

Is it not better to point out to the JW the verifiable error in JW translation of John (among many other errors in JW theology) rather than to "Let them obey the dictates of their own consciences, and leave the judgment to God?"

I agree with you here, too, although I don't see these as mutually exclusive options.

By all means, try to persuade a Jehovah's Witness that they've mistranslated John 1:1. (You should have a look at F.F. Bruce's commentary on John, however; he thinks the omission of the definite article has significance for the sense of the verse, even though he doesn't come to the same conclusion as the JWs.)

But in the end, after you've done everything you can to persuade each other of the truth of your respective theologies, you'll likely have to agree to disagree and commend each other to God's keeping.

Just as you've suggested that you and I do.