A pervasive part of the post-modern society is personal definitions and self-identification. I’ve heard lots of people, mostly from my generation, say they’re Christians and then espouse a series of beliefs that completely contradict the basic tenets of the Christian faith. One telltale sign that a millennial is about to obfuscate Christianity is when they use adverbs like “very”. “I’m very Christian” or “I’m very religious”. You can be sure that following this phrase will come a huge “BUT”. After this big but you’ll find a list that contradicts the Christian faith they just claimed.
There’s a common argument that rises to the surface when these folks are pressed and it’s often hard to answer, “well, who are you to judge who’s a Christian and who isn’t?”. I think there’s a valid portion of this argument that is biblically warranted. God is the ultimate Authority and the Judge, and only God can know what’s in a person’s heart. Amen and Amen.
There is a day on which God will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, Jesus Christ. God will search hearts and He will separate the sheep from the goats, the chaff from the wheat. That’s for Him to decide and not me, thank God! But does that mean we can’t accurately define Christianity and what it means to be a Christian? Are we trapped in agnosticism when it comes to knowing fellow believers from wolves in sheep’s clothing? Are we to blindly accept everyone’s subjective definition of Christianity or is there an ontic referent by which we know what it means to be a Christian?
I believe there are three perspectives on the Christian faith that can help us at this point. The biblical perspective sets the norms or standards of the Christian faith. Church history, or the historical perspective, shows us what Christian orthodoxy has looked like for 2,000 years. The third perspective is the relational perspective and deals with the personal aspect of knowing God the Father, through Jesus Christ His Son, in the power of The Holy Spirit.
The Bible is the bedrock for the Christian faith, it’s God’s Word to us. In it He explains history, reveals what we ought to believe and how we ought to act. God also reveals how we can know Him through His son. The Bible warns us to test ourselves and see if we are in the faith. We are also exhorted to test every spirit and every person’s words by the Bible. Jesus defines the Christian faith succinctly in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”.
Being a Christian isn’t about saying a special prayer when you were five, or being born into a certain family in a certain culture. As Jesus puts it, being a follower of Christ means following him daily and taking up your own cross. According to the Bible, we are supposed to have our minds transformed to think like Jesus, we are to take every thought captive to obey him. We, as Christians, are to submit ourselves to his authority for we are slaves of Christ. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength. Likewise, Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). The Apostle John also warns the Church that, “whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 John 2:11) and “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” (1 John 1:5-6).
I could continue with the proof texts but I think my point is evident, the Bible tells us what it means to be a Christian again and again. God’s Revelation is our standard for knowing, living and loving.
The Historical Perspective is also very helpful in assessing what Christians believe, though it isn’t on par with the Bible. We can look at Church History, creeds, and confessions to test modern theologian’s beliefs as well as our own beliefs. If we come up with a “new” interpretation for a verse or a particular doctrine, then most likely what we’ve really done is subscribe to an old heresy. At this point you maybe be thinking, “Park, you sound like a Papist from the middle ages promoting group think and quashing any questioning of the Church by threat of inquisition”. Well if you’re thinking that then bravo that was a mouthful, but again, creeds, confessions, and Church history aren’t normative like the Bible. The Bible is the standard for the Christian Faith and where creeds, confessions and Church history dissent from the Bible, so we also dissent from them. But when they are in accord with Scripture they are very helpful tools to guard against “new interpretations” and subjective definitions.
The Relational/Personal Perspective
The Relational Perspective on Christianity is possibly the most abused of the three. A lot of times we get overly mystical in the personal aspect of our faith. And because of the western culture, the relational/personal perspective is often relegated to the “true for me” realm. “My faith works for me”, or “It’s my truth”, or “It’s true for me but maybe It’s not true for you”. Again, I think there is some validity behind much of the modern subjective appeals but while the Christian faith is exceptionally personal, it’s not incommunicable. The Great Commission, one of the central tenants in the Christian faith, is a command to go into all the world and make disciples of the nations, teaching them to obey God’s will, giving testimony of your own conversion and relationship with the Lord as you share His gospel with every creature.
While there is an objective standard for the Faith and a historical track record of orthodox believers, to be a Christian involves more, it involves a personal conversion. Being a Christian means that you have been changed, spiritually reborn, made into a new creation, indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It involves a personal commitment to follow Jesus. More than the intellectual assent to know that you ought to take up your cross daily, but to actually live your life for Jesus today is what Christ calls for. Being a Christian involves being led by The Holy Spirit, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God… The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14, 16-17). This perspective can be summed like this, “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Romans 8:9b). If you don’t know Jesus, you don’t belong to him.
If you say you’re very Christian, but you don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God and don’t seek to live in conformity with it, then where do you get your Christianity from? If you don’t believe what Christians have held to for two thousand years, by what authority are you changing the definition of Christianity? If you don’t know Christ Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then what’s left of your Christianity? My aim is not to pass judgement but to echo the Apostle Paul when he says to “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”