SPIRITUAL MATTERS: What is a Christian?

A few years ago I spoke at a campus Bible study at Oakland University on the topic of “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
Since the audience consisted of college students from a hodge-podge of denominations, I wanted to help them think clearly about this important question.
I began my talk by asking three questions: (1) What is a Christian, biblically speaking? (2) What is a Christian, culturally speaking? and (3) Are the two definitions synonymous?
The answers were quite insightful, and the general consensus was that there is a difference between the way the Bible and culture define Christianity. The two are not synonymous.
Culturally speaking, a Christian is someone who loosely identifies with Jesus.
One might identify as a Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness, or Mormon. Even though these three religions believe very different things about Jesus, their claim to follow him, even loosely, qualifies them to identify as Christian.
Perhaps nothing in recent history has illustrated the difference between cultural Christianity and biblical Christianity like the 2016 Presidential Primaries.
In recent months, as Donald Trump’s popularity increased among the Republican Party, pollsters were surprised by the amount of support Trump was gaining from evangelical Christians.
After all, Trump has hardly identified as an evangelical, and his own personal morals are grossly inconsistent with the Bible’s. Nonetheless, his popularity was growing among Christians.
This was such a staggering occurrence that even secular news outlets were asking the question, “Who are the evangelicals voting for Donald Trump?”
Astonishingly, the answer they offered was, “Evangelicals who don’t attend church.”
The irony is evident. What kind of evangelical Christian does not attend church?
The answer is, an evangelical Christian who is not actually an evangelical Christian. I share this illustration, not so much to talk about evangelical church attendance, but to show that there is a large gap between the way our culture understands Christianity and the way the Bible describes it.
Not everyone who self identifies as a Christian is necessarily a Christian. Even Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
It is possible to say you are a Christian and not actually be one.
Aware of the disconnect between the culture’s understanding of Christianity and the Bible’s, I try to bring clarity to my congregation weekly.
I often tell them that, biblically speaking, a Christian is someone who embraces the person of Jesus Christ and the message of Jesus Christ.
The reason I couch it in these terms is because there are many religions who claim to embrace Jesus but have twisted his message.
But the message of Christianity is that God is holy. Mankind has sinfully rebelled against God.
The result of sin is a separation between God and man, with eternal punishment as the consequence.
But God sent his Son, Jesus, to die on the cross in the place of sinners and rise again so that we might be forgiven. Everyone who repents of their sin and turns to Jesus in faith will be forgiven of their sin and given eternal life.
The message of the Bible, therefore, calls you to repent and believe in order to become a Christian.
This is biblical Christianity.
The Rev. Joey McNally is senior pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church, Clarkston