There is no simple answer to this question because Christians are multifaceted: they believe certain truths, do amazing things, and they experience the power of God.
I Want What They Have
I’ve heard a lot of people’s testimonies and one common phrase that keeps coming up is: “I want what they have.”
Many people’s testimony has a scene where they walk into a church, a small group, or into a Christian’s home and see something in that person’s life that was missing from theirs. They speak of inner turmoil, addiction, frustration, fear, anxiety, depression, uncertainty, hatred, sadness, loneliness and a host of other problems. But when they look at the Christian, they see something else. They see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. They see the things that are missing from their life which they desperately want, but don’t know how to access or generate within themselves.
And very often the scene transitions to a place where they finally get alone with God in prayer and say, “God, I want what they have, but I don’t know how to get it.
I’m a mess and can’t clean myself up.
I’m addicted, and don’t have the power to clean myself up.
I’m angry and don’t have the ability to calm down.
I have no purpose, I have no reason to live, I have no idea what I’m doing here.
I’m living like it’s all about me, and I’m not enough anymore.
If you’re real… I need you to figure this out… I need you to fix me.” And as is so often the case in Christian testimonies, they finally say, “I don’t have anywhere else to turn.”
Over and over and over, testimony after testimony, we hear of the same result: God shows up. God grabs hold of the person. God changes how they think. They meet Jesus — the real Jesus. They read the Bible and the Spirit makes it new, exciting, comforting, and life-altering. Jesus becomes their Lord, their Saviour, their Friend… their Reason.
Raised in Futility and Hopelessness
Jesus provides for Christians that which meets the deepest needs of every human being. Satan and the world provide counterfeit promises and experiences all over the place which are meant to give people a portion of what they desire, but never what they really need. People turn to all sorts of places, from sex to career, food to friends, popularity to punishing themselves, in an attempt to get what God is offering in Christ, to all believers.
That’s part of the reason my heart breaks so much for young people and young families. They have gone through their whole lives being told there is no such thing as truth, that they are descended from primates, that their past has no purpose, their future has no hope, and everything they do is ultimately meaningless. They have been taught they can’t trust anyone as divorce rates have risen, church leaders have fallen into scandal, the news media is shown to be manipulative and wrong. Over and over they’ve been given reasons not to trust organizations, not to trust companies, not to trust government, not to trust teachers.
So they band together in a seemingly random order trying to find some kind of meaning and purpose and construct social systems based on the garbage they are fed by the world, willingly swallow anything just so they can feel some kind of joy, distraction and connection to community – even if it is unhealthy, addictive, and destructive.
This is why people need the gospel – why they need Jesus. This is why they need to see and experience authentic Christianity. They don’t need religion, or tradition, or Sunday school, or another sermon, or a guru who gives them three easy steps to find God and feel forgiven. They need to be shown, in the lives of real Christians, what a relationship with Jesus looks like and how it is better, more meaningful, deeper, stronger, and more right than any other choice this world offers them.
Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many real Christians around anymore. There are lots of religious people who attend religious services and know lots of religious jargon. There are charismatic leaders who know how to whip people into a froth and promise them things that make them feel good. There are churches which are more akin to mausoleums than houses of worship, who refuse to adapt to culture, who fear change, who have no plan to grow deeper in Jesus, and wouldn’t know what to do with a person who walked through the door and was begging to be a Christian.
So many lost people. So many broken people. And millions of people sitting in churches week after week being given the answers which will give that broken person hope and meet their deepest needs. Why is it those two groups don’t get together very often?
What Is A Christian?
What these people desperately need is to become a Christian. But what is a Christian? There are dozens of stereotypes from televangelists to Mother Theresa, Sister Act to GCB. Every other blogpost on the internet is trying to differentiate the subgroups within the Christian community — Catholic from Evangelical, Reformed from Missional, and everything in between. What is a Christian?
Part of the reason I want to teach “The Foundations” is because many people can’t give a good answer to that question beyond the most basic answer: :A Christian is Follower of Christ [or Imitator of Christ]”, but what does that mean?
Let’s talk about three things that make a Christian a Christian. Of course everyone will have different expressions of their faith, different ways they meet God, will mature at different rates, and have different questions, needs and hurts that need to be addressed, but I believe every Christian will have these three characteristics.
A Christian Believes…
The first is that a Christian has certain, specific beliefs. We have already covered a lot of this during the past few weeks in Five Solas, but we didn’t cover everything. I want to give you another tool which summarizes the core of the gospel and Christian theology in only a few paraghraphs. It’s called the Nicene Creed.
The Nicene Creed
People have been trying to take apart and alter the scriptures, the gospel and the story of Jesus in a lot of ways over the years, and the response of the Christian church has often been to assemble the best theologians and to write (or reaffirm) a creed.
The Nicene Creed is over 1600 years old and many churches recite it each week as part of their liturgy. It’s something of a yardstick of orthodoxy (or correct belief) where someone can quickly identify the most basic of Christian beliefs. It was put together to combat false, heretical teachers who were teaching non-biblical things about Jesus, particularly those who were saying that Jesus is a created being, not eternal, and is not One and the same with the Father.
The Nicene Creed goes like this:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
I find it to be quite beautiful and very succinct. These are the core beliefs of a Christian. They are not religious but they do guide our religion. They are not merely traditional, but they are certainly historical. They are universally applicable and incorporate the most important parts of the Christian faith. They are the foundational beliefs of a Christian.
A Christian Does…
As important as good theology is, it’s not enough to know the right things if they are not practiced. A person can be fat and out of shape while still reading health magazines, studying exercise techniques, and even have a gym membership. The knowledge isn’t making them any healthier – they must exercise what they know. Therefore the next answer to “What is a Christian?” is that a Christian does certain things.
Part of the consequence of meeting your Creator, meeting Jesus, being forgiven by God, being shown mercy, goodness, kindness and grace, is that it has a distinct effect on how you live your life.
If you asked people what a Christian does, they might say “go to church”, “try to be good people”, “pray”, “read their bible”. But is that it? Is that the culmination of the Christian life? I think not.
I made a list a while back of the kinds of things Christians do. It was fairly substantial (and a little overwhelming), but after a while I realized that the list can be broken down into only four different categories: Worship, Fellowship, Discipleship, and Outreach. When someone asks me “What does a Christian do?” or “How can I grow as a Christian?” or “What is the church?”, these four words are always my answer.
A Christian Worships.
They seek God in multiple ways, all the time, in every area of their life. For a Christian, worship doesn’t just happen when music is playing on Sunday morning, but during every part of every day. As 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” 1 Peter 4:11 says, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” A Christian’s life is a life of worship.
A Christian Fellowships.
Fellowship is just a fancy word for hanging around other people who share your interests – in a Christian’s case the chief interest is Jesus. If there is a word that encapsulates the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the motivation of all Christian endeavors, it would be the word “Love.” The most attractive thing we have to offer each other and the world beyond our doors is our love for God and for one another. As 1 Corinthians 13 says, no matter what we do, and how well we do it, if we do not have love, we are nothing.
God does not call Christians to be alone. God calls them to be part of His Church, His group of like-minded people who will support and care for each other. This is why churches spend a lot of time trying to convince people to stay, eat, have coffee, come on Wednesday nights, get into small groups, go to church functions, and find Christian friends… because a Christian who is alone cannot grow as healthily as one who is around other believers.
If you’re introverted like me, then sometimes it’s difficult – but it’s still necessary. Consider that many of the things we are supposed to do, which we are commanded to do in scripture, can ONLY happen in community. The best example are the “one another” passages (Hebrews 3:13, 10:24-25; Galatians 6:2; Colossians 3:16; James 5:16; 1 Peter 4:8-9; Ephesians 4:32). They simply can’t be done in isolation.
A Christian is a Disciple.
In other words, they pursue a better and deeper knowledge of who Jesus is and how to be more like Him. Being a disciple means not only expanding our knowledge, but expanding how we apply that knowledge. It means asking hard questions, looking for answers, and then using the answers we have found to serve others, help them grow, and to draw them closer to Jesus.
I love the old blessing, “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust”. It was a phrase which meant that as you were being discipled by your rabbi, you would walk so closely behind your teacher, and sit so close to his feet as he taught, that you would be caked in the dust that he would be kicking up. That is the desire of a Christian. To be so close to Jesus, so zealous to learn from Him and do what He desires, that we would be covered in the dust of our rabbi.
Even when that path leads to suffering, we follow. It’s not too often we would answer the question “What does a Christian do?” with “A Christian suffers well”, but it’s true. We follow our Teacher, our Saviour, our Lord, wherever He would have us go, and under whatever conditions, because we know He knows better than us what we need in order to grow to be more like Him.
A Christian Practices Outreach.
A Christian has a concern for the world beyond ourselves and a desire to obey the command of Jesus to “go into the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching tem to obey everything [Jesus] commanded you.”
We serve the world, pray for them, love our enemies and do good to those who harm us. (Luke 6:27-28) We have an answer prepared for those who want to know about the hope that is within us and we do it with gentleness and respect(1 Peter 3:15).
A Christian shares their faith, does not fear reprisal for giving glory to God, and is willing to look foolish in the world’s eyes for the sake of Christ. We do not fear the world, and we enjoy the good things in it, but we do not become the world. We use the tools of this world to bring glory to God and to proclaim the name of Jesus Christ.
A Christian Experiences…
“What is a Christian?” isn’t only answered by “A Christian believes…”, and isn’t fully answered by “A Christian does…”. It also requires us to remember that all Christians will experience similar things.
As a conservative, Baptist, Christian Preacher, I’m often pigeonholed by people thinking that I don’t like experiences – maybe you’ve been treated the same way. Baptists [Christians] don’t have fun, don’t laugh, don’t tell jokes, don’t dance, don’t go to parties, don’t, don’t, don’t. They study, they obey, but they don’t experience their faith.
Maybe some don’t, but I certainly believe that real Christians do – and even should – experience their faith! When a person meets Jesus they are going to have some amazing things happen. Maybe not all at once, and sometimes it will take some training, practice, and maturing before the experiences come about, but they are common among all believers. I believe some of these common experiences are summarized in Galatians 5:22-23, what the Bible calls “The Fruit of the Spirit”. Have you experienced these?
Christians experience and share love. A believer will begin to have emotional connections in places they never thought they would. Their heart will break for things they never cared about before. They will discover what it means to love and to be loved, and then what it means to be rejected by those they love. God will deepen their ability and desire to love.
Christians experience new joy. They no longer worry about being happy because they realize that being happy isn’t what the world is all about. They realize that they can have joy – deep joy – even when their circumstances aren’t happy.
Christians experience peace. Whereas before they knew Jesus, or committed their life to Him, they were all over the place, upset, angry, anxious, frustrated and fearful, they are now able to find peace in Christ. They now know how to access peace, the Author of peace, the Prince of Peace, and they have the Holy Spirit inside of them showing them things and giving them resources to draw on that they never had before.
Christians experience patience with themselves and with others. As God settles on their heart an eternal perspective, they will rise above the day and the difficult situations they have before them, and realize that God is in control, and they are not. They will remember how long it took for them to turn their lives over to Him, and how many times they have failed, and they will extend the same grace and mercy God has shown them over to others.
Christians experience what it means to be kind. Before, they lived for themselves and were very pessimistic about the world. They knew everyone was out to get them, and no one could be trusted. Now they desire to spread joy and love by being kind to people – for no reason. They extend the benefit of the doubt to people, and let them have their own way. They take the next spot in line, and don’t get upset in traffic when things aren’t going their way.
Christians experience the amazing benefit of being good. They felt bad before, guilty, judged, and dirty. Now they feel, because of the love and forgiveness of God and His new Purpose in their life, good. They desire good things. They put sinful, unhelpful, unloving, gross things behind them and they desire good things that are helpful and that build them up. The change is sometimes shocking to them, as their tastes and desires change because they now want to live an upright life and walk with a clean heart.
Christians experience faithfulness. As they learn that Jesus will never let them down, so they don’t want to let others down either. They move from being untrustworthy to trustworthy, from manipulating others for their benefit, to allowing others to actually going out of their way and doing things they don’t want to do simply because it’s the right thing.
Christians experience gentleness. Now remember that gentleness, or meekness, doesn’t mean weakness, it means power under control. It describes a powerful, wild horse that has become obedient and useful to their master. They are no less powerful, but now that power is being directed. The biggest, gruffest, scariest guy, when Jesus gets hold of their heart, makes them gentle. They turn their power, their will and their abilities over to Jesus and He teaches them how to use that power for His glory. The meanest, most manipulative person, once Jesus gets hold of them, now desires to be gentle, to bring their natural talents under God’s control and to be gentle. Suddenly, weaker people, those who can’t help themselves, become far more important. God doesn’t create weaklings, He takes the power He gives people, and shows them how to use it gently.
Christians experience self-control. A Christian experiences something most people don’t have. Because of their new nature they can make decisions and stick to them. They can put down things and not pick them up. They can go places they never thought possible. All because the Holy Spirit within them is strengthening them and forming them into the person Jesus is creating them to be.