Before I get rolling, I want to let you know about a new blog by my friend Colby called The Bible is a Story. Colby also has a passion for interpreting the Bible historically and pastorally. He’s more interested than I am about maintaining the Reformed tradition in biblical theology (following really insightful and creative exegetes like Meredith Kline, Geerhardus Vos, and Herman Ridderbos), so if you’ve ever read this blog and gotten a little nervous that it was coloring a little too much outside the lines, you will probably like Colby’s blog much better. Either way, we agree on more than we differ, and I think it’ll be some good stuff.
Try not to visit his blog all at once. I don’t want to bring the servers down from the tsunami of traffic this blog will send his way.
Getting back to Sunday Meditations, an Internet friend and discussion partner asked me sort of out of the blue what I thought it meant to be a Christian, and upon talking that through, what I thought the benefit was of being a Christian. In my typical style, I turned what I believe were supposed to be five sentence answers into epic treatises. I present them, here, with minor edits for clarity, audience, etc.
What makes one a Christian?
In terms of being specifically Christian, Paul writes about Jesus:
he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:20-23)
People who believe that and are willing to engage the life calling that entails (emulation of Jesus, faithfulness to God, putting off the old creation to live out the new creation, willingness to endure suffering for this calling, etc.) are, by my lights, Christians in the specific sense of the term.
I think Christians can genuinely disagree on the exact definitions of those terms, and it’s also true that someone doesn’t have to be specifically Christian to embody the ethics of new creation humanity. The sad state of affairs we have today is that many who identify as Christians do not seem to be very interested in being the new creation, and many who have no significant regard for Christianity do a pretty good job being what we should be and doing what we should do.
I think this raises a number of options when we talk about what God will do eschatologically with humanity as a whole, but in terms of specifically who I would define as Christians, I feel pretty good with the definition above. I think it defines both the earliest faith communities and works as a contemporary definition, too.
What about people who call Themselves Christians but seem to reject key issues like the Resurrection?
Well, keep in mind that I said that it’s quite possible for Christians to disagree on what the terms actually mean. I may have my own interpretations of what it means to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and affirm his resurrection, but others may differ in their interpretation and that wouldn’t necessarily make them not a Christian, in my opinion.
But the term has to mean something and that something, by nature of the case, revolves around the importance of Christ. I have some friends who are atheists who are very caring people. They take care of their families, they pursue justice, they spread compassion and healing in the world. In just about every way that counts, their behavior looks like Jesus and is what any Christian should aspire to. But they are not Christians by either my reckoning or theirs.
And that’s why I made the point that when we talk about being the new creation, that category can be broader than just Christians, and we might debate what the outcome of all that is, but I (not that anyone should care) would not label someone a Christian solely because their behavior was exemplary of what God wanted in the world. Abraham and Moses and David and Solomon weren’t Christians, either. There’s a belief/confession component to it as well.
But the converse is also true. I would not typically classify someone as a Christian who claimed the belief/profession piece and embodied things like the pursuit of power and prosperity and self-promotion over all, or the exploitation of the weak for their own gain, or hatred of other people, or wanton hedonistic excess – and in America, that’s where we’re really taking it in the teeth.
People of other religions and atheists who care for others, pursue justice and compassion, and live unselfishly for the benefit of their fellow man are a living indictment against the Christian church in America, and for every Christian who responds to this indictment by throwing themselves anew into the task of being a blessing to the world, there are nine who double down on why they shouldn’t have to do such a thing.
I do have to acknowledge that there can be differing interpretations of ethics just as there can be differing interpretations of doctrinal confessions, and just because someone doesn’t define “being Jesus in the world” the same way I do doesn’t make them not a Christian, but much like the doctrinal piece, eventually you get to a point that’s so far afield that it’s indistinguishable from not being a Christian at all. And, frankly, I would rather share a planet with people who embodied the new creation in the world but eschewed Christian doctrine than people who affirmed Christian doctrine and went right along perpetuating the evil structures of the age.
So, all that to say that I think it’s important to keep in mind that:
- People being what God wants people to be is not the exclusive domain of Christians.
- Christians can vary to a degree on what their core confession means or what ethics ought to look like, but
- “Christian” is a term that means something, such that people who are not Christians can recognize they are not Christians even though they may be living out an ethic that has lots in common with the ethics Christians also should aspire to.
What’s the advantage of being a professed Christian?
The God of Israel is the God who created the heavens and the earth, and as things began to go badly, He established a new creation in the midst of the old one in the form of a people He made agreements with. Today, being a Christian is being part of this people which puts us in covenant and relationship with this God in the manner in which He is providing this in history.
This people has His promises, the gift of the Spirit, and the consequent hope for the future. This is the people that God saves when they are threatened with extinction. He forgives their sins when they turn away from them to do better. Being a part of this people is a calling into being a priestly servant who is in a deliberate and focused relationship with God and also dedicated to be a blessing to the world.
In addition, we belong to a community that (we hope) embodies the new creation. Among the people of God, I experience justice, forgiveness, compassion, love, healing, comfort, and restoration even as we look forward to a renewal of the heavens and earth.
Additionally, Jesus is Lord over these people, which means that by the power of the Spirit he is our leader and shepherd and dwells among us and in us, and this not only steers us through our various historical crises but also produces Christ-like behavior among his people. Jesus running the show is a good thing and is good news.
In the biblical narrative, the differences between “the way the Christian community works” and “the way the Empire works” or “the way the corrupt Temple power structure works” are obvious, although there are also glimpses of the idea that the picture is not as simplistic as it seems. For example, a good portion of Jesus’ own people do not believe him, but a Roman centurion does. Still, the lines are fairly solid in the big picture. You have the powers of the age that run off oppression, self-exaltation, and self-gratification, and you have the people of God who run off self-sacrifice, love of neighbor, and devotion to God.
At our current point in history, long past the cultural-political background of, say, the book of Acts – we’re in a weird situation. There are some countries where the situation is analogous to that early community of believers – selfless, Spirit-filled bonds of sacrificial love pitted against the powerful boot of oppressive regimes. But in other countries, the communities of believers are truly a mixed bag, some of whom looking so much like the world powers Jesus was -against- that people outside the community of faith can sometimes end up looking more like Jesus than some of the people claiming his name.
This seems more analogous to Jesus’ ministry among his own people. They all shared a common religion, but some of them used that religion for power, prestige, wealth, comfort, and they didn’t care who they beat down with it, while others found this situation regrettable and longed for the consolation of Israel and found in Jesus a hope for what they could be and what the future might hold, while yet a third group was just tired of the whole thing and just wanted to make it through life the best way they knew how. In terms of air time in the gospels, Jesus spends the majority of his time calling people from that third group into the second one.
By doing this, Jesus creates a sort of dividing line between those who technically held to Israel’s religion (and maybe even performed it fastidiously) but who had cut the heart out of it and made it a mechanism for worldly power – and those who, in faith, came to Jesus believing he would show them the way to being better individuals, a better people as a whole, and having a better future after making it safely through coming calamity.
Jesus, the people he is forming around himself, and their future is better than anything that power, money, or hedonism can get you, and that’s still a message I have for people today.
These days, I do not believe being a Christian keeps someone from an eternity of torture in the afterlife. However, I do believe in a new creation and I do believe that anything that plagues mankind will not be present in that creation. I’m not a universalist; I don’t think we’ll see Antiochus Epiphanes in the new heavens and the new earth. However, I also acknowledge that we might! That’s God’s prerogative and I have a lot of sympathies with my universalist brothers and sisters.
What’s more, there are passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that people who behave as God’s people do and take care of people like God’s people do will share in the rewards that God’s people do even if they don’t know they are serving Jesus. So, I don’t feel like the message, “Become a Christian or God will ultimately destroy you,” is an accurate message, especially because I suspect there will be a chunk of Christians who will be very surprised at God’s evaluation of their lives.
But when I share Jesus with someone, it’s not to avert disaster they might suffer at God’s hands, but rather calling them out of a broken, empty, oppressive world that is passing away into a new world where love is the Law and the Spirit is real and the man in charge of the whole thing is Jesus who is both Lord and Christ.