What Is a Christian?

 •  25 min. read  •  grade level: 10
Two ladies being in conversation, one said to the other, in reference to a gentleman who had recently died, “Was he a Christian?” “Was he a what?” the other instantly replied, with a puzzled and indignant air. Again, the same lady asked a similar question of a clergyman, respecting a neighbor cut off in the prime of youth. “I don’t understand you,” he answered in an embarrassed way; but, recovering himself, added, “Oh, certainly; she regularly attended my church, and was most attentive in taking the sacrament!” The indignant answer of the lady was due to the question having implied, as she thought, that possibly the deceased was an infidel, a Mahommedan, or a Jew. The clergyman’s answer disclosed his conviction that observance of ordinances and attendance on the so-called “means of grace,” conclusively gave title to be termed a Christian. No doubt in each case, were it a question of outward profession and responsibility, distinguished from what does not own the name of Christ, the term could be rightly applied; but the inquiry referred to a state of soul before God, for each of the persons in question had passed out of the sphere of nominal Christianity into another in which the having a name to live while dead could only aggravate eternal guilt. But there is a third class—the great evangelical body—who, utterly rejecting mere nominal Christianity, and equally so a religion of ordinances, insist upon a doctrinal soundness, especially on justification by faith, as the alone ground of approach to God, escape from wrath to come, and making sure of heaven after this life. To be sound upon these doctrines with them constitutes the Christian.
To the first of these classes, it is a mere matter of profession; to the second, a point of observances or religiousness after the flesh; to the third, a question of forgiveness of sins, through faith and sound doctrine. With the first, a Christian is one whose religion is Christianity; with the second, one who carefully fulfills the religious duties enjoined by the clergy; with the third, one who, having exercised faith, will, by final perseverance, be saved at last.
And now, if we were asked the question at the head of this paper by the One who once said, “Whom say ye that I am?” what would our answer be to Him? First, He put the question generally, “Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” Then came the more searching inquiry, “But whom say ye that I am?” Leaving then what men say to one another, what should we reply to Himself did He in His own person prefer this weighty problem before our souls: “What is a Christian?” I assume that we are believers, and are divinely assured of the sovereign grace of God having apprehended us for glory together with Christ. Well, from the moment that we became believers, to that other moment when at His coming we shall be presented faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, and be eternally embosomed in the glory itself, this whole period of our spiritual history upon earth is the practical working out of this divine problem which philosophy and science can never unravel, and human wisdom never resolve. But through mercy we are privileged here to learn, and now to know, by divine teaching, that which divine power and love will display in glory by-and-by; for when glory fills the scene, God will make manifest to angelic hosts, to Old Testament saints, and to His earthly people, what we Christians are (another class altogether) when made perfect. But that which will then be displayed in manifested, circumstantial, and heavenly glory, ought, in the power of its own moral and spiritual qualities, to be thus far exhibited and expressed now upon earth by those who are the subjects of this magnificent heavenly calling; and it is only as I learn the former that I am made competent for the latter. Hence we read, “It has not yet been manifested what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.” It has not yet, that is, been displayed, but we are meanwhile divinely certified that we shall be perfectly like Christ in glory. The moral and spiritual transformation will then be blessedly completed without a single instance of failure or an ever-so-minute flaw in any. The certainty of this presents a cheering and invigorating prospect before the soul of the saint, which he may cherish and delight in; and knowing it on divine testimony, he is led of the Holy Ghost, by this hope in Him, the Christ of glory, to purify himself now in all practical holiness and Christ-likeness, exhibiting thus how truly he is “one spirit with the Lord” by anticipating the accomplishment, as far as he can, of that which the heart of Christ is set upon, His first and most delightsome work when He comes, the conforming us to His own likeness, morally and spiritually, and before Himself forever, To this end it is deeply important that the divine ideal of a Christian should be conceived and apprehended; otherwise we shall go along upon a low level without knowing it, and in a self-satisfied state of soul, while in thorough failure as to true testimony for God.
Positionally, let it be remembered, the first man, once the innocent one, lies under the pronounced and partially-executed judgment of God, a blasted ruin! The second Man, the sinless One, the Holy and the True, having been refused a place here, is at the right hand of the Majesty of the throne of God in the heavens. A Christian is the marvelous outcome, by divine grace, of those two momentous facts; one who, deriving everything naturally from the first man, has morally broken with him, and finished with his world forever, being now united to the second Man, and last Adam, and is thus positionally before God “a man in Christ.” In the first man “we were in the flesh,” waiting for judgment; in the second Man we are “in Christ, a new creation,” having a heavenly calling, made God’s righteousness in, and waiting for glory together with, Him. And all along the way to that looked-for consummation we are proving that the flesh, which we are no longer debtors to, to live after, and which we are no longer in positionally, but which practically never ceases to be in us, while we are here, be it ever so little allowed, is a positive, sensible hindrance, and always so, to every Godward movement of hand or foot, of word or thought, in the divine life; proving too that there is not one thing in the scene itself, save the Holy Ghost, the Word of God, and the interests of Christ, that is worthy for a single moment to detain the heart here.
It may be convenient first to look at what constitutes a Christian according to God, and afterward at what according to God characterizes him as such. The first will show us what we are, and the second what we ought to be—this being the scriptural order.
As to the former, the Christian was in the counsels of God before the world, elect of God, chosen in Christ, foreknown and in purpose—predestinated, called, justified, glorified. Being predestinated to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, and being of the many sons to be brought unto glory, of the men given of the Father to Christ, and chosen of Him out of the world, a vessel of mercy prepared for the riches of God’s glory to be made known upon, he is justified freely by His grace, has peace with God, having been quickened together with Christ, who has loved him, and given Himself for him; who has borne his sins, and brought his history, as a man in the flesh, to an eternal end in His cross. Having died with Christ, he is risen with Him, and is not of the world, even as Christ is not of the world, but is seated in Him in the heavenlies, where also he is blessed with all spiritual blessings, being accepted in the Beloved. Having been consecrated a priest unto God and the Father, he has been born of the water of the word, been cleansed by the blood of Christ, and anointed with oil, which is sealing with the Holy Ghost. His eyes have been opened, he has been turned from darkness unto light, and from Satan’s power unto God; has forgiveness of his sins, and inheritance among the sanctified through faith in Christ, and has been translated from the power of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of the Father’s love. As one separated off for God, he is perfected forever by the one offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all, is thus clean every whit, and complete in Him. Brought nigh by the blood of Christ, he has by the same blood title to enter even the holiest with boldness. Before God he has died with Christ, been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ, and has crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts. He has through faith eternal life, the knowledge of the. Father and the Son, life abundantly; and this life is Christ, is in Christ, and is hid with Christ in God. As a sheep of the good Shepherd he is called of Him by name, hears and knows His voice, and knows Himself as the Father knows Him and He knows the Father; and he shall never perish, for he is in the hand of the Son and of the Father, from whence none can pluck him. He has God for him, with him, in him, and he is in God and of God. He is a partaker of the divine nature, is born of God as His child, is also an adopted son entitled to say, “Abba, Father” — an heir of God, and joint-heir with Christ; has the mind of Christ, and the Spirit of God, that he may know the things freely given us of God; is inseparable from the love of God in Christ Jesus, an object of the intercession in priesthood of Christ. with God, and of His advocacy with the Father, and is one in whom He is glorified. He is united to Him by the Holy Ghost, is bone of His bone, and flesh of His flesh. His body is a temple of the Holy Ghost, and he is a vessel of Christ. His body is a member of Christ, and he a member of the body of Christ. The Holy Ghost wrought with Him, a sinner, to bring him to Christ; works in Him, as a believer, for the glory of Christ, and by him, as a servant, for the interests of Christ. He is born of the Spirit, and afterward sealed with the Spirit (who then dwells in him) as God’s property for Christ’s glory; thus has he fellowship with the Father and the Son, and is no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit. In a word, he is in relationship to the Father, is united to Christ, and is indwelt by the Holy Ghost; is of the one body by the one Spirit, and is cheered by the one hope of the Lord’s return to receive him to Himself.
The Christian is all this, God’s new thing upon the earth; he has a new motive, the exalted Man, the Christ of glory; he has a new power, the Holy Ghost dwelling in his body; and he has a new rule, that of the new creation (Gal. 6:1616And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:16)). He has new privileges, new pleasures, new possessions, and a new place, those of the house of God and of the body of Christ on earth, and of the Father’s house in heaven, and those joys and affections of relationship which pertain to a holy and beloved child in the family of God, whether here or there. It will be seen that these are all matters of divine power and grace which God, on His part exclusively, makes good to us, and not one jot or tittle of which, blessed be his name, can ever fail. Turning now to the other side, it is all responsibility on our part—the things which we have to make good down here for Him, and it is herein we so lamentably fail. May the review of what His word puts before us on this head incite our souls to greater diligence for His glory!
If we look at what characterizes a Christian according to God, we find in the New Testament a thousand things presented as to this by the Holy Ghost. A few of these may be profitably pointed out, chiefly from the words of the Lord Himself, and from Paul’s writings. He confesses Christ before men, loves his enemies, has his loins girded and his light burning, waiting for his Lord; and while watching for Him to come, occupies himself diligently with His interests, trades with the talents committed to him on His Lord’s account, submits to His action through the word in cleansing his feet, and seeks to wash those of his fellow-disciples; has the commandments of Christ, and keepeth them, and His word also, rejoicing, because he loves Him with an unselfish love, that He is gone to the Father. He knows the Father and God, and loves because he knows; and loving Him that begat, loves those who are begotten of Him. He ought to walk as Christ walked, and, if need be, ought to lay down his life for the brethren. He is filled with the Spirit, is led of the Spirit, minds the things of the Spirit, walks in the Spirit, lives in the Spirit, sows to the Spirit, and brings forth the fruit of the Spirit.
Reckoning himself dead, he presents his body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, and is not conformed to the world, but is transformed from it—puts on the Lord Jesus, and provides not for lusts of the flesh, yields the members of his body as instruments of righteousness unto God, is not overcome of evil, but overcomes evil with good (Romans). If he have a wife, is as though he had none, weeping is as though he wept not, rejoicing is as though he rejoiced not, buys as though he possessed not, and uses the world as not his own; caring for the things of the Lord, that he may be holy both in body and in spirit; keeps under his body, and brings it into subjection. Judging and examining himself, he eats of the bread, and drinks or the cup, discerning the Lord’s body, and showing His death until He come. He is steadfast and unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord. Beholding the glory of the Lord, he is changed into the same image; bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, the life also of Jesus is manifested in his body; he lives unto Him who died for him, and rose again. He refuses to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, but does good unto all, chiefly unto them who are of the household of faith (1 and 2 Corinthians). He stands fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made him free, glories in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and walks according to the rule of the new creation. (Galatians) He walks worthy of his vocation, endeavors to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, grieves not the Holy Spirit of God, is kind, tender-hearted, forgiving even as Christ, and an imitator of God as a beloved child; walks in love and as a child of light, proving what is agreeable unto the Lord, and having no fellowship with unfruitful works of darkness; giving thanks always for all things, wearing the panoply of God, that Satan may gain no advantage, nor prevent his enjoyment of his present portion in heaven. (Ephesians) He looks not on his own things, but on the things of others, esteeming his brother more highly than himself; works out his salvation with fear and trembling, shining all the while as a light in the world, and holding forth the word of life. Worships God in the Spirit, rejoices in Christ Jesus, has no confidence in the flesh, forgets the things behind, and presses toward the mark for the prize of the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus. Is careful for nothing, but makes every request known to God. Things true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report engage his thoughts. He learns in every state to be content, and is able to do all things through Christ who gives him power. (Philippians) Walks worthy of the Lord, being fruitful in every good work, growing by the knowledge of God; seeks and sets his mind on things above; as elect of God, holy and beloved, puts on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind; doing all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks unto God and the Father by Him. Walks in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time, his speech being with grace seasoned with salt (Colossians). Not rendering evil for evil, but abstaining from every appearance of it; always rejoicing, unceasingly praying, proving all things, holding fast the good (1 and 2 Thessalonians). Endures hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, purging himself from every vessel unto dishonor that he may be a vessel unto honor, sanctified and meet for his Master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. Adorning the doctrine of our Savior-God in all things, he denies ungodliness and worldly lusts, living righteously, soberly, and godly in this present world, looking for the blessed hope and appearing in glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, and speaking evil of no man, shows all meekness unto all men for His sake (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). He runs with patience the race set before him, laying aside every weight, and looking steadfastly on Jesus; follows peace with all men and holiness; goes forth to Christ without the camp, bearing His reproach; offers the fruit of his lips in praise to God continually, nor forgets the other sacrifice of doing good and communicating; obeys his leaders, and submits to such because they watch for his soul, counting upon the God of peace to make him full-grown in all this, working in him whatever is well-pleasing in His sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen (Hebrews).
Now what is of exceeding interest and of deepest moment is to see that both what constitutes and what characterizes a Christian are entirely new things in revelation, neither constituting nor characterizing Old Testament saints.
But in His word God has been pleased, not only to teach us doctrinally and by precept what a Christian is, but to give us a specimen Christian in Stephen, and another in Paul. The former was a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost; full of grace and power; exhibiting the energy of divine life, and the reality of present union with Christ by the Holy Ghost, under the most violent antagonism and enmity from those in whom His very name gave rise to dire and deadly hatred; presenting under such conditions the greatest composure of spirit, and testifying of the ways of God and the failure of His people, until their gnashing teeth led him to turn away from this ruthless world to find in a waiting Christ up there all his expectation and all his desire. And thus while the stones of his enemies (undeterred by his beautiful face, shining as the face of an angel) were showered upon his mangled body, his bleeding eyes were directed to that glorified Christ, the sight of whom enabled him, while commending to Him his spirit, to pray after His own example for those who, not wisting what they did, were by their profane violence sending His martyred servant into His presence as the messenger of their’ further refusal of Himself and His grace. This was a pattern Christian’s pattern death!
In the other case we have a Christian’s pattern life on earth. Already it has been remarked, that before God the Christian is “a man in Christ:” It was such an one that was caught up into the third heaven. But Paul was not always there, nor were we ever; yet always was he “a man in Christ;” never for a moment was that interrupted. Fourteen years had elapsed since his rapture into paradise; but then as now, and now as then, was he the “man in Christ,” who had been that once in such wondrous elevation. He says, “I know a man in Christ.... such an one caught up to the third heaven.” Clearly does he distinguish three things— (1) Visions and revelations of the Lord, as to which he had been caught up into paradise; (2) The man in Christ, which was his true and abiding state as a Christian before God; (3) What he was actually and personally, concerning which he said, “Of myself I will not boast, unless in my weaknesses.” Of these the first was peculiar to him as an apostle—a special grace conferred in relation to visions and revelations of the Lord, of which he was to be the depository. In this experience we have no part, it being an unique thing for the special object God had in view by this His chosen vessel. But as to the second, we maintain it to be what essentially pertains to the constitution of a Christian—he is generically “a man in Christ.” Nothing short of this can suffice before God; and we, dear reader, may predicate this of one another, that just as much as the beloved and honored apostle himself (though we may have failed to apprehend it) are we, through the grace of God, eternally before Himself men “in Christ.” For, be it observed, were it otherwise we should not be of the new creation at all; for “in Christ” is its special feature. We are made “alive unto God in Christ Jesus;” anyone “in, Christ is a new creation,” “created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” The third thing is practical. As to this even Paul would not boast, except as to those weaknesses which the flesh ever seeks either to apologize for or to conceal. Not so he. On the contrary, he would glory or boast in them; for thus he proved the sufficiency of the grace of Christ for His feeble servant, and the reality of the power of Christ tabernacling over him. The first, then, is what is possible; the second, what is essential; the third, what is desirable in the Christian state; that which is “essential” being what constitutes the Christian, and that which is “desirable” what characterizes him according to God.
Thus we get the Christian divinely delineated—always and unchangeably before God “a man in Christ,” but practically in weakness. If extraordinarily elevated, as Paul, needing an extraordinary thorn to keep the flesh in check, the weakness proving the sufficiency of the grace of Christ, so that we glory in it, having in result the mantle of His power cast over us, as the covering of a tent, thus overspreading us, and finding, as it were, its sojourning-place with the very feeblest saint on earth.
The Christian, then, is “a man in Christ” before God; but he is characteristically a man for Christ before men. So perfectly was Paul this that he could say, and say it soberly and sincerely, “For me to live is Christ.” And so far as Scripture teaches us, perhaps the best definition of a Christian is found in these two things—one who before God is a man in Christ, and before men is living a tile which is Christ. It is surpassingly beautiful to see Paul’s confidence in Him, and as profoundly blessed as beautiful: “Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life, or by death?” He seems to survey every inch of the ground between himself and the glory, and finds Christ equal to it all, and himself in Him. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me power.” Was this the apostle or the Christian? We unhesitatingly say that this was characteristically the Christian. “To me to live is Christ.” This was what he expressed before the saints, what he was before the world (though it might not understand it), living down here upon earth a life in which “Christ is all” (Col. 3:1111Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11))—his light and his life, his motive and object, his power for walk and service, and his prize forever in glory, center and circumference of every plan and purpose of his soul, of every desire and prospect he indulged, in all things and always—Christ magnified in his body.
Thus, we learn that a Christian is one who is out and out for God; going along with Him day by day; led by His unseen hand, and sustained by His unseen power; fed from His precious word, and guided with His loving eye; with no end in view but the interests of Christ on earth, and no future before him but glory with Himself at His coming. Such are they upon whom through an opened heaven angelic beings now look down as they did upon “Christ, once humbled here;” every day an object of unflagging interest to them, of unbounded affection to the Father, of joy and delight to the heart of Christ, and of His unwearied ministrations by the Holy Ghost the Comforter! Eternally saved and perfectly happy in Christ, having confidence and joy in His presence, being in divine righteousness, spotless perfection, and cloudless favor unchangeably before God forever, he is also upon earth “a Man of God,” who, like his Lord, is here to bear witness unto the truth, entering into the thoughts and purposes of God for the glory of Christ, to whom he is united, and tracking his Master’s steps along the scene of His refusal. Thus he fills a wonderfully blessed place, new and singular, in God’s present actings in the world, answering to the endearing relationship in which he is set to the Father, to the blessed association he has already with the Christ, and to the glory to which he is predestinated when He comes. Thus is he led to express, through grace supplied, what He would have His joint-heirs now to be after the example He left His own, and seeking full and entire identification with Him in His spirit, His walk, His ways, His refusal, the fellowship of His sufferings, or whatever else His path conducts us through. This of course brings constant self-judgment and conscience-work; for the heart imbued with the thoughts and feelings of Christ will ever desire to judge in itself everything contrary to Him; and one’s apprehension of the course of things around us being formed by the knowledge of God’s estimate of it, one becomes more and more a stranger and an outcast in the scene, knowing it to be no rest for us, but merely an arena in which to further the interests of one’s Lord and Master while we wait for His call to the glories that shall follow. Thus has he judged himself, and also condemned the world, as Noah in his day, and is in it only to be a witness of God’s grace to it, and as reflecting as His representative the glory of the glorified man at His right hand, sustained too in that testimony by the cheering thought that there is not a moment in the history of his soul that he is not an object of tenderest solicitude to the heart of Christ.
In conclusion, wonderful a thing as the Christian is, let us remember, first, that apart from Christ he can do nothing (John 15:55I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5)); and second, that he is but a means to all end, and not the end itself. All the counsels of God relate to the glory of Christ; and our calling and blessing, the present ways of God with us, and our glorification with Him ere long, all converge to that one purpose of the heart of the Father—the glory He has predetermined for the Son of His love. But if we reflect that a Christian’s body is a temple of the Holy Ghost; that he is himself united to Christ already, and is in Him a new creation; that he is an adopted son of God, and is loved as Christ is loved, we must acknowledge that he is before God the very next thing to Christ, and, save that blessed One Himself, is the greatest personage ever seen upon earth, or to be manifested in glory.
In view of the wonderful scope of Christianity according to God, may not the language of our hearts day by day fittingly be, “I am just trying to be a Christian; not to be constituted one, but to be characteristically that which I am eternally before God— ‘a man in Christ’”?
W. B. D.