The Herald

What Does it Mean to be a Christian?

Jenna Thompson, Staff Writer

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Some of you are probably reading this headline like it’s the easiest question you’ll ever answer. The gospel is simple, the answer to this question should be as well. If I were a complete pagan who had never heard of the good news of the gospel, you’d probably best explain it to me by pointing to “generic bible verses” if there is such a thing, such as John 3:16. You know you can recite it. “For God so loved the world that…” 

I’ll admit that my first instinct is the same as yours. I’ve grown up in the church, like most LCS students, and if anything I can explain the fundamentals. Intellectually, I don’t doubt my own understanding or yours, and I don’t think that we have essentially no clue what being a Christian means, although my leading question might seem to imply that. What I want you to understand is that I can stand on a soapbox all day and describe to you what grace might look like, sound like and feel like, but could you ever really understand it unless you experienced it? Secondly, can any of us ever fully wrap our heads around the idea of radical, unadulterated grace? I think both of these factor into our mistakes to quickly recognize the gift we were freely given. 

I’ve heard the word “legalism” thrown around a lot: aimed at our churches, their members, and yes, Lincoln Christian. When most people critique these areas of our church body, they are often observing behaviors that Luke 18:9-14 illustrates with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. His prayer, “God I thank you that I am not like other people” highlights both his love for following the law and lack of acknowledging the grace and mercy of God. We all are capable of this attitude sometimes. His love of the law is not the problem itself, rather the fact that in this he truly believes he CAN follow the law. Admittedly, I know this feeling first hand.  

When someone praises me for how patient, kind, and loving I appear to have become externally, I face the temptation to turn to God and say, “See? Aren’t I just the best?!”  I love entertaining the idea that I am somehow doing God a favor by being good so much that I fail to see how I am in absolute jeopardy if I am not daily receiving grace, not because of the areas I’m succeeding, but how I’m failing to even meet the minimum requirements! If I were Francis Chan I would liken my notions to a woman who gently dusts her house while ignoring the pile of horse manure in the middle of the room. 

So, then, are we at risk for taking the name God has branded on us, his justified children, and applying it to certain behaviors? Where is the danger? I do think that places like LCS and people who have been in the church for a while have a tendency to focus on the external achievements, those that are “measurable,” and reward the good behaviors as if they are what makes our faith. Somehow, when we see someone do good we tend to be quick to make a statement about their relationship with God when we have no idea what their motivation is. We have a tendency to value our own perfecting of the flesh more than the works of the Holy Spirit, and pretty soon we think that godliness and doing good because people are watching are essentially the same thing, and for what reason? Because they appear similar to the human eye? This is toxic for both the believer and the nonbeliever. The believer begins to base their walk with God based on the way they are perceived, and the nonbeliever begins to play the game, giving themselves a false sense of salvation because they appear to be “walking the walk.” 

Luckily for us, the Galatians struggled with this too. In Galatians 3: 1-5, Paul writes, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” 

It is not difficult for most Christians to begin to fall into these temptations, thinking that they are single-handedly defeating the flesh. It is also not difficult for us to look at behaviors in other people and wish to make absolute statements about the interior based on the exterior. On the one hand, the Holy Spirit’s work in our life will be evident, even if in ways that most people don’t expect, but I am not in favor of the attitude that some of our churches have fallen into. Not only do these subtle notions cause us to look inaccurately at believers in the body of Christ, but it leaves room for the moralization of nonbelievers. As Galatians 5 tells us, we cannot “fix” people by imposing a moral system. The law is not, nor will it ever be, our savior.

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What Does it Mean to be a Christian?