Am I A Christian?

A friend sent me a message on Facebook the other day, asking me about my thoughts in regard to a portion of a recent interview between Timothy Keller and a self-proclaimed doubting Christian, Nicholas Kristof, entitled, “Am I A Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?”  The gist of Kristof’s argument was, is it necessary for a Christian to believe the basic tenets of the Christian faith to be a Christian?  That this is deemed a valid question, seems absurd to me.  However, as absurd of a question as this may sound on the surface, I can see the value in its debate, especially in our current age of “cafeteria style” Christianity.

Questioning whether or not you have to believe the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian, is truly absurd, but questioning just exactly what makes a person a Christian, is a concept I feel worthy of debate.  At what point do we cross the Rubicon of eternal salvation in Christ?  Where, exactly, is the delineation on the event horizon between eternal damnation and eternal salvation?  Not only do I find these questions worthy of our consideration, but I also find them necessary at this point in Christendom.  A point, it seems, where anything goes as long as you have an intellectual awareness of Christ and repeated a prayer, or as long as you’ve been baptized and go to church, or as long as you’ve done one or the other, or all.   A point at which current evangelism says that as long as you do “A”, “B”, “C” and “D”, you are forever-locked into the kingdom of God.  A point at which people are told that simple acknowledgment of Christ is enough to inherit eternal life.

When I study scripture, I marvel that Jesus seemed to deftly avoid the “grocery list” of necessary tasks people sought from Him to define the path of eternal life.  Every time someone asked Jesus what they must do, He seemed to give a different answer:

– We must be born again (John 3:3-6)

– We must be converted (Matt 18:3)

– We must be obedient (Matt 7:21)

– We must not commit adultery, murder, or theft; we must not lie and we must honor our parents (Luke 18:21)

– We must forsake our possessions and follow Him (Luke 18:22)

– We must hate our life in this world (John 12:25)

– We must serve and follow Him (John 12:26)

– We must believe in Him (John 7:38)

– We must keep His word (John 8:51)

– We must drink the Living Water of Christ (John 4:14)

– We must live in Him (John 11:26)

He did this because the only way to eternal life is through a personal relationship with Him, which must be sought with our whole heart, rather than works of our own effort checked off like items on a grocery list.  It is not that scripture is in error when it says that we must only believe in Christ to be saved, but rather, it is our understanding of what it means to believe.  When scripture tells us that we must believe in Christ, the implications of such a belief is to acknowledge Him as Lord.  And the only proper response a human being can have when they acknowledge Christ as Lord, is to surrender to His Lordship.

Jesus said, “For it is My Father’s will that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40).  Yet we are told by James, “You believe that God is one. Good for you! Even the demons believe that, and shudder!” (James 2:19).  The demons believe in God and shudder, yet they are not saved.  And yes, I am aware that Christ died to save men and not demons, but I feel it is worthy to note what is being articulated here by the dual use of the word “belief”.  The Greek word translated in the New Testament as “belief” is the word “PISTEUO”.  It is the context of the use of this word that determines its meaning, whether a belief of simple intellectual acknowledgment or a belief that leads to submissive faith.  A belief of simple affirmation versus a belief of trustful surrender.  James differentiates a belief based on simple affirmation from a belief that leads to trustful surrender when he goes on to say, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20).  Not only is James referring to a faith that results in bearing fruit for God’s kingdom, but also a saving faith in Christ that is willing to conform to His authority and will, rather than a faith that is defined by simple intellectual acknowledgement of a certain list of beliefs.

Is it necessary for a person to believe in the basic tenets of Christianity to be a Christian?  Absolutely.  The definition of any religious movement is a belief in a certain set of fundamental tenets.  If you do not believe in the set of tenets that define that religious movement, then find another faith that is more appealing to your intellect and personal motives.  Does belief in the basic tenets of Christianity make a person a Christian?  Absolutely not.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.'” (Matt 7:21-23).  Salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone, but our faith must be one of surrender, rather than one of simple acknowledgement.

At what exact point in our belief do we cross over the Rubicon into God’s kingdom?  What is the defining moment of transcendence from eternal spiritual death, to eternal spiritual life in Christ?  Despite the squawking pontifications of many theologians today and the formulaic “Roman Road” to salvation used by contemporary evangelism, that is truly a question that only God can answer to any degree of absolute certainty.  Because it is only God Who can see a man’s heart, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7).  But what I can tell you with absolute certainty, is that there is no salvation without surrender.

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” (John 6:37)

Our Form Of Godliness

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. (Psalm 91:1)

As I meditated on this scripture this morning, God impressed upon my spirit that rather than dwelling in the shelter of the Most High God, Who so many of us claim to worship and follow, we are, instead, dwelling in the shadow of the world.

Jesus reiterates in the New Testament, that to truly be His disciple, we must abide in Him:  “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch is not able to bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither you, unless you abide in Me… If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (John 15:4-10).

Far too many of those who claim to belong to Christ, are living spiritually fruitless lives because they are not dwelling in the shelter of the Most High by reading, studying and living according to His word, fellowshipping with other mature Christians, nor spending significant, heartfelt time in prayer seeking His presence and will for their lives.  But rather, our thoughts, desires, likes and dislikes are all shaped by the world.  Instead of being products of the life-changing, transforming power of the Holy Spirit, we are products of our culture.  A genuine relationship with Christ is supposed to free us from all that.  When Jesus said, “Follow Me”, He was calling us to an act of surrender that would lead to our freedom.  But truly, “All of us, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6).

The foundation of the Gospel is repentance that leads to salvation.  Jesus’ first recorded words in the Gospel of Mark, when He begins His earthly ministry, are:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus preached the Gospel by saying, “Repent.”  To repent means to turn away from one thing and turn towards another.  And Jesus said to be His disciple, we would have to do it every day, for the rest of our lives (Luke 9:23,24).  Despite all our efforts to repackage the Gospel, to make it “culturally relevant”, or more appealing and “seeker sensitive”, the foundational message remains the same.  We have confused “relatability” with “appeal”.  Jesus never sought to make the Gospel appealing, but He did seek to make it relatable.  People are affected by the Gospel of repentance and Lordship salvation because they can relate to it, not because it appeals to them.

On the contrary, the Gospel, in and of Itself, is wholly UN-appealing to sinful men.  The Gospel accuses us of treason against God and convicts us of our guilt as sinners condemned to hell.  The Gospel forces us to look at our desperate, lost condition, magnifying the warts of our flaws and weaknesses.  It is an eternal reality-check that reminds us that we are but clay vessels, broken and shattered, useless and dead in our sins.  Yet at the same time, it gives us the single, solitary answer to our wretched condition:  Jesus Christ.  The hopelessness of our condition is remedied through our surrender to follow Christ, Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6); The Light of the World to those who live in darkness (John 12:46); The Gate for the lost sheep (John 10:7-9); The Fountain of Living Water to those thirsty for truth (John 4:10; 7:38); and The Bread of Life for those hungry for righteousness (John 6:35,48,51).

However, the transformation to newness of life offered by Christ can only come when we truly follow Him.  And to truly follow Him, we must repent and turn away from the brokenness and sinfulness of our world and culture.  We must die to our self so that Christ can live in us to do His work through us.  Salvation in Christ is the free gift of grace offered to all mankind, through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord of our life (Eph 2:8).  Which begs the question we must all ask ourselves:  Is my faith in Christ simply an intellectual awareness of Him, or have I truly let go and surrendered to Him as Lord?  Is my faith based on an ideal?  A denomination?  A concept?  Or do I truly know Christ as a person?  Can I recognize His voice over my own?  Do I have intimate knowledge of His commands and teachings?  Do I long to apply His words of truth to my life?

The Apostle Paul warns young Timothy of the characteristics of many of those who will call themselves Christians in the last days.  Among those characteristics, he says that they will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” (2 Tim 3:4,5).  Of this verse, Arno Froese asks, “What power are they denying?”  To which he answers, “The power of turning a sinner into a saint; the power of turning a saint into a sacrifice; the power of the Gospel to take away my rights, my self-assertion, and replace it with total servitude to the Lord.  That is the power of the Gospel being diminished and denied today.”