What is a Christian?

I recently felt I should offer summary of what it is to be a Christian on the blog, in written and in video form. This is my first attempt at a script for this; observations and suggestions welcome in the comments. 

In online debate, in media discussion and even in casual conversation, there is quite a lot of confusion about what exactly is a Christian. The term is often taken as code for a particular political position, or as someone having a particular view on a controversial topic of the day. But none of these actually explains what a Christian is, or what Christians believe. 

Christians come in all shapes and sizes—and the vast majority of Christians today can be found in non-Western countries. But through history, and across cultures, Christians have by and large shared a belief in four things. 

The first is that the world is good. We live in a world full of wonder—a world of extraordinary variety and complexity. And the wonder that we see in the world does not come to us simply as a material fact—we often sense it as pointing to something beyond the material. Many people experience what we might call these moments of ‘transcendence’ in all sorts of different ways. Perhaps standing on a mountain top and catching their breath at the majesty of what is lain out before them. Perhaps in the extraordinary complexity of the systems we find in the physical world. Perhaps a painting speaks of a profound reality of life. Perhaps it is in a moment of intimacy in relationship—or the absolute wonder of a new life entering the world. Whatever gives rise to it, these moments come to us like the sun breaking through dark clouds and causing a sudden shaft of light to pierce the gloom. Although all we see is material, it sometimes seems to speak to us of something beyond the material. 

The Bible describes such things as the revelation of God through his creation. The reason why Christians belief that the world is good is that they believe it is a a good gift to us from a good creator, one who delights to give good things to us. None of us asked to be born—we receive our very lives as a gift that has come from another. Because the world has been made by God, it reflects something of this God—his power, beauty, and generosity—makes the sun shine and the rain fall on the good and the bad alike! And as the world reveals something about the truth of God to us, it calls us to wonder and worship—and even in a sense offers worship itself. This is not something in contradiction to the natural process we see around us—but something that happens through aspects of nature. And it answers the kinds of questions that scientific observation can never answer—why do we have this sense of wonder and transcendence? why do we seek to find order and meaning in the world? And why is there a world at all—why is there something rather than nothing? This is a world not only gifted to us, but one which we are invited to enjoy and protect, to be blessed by (in what it provides) and to bless, as we care for it like a precious gift. 

But alongside this, Christians believe a second truth—something has gone very wrong with the world—and not only with the world, but also with us. We see wonder in the world around us—but we also see pain and suffering. We see this in the natural world—but we feel the force of it mostly sharply in the suffering of fellow humans. You will know this if you have been close to someone who has died before their time, or been tragically injured in an accident—our grief and anger is often accompanied by our bafflement as to how this darkness cuts across all the good in the world. Suffering is caused by natural disasters—but by far the most suffering is caused by humans themselves—by humans’ inhumanity to their fellow humans. We see it on our news—we watch, with an eery fascination, on our soaps—we see it in families and relationships all around us. And it is shocking. People are capable of extraordinary feats of heroism—of selfless endeavour, even self-sacrifice, on behalf of others. And yet the same humanity is capable of the utmost cruelty, of cowardice, selfishness and indifference on a global scale. 

And we don’t just see it ‘out there’, in the lives of others. We also see it ‘in here’, in our own lives. How is it that we can be moved by the suffering of those many miles away—and yet often don’t even know what is happening in the lives of our neighbours? How can we be moved to acts of kindness one minute—yet in the next moment a flash of anger produces words that wound? Why are we so easily drawn in to the conversation that is destroying someone’s character behind their back? Why are we so often gnawed at by anger and resentment at the way others have treated us? 

Of course, most of us haven’t committed great crimes—but that’s probably because most of us have not been greatly tested—and if we are honest we strongly suspect that the straw house of our moral integrity would be quickly blown away by the tempests of testing that others have had to face.

The Bible describes this reality of the human condition in a range of vivid ways—you can find all these faults and more in its pages! But one of the key words it uses is ‘sin’—not meaning doing something a bit naughty when no-one is looking—but constant tendency to do the wrong thing when we have the chance. Sin is the turning away from the person in need when we are just a little too tired. Sin is the lack of courage to swim against the tide when we know things are wrong. Sin is that instinct for self-protection rather than taking the risk of standing up for what is right. Sin is the way we put ourselves at the centre of our lives—as one Christian leader put it—the heart turned in on itself. And the Bible says that the root cause of all these things stems from our turning from God himself—turning from the one who has given us the gift of life and this good world, and using what God has given us for our own ends. 

And very often we might find ourselves as much sinned against as sinning. We are wounded by the selfishness of others just as we wound them with our selfishness. Sin finds it way into whole patterns of relationships, creating dishonesty, unfaithfulness, corruption, inequality and exploitation. And very often we are left feeling hurt and insecure, lost and alone. Even the world around us groans from our greed and exploitation. 

But Christians believe in a third truth—some remarkably good news. Even though we have, in so many ways, turned from God and spoiled the good things he has given us, God has not turned from us—quite the opposite. The Bible depicts God as constantly seeking out estranged humanity. God is like a shepherd who has lost a sheep—a woman who has lost a precious piece of jewellery—a parent who has lost a child. God is constantly seeking out you and me. The story of the Bible is the story of God seeking out a people who would know and love him—to whom he stayed faithful even when they were not faithful to him. And the climax of that story was the coming of Jesus. 

John’s gospel describes the coming of Jesus in a remarkable way—‘he pitched his tent amongst us.’ Despite all our achievements, we know that life is fragile, vulnerable and finite. Human mortality rates are remarkably consistent: 100% of us will one day die! But Christians belief that, in the person of Jesus, God came and shared in our fragile lives. He was hungry and thirsty, just as we are—tired and lonely, just as we can be. He experienced the joy of life and the disappointment of broken friendships. He knew the faithfulness of friends and the bitterness of betrayal. 

But he did more. He didn’t just experience the fragility of human life—he also brought his transforming power to it. He healed the wounded—he welcomed the outcast—he forgave the sinful—he embraced the lonely. And the accounts of his life in the New Testament (the ‘gospels’, meaning ‘good news stories’) spend more time describing the events around his death and resurrection than anything else. They claim that, in Jesus’ death on the cross and rising again, God has dealt with sin and all its consequences. Jesus took on the consequences of sin and offers us forgiveness. Jesus took on the pain of sin and offers us healing. And Jesus took on the power of sin, and is able to set us free. 

So he gives us an invitation. Just as he called his first follows, so he calls us: come, follow me. Come and receive the life that I offer you. He invites us to turn again—just as we have turned away from God and what is right, he now invites us to turn back to him—to receive forgiveness for what is wrong—to receive healing for what is broken—to receive freedom from the things that hold us in their grip. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus offers this invitation:

Come, all you who are burden and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls. For I am gentle and humble in spirit. 

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus puts it this way:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, and I will come in and will eat with them. 

Jesus is ready to come and meet with you, enter your world and offer you a new life to live. God has pronounced his ‘yes’ over you, and waits to hear your ‘yes’ in return. God has made a decision to love you and seek you out and (this is the fourth thing Christians believe) he waits for you to make a decision for him. 

And when we do decide to turn back, to welcome him and discover his welcome of us, then God gives us three gifts to sustain us. First, he promises to give us his Holy Spirit—his own presence in our lives, speaking to us, equipping us and helping us to live this new life. Secondly, he gives us the Scriptures, the Bible, which teaches us about God and guides us in our daily living. Thirdly, God gives us his people (the church), as fellow pilgrims in the life of faith. As we meet together week by week, we encourage each other, learn together, and encounter God’s renewing presence in worship. 

Christians also believe that, one day, Jesus will return again, and will complete the work that he has begun. All the wrong in the world will finally be put right; all the sources of evil will be destroyed; every pain and grief will be ended. The final chapters of the Book of Revelation put it like this:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’a or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 

And this hope sustains us through all the joys and challenges of living our new life in God. 

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46 thoughts on “What is a Christian?”

  1. I don’t like it.

    I don’t have any faults to pick with the content per se, but I do think the order is markedly wrong: you have to read over half of it before you get to the crux of true Christian distinctiveness, that which comes through knowing (and being known by) Jesus.

    I was struck by a youtube link that appeared in my feed this week, of an interview between Derren Brown (the Phsycologist-Magician) and the Rev Richard Coles. Usually these have predictable and bland titles, but this one was titled “I met the Risen Jesus…()” and that really resonated. There was no shame in it, and such a bold claim hits hard in the conscience.


    • What a fascinating comment Mat, thanks. Here’s my rationale for the order, which was quite deliberate.

      1. Basically I am following the order of the ‘four spiritual laws’ or the revised version that young people wear on a wrist band. It has pedigree.

      2. Theologically and biblically, this is often the order of things. Many of us are coming back more and more to see the importance of the creation accounts in Genesis as foundational, not least in the light of the current environmental crisis.

      3. This is the shape of Paul’s argument in Romans 1. We are confronted in the media continually with the wonder of the world…and Paul says there is theological significance to that.

      4. The whole aim is to establish common ground *first* with the reader/listener, and then, from that common agreement, to locate the message of Jesus.

      How would you critique these rationales? How would a different order address them more effectively?

      • Thanks, and I’m sorry if it was a little short/terse. We are currently in the midst of our yearly holiday club, and I was reading Psephizo this morning as part of my devotional time before the rest of my team arrived. I hope to engage further, bu it may be sporadic, I ask your patience.

        To answer your initial questions.

        1. Yes I am aware of the pedigree of this format. I didn’t make the connection to the four spiritual laws, but it remains a format I’m familiar with. I wasn’t accusing you of novelty, though I would still question it’s effectiveness.

        2. I accept that this is often the order of things, but as you implicitly concede it is not always the way of things and there are times when it is right to simply stand and boldly proclaim the truth. How to say this without stirring up to much…. It is not good for people in positions of church authority (I’m thinking of Bishops really) to play the defensive, only responding with Jesus to questions asked of them, and never ‘speaking Jesus’ to ask questions of the other. The principle Job of a Bishop nowadays seems to be inoffensive and agreeable. When Paul stands before Agrippa and is asked to give an account of his faith, he could have said these things, but he doesn’t say he thinks the world is good -though we do of course know he believes this- he says “why should any of you judge it unbelievable that God should raise the dead!”, he is indignant, and Jesus is the basis of his argument, the beginning (I persecuted), the middle (I met), and the end (I now serve). Paul’s testimony and declaration of faith is combative, and I feel that you should be as well.

        3. Romans 1 begins at verse 1, not at verse 15. 😉 The opening lines are “I am a slave of Jesus….”

        4. I’ll come back to this…
        For now,

        • ? And yours starts with “Matt…holiday club leader”…. but your teaching doesn’t really start until…

          “To answer your original questions…”

          Hope the holiday club goes well…?

  2. Nicely put Mat.

    I found myself nodding along on reading your response.

    My answer to the question, ‘What is a Christian?’ is similar to my answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to have a wife?’ Yes, I’ve gone through the legal/ecclesiological matter of the ceremony and I live in the same house as her and we share time and I talk about her to others BUT the most important issue of all in having a wife is that I love her. Plain and simple. We are in love and we enjoy our love.

    So, what is ‘Being a Christian?’ I believe it is loving God and enjoying the relationship.

    • But I am not aiming to write to people who are already in formal relationship (‘going to church’) who need to discover the love. I am trying to talk to people who don’t realise that such a thing as marriage even exists…

      • Fair enough.

        I guess in that case, the way to reach such folk (IMHO) is to SHOW them the love, the relationship and the marriage because talking about it will only turn them further away.

        The irony I’ve observed over 30 years of faith is that the church is full of folk who don’t know the first thing about The Relationship, whilst those outside the church are intrigued when presented with it.

        Too much analysis is the death of love perhaps…

    • I believe it is loving God and enjoying the relationship

      This sort of thing always makes me wonder.

      I would claim to be a Christian. Certainly I would assent to all the ‘truths’ in the article.

      But I don’t ‘enjoy the relationship’. Tell the truth, I’m not even sure what such a phrase means. How does one know if one is ‘enjoying the relationship’? Or not? I assume I would be able to tell if I was (given how foundational people seem to think ‘enjoying the relationship’ is) so I mustn’t be. Right?

      So… does that mean I’m not in fact a Christian at all?

      • I guess my comment came across as a little glib. Please forgive me.

        I am aware of the danger of anthropomorphising spiritual ideas and yet the Bible seems to be full of instances in which the engagement between humans and God is characterised as a relationship.

        With this in mind, when referring, say, to the relationship I have with my wife I am very clear as to whether I enjoy it or not. I love being with her, she brings out the best in me, she makes me laugh and think and helps me to take myself less seriously. I therefore CHOOSE to be in a relationship with her and its wonderful!

        For me, the whole thing is characterised in the difference between knowing ABOUT someone and actually KNOWING them.

        Whilst there are fundamental differences when speaking of a relationship with an ethereal being, there remain some similarities.

        Again, excuse me if this is simplistic, but do you enjoy talking with God? Worshipping God? Speaking to others about Him? Thinking about Him?

        Personally, I enjoy all of these elements of the relationship I have with God, although I am not ignorant enough to think that my way of engaging with Him is THE way of doing so. In fact, isn’t that the beauty of relationships – they’re all different and all of us engage with folk in different ways.

        I am a theologian and I utterly love thinking about God and God-stuff, but most important of all to me is simply loving God Himself. It’s the love and the relationship that inspires all the other things, not the other way round.

        I hope these comments have helped to clarify what I’d previously written?

        • Again, excuse me if this is simplistic, but do you enjoy talking with God? Worshipping God? Speaking to others about Him? Thinking about Him?

          Talking with? Not really. I try to remember to pray, as I know I ought to, and I know I ought to do it a lot (lot!) more than I do, but no, I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ it.

          Worshipping? Sometimes, maybe. But not in general.

          Speaking to others? Hm, depends on the others. People who are interested, yes, lots. People who just want to dismiss the whole thing, not so much. I’m utterly terrible at evangelism. I couldn’t convince anybody to believe. I like to think I’m good at apologetics though, at least if the other party is actually open to argument.

          Thinking about? Oh yes, very much so. thinking about theology is great. But then so is thinking about any aspect of ontology, or epistemology, or ethics, or the implications of Gricean non-natural meaning. So, you know, I’m not sure how much that is to do with a ‘relationship’ and how much it’s just that searching for truth is always fascinating.

          I know I’m not very good at being a Christian; see above re: prayer. So I’m fine with saying that to be a good Christian you have to ‘enjoy the relationship’. But I hope it is possible to be a Christian, albeit a bad one, without ‘enjoying the relationship’.

          • To be honest, this is a conversation I’d very much rather have face-to-face as so much is lost to interpretation and the limitations of the medium.

            That said, I guess if I just speak frankly, without knowing the back-story and ignoring nuance and, of course therefore running the risk of being appallingly judgemental, I’d have to say that it sounds like you like the idea of a relationship rather than actually having one.

            In other words, you seem to be functionally a Christian, rather than ontologically one! (Please forgive me for the blunt-sounding nature of this comment…)

            If your comments are anthropomorphised into human-relationships it sounds like one you think you should be having, rather than one you actually want. Does that make sense?

            Your final comments on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Christians are fascinating. Can you say more of what you mean by these terms in this context?

            “But I hope it is possible to be a Christian, albeit a bad one, without ‘enjoying the relationship’.”

            For the final relational-anthropomorphisation: Yes, I think it’s possible to be married without being a good partner and thereby, by definition, I guess it’d be very difficult indeed to ‘enjoy the relationship’. In fact, personally, I wouldn’t want a relationship with someone I don’t enjoy.

            Thanks for this dialogue – I’ve found it fascinating and, for what it’s worth, you strike me as a very honest and interesting person…

          • I’d have to say that it sounds like you like the idea of a relationship rather than actually having one.

            I’m a bit confused as to where you got the idea I ‘like the idea of a relationship’. The whole point is that I rather hope that it is possible to be a Christian without ‘enjoying the relationship’. I am unsure how that translates into ‘liking the idea of a relationship’; if anything it’s the opposite.

            In other words, you seem to be functionally a Christian, rather than ontologically one!

            Fascinating. What is the difference? What does it mean to be ‘ontologically’ a Christian? Is it something one change from not being to being at a point in time (and if so is it reversible)? Or is one either always ontologically a Christian or never (that would be more the strict Calvinist position, I guess, but then strict Calvinism isn’t generally that big on ‘enjoying the relationship’ so maybe there’s something else).

            Hm. Before going too deeply in this direction I may as well point out that, due to the church I grew up in having quite a few charismaticy types knocking about while I was there, I react quite badly (to the point of barbed sarcasm) to suggestions that you are not really a Christian unless you have undergone some ontological change involving being ‘baptised in the spirit’, the visible mark of which is speaking in tongues or falling over or putting your hand in the air and bouncing on one leg while signing the same three lines of doggerel over and over or some such. I will be doing none of that, thank you very much.

            If your comments are anthropomorphised into human-relationships it sounds like one you think you should be having, rather than one you actually want. Does that make sense?

            I think the point is very much that I don’t like the anthropomorphising at all. It doesn’t seem to me to make much sense. God is too… different, too complex, to be boiled down into an anthropomorphic human relationship.

            For instance, you keep coming back to the marriage analogy. But couldn’t God be equally as well represented, in human terms, as a liege-lord, as as a spouse? Heck, in the parables He is quite often represented as a landlord. And nobody suggests ‘enjoying’ those relationships.

            Yes, the Church is the Bride of Christ. But that doesn’t mean that I, individually, have to relate to God as a spouse? I mean, does it?

          • while signing the same three lines of doggerel

            That was supposed to be ‘singing’ but, you know, there was devotional performance sign-language too (ah, the nineties) so, hey, either.

  3. Thanks Ian
    have told my sons to come to your seminars all week (while I’m on holiday 🙂 )
    I think the order of points is understandable and there’s great content here and some brilliant one liner take aways –
    I’m glad you didn’t shy away from sin and even used the term (I remember our convo years ago when you weren’t sure if we needed to find alternatives)
    I agree with Mat and wish you came out bolder and then explained

    Perhaps if your opening quadrilateral instead of saying ‘The first is that the world is good’ –
    more provocatively and Christianly declared: ‘Jesus made the world Good’

    • Thanks–but see my reply to Mat. Claiming up from that ‘Jesus made the world’ doesn’t build bridges or resonate with people’s experience of the world.

      Interestingly, several of the comments on Facebook (including from non-Christian friends) complain that Christians talk about sin too much. Without establishing a common perspective on what life is like, that challenge is even more difficult.

  4. Hi Ian

    Love your blog by the way.

    The 4th gift He gives us to sustain us is eternal life, seems quite important to leave out, unless I missed it?

    Best, Ali

    • Thanks Alastair. I think I am trying to say that eternal life is THE thing (or new life in Christ) and that God gives three gifts to enable us to live it out. Does that make sense?

      • Hi Ian, thanks for replying. I guess that there could be new life for the rest of our earthly lives and then that’s still just it.

        It feels particularly poignant as two ex-colleagues have passed away this last week leaving young families behind. Both Christians. A hope of the eternal is a pretty crucial part of the gospel in that context.

        Best, Ali

      • Reading the article I thought, yes we continually need to express theological truth in ways that are fresh, and this does it very well.

        But I had the same reservation. The vital word ‘eternal’ is not there. Jesus is represented as saying, “Receive the life that I offer you,” which to some will sound like, “You can enjoy the world better if you follow me,” whereas in the gospels what he explicitly offers is ‘eternal life’. Human mortality rates are remarkably consistent, we will all die, but Christians believe (or ought to) … not merely that he came to share our mortal lives but that he came to offer eternal life.

        Eternal life is also missing from the list of gifts that his followers receive. If we receive the Holy Spirit, understand the Scriptures and benefit from being part of his church but do not have the sure hope of eternal life … i.e., if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (I Cor 15:19).

        I hope this does not sound like a quibble. To my observation, the Church these days rarely says that this is what Christ offers, and the reduction of the gospel to its this-world benefits is one of the reasons why so many are not interested.

        • But are you confining ‘eternal life’ to meaning ‘life after death’? Isn’t it to do with quality not just quantity or just life beyond the grave?

          As the old hymn ran (if memory serves) “Eternal life is now if risen with Christ we stand”.

          Eternal life is our fundamental participation /incorporation in God. It’s always current and permanently abiding. I’d put it ahead of ‘gifts’ as they are commonly understood.

  5. I don’t follow / agree with the criticism of the order. Surely all that Ian is doing is the setting out the (only?) logical progression from creation to salvation…. to coin a phrase.

    Emphasis here and there could be different but it matches the Angels as I count them on my pinhead.

    Essentially… though handling the presentation is situation-shaped… The gospel logic building ‘order’ is repent (what of?) then believe (what/who in?) and rejoice (what about?). Doesn’t that match the order of what God has done?

  6. In Acts chapter 11 it is recorded that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’ at Antioch . My understanding of this passage is that the basic definition of a Christian was a ‘follower of Christ’ or a follower of the Way. Everything else starts with and follows on from this.

  7. I disagree Mat.

    I think an introduction to Christianity needs a narrative, otherwise the ‘good news’ is out of context.

    If I had any reservation about Ian’s account, it might be lack of narrative relating to Jesus’ incarnation amongst his own people and the fulfilment of Israel’s long hoped for redemption culminating in gentile incorporation into Israel’s historic story. But that may be too much of a preamble in this instance.


    • I am pleased people disagree, we spend too much time agreeing. 🙂 Might I clarify my complaint?

      I am not arguing that Ian’s narrative is insufficient, or false, but rather that it lacks ‘daring’ and impact by putting the emphasis in the wrong place. I am perhaps being unfair, but I feel that we have forgotten that the gospel should be a scandal; it should challenge people and make them uncomfortable. In order to do this any articulation of what it means to believe in Jesus MUST be Jesus-centric. Every letter Paul writes starts with that premise, of defining who we are as people in terms of Christ and what’s he’s done.

      All the nessecary subtext and explanation follows that declaration.

      • Matt “All the necessary subtext and explanation follows that declaration.”

        I agree – I hate it when people on the street flogging Hare krishna books or seeking sign-ups for save the Tuna, begin with an intrusive wave, a fake smile and a banal comment “Hi dude, I like your beard” or “hello, do you think the Puffin deserve a chance at life?” Last week I overheard some sales pitch by a young man appealing to a group of girls “I like your eyes”…. UGH. I want honesty in all conversation. I want “Hi, may I have a moment to explain about the work of our charity caring for creation…”

        St Paul says “we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, ” but I fear some forms of evangelism and apologetics verge on the manipulative – if not leading folk up the garden path, perhaps walking them into a cul-de-sac.

        I am clearly not implying this of Ian’s approach here, the content of which I like and agree with. But in order to be completely transparent right off the bat I would prefer to begin with a declaration about Jesus ie: A christian believes Jesus is God and trusts in him to save them”….what does that mean?….let me offer 4 points…

        Ian rightly says he wants to build bridges – well, “I believe Jesus is God’ or ‘I believe Jesus saved me’ is surely a more instant and compelling bridge than a few steps removed ‘God made the world good’…

      • Hi Matt,

        I’m inclined to agree with your concern over emphasis and I think what’s missing is any basis for the moral urgency of responding to these truths as decisive to their eternal destiny.

        Truth 1: Many people would affirm the goodness, wonder and harmony in the world and universe, and would attribute its existence to a transcendent God, considering mankind to be earth’s stewards. They may be religious, but are not necessarily Christian.
        Truth 2: The ubiquitous prevalence of sin may be described in terms of its impact on the world, but, for Christians, there must be mention that sin incurs God’s displeasure and eventual judgement of those who compound their guilt with impenitently dismissing correction.

        Christians believe that we are made in the image of God and, as such, our sin and false idols dishonour and defame God, whose glory should be reflected in our lives.

        Our continual injury of God’s glory will not be endured forever. For all of its beauty, there is a futility to our temporal existence: the prospect of death and decay presages the prospect of eternal loss. Yet, God’s ever-enduring love can and does avert this with alarms of conscience meant to bring us back to our senses and to Him in order to find our true destiny to be eternal children of God.

        Truth 3: On the basis of Truth 2, Christians believe that, in His ever-enduring love, perfect God and perfect humanity are united solely in the person of Jesus Christ.

        Christians believe that God works inscrutably through His created world and in even the direst of circumstances. In this sense, we believe that God worked inscrutably in revealing His love fully through the very horror of Jesus’ earthly humiliation and death on a Roman gibbet, by which He fulfilled His own dictates of divine justice.

        In completely fulfilling those dictates, Jesus has conquered the power of death and of sin, never to dies again. It’s through His conquest that God promises to do the same for those who follow Him. In so doing, He has met our deepest yearning for vastly more than the futility of temporal existence can ever provide.

        We look forward with eagerness to the prospect of everlasting deliverance from short-sighted self-deception and enslavement to our mortal existence.

        We are energised by, rejoice in and freely share with all the same power of love and justice by which Jesus rose from death and ascended to the highest place in heaven. We invite any and everyone to join in our feast of life beyond death.

        Through our spiritual encounter with Christ, we now know and believe that ‘love is as strong as death, many waters cannot quench it’ (Song of Solomon 8:6,7)

  8. I find 2 things fascinating

    (1) Many people are eager to say that the only criterion for being a Christian is saying that you are one.
    – This is not how they would treat claims to be a Neoplatonist, a book-lover etc etc.. How to justify such an inconsistency?

    (2) Many people are anxious to big-up and make allowances for certain contradictory things whose only common feature seems to be that they are main opponents of Christianity: secularism is a strange bedfellow for Islam yet many are keen to defend both at Christianity’s expense.

    (1) and (2) have in common that Christianity is treated differently from everything else. Christians will not be surprised by this, since they have always said it is different from everything else. They see in behaviour (1) and (2) the realisation that true (as opposed to nominal) Christianity is a stakes-high matter, and is a real threat to our lifestyles if true – hence people will be unusually or irrationally hostile towards it, which if they were honest they would admit. Since (1) and (2) are hard to explain otherwise, this combined explanation for both deserves attention.

  9. Regarding the order of the 4 beliefs, I cannot understand how they could not be as Ian presents them. There is logic, narrative shape and the right profile of drawing the reader in up to the final glory of eternity with God – ‘completion’ of the presentation.

    In many ways the Bible hardly makes sense at all until you’ve read Genesis 1-3 (which might even be why it’s right there at the beginning!). And to have a handle on the timeline is essential if you are going to understand any narrative. In fact I wonder if we are too easily tempted to present our Christian story as a stream of consciousness (dipping in here and there in no particular order) rather than a coherent narrative which has a shape linked both to human history and the personal story of every individual who ever lived. In one sentence (if you had to) I would summarise the Christian story as ‘The dwelling of God is with his people’. Those 8 words must surely stimulate every question you might want to ask about what it means to be a Christian.

    But it hardly needs saying that what you do say or leave out at any particular time is going to depend on the circumstances; the important thing is to have a clear understanding of the whole picture from which you can draw whatever seems right at the time. I wonder if all Christians should be advised to write out their own understanding of what it means to be a Christian – there’s nothing like trying to writing something coherent for revealing where you need to apply more careful thought. And the shorter the word count, the harder it is!

    If only it were as easy to speak about in real conversation as it is to write about when you have the luxury of time to think and a non argumentative keyboard.

    • But the question that spawned this article is rather blunt; “What is a Christian”?

      The answer to that must be some variation of “A Follower of the risen Jesus”, and so my principle challenge stands, surely? You cannot answer the question of what it means to be a christian without defining your answer principally in terms of the person and character you’re professing to follow. Can you?

      It is not wrong to place that answer in a wider narrative context (indeed, it is nessecary) but Ian’s article is a much better answer to the question “Why do you believe?” than it is to the question at hand.


      • That’s a good point, Mat. However, in his introduction Ian said:

        ‘The term is often taken as code for a particular political position, or as someone having a particular view on a controversial topic of the day. But none of these actually explains what a Christian is, or what Christians believe.’

        I took it that he was thinking in evangelistic terms. After all, if you are already a Christian you must at some point have come to understand what a Christian is? So if someone asked you ‘what is a Christian?’ you might feel the need to give an account of those beliefs before offering a more specific definition which might be of little help on its own. Sometimes we Christians have to stop and put ourselves in the shoes of someone who knows next to nothing or (worse) a travesty of what being a Christian is all about.

        But, from the way he was writing I don’t think Ian was giving a script for exactly what you would say, rather it was a fuller narrative which a Christian ought to be familiar with and which might shape the order of arriving at the clear answer of exactly what a Christian is.

        But I’m sure Ian would prefer to say exactly what his approach was for himself rather than have me confuse the issue further!

        • Very true.

          I think it’s clear that we all need to be more articulate (and confident!) in communicating our understanding of what being ‘a Christian’ means, and how we reached that understanding. I am not trying to belittle anyone who is trying to do that, least of all Ian.

          I don’t think anyone can do that from a script either, but I cannot think of a single example (outside of written word) where someone’s testimony, or their re-telling of that process has started in creation. Conversation doesn’t follow the same rules…

          It is my observation that people talk about the influences of major events or other people in their lives as the primary catalysts for change, change that ultimately led them to an encounter with Jesus. If we got used to sharing our own experiences on those terms we’d probably be much more effective. 😉

          A pleasure as always Don

  10. s the question here, “What is a Christian ?” not getting a little mixed with how to become a Christian?
    “The New Testament rarely calls believers “Christians”: we modern believers almost never call ourselves anything else. The New Testament regularly describes believers as those who are “in Christ”; modern believers almost never do. The result? A widespread loss of the sheer grandeur of what it means to belong to Christ.” This was written as an endorsement by Sinclair Ferguson to a small book I got in a sale from a local Christian bookshop, yesterday: “In Christ: In Him together for the World “ by Steve Timmis & Christopher de la Hoyde.
    From the introduction:
    1 Imagining what Calvin would have said about church planting: “That’s simple: teach them what it means to be united with Christ” “For Calvin, this was the doctrine from which all other doctrine – and all Christian living – flowed.”
    2 Citing John Owen from his exposition on Hebrews:
    “This is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ. Hence is our adoption, our justification, our sanctification, out fruitfulness, or perseverance, our resurrection, our glory.”
    3 “Jesus does live in us. And we live in Him. It is a miracle of supernatural grace…an all powerful love that unites us intimately with Christ Jesus. And because of that union, all the riches of heaven are ours”
    4 Calvin defines union with Christ as “the union by which we grow together with him so that He revives us by His Spirit and transfers his power to us”.

    5 “Union with Christ is truly phenomenal and supernatural, but it is not make believe or mysterious. It is beautifully pertinent to daily experience.”

    6 “… it incorporates and expresses all that God has planned from eternity past, through time, and into eternity future.”

    Of course union with Christ opens the door to YBH, Yes But How?

    No mere intellectual assent here, no lemon sucking reformers or puritans. Doesn’t it bring us to joyful , jaw dropping worship.
    I recall delighting in this way when approached by two Jehovah’s Witnesses, as my wife and I were packing the car to go on holiday. I couldn’t just brush them off and took an opportunity. They were bemused, astonished and couldn’t respond with any of their well rehearsed points. My wife and I both said the same thing as we drove away: they probably thought we were a bit, not quite “all there.” And we were even speaking in tongues

    As a new Christian I attended worship service with a sermon from a Principal of a Scottish Bilble College. Using his hands, he demonstrated what it meant to be “in Christ”. Holding one hand out as if to shake hands with his thumb sticking up at right angles to his outstretched fingers. He then folded his thumb into the palm of his hand and wrapped his fingers around it. Then he wrapped his other hand around that. “You in Christ and Christ in the Father”. A simple (but theologically incomplete) illustration. And, yes, it is not a new one

  11. A few comments worry that there is not enough punch, so as a thought, how about starting with Jer 6:16 “Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads and look and ask for the ancient paths where the good way lies; walk in it and find rest for your souls.” Jesus says “I am the way” and this is the Jesus that Christians follow.
    And then into the quadrilateral.

  12. Zinzendorf (early eighteenth century Moravian leader, influenced Wesley, Whitefield and others) once said that when with those not yet Christians we should “first, speak of Jesus – his perfect life, his love, his unjust death, his resurrection. There will be plenty of time to speak about God, sin, salvation, the Trinity, heaven and Christianity later”.

    If this is right, could it be that your summary of “what Christians believe” is most useful at a certain point in the process – the point where someone who appreciates analytical language has started to see what following Jesus in the community of the church means (perhaps has already started Jesus with a necessarily incomplete understanding), and has asked for more clarity? I’ve had the experience several times of someone starting to follow Jesus in a church, and asking this sort of question (one person called it looking for “the small print”) a few months in.

  13. All good, and I’d just like to add: a Christian is someone who prays to God in Christ Jesus. (I first became a Christian after two Christian colleagues prayed for me.)

  14. Just posted this on our church web site.

    I think a helpful read for those who are ‘not yet’ Christians, but also a helpful reminder for those of us who have been Christians for a long time. No matter how this was written and arranged, you can’t possibly comprehensively cover every angle of what a Christian is in a bog-sized article. But, as I said, a helpful read.

  15. I like it.

    Comments about what Christian authors in times past would have said often overlook that Christian authors in times past lived in Christendom, where belief in God was almost universal (and ‘God’ was defined in generally Christian terms), the doctrine of creation was taken for granted etc.

    Likewise, in New Testament times the story of Jesus didn’t drop out of the sky in a vacuum; it was set in the context of the story of Israel, and presupposed a knowledge of God, of God’s creation, of God’s laws, of human sin etc. as outlined in that story. Peter on the Day of Pentecost didn’t ‘go straight to Jesus’ – he started with the story of Israel and then demonstrated how Jesus was the fulfilment of it.

    If I have any reservation at all, it’s that we continue to see the question ‘What is a Christian?’ as almost identical with the question ‘What do Christians believe?’ And that’s definitely hugely important. but there’s also a strand of NT teaching (Matthew, James, arguably the epistles of John) which is at least equally interested in the question ‘How do Christians live?’ If we’re going to be up front about our convictions (as some have commented here) I think we ought to be up front about the fact that (for example) the Sermon on the Mount was given to us as a manual for discipleship – the curriculum in the school of Jesus, you might say – and we’re going to be expected to get busy learning how to practice it.

  16. (This is a somewhat belated comment as I’m catching up, having been on holiday!)

    I am someone who will be eternally grateful for those who use Rev. 3.20 in an evangelistic way, in my case Michael Green in 1973. However, I am a little surprised that someone who has written a reportedly excellent commentary on Revelation to use it, given that the verse comes in a section addressed to the members of a malfunctioning church.

    This leads on to my slight feeling of unease with the last section, which could come across mainly in terms of what Jesus gives me for me to live a nice new life. There does not seem quite enough on the significant transition that it is to be a Christian. There is no mention of new birth or new creation). There is no mention of the core initiatory rite of Christianity in baptism, with its symbolism of death to the old life. Nor is there any reference to the idea of adoption, which leads to our intimate relation with the Father. Rather that Jesus coming into our life, we are incorporated into his people. The Church is not just a bunch of fellow pilgrims, it is the family of the Christian. Rather than Jesus becoming involved in our life, as followers and disciples of Christ, we become involved with what he is doing in the world.

    However, I was pleased to read in today’s article on Jesus “bringing division and the sword” a much clearer description of how our allegiance changes. But this raises the need in answering “what is a Christian” to explain the cost of being a Christian (something which Revelation illustrates well).

    My disquiet arises through become increasingly aware of the individualism which pervades our (Western) society, and therefore I’m becoming sensitive to ways in which the expression of the Gospel takes on this trait.


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