It has been said that “the Gospel is simple enough for a child to understand, but deep enough for you to spend the rest of your life studying it.” I’m not certain where I first heard this notion, but I would argue that the same principle applies to answering the question, “What is a Christian?” That being the case, this is the simplest definition I can think of:
“A Christian is someone who does what Jesus would do, if Jesus were here.”
Remember those bracelets that posed the question “WWJD?”? They came pretty close to hitting the mark, but even if you can correctly answer “WWJD?” in each and every situation, knowing what Jesus would do and doing what Jesus would do are two different things. In fact, it seems pretty clear that unless you actually follow through on the answer to “WWJD?” you’re still missing the point:
If you love me, keep my commands… Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.
If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what He commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
1 John 2:3-6
In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.
1 John 5:3
And perhaps most ominously…
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is 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. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Now just to be clear, you should not take these verses to imply that our standing in Christ is somehow contingent on our what we do…or what we don’t do. That is not the Gospel! The Good News is that God accepts us as His children in spite of our “performance” and not because of it! Indeed, God isn’t “keeping score”, but He nonetheless expects His children to obey and serve Him consistently—albeit imperfectly—once we have accepted Christ and confessed our desperate need for His mercy and forgiveness:
Even as [Jesus] spoke, many put their faith in him. To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.”
Therefore, let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.
1 John 2:24 (NKJV)
With all these things in mind, dear brothers and sisters, stand firm and keep a strong grip on the teaching we passed on to you both in person and by letter.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NLT)
But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
Will we always obey perfectly? Of course not. Will we occasionally even resist Him? More often than we probably care to admit. But once again, God isn’t looking for faultless performance (which we can’t achieve in any case) as much as faithful persistence:
You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ.
“But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.” But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:7
In short, a true Christian isn’t someone who walks down to an altar, says a prayer, and then goes about their business. It’s not even someone who can quote Scripture, or someone who faithfully attends church. A true Christian is a disciple of Christ, someone who strives to do each and every day what Jesus would do, regardless of the cost.
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.
Once again, don’t be misled into thinking that our actions somehow earn God’s approval, His favor, or His love. On the contrary! The moment we receive Christ and become one of His adopted children, there is nothing we can do to either increase or decrease His love for us! Thus the point of our actions is not about getting God to accept us, and it’s certainly not that we risk disqualifying ourselves whenever we stumble and fall; rather, the importance of our actions is that they reveal the true inclination of our hearts and the depth of our love for Him:
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
Because if we truly love Christ, if we genuinely desire to honor our Savior, then we will willingly submit ourselves to Him as our Lord:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
Granted, Paul is clear that our belief is what justifies us in God’s sight, but we need to understand that the Jewish concept of “belief” goes beyond mere mental assent to some abstract proposition. For the Jews, our beliefs are inextricably linked to our behavior, such that if you say you believe one thing but then do something else, your actions betray your spoken belief. Or as James puts it, your true beliefs—indeed, your faith—will be evident in the things that you do:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
So is a Christian someone who claims the name of Jesus? Yes! Is a Christian someone who is trusting Christ to be their Savior? Without question! But as James warns us, actions really do speak louder than words. Calling Jesus “Lord” is nothing more than lip service if we withhold our hearts and our lives from Him, and if the testimony of our actions belie the affection we claim with our mouths, our fervent belief that Jesus is able to save sinners will be of little solace when we stand before Him at last:
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
In short, Biblical faith is belief in action. It’s work. It requires effort and sacrifice. Not so we might earn anything from God, but that we might offer something to Him.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Which effectively brings us back to where we started. What does it mean to be a Christian? Being a Christian means doing the things that Jesus would do if He were here. Not to earn God’s love, but to show our love for Him; not for our gain, but for His glory.