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What is a Christian ?


            Ephesians 6:21-24        Isaiah 49: 13-18     Luke 7:36-50


Why do people ask “What is a Christian?” They ask because they aren’t sure, and they aren’t sure because there’s confusion as to how a Christian is to be defined. I watched an Irish clergyman on a TV program insist that IRA terrorists couldn’t be Christians because of their habit of “knee-capping” people they deem undesirable and their fondness for terror and torture. Ten minutes later the same clergyman said that baptism was all that was needed to make someone Christian, and anyone who had been baptized was by that fact a Christian indisputably. The Irish clergyman seemed to have lost sight of the fact that all the IRA terrorists had been baptized.

Josef Stalin engineered the deaths of sixty million of his own people. Stalin was baptized. (At one point he was even a seminary student.) How many communist leaders of the Russian Revolution hadn’t baptized? Virtually none. Obviously we can’t define Christians as those who’ve been baptized.

Then perhaps a Christian is someone who believes the right things about Jesus. As we all know, however, it’s possible to believe the right things – that is, stuff one’s mind with the correct mental furniture – and never become a disciple, never do the truth in John’s magnificent phrase. Our Lord himself said to such people, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ (they believed the right things) yet never do what I tell you?”

Then perhaps a Christian is someone who has undergone an especially vivid experience of some kind, a religious experience. The problem here is that there’s no end to “religious experiences,” many of them so very bizarre that we are repelled as soon as we hear of them. Just as not all the spirits are holy, so not all human experiences are helpful. Besides, psychological vividness is never the measure of truth.

A minute ago I said that people wonder just who is a Christian, or what is a Christian, inasmuch confusion abounds here. Really, there’s no need for confusion. The earliest Christians weren’t confused at all.

I: — They knew that Christians are those who love Jesus as Lord. Not everyone who met Jesus in his earthly ministry loved him. Some hissed at him: “He has a demon.” Some despised him: “He’s illegitimate.” Some discounted him: “He’s only a carpenter’s son.” Most ignored him: “Has anything noteworthy ever come out of Nazareth ?” And then there were those who loved him. At first they warmed to him the way we warm to anyone who is winsome and engaging. Then they came to love him the way we come to love those whom we know to love us. The woman who poured out her livelihood upon his dusty feet and wiped them dry with her hair; Jesus said she loved much – like Mary Magdalene, whose life he had turned completely around. Fishermen, captured by Christ, abandoned themselves to him.

But it didn’t stop there. They came to love Jesus not as an equal; they came to love him not just because another human being had loved them; they came to love him as the very presence and power of God. They adored him. Love and adoration suffused each other only to surge out over him. Their love was adoring and their adoration was loving. In other words, they loved him in a way that was different from the way they loved everyone else. For he alone was Lord.

This point is crucial. Everywhere in life you and I love those whom we don’t adore and aren’t supposed to adore. There is only one whom we are to love and adore alike: this one the earliest Christians recognized in the Nazarene whom they knew to be the Son of God Incarnate.

When I was very young (eight or ten years old) I didn’t understand why Christians would suffer martyrdom rather than deny the one they loved. I didn’t understand this because I hadn’t yet grasped the fact that people today genuinely do love Jesus. To be sure I could grasp the fact that people believed this or that about him. I could understand that people deemed him to be truth. But love him? I still remember the day it all fell into place for me. I was reading of the treatment regularly accorded missionaries in Japan . (For centuries Japan has been a difficult, dangerous field for missionaries.) I read that the “trial by fire” for these missionaries was simple: the face of Jesus was painted onto the floor. Then the missionary was told he could spare himself death if he walked on the painted face. As a child I had said to myself, “Why didn’t they walk on it? Jesus would understand. He would understand that there’s no point in dying needlessly. Walk on the portrait – and live to preach the gospel a thousand times more.” One day, however, it all fell into place. One day I grasped why those who genuinely love don’t betray the one they love. I understood why Jesuit missionaries went to their death rather than let down him who had never let them down. Would I denounce and disown my wife to spare myself? For Christians, Jesus Christ is alive and well and living among us. Denounce and disown him out of the crassest self-interest? The day I understood I never looked back. And that day I understood something more: I understood precisely what Paul meant in Ephesians 6: 24 when he speaks of “those who love our Lord with love undying.” I understood why the one and only question Jesus put to Peter on Easter morning was simply, “Peter, do you love me?”


II: — In the second place Christians are those who trust Jesus as Saviour. It’s crucial that we understand why. To say we trust Jesus as Saviour is to say that we trust the provision he is for sinners. The apostle John writes pithily, “God…sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1st John 4: 10 NRSV) To say that God gave his Son as atoning sacrifice for us is to say that God himself has made for us sinners that effectual provision we could never make for ourselves. Something has been done for us. God acted to rescue us from real peril in light of our inability to rescue ourselves.

If we have difficulty understanding what the word “salvation” means in scripture we should think in terms of “salvage,” a salvage operation. A ship on the high seas, overwhelmed by raging storm, is foundering. It sends out a distress call. At this point two things can happen. It can continue taking on water until it disappears into the watery void never to be seen again. Or a salvage tug can leave the safety of a snug harbour and search out the foundering ship. Needless to say the storm that caused the ship to founder is the same storm that the salvage vessel must head into. The rescue operation at sea can happen only in the midst of that turbulence which has already claimed one victim.

The earliest Christians knew that in the cross Jesus had set aside his own safety, had immersed himself in our predicament, had drunk down the death we deserve – and all of this in order to salvage us. It was a rescue mission. Rescue from what? From the judgement of the just judge. Our Lord didn’t do all this at incomprehensible cost to himself in order to make us feel better or supply us with information we lacked. He did it to spare us real loss, final loss, amidst a peril that couldn’t be more perilous. We must never think anything else. Our Lord went to the cross to do for what us what we could never do for ourselves and apart from which our situation as sinners was hopeless before the Holy One.

One reason Charles Wesley is the finest hymn writer in the English language is simply that Charles Wesley sings more frequently about the cross than about anything else, and sings more profoundly about the cross than anyone else.

Arise, my soul, arise. Shake off thy guilty fears.

The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears.

Before the throne my surety stands; my name is written on his hands.


“My name is written on his hands” is a reference to the prophet Isaiah who anticipated the atonement the Son of God would make on behalf of us all. Centuries before the cross on Golgotha Isaiah discerned the cross on the heart of God. Speaking for God, Isaiah wrote “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:16) When I was a little fellow I had this truth seared on my heart by a ditty that has stuck in my noodle:

My name from the palms of his hands

Eternity cannot erase;

Impressed on his heart it remains

In marks of indelible grace.


The provision God has made for me as sinner is the only provision there can ever be. It is sufficient. And I can only trust it as I entrust myself to him who has fashioned it.

We must understand how love for our Lord and trust in our Lord flow back and forth through each other. If we merely loved him we’d start to tell ourselves that the quality of our love is what saves us and we don’t need to have provision made for us. If, on the other hand, we merely trusted him for what he’s done for us we’d be where I am with my dentist: I trust the man utterly since I’m confident of his expertise, even though I don’t like him – he’s obnoxious. Our trust in Jesus Christ prevents our love for him from becoming presumptuous, while our love for him prevents our trust from becoming cold.


III: — There’s more. Christians are those who obey Jesus as Master, or at least those who aspire to obey him.

Now whatever Christian obedience means it doesn’t mean we’ve suddenly become “do-gooders.” “Do-gooders” – everyone’s flesh creeps as soon as the word is uttered – are those who dart around like a water spider, exuding superior wisdom and virtue, setting the world right where the rest of us are too benighted to see what needs to be done, the whole attitude crowned in a self-righteousness that reeks.

Obedience to Jesus as master has nothing to do with this picture. In the first place our motivation isn’t the accumulation of credit or public congratulation or self-produced superiority. The motivation of our obedience is simply our gratitude to the one who has rescued us, as well as our love for the same one who has loved us since we were conceived and will love us beyond our dying.

There are two forms of Christian obedience. The first is resistance to temptation.   The first form of obedience entails our discernment of temptation – temptation of any sort, seduction into sin of any description – and our resolve not to let it alight upon us but rather to repudiate it for what it is: sin-around-the-corner, disgrace before God at the least if not disgrace before others. In resisting temptation we are to renounce the world’s preoccupation with “selfism:” self-realization, self-fulfilment, self-you-name-it. After all, we understand what the world of unbelief doesn’t understand; namely, no one ever found herself by looking for herself (by definition she doesn’t know what to look for.) No one ever became happier through hoarding.

The second form of Christian obedience is self-forgetful service of the suffering neighbour. In view of the atrocious suffering all around us I’m always amazed at people who tell me they’re bored. I think I was last bored about 1953 when I was nine years old and the summer holidays seemed too long. Bored? The only people who are bored are those who haven’t yet apprehended the neighbour’s anguish or who don’t care to do anything about it.

In 1519 Martin Luther wrote a pithy theological tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” and followed it in 1520 with another one for which he is far better known, “The Freedom of the Christian.” In the second tract, “The Freedom of the Christian,” Luther insisted that because the Christian’s master is Christ alone the Christian is servant of no one. Yet because the Christian’s master is Christ alone the Christian is servant of everyone – since Christ came only to serve, didn’t he? In “The Freedom of the Christian” Luther insisted that the Christian lives in the neighbour by serving the neighbour in love. What does it mean to serve the neighbour in love? First we must share our material abundance with the neighbour’s material need. Then we must share the neighbour’s suffering by our closeness to her in her suffering, therein, of course, coming to suffer ourselves. In his 1519 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” Luther mentioned a third way we serve the neighbour in love: we share the neighbour’s disgrace. We don’t flee the needy neighbour who is now extraordinarily needy just because he’s disgraced himself and has been ostracized for it. For the person who has disgraced himself now needs us as he’s never needed us.

When we serve the neighbour’s material neediness, said Luther, it costs us very little since we are meeting his material scarcity with our material abundance. When we share the neighbour’s suffering it costs us more since proximity to suffering entails suffering. When we share the neighbour’s disgrace it costs us everything since we are now known publicly by the same disgrace.

But wasn’t our Lord “numbered among the transgressors” when he wasn’t one? Then obedience to him means that we too must serve the neighbour whose shame is notorious.


IV: — Lastly Christians are those who affirm each other in Christ, and confirm each other in Christ’s way. “Affirmation:” it sounds cold, doesn’t it. “Confirmation:” it sounds mechanical, doesn’t it. A “confirmation” is what the machine in the airport spits out concerning our flight reservation. Affirmation and confirmation are moved beyond mechanical iciness when they are wrapped in affection. Only as we are possessed of genuine affection for each other do we profoundly affirm one other in Christ and confirm one another in his way.

For a long time now I’ve thought that people generally are wounded, some more than others, but virtually everyone somewhere. People are also scarred. Are they crippled as well? Do our scarred-over wounds also cripple us? I think it largely depends on the affection by which we are surrounded and in which we are bathed. Affection, huge dollops of affection, prevents wounds from crippling.

Luke tells us that Paul came upon some Christians in Lystra who were being harassed. In addition to the wounds and scars that everyone acquires in life, they were clobbered again just because they were Christians. Luke tells us that Paul strengthened these beleaguered people as he exhorted them to continue in the faith and reminded them that it is through many tribulations that we enter the kingdom of God. Tribulations: difficulties, disappointments, frustrations, opposition – these don’t cease. Yet in the face of them all we must continue in the faith. We can continue, however, only as we are bathed in affection by fellow-believers who are fellow-strugglers with us and whose encouragement is effective just because it’s so very warm.

I relish the old, old story about Moses and his tired arms. As the Israelites staggered through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land they were beset with everything that would discourage anyone, not the least of which was lethal enemies. One day they were contending with the Amalekites. As long as Moses held up his arms (for Jewish people the arm is the symbol of strength) his people prevailed. But his arms grew weary. His people were in danger of being wiped out. Two men – his brother Aaron and his friend Hur – held up his arms until the enemy was routed.

We too are on our way to the Promised Land. But we aren’t there yet. When we are assaulted, whether from without or within, we need those who are contending alongside us to hold us up. Which is to say, we are always to affirm one another in Christ and confirm one another in the way of Christ, always and everywhere steeping all of this in all the affection we can find in us.


What then is a Christian? Christians are those who love Jesus Christ as Lord,

trust him as Saviour,

obey him as Master,

and encourage one another in him and in his way


as our love for each other mirrors the love of him who loves us without measure, without condition, without end.

                                                                                              Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                   

January 2005