What is a Christian?

What is a Christian? That may be a surprising question to ask, especially in church. We tend not to ask such basic questions once we feel like we understand them. But there are times in our life when our faith wavers and we doubt God because we haven’t understood the answer to basic questions. Who is God? What is sin? What is a Christian? Maybe we have a lot invested in that term or a lot invested in having the answers to those questions. Maybe we have a lot invested in opposing people who use those terms. But when it comes to a matter of spiritual importance like this, we are not free to come up with answers based on our own subjective experience. We must go back to the Bible.

There are a number of places that deal with this issue in scripture. One that jumps out at me is 2 Timothy 2. Paul has described the challenges Timothy is facing in the Ephesian church, the things people in the church are teaching that have even caused the faith of some to be overthrown. If you have spent any time in church, you know the feeling of seeing someone’s life not match their words, you know the heartbreak of seeing someone who seemed so spiritually promising walk away from the faith altogether. How is that possible? Why does it happen? Paul doesn’t answer that question first – first, he wants to make sure our confidence remains in God’s purposes.

Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some. Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.”
– 2 Timothy 2:16-19

When we see the faith of some overthrown, what do we find ourselves thinking? Do we have confidence that the true church of God is secure? Do we expand the definition of a Christian to include those we love who do not meet the scriptural requirements? Do we find ourselves even going so far as to justify sin?

The Bible is clear: the true Christian is secure (John 10:27-28). But the Bible is equally clear that there will be many who profess faith who walk away (1 Timothy 4:1), even many who do the work of ministry (Matthew 7:21-23) who find themselves rejected (James 4:6) because their faith was false and their works were dead (1 John 2:19).

Paul reminds Timothy that even as the he faces these heartbreaking challenges within the church – do not lose heart. The true church of God is secure. Sealed. Marked out. “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands.” The firm foundation Paul refers to here is the church but not the institution, not even the local body, but what older theologians have called “the invisible church” – the countless group of all those who have truly been born again and are united to Christ by faith. The invisible church is invisible because it goes much deeper than a profession, deeper than the sinner’s prayer, even deeper than the public display of baptism – it goes to the very heart. Has a person been born again (John 3:3)? Yet even though God knows the heart, there is a twofold seal that marks out every Christian.

“The Lord knows those who are his.” There are two types of knowledge. There is academic knowledge and relational knowledge. I can know about something – I can know a person exists, I can know their name and I can even know facts about them. None of that requires friendship. But if I have a relationship with them, I know those things but I know so much more about them. I know their heart. I know their desires. I know what they like and what they dislike. And they know those things about me. Relational knowledge is deep, intimate and mutual. Academic knowledge is surface, obligatory and impersonal.

When the Bible says “The Lord knows those who are His,” which type of knowledge comes to your mind? It is easy to think, “Of course he knows me, He knows everything.” Do we simply think He knows we exist, He knows our needs, maybe He’s even sympathetic toward our condition? But none of that is very personal. Everyone who has genuine faith in Jesus has been united to Him; everyone who has been united to Christ is a child of God. Because of that access into the family of God, we can call God our Father. He knows us – and we know Him. It is one thing for a person to say they know God; it is quite another for God to say He knows you.

“Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” Wait – if salvation is a free gift, why is there an expectation? An expectation exists because there has been a gift. Every person who is reconciled to God has been given the righteousness of Christ, they have been declared righteous before Him (Romans 4:5-8). This is called justification – it is a legal declaration (Romans 3:21-26). Sanctification is the process whereby our thoughts, desires, and responses are conformed to the pattern of God’s righteousness by the active work of the Holy Spirit inside us (Romans 6:22).

If every Christian is given the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14), why would we doubt that the Holy Spirit produces evidence of His presence inside us? This evidence of the Spirit is what Paul describes in Galatians 5:22-23 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He summarizes that same idea here in 2 Timothy 2 in “depart from iniquity.” If we do not see a genuine increase of these fruits in us, then we have reason to question whether the Spirit is indeed in us.

Let’s not forget that Jesus has not done away with the law; rather, he reaffirmed it and filled it (Matthew 5:17). He did not lower the bar to make it easier for us to reach. In many ways, He increased our understanding of the law’s reach (Matthew 5:21-22) and raised the bar higher than even the Pharisees had set it (Matthew 5:20). Christ is the same one who is described in Hebrews 1:9, “You have loved righteousness and hated iniquity.” That is a direct quote from Psalm 45, highlighting once again the eternal, changeless nature of Christ as God. If Christ still hates iniquity, then why would anyone who loves Christ think any different (Romans 6:1-2)?

A seal is a mark. It is true of every child of God – the weakest, the strongest, the youngest and the oldest. Every child of God is known by God. They have a relational knowledge, which is mutual. Every child grows increasingly to love the things their Father loves and to hate the things their Father hates. Because of this, we grow in their love of the truth. We don’t redefine terms because the Bible is clear. We can’t see the hidden compromises of a person’s heart, but we can trust that God is accomplishing his purposes in the church and that His people are secure and are marked by the evidence of faith and love.

Michael David Perkins

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