What then, does it mean to be a Christian?

24 Jun, 2013

On July 22, 2011 in Oslo, Norway, a deranged Anders Behring Breivik carried out a mass shooting at a summer camp, killing 69 people, mostly teens. He also killed eight people through a series of bombings around government buildings in Oslo that preceded the mass shooting. In the aftermath of the crime it was discovered that Breivik’s heinous actions were politically motivated.  A 1,500-page manifesto revealed the depravity that fueled such cruel and unthinkable horrors. In this manifesto he, rather unfortunately, describes himself as a Christian. His own words explain what he means by the label “Christian”: “If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.” For some, the term “Christian” is flexible beyond the term’s original meaning.

What then, does it mean to be Christian according to the New Testament? I have given this much thought recently and have narrowed down four characteristics necessary to be a Christian in the New Testament sense.

1) Being Christian is an individual distinction.

For some, the term “Christian” is a cultural trapping based on geography. If you were born in India, you are a Hindu. If you were born in Tibet, you are a Buddhist. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are a Muslim. If you were born in graduate philosophy class, you are an atheist. According to this reasoning, your religion and your culture are synonymous. If so, Christianity might be genetic. Your parents were Christians, therefore you must be a Christian also. However, being a Christian, as the Bible explains, is an individual experience. John 1:12 says, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God.”  This receiving cannot be done by groups; rather, it is an individual event.

2) Being Christian is an experience.

For some being Christian is membership in a religious group.  Joining the First Baptist Church does not make someone a Christian. Being initiated into all the rites of the Roman Catholic Church does not make someone a Christian.  The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” This represents quite a change. It is certainly more than joining the membership of a religious organization or attending a religious meeting. Jesus described it in the book of John as “being born of the spirit.” Being a Christian means undergoing a deep spiritual change. In other words, something happens. A person might not be able to explain what happened, but they know something happened.

3) Being a Christian means believing in the physical resurrection of Christ.

Believing in a resurrection presupposes that Jesus lived. That Jesus lived is accepted by almost all reputable scholars. That he rose from the dead, three days after his crucifixion, is the major issue that separates Christians from non-Christians. The late Christopher Hitchens once remarked, “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by His sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.” While Christopher Hitchens never embraced Christianity, he certainly understood what it entailed.

4) Being a Christian means following the example and teachings of Christ and His apostles and prophets.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). What is the will of the Father? To start, Christians are to follow the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. They should follow not only Jesus, but His apostles and prophets as well. These teachings should inform the Christian how to make sense of the world. People who call themselves Christians and yet live outside of Christ’s instruction are either deeply confused or deluding themselves. Living the changed life begins with submission to the One who changed it.

Mr. Breivik does not fit any of these criteria for what the New Testament teaches about being a Christian. We can only pray that he learns that Christianity is much different than he has conceived. He is not the only one who misunderstands what it means to be a Christian. It is our job to show people around us what being a Christian is all about.