What does it mean to be a Christian?
Nearly a hundred years ago, the famed Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield asked that same question. Writing in the Princeton Theological Review in 1916, Warfield decried the confused state of Christianity in his day. He asked:
Does anybody in the world know what ‘Evangelical’ means, in our current religious speech? . . . Take an even greater word. Does the word ‘Christianity’ any longer bear a definite meaning? Men are debating on all sides of us what Christianity really is. . . . If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything designates nothing.[i]
If Warfield could survey the current evangelical landscape, it’s doubtful he would be encouraged. The term Christianity has only become more ambiguous in the last century. In fact, ask what it means today and you’re likely to get a hopelessly convoluted assortment of answers, even from those who identify themselves with the label.
For some, being “Christian” is primarily cultural and traditional, a nominal title inherited from a previous generation, the net effect of which involves avoiding certain behaviors and occasionally attending church. For others, being a Christian is largely political, a quest to defend moral values in the public square, or perhaps to preserve those values by withdrawing from the public square altogether. Still more define their Christian experience in terms of a past religious experience, a general belief in Jesus, or a desire to be a good person. Yet all of these fall woefully short of what it truly means to be a Christian from a biblical perspective.
To be a Christian, in the true sense of the term, is to be a wholehearted follower of Jesus Christ. As the Lord Himself said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (emphasis added). The name suggests much more than a superficial association with Christ. Rather, it demands a deep affection for Him, allegiance to Him, and submission to His Word. “You are My friends if you do what I command you,” Jesus told His disciples in the Upper Room (John 15:14). Earlier He told the crowds who flocked to hear Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine” (John 8:31); and elsewhere: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23; cf. John 12:26).
When we call ourselves Christians, we proclaim to the world that everything about us, including our very self-identity, is found in Jesus Christ because we have denied ourselves in order to follow and obey Him. He is both our Savior and our Sovereign, and our lives center on pleasing Him. To claim the title is to say with the apostle Paul, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Since its first appearance in Antioch (in Acts 11:26), the term Christian has become the predominant label for those who follow Jesus. It is an appropriate designation, because it rightly focuses on the centerpiece of our faith: Jesus Christ. Yet ironically, the word itself appears only three times in the New Testament—twice in the book of Acts and once in 1 Peter 4:16.
In addition to the name Christian, the Bible uses a host of other terms to identify the followers of Jesus. Scripture describes us as aliens and strangers, citizens of heaven, and lights to the world. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, members of His body, sheep in His flock, ambassadors in His service, and friends around His table. We are called to compete like athletes, to fight like soldiers, to abide like branches in a vine, and even to desire His Word as newborn babies long for milk. All of these descriptions—each in its own unique way—help us understand what it means to be a Christian.
Yet, the Bible uses one metaphor more frequently than any of these. It is a word picture you might not expect, yet it is absolutely critical for understanding what it means to follow Jesus.
It is the image of a slave.
Time and time again throughout the pages of Scripture, believers are referred to as slaves of God and slaves of Christ. In fact, whereas the outside world called them “Christians,” the earliest believers repeatedly referred to themselves in the New Testament as the Lord’s slaves. For them, the two ideas were synonymous.
Though it sounds shocking to our modern ears, the biblical understanding of the believer’s relationship to Christ could not be more clear. He is the Master and Owner. We are His possession. He is the King, the Lord, and the Son of God. We are His subjects and His subordinates.
In a word, we are His slaves. That is what it means to be a Christian.
This article is adapted from John MacArthur’s new book Slave: The Hidden Truth about Your Identity in Christ.
[i] B. B. Warfield, “‘Redeemer’ and ‘Redemption’,” pp. 177–201 in the Princeton Theological Review, 14/2 (April, 1916), 199; online at: http://scdc.library.ptsem.edu/mets/mets.aspx?src=BR1916142&div=1&img=1.
December 8, 2010 at 12:18 pm Comment (1)