In the church I hear all kinds of different explanations of who and what a Christian is. From the simplistic to the complex, some are accurate and some are not. But what does it mean to be a Christian? How do you know you’re “saved”? What does a Christian think and do? What does a Christian believe? What tenets or doctrines of faith must a Christian adhere to?
The beauty of the Gospel is that it is simple enough for a child to understand and accept, and yet it will take more than a lifetime to fully plumb the depths of its rich meaning and implications. There are several ways of explaining the difference between the believer and unbeliever throughout the New Testament. But we must take these images and explanations to heart or we will find ourselves in sin because we believe that we are sinners instead of believers.
The word “Christian” has its origins in a persecution of people who followed Jesus. In Acts 11:25-26, followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch. It means “Christ one,” or “one like Christ” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The apostles describe the change in a Christian as being born again by John, the new life or new creation by Paul, saints by every New Testament author, child of God by John and others, and a host of other terms.
Let’s unpack the significance of these images. “Saints” is the universal term for followers of Jesus throughout the New Testament. Most letters open with this word to describe Christians in different communities. What is a saint? Well, a Saint is a football player from New Orleans… No really, saint means “holy one.”
I sure many Christians often say, especially if they have sinned, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” This saying is true at the moment of salvation. But after salvation, it’s not true anymore. Because of the change in us, it’s better to say, “I was a sinner, but Jesus saved me by his grace.” Calling yourself a center after the transformation by Jesus weakens the power of his sacrifice.
I cringe when I hear well-meaning Christians so easily revert to a previous life of sin with that phrase. It doesn’t forgive stumbling in your walk with Jesus. It doesn’t forgive flirting with sin. All believers momentarily fall into sin. But we are saints trying to live God’s high standards, not sinners with painted faces of holiness.
We are dead to sin and we ignore it. It has no effect on us. We keep our flesh in check and our desires toward God rather than the world. Don’t let sin so easily change your mind about who you are.
Paul uses the image of the new life or new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). The change Jesus makes in each of us is so dramatic that all Paul can do is call us a new creation. God makes everything new. For starters, your mind, body, and spirit have have been completely reconfigured. You were born into a sinful world, and that’s all you knew. But now, your heart only searches for God and is sensitive to his presence and work in your life.
Your mind is renewed daily as you think on the good things of God. Your body is commanded to do God’s works and glorify him in everything. Your spirit has been enlivened by the Holy Spirit and now shares a connection with God (Ephesians 2:1-6).
The new life follows on the heels of the new creation, your whole person and nature new, reacting to him. But we still live in a fallen world. But because we are dead to send, we ignore anything that is not of God. Don’t give sin an open door to reenter. You can choose not to sin. We listen to the Holy Spirit instead of the world.
Another image of our identity in Christ is the metaphor Jesus uses, being born again (John 3:3, 5). Being born again doesn’t make sense to the unspiritual mind. Before we can be a new creation and enjoy our new life in Christ, we must be born again to glorify God.
Finally, Paul and John both describe us as being children of God. I prefer to use this image when I talk to Christians who occasionally sin. They feel so broken and guilty. They question their salvation. But this is why God inspired the image of being one of his children. We are adopted into his family and given full privileges to his inheritance in heaven.
When you are a child in your family, you are tied to that family. You can’t change the family you have. You can’t have someone else’s blood or features. You can legally disown or be disowned by them, but you were still born into that family. You will always be so-and-so’s son or daughter.
The same is true when you become part of God’s family. No matter what you do, you are still one of his children. Jesus’ love goes deeper than anything else in creation, including sin (Romans 8:35-39). If a child breaks a priceless family heirloom, do the parents throw the child out into the street and say, “You’re not my kid anymore”? No. They might punish the child, but they still love him or her.
You have to work very hard at losing that privileged state and relationship with God. He doesn’t let us go so easily. He disciplines us for our sins. But he doesn’t disown us. We never stop being part of his family or reaping the benefits of his grace and love. The world struggles with identity, but our identity and destiny as God’s children is certain. We know our place in Christ. It’s a place of grace and privilege. It’s a place of growth and conforming to Jesus’ image (Romans 8:29). It’s a place of joy, a fun and exciting adventure to know him more fully. Happy trails!