What being a Christian is, and what it is not

In the early Church as found in the New Testament, there were just a few basic things that a person had to do if they wanted to become a Christian. Paul the apostle outlined them in Romans 10: "believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead" and "confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord". What did he mean by that?

To take the first part, believing in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead means, essentially, acknowledging that the death of Jesus was not the end. Sometimes people take the view that the death of Jesus was just that of a good man laying down his life in an example of supreme self-sacrifice, or else a teacher being killed when his teachings became inconvenient for the authorities and unpopular with the people. Although there is a little truth in both of these, the Bible sees the death of Jesus as far more than this (see previous page), and also claims that after he had died, God was able to raise him from the dead. If that sounds fanciful, you are in good company: the disciples themselves did not understand his talk of rising from the dead before he was crucified, and afterwards they initially refused to believe it. It took Jesus' full, bodily appearance before them all at the same time, together with a display of his physical scars and his ability to consume food, to convince them that they were seeing neither an apparition nor a ghost. Thus Jesus was alive again, and since he left this earth without dying (see Acts 1), he is still alive.

The second part, confessing Jesus as Lord, implies that you now consider yourself under God's "lordship", ie his rule as your Creator and Saviour. Really this is only sensible: a creator must always be in a position of authority over his creatures, just as I am in authority over a computer program or web page I write. To clear up any misunderstanding, this does not mean that God suddenly starts giving you arbitrary or whimsical instructions. This caused me a great deal of confusion when I was new in the faith, but gradually I have come to learn that God's will for our lives is primarily, if not always, expressed through the Bible. In other words, as we read the Bible we learn what pleases God and what displeases him. To take an obvious example, reading the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus should convince you that God disapproves strongly of murder! Likewise, reading the sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel tells you some of the positive attitudes God looks for.

All this might sound just like a New Year's resolution - give up doing wrong, start reading the Bible, doing the right thing - but there is a crucial difference. When you "believe and confess" and become a Christian, then in some mysterious way God starts living within you. This is what we mean by God sending his Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke about this in John's Gospel during his last night before the crucifixion. The Holy Spirit lives within you to guide you and grant you power to "do the right thing". It is not like entering a trance state, levitating or experiencing an altered state of consciousness - you may in fact not be conscious of any change at first. With time, however, you may notice a change in yourself, and hopefully others will notice too. One of the positive things about a changed life when somebody becomes a Christian is that it is, or should be, a sign of God's power and an attraction to the faith.

What you must not do is grit your teeth and try to pull yourself up morally by your own bootstraps. That is laudable, but it is usually doomed to failure. Indeed it is often when people have tried this and failed that they become conscious of their own weakness and inability to do the good and avoid the wrong, and it is then that God is able to work in them to enable them to do it. Similarly, throwing yourself into religious activities - meetings, prayer groups, and everything else - is praiseworthy but often means that you have mistaken activism for the way of discipleship. There are things which Christians can and should do, but it is important to realise that you do not contribute to your salvation in any way, even if you were a "24/7" Christian. Again, nor should you set yourself "Ten Golden Rules to Christian Living" or similar regulations for being a Christian. The Bible is rule enough. The problem with regulations is that with the course of time they never seem quite comprehensive enough, so we have to add on more to cover new situations. Thus we end up with a steel corset of rules, which either makes us feel smug (hey, we're really good people because we kept all these rules!) or makes us despair, because we know that at some point sooner or later we break them.

There are actually very few things urged on Christian people. Meeting once a week, on a Sunday, with other Christians in church is important because you are drawn into a fellowship with other believers and usually also hear the Bible taught. Furthermore, in church we regularly remember the sacrifice of Christ by taking Holy Communion. Reading the Bible every day, a bit at a time, will gradually also teach you, much as reading any book on a subject will (or should) teach you about that subject. And praying, if only for a few minutes each day, strengthens your personal relationship with God.

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