What Makes One a Christian?
More and more is it coming to be understood that Christian character is the test and proof of Christianity. It used to be taught that right belief was everything. One must hold certain doctrines in order to be a Christian.
It is important to believe properly. Every teaching of the Bible has its place in the building of character. "What do you think of Christ?" is a question that needs to be asked in a very definite way of everyone who is following Christ. We may not disparage doctrines. Wrong beliefs give life and conduct unlovely twists. We are exhorted to "grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ."
But it is possible for one to be intensely orthodox, to know truth in its relations, and to accept every scriptural teaching concerning Christ and the way of salvation — and yet not be a Christian!
Another mistake that always has been, and still is common, is, that one becomes a Christian by uniting with the Church and being a more or less zealous and active member. There is no doubt that public confession is a Christian duty. Our Lord made it very clear that his friends must come out from the world and follow him openly among men. The light that is hid will not burn brightly — the hiding smothers it. It was a startling saying of Jesus that if we do not confess him before men — then he will not confess us before his Father and the angels.
It is important, too, that we take our place in the Church and be not only loyal to it — but earnest in its services and active in its work. To fail in one's duty to the Church, is to fail in fullness of Christian life. All friends of Christ need to show their devotion to their Master by devotion to his cause. There is altogether too much thinking lightly of Christian profession. Even among those who claim to be friends and followers of Christ, there is too great a tendency to make little of Church profession.
But, on the other hand, there are those who have no conception of Christian life beyond attachment to the Church and devotion to it. They put great stress upon its services. They are scrupulously careful in observing all its rites. They lay great stress on all religious duties and ceremonies. They never omit any public act of worship. They are always present at the meetings, and their place is never empty at any service.
Yet somehow their religion seems never to show itself in their life! It does not make them sweet in their disposition. It does not work out in love and peace and joy and patience and gentleness and meekness and goodness!
One cannot help recalling the fact that in our Lord's time there were certain people who were intense in their devotion to the Church, who were scrupulously careful in all religious acts and observances — but who came under the Master's severe condemnation. Their lives were most unbeautiful in his sight. He spoke of them and to them in scathing words. They were not only the most orthodox people in all the land — but were also the most punctilious in their observance of the ordinances of religion, the most careful Sabbath-keepers, the people who made the greatest show of their almsgiving and their praying.
Yet their religion seems to have had no good influence upon their lives! Evidently they were anything but sweet and lovely in disposition and character. They were censorious, they were intolerant, they were cold and hard in their treatment of the poor. They were proud, impatient, quick to see sins and faults in others — but blind to the imperfections and shortcomings and neglects and all the unlovely things in themselves!
We should always remember that to be a Christian is, first of all, to have Christ in the heart — and then Christ in the life. We should seek to know the truth, pondering the words of Christ daily and deeply. "As he thinks in his heart — so is he."
Our beliefs, if rightly held, will have a transforming effect upon our conduct and character. Our Church attachment, if it is real and spiritual, will bring us also into close union with Christ, and every act of worship we perform will leave in us a new measure of strength, inspire in us some new desire, give us a new impulse toward nobleness and encourage us for braver and better service.
So it comes that the final proof of Christian life is neither in its orthodoxy of belief, nor in its Church relation — but in what it does in a man's character and life.
Someone asked Tennyson once, "What is Jesus Christ to you?" They were walking in a garden, his friend and he, and pointing to a rosebush filled with marvelous beauty, Tennyson replied, "What the sun is to that rose-bush, Jesus Christ is to me."
We are Christians only when the love of Christ falls upon us like sunshine, sinks to the depths of our being — and transforms and woos out in us whatever things are true, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are pure.
Love is the whole of the true Christian life. Whatever is not of love, is not of Christ. Love is always gentle. It is patient, thoughtful, kind. It is forgiving, forbearing. It seeks not its own. It does not behave itself rudely. It is not easily provoked. It is always ready to serve.
There are many professors, however, who seem never to have learned anything better in life than to expect others to live for them, to do things for them, to serve them. But that is not the Christian way. Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man did not come to be served — but to serve!" When we get into this attitude toward others, all others, and begin to live to serve, to help — then we are true Christians.