what is a christian?

Fellow Methodist blogger Jonathon Norman asked the question “What is a Christian?” at his blog last Saturday. Here’s what I wrote:

Jonathon, thanks for asking for a basic definition of a “Christian.” It’s much easier to call ourselves and others than to actual identify what we mean.

One of the major difficulties in defining what a Christian is (and, by implication, isn’t–which is important) is at the intersection of (1) our concern for both orthodoxy and orthopraxy and (2) the holy love of God manifest in his grace in the person of Jesus Christ. Said a little differently, perhaps we would say that we’re concerned not to get into “works-righteousness,” but we also recognize that being a Christian ought to entail a change in how we behave. A second major difficulty involves how we connect eternal salvation with being a Christian–this makes the conversation awfully personal awfully quick.

That said, I’ll suggest that a Christian is a person whose life is being drawn God-ward within the community of God’s people through the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the power of God in the Holy Spirit, and by personal participation in God’s work within oneself.


Published by Guy M Williams

Christian | Husband, Father | Pastor | 8th-Gen Texan | Texas A&M ‘96 | Asbury Seminary ‘01 | Enjoy family, reading, running, golf, college football

12 thoughts on “what is a christian?

  1. Good definition, though I would amend “by personal participation in God’s work within oneself and the world.

  2. Thanks for the input. Christians are certainly caught up in God’s large project of redemption and new creation that is cosmic in scope. At least that’s how I would read your amendation.

  3. One of the short definitions I use (long definitions are pretty easy for us theological types) is “a willing participant in what God is doing.”

  4. Can’t say I agree with Richard. God has used many unwilling participants in the fulfillment of His purposes, ie. Gideon, Moses, Jonah. Also any definition which doesn’t include something about Jesus Christ comes up short in my book.

  5. “Also any definition which doesn’t include something about Jesus Christ comes up short in my book.”

    Yup. That’s why short definitions are rarely useful on their own. When I preach I usually go on for at least 20 minutes, not settling for any short definitions (thougth I often hope that sometimes people remember what I said last week, last month, etc., and remember today’s message as part of the context of future messages.)

    I certainly include Jesus (life, death, resurrection, pre-existence, etc.) to be included in “what God is doing.”

    As to “Willing”: Those OT folks aren’t the only ones whose willingness is less than perfect – though it was enough to get them into the flow of God’s action. I know myself well enough to know that my willingness is somewhat fickle from time to time.

  6. Richard,

    I’m with you when it comes to my willingness. I first sensed a call to full-time ministry when I was about 13. Ran from that for 10+ years til I realized I’d never be satisfied doing anything other that what God wanted me to do. After 20 years in ministry, I hope I’m not as thick headed as back in my high school & college days, though I have to admit sometimes I’m still slow to respond.

    Thanks for clarifying your definition to include Jesus. I have come to the point where I don’t assume that just because someone calls themselves a Christian or a United Methodist that their theology is Christ-centered.

  7. Richard-
    How do you account for the enemies of Israel in the Old Testament who were being used by God to teach Israel a lesson by being plenty willing to pound Israel into submission (because Israel was being rebellious toward God)? Would they be considered Christians? Granted, they were pre-Christ, but you get my drift, I hope…

  8. Fitz, I don’t think that those OT figures would fit under Richard’s definition because they were not “willing.”

  9. John, I disagree. I think the OT shows that these enemy nations of Israel were more than willing to lay the smackdown on Israel. Granted, they may not have known that they were being used by God simply to punish Isarel for their unfaithfulness, and that when Israel returned to God, they would be smacked back. They may have been ignorant how they were being used, but certainly not unwilling…

  10. Fitz, you prove it again. Short definitions beg for expansion. When I offer my short definition in the context of preaching, I always expand on it and illustrate it. I invite people to become willing participants in what God is doing (as a result and outgrowth of what he has done in Jesus). I have never invited anyone to become an Assyrian or a Babylonian.

  11. Keith Green has a short definition that I think works on some level; he said “A Christian is someone who is bananas about Jesus”

    After that you of course have to have an orthodox Christology. That is, unless you are a UM Bishop, then you may be ‘cutting edge’ if you choose.

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