Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to get a wide variety of answers to that question. For example, some people see a Christian as someone who . . .
goes to church regularly
was raised in a Christian family
tries to live by the ethical teachings of Jesus
has had a particular spiritual experience
believes intellectually that Jesus was God
And those are only a sample. How can we sort through all these different opinions and isolate the correct one? Well, the best way is to go back to the One who started it all, Jesus, and discover what he said on the subject . . .
“I am the way . . .”
In John 14:6, Jesus makes a startling statement: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is saying that he is the only way to a relationship with God and spiritual life. How can that be?
The answer lies in the purpose for which Jesus came to earth. Jesus said he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28 ). Scripture teaches that each of us has done things we know are wrong. We all do hurtful things and struggle with self-centeredness, which the Bible calls “sin.” This sin has the effect of separating us from God and the relationship with him we were designed to enjoy. In the person of Jesus Christ, God came to earth and paid the “ransom” (or price) for our sins through death on the cross. This provided a way for us to restore a relationship with God.
“Follow me . . .”
But it’s not enough to know that Jesus was God and that he died for our sins. We must make a decision to accept the forgiveness offered to us in Christ and begin to follow Him as the Lord of our lives. An appeal Jesus made time and time again during his ministry was “follow me.” Jesus addressed this appeal to everyone from fishermen to religious leaders because all stand in need of the new life he offers.
How do I begin to follow Jesus?
In summary, following Jesus involves . . .
Recognizing we have sinned (done things that hurt ourselves and others and dishonored God).
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23
Asking for God’s forgiveness and accepting His gift of eternal life.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23
Ackowledging Jesus as Lord of our lives and allowing Him to shape our character.
“. . . if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that
God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9
“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus. . .” Colossians 3:17
Becoming a Christian means entering into a new life filled with joy and purpose. Many people throughout the centuries have experienced this new life first-hand, and we pray that you will too.
Certainly, Jesus was a great religious leader and teacher. But the key fact about Christ that separates him from Buddha, Mohammed, and other spiritual leaders is that Jesus claimed to be more than a teacher—indeed, more than a man. Jesus identified himself as God and the only way to spiritual salvation. His contemporaries understood the radical nature of this claim, and it led directly to his death. John 5:18 says, “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
Of course, this claim in itself is not enough. Anyone could claim to be divine, and in fact people have often done just that. However, we generally label such individuals as unstable and consign them to mental institutions. Did Jesus give evidence of having an unstable personality? No. Quite the opposite. His life and teachings evidenced tremendous depth, power, compassion, and wisdom. A group of men sent to arrest Jesus returned empty-handed and could only offer this reason: “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46 ).
Millions of others have agreed since the time of Christ and have followed him as Savior and Lord. History itself is divided into the time before he arrived on the scene, and the time after. Even non-Christian religions revere Jesus as among the most spiritual and insightful people who has ever lived. Unstable? Deluded? No one familiar with his life could come away with such an impression.
And there is also evidence beyond Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. His first followers were a small, motley band of first-century Jewish men, women and children. Like all members of their faith, they were fiercely monotheistic. Yet somehow they came to believe that this man Jesus was God, and they believed it with such certainty that they overcame their own preconceptions, fears, and internal squabbles to, in the words of one observer, “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). There is no adequate explanation for the acceptance and spread of Christianity apart from the fact that Jesus was who he said he was, and that his divine power rested upon his followers.
So the Christian emphasis on Jesus is not false veneration of a great human teacher. It is not a narrow-minded swipe at other religious leaders. Rather, it is a willingness to take this unique man on his own terms. Those who have done this have found, like his first followers, that their lives are never the same again.
Without question, Jesus Christ is one of the most influential men who have ever lived. History itself is divided into the time before his life (“BC”) and the time after (“AD”). Virtually all the major religions of the world recognize him as, at the very least, a great and wise teacher. Yet, Jesus remains a subject of much controversy, largely because he made some rather radical claims about himself . . .
“I and the Father are one.” John 10:30
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” John 5:24
Jesus and his earliest followers clearly taught that Jesus was not merely a great moral teacher, but that he was actually God in human form, and that he serves as the only path to salvation and a relationship with God. Needless to say, this claim rankled many people during the time of Christ, and it continues to stir up dispute today. Even many committed Christians feel a bit uncomfortable with this aspect of their faith, especially since they live in a time which emphasizes tolerance and the acceptance of diversity. So what is to be done with Jesus’ claims?
Some Food for Thought
First, we need to realize that Christianity is not the only “exclusive” belief system. The fact is that everyone’s beliefs exclude something. For example, few people would argue that a path to God that emphasizes human sacrifice and cruelty is as valid as one that calls for compassion and justice. Further, even a belief system which states that all paths to God must be seen as equally valid automatically excludes any religion that sets itself apart as unique! In reality, to believe anything (such as the existence of God) means that we must “exclude” something else (such as the non-existence of God).
Secondly, it is important to point out what Christianity does and does not exclude. Believing in Jesus as the truth does not mean that we must see all other religions as containing no truth. Scripture clearly teaches that God has revealed himself not only in the Person of Jesus Christ, but also in creation (Romans 1:19 -20). With this evidence being available to all, it only makes sense that some truth about God and reality can be found in all religions. However, since contradictions exist between religions, it is apparent that error is present somewhere. Christians need make no apology for holding to the teachings of Jesus at points where they diverge from other faiths.
In the final analysis, arrogance and intolerance are not so much a function of the contents of a given belief system, but rather how those beliefs are communicated. True intolerance does not stem from having a certain “exclusive” belief (as we’ve pointed out, all beliefs exclude something!). Rather, it stems from one’s attitude and the approach one uses in dialoguing with those of another faith. It is possible to disagree with someone and still fully accept them by treating them with respect, courtesy, and love. Although Christians have often failed to do this, it is certainly the example left them by their Savior.
At its heart, the Christian faith is based upon the Person of Jesus Christ and his life, death, and resurrection. Still, virtually all of our knowledge about Christ is taken from the New Testament portion of the Bible, so it is absolutely critical to know that the record of Scripture is accurate. For example, what if it could be demonstrated that many of Jesus’ teachings and miracles were attributed to him centuries after his death? Christianity’s claims about him would then be on very shaky ground. But is that the case? Has the biblical record been corrupted or embellished over the years? A careful survey of the evidence produces a resounding answer: No.
Any ancient document (such as the New Testament), is derived by analyzing the copies of hand-written manuscripts which are still in existence. The reliability of such a document, then, is a function of the number and age of the manuscripts still available to us. And based on these criteria, there is no writing from the ancient world which is as well-attested as the New Testament. In fact, there is not other document which even comes close.
Consider this: there are in existence about 5,000 Greek manuscripts of New Testament writings (the NT was originally written in Greek). In addition, there are nearly 19,000 other versions which have survived, many of them written in Latin. This brings the total to approximately 24,000 manuscripts. By comparison, the second best-attested ancient work would be Homer’s Iliad, which can boast less than 650 surviving copies. Other documents whose reliability no one would question, such as The History of Herodotus, have fewer than 10 manuscripts.
Also, the dates of the New Testament manuscripts lend a great deal of credibility to the document. The earliest surviving fragment dates to about 130 AD, and other manuscripts date to the 3rd century. The earliest copy of The Iliad, on the other hand, was recorded some 500 years after the book was originally written and the gap for The History of Herodotus is 900 years!
Finally, in addition to demonstrating that the New Testament we now have is an accurate version of the original writings, it should be noted that the NT books were written and distributed during the 1st century, when many people were still alive who were eyewitnesses of the life of Christ. For Jesus’ biographers to have falsely attributed miracles and other divine characteristics to him would have been foolish, as they could have easily been refuted (think of a modern author claiming that Harry D. Truman healed the blind!). In the final analysis, one is certainly free to dispute or ignore the teachings of the New Testament, but there is little room to doubt their authenticity.
There’s no denying that Christians have splintered into a staggering number of denominations and sects. IN America there are well over 150 Christian denominations, and doubtless many more exist worldwide. Which of them, if any, is “right”?
First, it should be noted that differences of opinion among Christians are nothing new. The New Testament contains a number of accounts of disagreements and factions among the earliest believers. Unfortunately, this ancient trend has never changed and is unlikely to do so, given the weaknesses and shortcomings of Christ’s followers. Though Jesus himself expressed the desire that his Church be characterized by love and unity (see John 17), Christians through the ages have rarely lived up to this standard.
Having acknowledged that, it is also important to realize that the vast majority of differences among Christians have arisen from disagreements over “non-essential” issues. While some of those questions may be important and worth debating, none of them can be considered absolutely essential to the faith.
And with all that disagreement over peripheral issues, Christianity has remained remarkably consistent on the central beliefs that define the faith: the divinity of Christ, his sacrificial death for our sins, and the need for repentance and faith to enter into a right relationship with God. That is the heart of the Gospel, and it has never changed. Sure, some people have called even those basic beliefs into question, but in doing so they have placed themselves outside the Christian faith.
So it is probably impossible to find one group or denomination that is right about everything, but we can all be right about what matters most.
The obvious answer to this question is: absolutely. Without question, people calling themselves Christians have participated in acts of murder, torture, persecution, bigotry, immorality, and much more. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are two notable examples, and many others could be produced with little effort. So Christianity can’t really be true, right?
Well, not so fast. Although this distinction can be difficult to maintain, it is critical to understand that we are called to be followers of Jesus Christ, not of the Christian religion, the Church, or any individual believers. Therefore, in determining if Christianity is valid, one must look to Jesus himself to see if he is worthy of being followed as Lord and Savior. The fact that many who use Christ’s name have failed to imitate his life and teachings is very disturbing, but not a legitimate indictment of Jesus or his message.
Also, we are all aware of the human tendency to emphasize the negative (watch any evening news broadcast to see evidence of this). Violence and prejudice make for good copy, while hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and prison ministries generate little interest. Yet, the latter have characterized the lives of run-of-the-mill Christians much more than the former. From the earliest days of the faith, Christians have won others over more by compassion and service than the use of force. The true weapon of Christianity has always been love, not violence. May God forgive us for forgetting this too often.
Actually, Christianity is not a system of rules — it is a relationship with the God who created us and loves us. Christ said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10 ). He talked about bringing people freedom and liberty, not enslaving them to guilt and rules.
Yet many people do associate Christianity with, well, guilt and rules. And, we must confess, not entirely without reason. Living as a follower of Christ does mean adopting some moral and ethical standards, the most important of which is to treat others with love and not just look out for our own interests. Ephesians 5:1-2 says:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
That is a good summary of Christian ethics — because God has loved, forgiven, and accepted us, we are then called to treat others with the same love and mercy. This means, for example, that we should choose to use our sexuality as an expression of lifelong love and commitment, rather than as a vehicle for personal pleasure. It means that we should work hard and be honest rather than try to get ahead by trampling on the rights of others. It means that we should remain humble in the face of human frailty, whether our own or someone else’s.
Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Human nature being what it is, we find it far easier to blindly keep rules than to truly live a life of love. Christians sometimes turn love into legalism and freedom into bondage. We do what is right for the wrong reasons—in order to feel better about ourselves or find acceptance with God. And when we do that, we miss out on the joy and liberty that Christ wants to give us.
So, yes, there are some “rules,” but they emerge from an understanding of God and his grace, not an attempt to pacify him. They are there to keep us from hurting ourselves and others, not to limit us or spoil our fun. In reality, walking with God is the surest way to increase our freedom. Not our freedom to act as we please and gratify all our desires (which is actually a form of slavery), but rather our freedom to move beyond fear and selfishness to become all that God created us to be. You have to admit, that’s a pretty good trade-off.
It must be acknowledged up front that there are no complete answers to this question, and that the partial answers we can relate may offer little solace to a person who is going through a time of personal pain or loss. No one can say for sure why a particular evil event happens, or why an individual suffers as they do. However, there are some things that can be said about the state of the world in general, and we would do well to start there.
The question of suffering has arisen throughout human history in response to the strange dual nature of our world. On the one hand, we find ourselves inhabiting a place of remarkable beauty, majesty and complexity, leaving us convinced that there must be some benevolent power beyond ourselves that set it all in motion. But, on the other hand, we also experience incidents of unspeakable evil and suffering. Innocent children are abused or suffer starvation, natural disasters sweep away entire towns, people kill each other over pocket change. And when things like this happen, we can’t help but feel that there is no God; that the world is a place without ultimate meaning or hope.
English author G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Bad is so bad that we cannot but think good is an accident; good is so good that we feel certain evil could be explained.” Most of us can relate to this ambiguity, but in the end, how is evil to be explained?
Well, the Bible goes a long way toward describing how this present state of affairs came about. First, it tells us that the world was created completely good and perfect, with no evil or suffering. However, the possibility of evil was present, because God gave the first humans free will. They could choose to live in harmony with God, or they could rebel and take life on their own terms. Unfortunately, they chose the latter course, and evil was introduced into the world.
Now, one might well ask why God allowed even the possibility of evil. Certainly he could have eliminated any choice, but God did not want humans to be automatons who would be compelled to obey and love him. He wanted an open, mutual relationship with his creatures, and that required freedom. Indeed, one must admit that the vast majority of suffering in the world today is still a direct result of human choices. Some of us choose to hoard our resources and others starve, for example.
But what of other kinds of suffering? The kind that results from earthquakes or genetic disorders rather than any person’s choices? The Bible is not totally clear on that subject, but it does seem to indicate that all of creation has been marred by the sin of humanity, which results in some outcomes that God did not originally intend.
Also, it must be noted that the Bible emphasizes over and over that this present life is not the final story. It is only a brief prelude to the world to come — a world which will finally be free of evil and injustice, a world in which the wrongs will be set right and every tear will be wiped away.
Now, does any of this console the parents whose child has died, or the person who has just learned they have inoperable cancer? Probably not. In those kinds of times we want clear answers. We want to know why our child had to die, why we had to come down with cancer. God could have done something, but he didn’t.
Perhaps the best answer is that God has done something, though not what we expected. God has not chosen to step in and eliminate every single incident of evil and suffering (if he did, each of us would be swept away in the house-cleaning). Instead, he decided to invade earth himself in the Person of Jesus Christ to walk among us and share in our pain. Although suffering still exists, through Christ God redeems that suffering and brings good out of it. We can receive forgiveness for our own sins and strength when impacted by the sins of others.
So where is God when we suffer? He is offering to walk with us. If we are willing to receive him, he longs to guide us, teach us, comfort us, and prepare us for that day when we will see him face to face and wrong will be no more.
Perhaps the most pure motive for becoming a Christian is that you have conducted a thorough examination of Jesus Christ and his claims and have determined that he was exactly who he said he was. Convinced of this, you have then chosen to place your faith in Christ and embrace him as your Savior and Lord. Such a process would be commendable, but very few people actually become Christians that way.
To be perfectly honest, the vast majority of people reach out to Christ because they’re hurting. Maybe they’re sick; maybe they’ve gone through a divorce; maybe they’re just overwhelmed with their own weaknesses and shortcomings. Whatever the case, it becomes obvious that they need something beyond themselves, and Christ offers forgiveness, freedom, and hope that don’t seem available anywhere else.
And then their life changes. A sense of peace, hope, and strength emerges that wasn’t there before. Jesus becomes a real person and a friend, not just a quaint historical figure. He shows himself to be just who he said he was.
So the best reason, indeed the only reason, to become a Christian is that Christianity is true. Jesus really was the Son of God; he really did die for our sins; he really can offer forgiveness and eternal life to all who come to him. A few of us arrive at that truth by philosophical inquiry, but most of us through personal experience.
But there’s more. Any complete answer to this question must acknowledge that Jesus will not solve all our problems (chances are, he’ll create some new ones). He will not make us rich or cause us to feel good all the time. Following him can be difficult because we are forced to face up to our own failings; we are called to go against the flow of our surrounding culture; we are asked to serve others and not just think of ourselves. Jesus urged people to “count the cost” before following him, and with good reason.
But in spite of the hardships (and perhaps because of them!), following Jesus is worth it. We were created to live as children of God, to be active in bringing about God’s purposes in the world. Nothing else can ever fully satisfy us. In the words of St. Augustine , “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.” May you find that rest by opening your life to Christ today.
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