It’s good, from time to time, to go back to square one. Get back to fundamentals. Do a “sobriety check,” as it’s called in Alcoholics Anonymous. So then, let’s go back to the only question that matters for Christians: What makes a Christian a Christian?
Simple answer: Jesus. His Spirit. His word. His works. And how does he do it? He sends you a preacher to declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That’s it. Just Jesus, his Spirit, his word, and his works make a Christian a Christian.
But what about the Ten Commandments? What about them? God gave them to Moses for Israel, and we are not Israelites. We are dog-Gentiles, as Scripture calls us, so the commandments don’t make us Christians. Keeping them doesn’t transform us into his people. And anyway, Jesus died to fulfill the whole law for us. As the apostle Paul writes to the Roman Christians, faith in Christ is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 3:28; 3:31;10:4).
But, what about living a certain kind of life, a good life, a moral life? Don’t we have to live a certain way to be considered Christians? No. The way we live as Christians is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), but we have no control over that. As the apostle Paul writes: The Holy Spirit has mercy upon whom he has mercy. (Rom. 9:18) The way we choose to live is how sinners have always chosen to live; selfishly.
In fact, there’s nothing more damnable than someone choosing to act how they think a Christian should behave. Was Abraham acting like a Christian when he pimped out his wife twice to Pharaohs? And yet Scripture calls him a saint. Was Samson acting like a Christian when he killed thousands of Philistines with the jawbone of an ass because they upset him? But Scripture calls him a saint. Was Peter acting like a Christian when he denied Jesus before and after his Savior’s resurrection? And yet, he’s called a saint. And what about us? On the Last Day, would we rather the Father judged us because of Jesus’ works for us or because we managed to lie our way through life, acting like someone we are not?
A person is either baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of sins or he is not. A person either lives by faith in what Jesus does for him, or he does not. How we talk, act, dress, or carry ourselves has no effect whatsoever. Rich or poor, short or tall, fat or thin, male or female, Jew or Gentile, all are the same in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26). At least, that’s what the apostle writes to the Galatian Christians. But, maybe we, who are barely managing to hold together a mess of a life, who have not cracked open a Bible in days, months, or even decades, maybe we know better than God’s chosen preachers, like Paul, what makes a Christian a Christian.
So if it’s not about the commandments, and it’s not about living a certain kind of life, and it’s all about what Jesus does for us when he sends us a preacher, then what’s left for us to do? Nothing! Absolutely nothing, except trust that what he promises to us and does for us is true. That’s it. There never was anything for us to do to be Christians. It’s all done for us by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We are baptized into Christ by the will of the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ is preached to us, giving himself to us through the words of his preacher, and that is entirely his choice. We bring nothing with us that contributes to the preaching or the hearing of God’s promise to us: not the right attitude, attentive ears, or saying: “Nice sermon, pastor,” after the fact.
We are dead in sin. Dead! Sinners! (Eph.2:1-3) At best, all we as sinners can choose to do with God’s promise to us is reject it because his words don’t invite us to help him with what he’s doing for us day to day into eternity.
The body and blood of Jesus don’t depend on our acceptance of them to make them valid. The only altar call that faith will ever hear in Christ’s Church from his preacher is: “All is ready. Come and eat. Jesus now accepts you as his personal sinner, and he forgives you.”
What makes a Christian a Christian? Jesus Christ died for our sins and was resurrected for our justification.
On the Last Day, we will not do anything to climb out of our coffins. We will not be expected to say the right words when Jesus calls us out of the grave. We will not have to press our shirts, shine our shoes, or put on our Sunday best. Jesus will show up with clothes already in hand for us to wear. Clothes that mark us as honored guests of the Savior who chooses to seat us at his table.
So what makes a Christian a Christian? Jesus Christ died for our sins and was resurrected for our justification. And how do we trust that this is true? Because he sends us a preacher to declare it to us for the sake of faith because we are not even capable of having the right faith. As the apostle writes, “Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
So we may have faith. We may believe what we believe about God, Jesus, and the Church, and what it means to be a Christian. Still, without a preacher declaring the forgiveness of sin to us in Jesus’ name, speaking under the authority of the Holy Spirit, without baptism, and without the body and blood of Christ given to us, we do not have true faith. We do not have the real Jesus Christ. We only have ourselves, and that’s not good because we are bad theologians.
In fact, that’s why we think that what makes a Christian a Christian is obeying the law, doing our best, showing up to church every so often, and hoping that when we die, we go to heaven. In short: Believe in God. Behave yourself. Belong to a church.
But that’s not the Christian faith. That’s the theology of every religion ever invented. It’s just garden-variety sin dressed up as godly worship and faith.
There’s only one thing, one person, who makes us Christians, and it’s not each individual sinner choosing to accept Jesus as his and her Savior. It’s Jesus Christ alone through the work of the Holy Spirit because the Father wants it. That’s the only thing that translates sinners into Christ’s kingdom.
A person is either a baptized sinner or he is not. A person is either hearing God’s preacher speak in the Spirit or he does not have true faith. We are either at the Lord’s Supper receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ for forgiveness, new life, and eternal salvation, or we are nothing. Because apart from Jesus Christ and him coming to us, we have nothing: not true faith, not the living God, not a Savior who died and rose for the sins of the world. We only have ourselves, standing alone or with others who also delude themselves into thinking one can choose how to be a Christian apart from Christ and his preacher and his gifts of salvation.
And so, for those of us who have been called and gathered into the faith with Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, let’s confirm once and for all that we are in fact, Christians: you are forgiven in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And faith simply says: AMEN! This is most certainly true!