Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part I

Many people are interested in Christianity. How can we describe it?

We all agree Christianity is multifaceted. But is there a bottom line, a sine qua non of Christianity that is relatively simple to articulate?

There is. Read the Acts of the Apostles, and ask yourself, According to Scripture, when the Apostles were speaking to non-Christians, what did they urge them to do? And what reason did the Apostles give why unbelievers ought to do these things?

In an evangelistic sermon, the speaker has limited time. He must communicate only the essentials.

Reading Acts, we see that the Apostles did not urge unbelievers to follow their tradition because of its superior wisdom. Nor did they urge unbelievers to join them because they had received a divine commission. Instead, they spoke about Jesus Christ: Who he is (God and man) and what he did (live a sinless life, be crucified for the sins of the world, and be resurrected for our justification.) They also spoke of man’s sin, which places him in jeopardy of the wrath of God. And then they urged unbelievers to repent of their sins, to be baptized, and have faith in Christ.

Consider, for example, Acts 2:37, 38, which record the immediate result of the Apostle Peter’s evangelistic sermon on the day of Pentecost:

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Peter preaching at the Portico of Solomon in Acts 3:19 concludes by saying:

Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…

Paul speaking at the Areopagus in Acts 17: 30, 31 concludes:

Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.

Consider the account of Paul and Silas speaking with the Philippian jailer, Acts 16:27-33:

When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.

Paul’s defense before King Agrippa: Acts 26: 19,20, concludes:

So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.

These passages show that, according to apostolic testimony, repentance and faith are necessary in order that men be saved from the wrath of God against their sins. “Flee from the wrath to come” and “Be reconciled to God” were the main themes of Apostolic preaching. Since the Apostles were the guardians of the teachings delivered by Jesus Christ, we must regard them as authoritative in this matter. And their testimony is found in the Bible.

Forgiveness of sins is not the only benefit of becoming a Christian: The believer is adopted as a son or daughter of God, and is no longer alienated from, and an enemy of, the Ruler of the universe. The believer is indwelled by the Holy Spirit and is regenerated in the sense of receiving new spiritual life. He is justified, that is declared to be righteous before God. He becomes part of the household of God, a fellowship that extends around the world and through all time.

But all these benefits come as a result of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are the sine qua non of Christianity.

Guard the Faith

Now that Christianity is an ancient faith, it is all too easy to lose sight of the basic message of Christ and the Apostles. Christendom offers an impressive deposit of wisdom, an impressive ritual, and impressive artistic and cultural achievements, among other things. And, of course, Christendom is divided into many denominations and sects. It is therefore necessary to search for the correct expression of the essence of Christianity, and, once we have found it, to guard this truth against organized expressions of error and against the spiritual entropy caused by human weakness and the distractions of life.

And Scripture itself teaches that we must guard against false apostles, false Christs and false gospels. For example, II Corinthians 11:13 reads

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

Matthew 24:24 warns

For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.

And Galatians 1:6,7 reads

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

These verses show, at the very least, that there will be individuals and organizations that claim to be Christian, but are not. And notice that these passages also assume that we are capable of distinguishing between true and false expressions of Christianity, if we trust in God and his Word, and if we apply ourselves diligently.

To be sure, we must acknowledge that Christianity shares many elements with other religions. Christianity, like most religions, teaches that there is an order to the cosmos, an order originating in God. It teaches a universal and objective morality that agrees, for the most part, with the morality held even by the pagans. [C. S. Lewis called this universal morality the “Tao.”] Christianity agrees with the other monotheistic religions that there is one holy and transcendent God who is the Creator of the spiritual realms, the physical world, man, and human society. It agrees with them that God is to be worshiped, honored and obeyed.

But this essay concentrates on what makes Christianity unique. One might simply say that Jesus Christ makes Christianity unique, but there are contradictory views on who Jesus is and what he teaches. So who exactly is Jesus, and what exactly does he teach? We must go beyond a superficial answer if we are to identify the essential elements of Christianity.

Man’s Basic Problem

According to apostolic testimony, the fundamental human problem is sin, and the remedy comes only through Jesus Christ.

Man’s basic problem is not that he is weak or ignorant, not that he is unlucky or the victim of a bad environment. Man’s basic problem is that he is a sinner by nature, that he cannot help sinning, and that sin, far from being an occasional disturbance, is a fundamental disorder that that makes this life painful and ultimately unsuccessful, and that sends him to eternal punishment in the afterlife. That is why the Apostles emphasized the necessity of salvation through repentance and faith in Christ.

Man’s greatest need, whether he knows it or not, is to be rescued from sin. In the words of the Apostle Peter speaking before the Jewish authorities as recorded in Acts 4:12:

And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.

Since religious charlatanism—to say nothing of honest mistakes—abounds, what we say must be justified by reference to the highest authority, the Bible[i]. But since the Bible can be misinterpreted we must sometimes refer to the established creeds and catechisms which represent the consensus of proper biblical interpretation as worked out over the centuries by the most learned and holy Christians. Although much that the Bible says is clear, some of it is hard to understand fully, and many deliberate falsehoods are spread concerning what the Bible teaches.

Furthermore, the Bible is not just a collection of sayings. The Bible presents a comprehensive system, and we must understand it as a system, not just a collection of interesting sentences. The Bible, for instance, contains sayings that appear to contradict each other, but if the Bible is God speaking to us, then it does not contain contradictions, because a contradiction is an error of thought. An apparent biblical contradiction is a failure of man to understand what the Bible is really saying. We must therefore make use of theologies, creeds and catechisms, which organize and clarify the system that the Bible presents.

The assertions made here must be justified by reference to Scripture.[ii] But keep in mind that just about any biblical passage considered in isolation could be misleading, so for a full understanding of what is being said, you need to read the context of each passage. (And, if the meaning is still not clear, you need to consult a competent Christian authority, such as a creed, a theologian or a pastor.) In the interpretation of any text, biblical or not, context always determines meaning.

Keep in mind also that a deep understanding of the Bible is not required in order for you to be saved, but it is required if you are to attain wisdom. Also, a good understanding of the Bible requires that you receive some training in theology and biblical interpretation. You do not need to become a biblical scholar, but you need at least the training that comes from sitting under the teaching of a good pastor or teacher.

In part II of this series, we will begin explaining in detail the main Christian teaching of human sin and salvation through Christ. To read part II, go here.

[i] The Bible is also correct on every non-spiritual matter about which it speaks; being God’s words, the Bible contains no errors. It must, of course, be interpreted correctly in order to give us truth.

[ii] All Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB, the New American Standard Bible, one of the more literal translations from the original languages in which the Bible was written.

27 thoughts on “Defining Christianity: Why Be a Christian? Part I

  1. Even considering the unparalleled informed, articulate, and inspiring words of the authors at this blog, still nothing comes close to scripture itself.

  2. One thing that seems to emerge from these early accounts of evangelism and conversion, is the need (or great value) of immediate baptism.

    I remain mystified why no major denomination practices immediate baptism nowadays.

  3. I doubt that the mode of evangelism we see in Acts would work among most moderns. Most moderns do not feel particularly guilty, so a promise of forgiveness of sins seems superfluous to them. They’ve also assimilated positivist presuppositions, and so need to be persuaded that it is reasonable to believe there anything outside the range of their five senses. Finally, they have developed antibodies that go to work the minute the name of Jesus is mentioned. The modern Christian evangelist must do a considerable amount of spadework before he comes to the creeds. The humanist-positivist-Christophobic crust is pretty thick.

    • Even if what you say is correct (and I think it is largely correct), it does not invalidate my main point: The main reason to become a Christian is forgiveness of your sins.

      Francis Schaeffer spoke of the need for “pre-evangelism:” the clearing away of false presuppositions and prejudices so that the hearer will have a chance of actually hearing the gospel message of sin and forgiveness. But although per-evangelism is often necessary, it should never replace the gospel message.

      And, indeed, we see nowadays many false converts: people who think they are Christians because they have never been told that one becomes a Christian by repentance from sins and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of those sins.

      • I agree. To use traditional Calvinist terms, there has to be “conviction” (of sin) before there can be conversion to Christ. I’m not a Calvinist myself, but I think the basic idea is true across all orthodox confessions. One can’t hope to be saved until one knows that one is lost.

    • >Most moderns do not feel particularly guilty

      No, we just absolutely do feel guilty, we just doubt the solution could be so simple or even that there could be one. But look at depression rates. What is depression? It is something along the lines of self-hatred or low self-respect. CB therapy tries to eliminate thoughts of the kind “I am a hopeless loser, I do everything wrong.” SSC writes that saying “I am a burden” is a huge warning sign of impending suicide.

      Granted, “guilty” is not really the most accurate way to express this feeling among moderns, as we tend to associate it with crime/crimen, not sin/peccatus, that is, with injuring others, and not transgressing divine law. But if divine law can be seen as something that is expressed in natura law and in natural consequences… for example divine law says gluttony is a deadly sin. Then we look around and see an obesity epidemic with serious health consequences. Then we look at our own bellies. And feel guilty. Guilty of a crime or sin against… ourselves. So many people feel guilty about their weight or other bad habits like smoking. Now going from feeling guilty against ourselves for eating ourselves into obesity or feeling guilty because gluttony transgresses divine law is not entirely the same thing, but it sounds like something you guys could work with if you want to convert people.

  4. “Repentance and faith are the sine qua non of Christianity.”

    Repentance, faith and works done in charity inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    This is what the Bible teaches.

  5. According to Scripture, all who are regenerate (i.e., have true faith in Christ) will do good works. Repent and have faith, and the rest will follow.

  6. Saint Paul states that effort is required:

    “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”

    In James 5:20, St James tells us that something we can DO can hide our sins.

    • I did not say that no effort is required. Faith is not just intellectual assent. The remaining parts of this series will clarify these points, from Scripture.

      Regarding James 5:20: “…let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Scripture makes it clear that only the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ will cover sins. James is referring to our assisting our brother in recovering his saving faith.

      • True, the grammar of the sentence does not make it clear whose sins are being covered: the wandering sinner or the one who brings him back. But overall, Scripture makes it clear that only God covers sins: Sin is ultimately an offense against God, and so God the Father forgives sins on account of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, and we only announce the forgiveness of sins or, at best, help others obtain it through repentance and faith in Christ. It seems clear to me that James is referring to the sins of the formerly wandering brother.

      • When I read it a few weeks ago, it seemed like a very Catholic verse to me. It seemed to me like it was referring to the one who brings the sinner back. If it refers to the apostate Christian, then the second part of the verse is redundant and unnecessary. If you save him from death, then by definition you cover his sins. So it seemed to me that James was referring to the one who brings him back. That’s the way the scriptures spoke to me when I read them.

        It seems that some popular traditional Catholic websites understand the verse the same way. For example:

      • Luther had a hard time reconciling James and Paul because he didn’t seem to understand the difference between works of faith and works of the law. He emphasized the law and gospel distinction as a way to avoid the implications of the salvation by works verses that he couldn’t reconcile with salvation by faith verses. Or so it seems to me.

  7. I think perhaps we should take an example from Jesus himself– he simply asked people to follow him and have faith in him– not to immediately agree with any specific, carefully worded theological principals. Even his own disciples did not understand what his message was before they began to follow him, so perhaps the process should be: give the Gospel–> ask if they want to be followers of Christ and have faith in him–> baptism.

    • I think it’s important to clarify these things because it’s necessary if we are to define a mere Christianity and because extremes in both Catholic thought and Protestant thought can result in serious errors. The extreme Catholic approach can lead to the error of legalism and the extreme Protestant/Evangelical approach can lead to the errors of easy-believe-ism and anti-nomianism. I assume that Alan will deal with easy-believe-ism in subsequent posts.

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  10. Reading this post, I was expecting to hear all about (a) why the Christian God exists and (b) the bible is true.

    These facts seem to be the obvious starting point for trying to sell me on any bible based arguments.

    This seems like a common theme in pro-Christian arguments to me – (a) and (b) seem like really the heart of the matter, and yet everyone trying to convert the unbeliever skips over them and goes straight to justifying things based on the bible. You can’t use the bible as an authority till you’ve convinced me it is one!

    • Mr. Stevens,

      Glad to hear you’re interested in Christianity.

      The questions of whether Christianity is true and exactly what it teaches are distinct, with distinct methods. This series assumes that the reader is basically Christian, but is not sure about the basics.

      Since theology is not mathematics, there is no one correct way to prove God or the truth of the Bible. It depends on the individual: his temperament, his training, his experiences. For a general approach to apologetics, see here.

      It would help if we could know your general approach to these questions (e.g., are you a materialist? An agnostic?) and what you see as the main reasons why you reject God and the truth of the Bible.

      • Thanks for your reply. I had read you as going for more of a “convert the unbeliever” angle than you apparently were.

        I would say my general angle is pretty materialist, with perhaps buddhist sympathies (although I don’t count myself as a buddhist).

        For my Christian sympathies, I’ve always rather liked CS Lewis, with the obvious disagreement on the whole god thing. I’m not quite sure where you guys would place him! My guess is he might not be quite traditional enough, although he does seem fairly traditional.

        It is, I suspect, not popular around here, but I tend to start from something vaguely materialist as the default viewpoint and feel it’s God and the bible that need justifying.

        Looking at your link, evidentialism seems like the potentially valid approach, but obviously it has never convinced (or I’d be one of you!)

      • “…I tend to start from something vaguely materialist as the default viewpoint…”

        Problem: You cannot take “no” as the default position. Materialism does not prove that the material is all that exists, it simply assumes it. But this is illogical. Whenever materialists think they have evidence for materialism, they are, whether overtly or covertly, assuming what they think they are proving.

        The most basic apologetic for God and the Bible is Jesus Christ. If the biblical account of him is basically correct (we do not need to assume inerrancy at this point) then there is a god.

        You cannot say that the miracle accounts have to be false, because you don’t know that materialism is true. If the miracles did happen, then we would have exactly the evidence for them that we do have: widespread accounts of them, people refusing to renounce Jesus even at the cost of their lives, people enough moved by the miracles and personality and teachings of Christ to found a worldwide church, and so on.

        If Jesus came back from the dead, then his teaching is vindicated. And he taught that Old Testament Scripture is entirely true and God-breathed. And since those he trained wrote the New Testament, we have confidence that the NT is also God’s word.

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