NTA – What is a “Christian?”
© Jeff Stacey | Last updated: 11 August 2020
To begin answering the questions and problems listed at the end of NTQ, there is a basic starting point in the Bible.
NTA1 What is God like?
A vital clue is in one of the Bible’s shortest descriptions of God’s glorious nature: 1 John 4:8b,16b.
God is love. Not just that God is loving, but that He IS love! What does this mean?
There are at least three basic facts about love:
- True love is always focussed on someone other than self.
- So in any relationship of love, there must be more than one person involved.
- Love must always be voluntary – a free choice. It’s impossible to force anyone to truly love someone else.
These three facts raise some searching questions about God being LOVE.
The Bible plainly states that there is only one true God: Isaiah 43:10, Mark 12:29, 1Timothy 1:17, James 2:19. So how can He be focussed on anyone other than Himself?
Well, the OT sometimes refers to God as plural! Genesis 1:26a, 3:22a, 11:7a, Isaiah 6:8. Then the NT is all about Jesus Christ, as the Son of God come to Earth as a man. He is also said to be God Philippians 2:5-6, Romans 9:5b, John 1:17-18. The NT also states or implies that the Holy Spirit is God 2Corinthians 3:17,18, Luke 1:35, Acts 5:3,4, 1Corinthians 2:10-11, 3:16.1 But how can God be both one and more than one?
The NT often refers to God as “Father”, “Son” and “Holy Spirit”, sometimes even in the same sentence!2 All three are shown in the Bible to be God. Yet they each have the basic characteristics of a “person” (even the Holy Spirit is referred to as “He” John 14:16-17, 16:7-8,13). But how is this “3-in-1” possible if there is only one God!?
NTA2 What is meant by “God is love”?
Since God is love, does this mean that even the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit are “held together on a voluntary basis”?! The Bible records that they always chose to be committed to each other without reserve, expressing perfect love. It’s on this basis that they are an absolute unity – ONE God. So the core of God’s nature is love – perfectly shared as a “trinity” of persons! This is how God IS love.
However, within these free relationships, each of the three “persons” has different roles in showing what God is really like. For example, some basics of their relationships and roles were revealed by Jesus Christ shortly before he died John 15:26.
NTA3 How and where do people fit into what God is like?
God has NOT “let things get out of control”. Sure, He could have created or forced people to be perfectly under His control always – a totally predictable world of robots – just mere toys. But He created people – who have amazing complexity and vast powers – with much freedom of choice! Many basic human capabilities are of similar kinds to God’s! Genesis 1:26,27,28 [see 1A3(e)(iii)]. This all showed that He has something far deeper in mind. What is He up to??
His primary purpose is nothing less than to express His own glorious nature to and through people! [1A3]. That is why He created them with such extraordinary capabilities.
Near the end of His life, Jesus Christ prayed to God His Father for all those who were going to believe in Him John 17:20,21, 22-23.
So, just how and where do people fit into what God is like?
The Bible’s good news is this: God wants people to know that He loves them in the same way as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love each other! He also wants people to love and relate to Him and each other in those same ways. If they do, they will be expressing His own glorious nature!
Therefore the core of God’s whole “creation project” is love. The Bible shows that God is constantly appealing to people to believe in and love Him. Yet in love and grace, He doesn’t force anyone. Instead He allows everyone freedom to respond to Him if and however they want to!
But this core “love principle” raises more huge questions. Will any people choose to love God? Why? Would this be wholehearted or half-hearted? Might it be only after a long time? What if a person never wants God? Or what if they give up loving God?
NTA4 God has made Himself known to people: Jesus Christ
The Bible records how from the beginning, God was making Himself known to people. Although they were all imperfect, He communicated in various ways with some of them. He even said that in the future He would send His perfect person (the “Messiah” or “Christ”) to planet Earth, to fully show what He is really like Isaiah 9:6,7, Jeremiah 23:5,6.
That actually happened about 2000 years ago when God (the Father) sent His Son to Earth as a man, Jesus (later known simply as Jesus Christ) John 1:9,10,12,14. His birth as described in the Bible was miraculous, unique Matthew 1:18-25.
During Jesus’ childhood they lived at Nazareth, a small town in Palestine.
At about age thirty Jesus Christ began to travel around Palestine, telling and showing who He really was. He taught the way for people to be OK with God John 14:6.
He was saying that people could be OK with God! So it was not all hopeless!! (see NTS, 4(e) above). But the only way was through Himself – through Jesus Christ. This raised many more questions for those who heard him:
What was His authority for saying this? Who was He? What did He mean? Are there no other ways? What about other religions? Or people who live good lives? Surely a person doesn’t have to be perfect? That’s impossible! (Yes, that’s the problem for all people, as all are imperfect). But isn’t “near enough good enough” for God? (No – because He is perfect). Then does God really care about people at all? Yes He does!
NTA5 God’s amazing free gift for all people through Jesus Christ – if they want it
How does God care about people? Jesus Christ explained it this way John 3:16-17. He was saying that God loves all people. He loves you and me! That’s why God is offering to everyone His way to be OK with Him through Jesus Christ, even though we are all imperfect. It’s His free gift! We don’t have to earn it (impossible anyway – how could imperfect people make themselves perfect?).
But it isn’t “automatic” and God doesn’t force it onto anyone. Yet it’s ours IF we “have faith” (believe) that Jesus Christ IS God’s Son, that God’s free gift is real – and we want it.
God respects each person’s own choices, but holds them responsible for their decisions. So Jesus Christ was also warning about the consequences if this great gift is treated lightly, ignored or not believed John 3:18. That could only result in deep troubles because a person would still not be OK with God. He called it being already condemned by God – a death sentence!
But isn’t that extreme, not at all loving? Not really, if God’s perfection is to be taken seriously. Because it is absolute, nothing imperfect can ultimately be tolerated by Him. It would simply be unjust and inconsistent – imperfect – for Him to allow any evil to finally go unjudged and unpunished.
Yet due to God’s love He allows amazing “grace” to people by being very patient with their imperfections. He gives each person a lot of freedom to “learn the hard way”, then choose to accept His free gift wholeheartedly. But these times of God-given opportunity will end eventually for each person, and no-one knows when.
Therefore whatever people do about this sublime gift is extremely serious business. It really is God’s only way to become OK with Him, and postponing it is very risky.
NTA6 What exactly is this “free gift” of God through Jesus Christ?
To explain this requires some historical background, as recorded in the Bible from more than 1200 years before Jesus Christ came. God had made ways for the ancient Israelite people at various times to deal with their current “sins” and guilt towards Him (their failures to believe in and obey Him – all their fatal imperfections).
One of these ways was by a ritual of sacrificing a valuable, defects-free male lamb in a specified way Leviticus 1:1-2,10,11,12,13. God then accepted its death, the shedding of its life-blood, as the substitute “death penalty” for the people’s sinful guilt at that time. The people were instead forgiven by Him. This ritual was repeated by the people whenever they felt it was necessary.
This ritual probably seems strange to us. But God had made clear its underlying principle of substitution Leviticus 17:11NLT.
NTA7 Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God” – sacrificed by a brutal crucifixion!
For about three years Jesus Christ taught and showed what God is really like. This made a huge impact in Palestine. He was loved – but also hated.
Finally He was betrayed and abandoned, unjustly condemned to death for political and religious reasons, publicly mocked, crowned with thorns and flogged. He was killed by being nailed up naked on a wooden cross (“crucified”) and speared until all the blood had drained from Him! Then His body was hastily removed from the cross and buried in a borrowed, sealed rock tomb.
This was a typical Roman public execution for condemned criminals. For Jesus Christ’s followers it looked like the shocking end and failure of all that He had been, said and done Luke 24:18,19,20-21.
Why did God let this appalling horror happen? The Bible explained it this way Isaiah 53:5,6. Amazingly, this was written more than 700 years before Jesus Christ came! Inspired by God, it accurately described prophetically some specific details of Jesus Christ’s torture and death, as well as explaining its meaning.
From God’s point of view, Jesus Christ was the perfect, defects-free, sinless, sacrificed person – the ultimate “Lamb of God” John 1:29.
His death was the final sacrifice and substitution, bringing judgement but then forgiveness for all a person’s sins and guilt forever. It would never have to be repeated. God had opened His way for any person to be OK with Him!
Disregarding God is fatally serious. So His way to deal with it justly was also drastic, involving a death penalty. But it was brutally applied to a substitute for the guilty persons! So these terrible events were in fact God’s sublime act of selfless love for all people, to make the way for them to be OK with him. It was at supreme cost – the life on Earth of His only Son! Romans 5:8.
NTA8 How can anyone be sure that this free gift of God actually works?
The amazing thing is that the terrible death of Jesus Christ did not destroy Him. The Bible records historical evidences that three days after He had died and been buried, the tomb was empty and several eyewitnesses saw Him alive again! John 20:1- 21:14. This was totally unique – His “resurrection”. Later, many saw Him elsewhere Acts 1:3, Luke 24:13-43, 1Corinthians 15:5-7.
All this was ultimate proof that He really was and is God’s only Son Romans 1:4 NLT.
His resurrection also gave authority to all He had said. It showed that His words were God’s absolute truth John 2:22.
Finally, He was seen going up into the clouds to Heaven, with two angels saying He would some day return in the same way Acts 1:9-10,11.
NTA9 Therefore, what is the real meaning of “Christian”?
“Christian” means a person who believes and wholeheartedly chooses to accept God’s free gift of forgiveness of their sinfulness. This gift is through the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, as revealed in the Bible. So “Christians” are OK with God! Then with the Holy Spirit living in them, and learning from the Bible and each other, they grow in knowing, obeying, loving and enjoying God. This will be shown by how they think, speak and act. After dying they will go to Heaven to live gloriously with God forever.
So, next question: how does a person become a “Christian”?
- The Holy Spirit is also mentioned across the whole OT about 90 times, for example: Genesis 1:2, 6:3, Exodus 31:1-3, Numbers 11:17, Judges 14:19, 2Samuel 23:1,2, 2Kings 2:16, Nehemiah 9:20, Job 33:4, Psalm 51:11, Isaiah 11:2, 44:3, Ezekiel 2:2, Daniel 4:8-9, Joel 2:28,29, Micah 3:8, Zechariah 4:6. (Return to reading)
2. For example: Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19, Luke 1:35, 10:21, John 3:34-35, 14:26, 15:26, 16:15, 20:21-22, Acts 1:7-8, 2:33,38,39, 5:31-32, 7:55, 10:38, 1Corinthians 12:3,4-6, 2Corinthians 1:21-22, 13:14, Galatians 4:4-5,6, Ephesians 2:18,22, 4:4-6, 2Thessalonians 2:13,14, Titus 3:4-5,6, 1 Peter 1:2. (Return to reading)