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What Does it Really Mean to be a Christian?

  • Whitney Hopler Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2008 18 Jul
What Does it Really Mean to be a Christian?

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Stephen Arterburn & John Shore's new book,
 Being Christian: Exploring Where You, God, and Life Connect, (Bethany House, 2008). 

Whether you’re a new believer who wants to discover more about your relationship with God or a longtime Christian who wants to deepen your faith, it’s valuable to explore the core beliefs that make you a Christian.

Here are answers to some key questions you may have about what it really means to be a Christian:

Questions about God and you:

“What’s the single most important thing I would have to believe in order to officially qualify as a Christian?” Everything about the faith is grounded in the conviction that Jesus Christ was both God and man – both divine and human. If you share that belief and place your trust in Jesus, you qualify.

“How does it make sense that God is at once Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?” While this isn’t rational, that doesn’t make it any less real. The reality of what God is like goes far beyond what you can grasp mentally. But keep in mind that, since the Bible reveals that God is love, you can use love for your frame of reference when you consider God’s nature. Just as love doesn’t make sense yet is still incredibly powerful, the three parts of God work together in mysterious and powerful ways, joined together in love.

“What is prayer?” Prayer is deliberately, attentively, and openly turning your mind to God. It’s having a two-way conversation with Him during which you both talk and listen. There’s no magic way you should pray; any type of prayer is just fine. But usually prayers fall into one of four main categories: supplication (asking for something), contrition (expressing regret for something you’ve said or done), intercession (inviting God to get directly involved in a situation), and gratitude (thanking God for something).

“Why does God allow evil to exist?” God allows evil to exist because He allows people with free will to exist – people who can choose to do either right or wrong. It wouldn’t be loving for God to take away our free will, so He doesn’t. But that means that evil happens, and that it’s so commonplace that it affects even our health (through disease) and our environment (through natural disasters) in ways we don’t fully understand. Still, God is in ultimate control of all He allows to happen, and He can transform even the greatest evil into something that accomplishes good purposes.

“If God is real, why doesn’t He once and for all just prove it?” God chooses not to prove His existence in empirically verifiable ways, preferring instead to motivate you to grow by seeking Him and constantly learning something new about Him. God’s mystery is actually a great gift, because it helps build your faith and leads you into never-ending adventures as you draw closer to Him.

Questions about God, you, and others:

“What should my attitude be toward Christians whose ideas or whose understanding of Christianity is different from mine?” Instead of trying to correct them right away, first focus on connecting with them. If you’re respectful and understanding toward them, you can both learn from each other and discover more about the truth together.

“What is the Great Commandment – and what makes it so great?” The commandment is to love God with all your heart, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus said that He considered it to be the most important of all His teachings, so it’s important to pay attention to it.

“What is the Great Commission – and what makes it so great?” This is Jesus’ call to all believers to share His Gospel message with other people. Every Christian should evangelize others, but not in the same way. Feel free to share your faith with others in any way that’s most natural for you. But don’t neglect the call; it’s vital for everyone whom God has called to do their part. Trust God to help you evangelize, and He’ll use you in amazing ways.

“What should my attitude be toward the nonbelievers in my life?” Be sure to interact with them with love, patience, good humor, and understanding. Remember that they may very well be watching you to see how you’re living out your faith and using what they see to form an opinion about Christianity. Share your faith with them as the Holy Spirit leads you to, but be sure to be respectful of them in the process and take the time to build genuine relationships with them. A good place to start is by describing how your faith in Christ has changed your own life for the better, rather than jumping in to suggest how He can change their lives without truly getting to know them well first.

“Does being a Christian mean I have to forgive everyone who’s ever done anything bad to me?” God wants you to forgive all the people who wrong you, just as He has forgiven you for every wrong you commit. That sounds incredibly hard, but the good news is that God will give you the power to do it if you’re just willing. In fact, when you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, you’ll be so filled with love that you can’t help but forgive others for anything.

“How can I increase my compassion for other people?” Realize that that every person you encounter is made in God’s image and is really your brother or sister, not just a stranger. Ask God to give you His perspective on other people – especially the difficult ones you don’t naturally like. Make the time to truly listen to people and seek to understand their struggles.

Questions about sin, the human constant:

“What is sin?” People sin anytime they think or do something wrong – something that contradicts God’s loving will. Sin will make you feel bad and move you farther away from God. When you sin, instead of wallowing in guilt or shame, let your sorrow motivate you to turn to God.

“Why is it important that Christians confess their sins?” Confessing your sins will repair your relationship with God that has been damaged by those sins, and give you relief from guilt and shame.

“Why is repentance so important to me?” If you don’t turn away from your sins through repentance, God will turn away from you because you’ve set yourself up in opposition to Him. It’s not enough to just feel sorry about your sins; you must also decide to never commit those sins again. Repenting frees you to move toward God rather than continuing down the destructive path away from Him.

“What is the ‘atonement’ of Christ?” This refers to the fact that, on the cross, Christ paid the final price for everything bad humans would ever think, say, or do. He died for the sins of everyone throughout history, and because of His sacrifice, He made it possible for everyone who trusts in Him to connect to God forever. Thanks to Christ’s atonement, you can find the ultimate forgiveness for your sins and live with God for eternity.

“Is it possible for me to stop behaving in sinful ways?” No. It’s not possible in this fallen world to completely eradicate sin from your life. But when you rely on God’s power to help you, you can gain great strength to help you overcome a lot of sin that would otherwise wreck havoc in your life. Until you go to heaven – an environment that’s completely free of sin – you’ll need to stay engaged in the battle between good and evil that’s raging on our planet. So stay close to God every day.

“Is there any sin that’s beyond forgiving?” There’s only one, which is turning against Christ after you’ve started a relationship with Him. But absolutely everything else will be forgiven completely and forever once you confess and repent of it.

Questions about the Bible:

“What exactly is the Bible?” The Bible is Christianity’s holy book. God has used it to communicate with humanity, letting us know the reality of who He is, and the depth of His love for us. The Bible reveals God’s voice, will, practice, and purpose. The Protestant Bible consists of 66 separate books written by about 40 different authors under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration over a long period of time – but the parts are connected in that they work together to reveal God’s truths to us.

“As a Christian, do I need to care about the Old Testament?” Yes, because Jesus was passionate about it, and it tells the story of God before He incarnated Himself as Jesus. The Old Testament and New Testament are inexorably connected, especially since the Old Testament contains many prophecies about the coming Messiah, and the New Testament describes how that Messiah actually came. The New Testament constantly reaches back to the Old Testament, so it’s vital to get to know the Old Testament to be able to understand the New Testament well.

“How do I know which Bible is the right one for me?” There’s a huge variety of Bibles to choose from – with different translations and purposes, marketed to different audiences. But it can be fairly simple to choose one; just go for the one you find most helpful to your spiritual growth right now. That will often be whatever Bible most of the other Christians in your life are currently reading.

“What’s the best way to read the Bible?” Before you read, pray to invite the Holy Spirit to open your mind and heart fully to God’s words. Make a habit of reading the Bible every day, and follow some sort of plan for what to read when so you’ll be doing more than just randomly flipping around. Meditate on what you read, study it, and put it into practice in your life.

Questions about the church:

“Why is it important for me to go to church?” Going to church greatly enhances the quality of your life because it deepens your relationship with God. At church, you can learn more about God, celebrate Him, and serve Him in vital ways that will help you grow as a person. Church is also as close to heaven as you can get here on earth. The love and joy you share through your relationships with other people there is a foretaste of even more love and joy you’ll experience in heaven someday.

“How do I find the right church for me?” Visit some churches that interest you until you find one that fits. Keep in mind that churches, just like people, have distinct personalities. Figure out what type of church would best help you grow spiritually: small or large, formal or casual, traditional or contemporary, etc. Once you’ve attended several worship services at a church you’re considering, ask questions about the church’s theology, mission, ministries, etc. Get to know the pastor and don’t hesitate to ask him anything.

“Why are there so many Christian denominations?” Different denominations spring up frequently as people seek to express their worship in different ways, but it’s good to remember that the differences between those denominations are usually very slight compared to the core beliefs and values they have in common. Protestant denominations focus on these convictions: people can’t earn their way to heaven; they’re saved by faith in Jesus alone; God freely gives people grace, people don’t need any spiritual mediator (like a priest) to be saved; they can go directly through Jesus; the Bible reveals the mind and heart of God, and no other authority is needed to reveal them; and people should live for the glory of God alone, praising Him, relying on Him, and thanking Him.

“What’s a church ‘small group’?” It’s a small gathering of people who mostly go to the same church and regularly get together to both study the Bible and enjoy each other’s company. Small group members often form close bonds and support each other in prayer with whatever is going on in their lives.

“What are the sacraments?” When these special activities take place, something sacred happens. The two sacraments celebrated in Protestant churches are the Eucharist (Communion), which commemorates Jesus’ last meal and death on the cross, and Baptism, which symbolizes the death of a newly saved person’s old, sinful way of life and new birth into God’s redemptive love for him or her. Catholics celebrate five additional sacraments: Confirmation, Penance (confession), Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony (marriage).

Adapted from Being Christian: Exploring Where You, God, and Life Connect, copyright 2008 by Stephen Arterburn and John Shore. Published by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Bloomington, Mn., www.bethanyhouse.com
Stephen Arterburn is founder and chairman of New Life Ministries and host of the nationally syndicated New Life Live! radio broadcast. A nationally known speaker, he’s been featured on Oprah and in USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times, and many other media outlets. Steve founded the Women of Faith conferences and is a bestselling author of more than 70 books, including the multi-million selling Every Man’s Battle series. Steve and his family live in Laguna Beach, Ca. Visit www.newlife.com
John Shore, an experienced writer and editor, is the author of I’m OK, You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Nonbelievers and Why We Should Stop, and Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang. Read John's Crosswalk.com blog here.

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