WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN? (I)

JOHN 17:6-8

MARCH 2, 1997

 

What is a Christian?  There are almost as many answers to this question as there are people!  You may ask one person he will give you a vague, philosophical answer.  Ask someone else and he aligns the idea of a Christian with anyone who is not of another religion. I'm afraid that even within the Church at large, there are multitudes of ideas of what a Christian might be.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones pointed out that, "...there is even a kind of paganism that often passes under the name of Christianity" [Safe in the World, 68].  Yet, the thing that matters most is knowing how the Word of God answers this question.

 

We've been seeing, in this High Priestly prayer of our Lord, how the very framework of the Christian faith can be found.  We've noticed how Jesus Christ describes eternal life, as knowing "the only true God and Jesus Christ" who was sent from the Father.  It is a living relationship, an intimate communion with the Godhead.  This relationship does not come about because of anything good in us.  It has its foundation in the saving work of Jesus Christ, His righteousness for us, His death, resurrection, and exaltation.  We can add nothing to His saving work.  We are the beneficiaries of all that Christ has done, so that we, who were at enmity with God, enter into fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 

Now the question comes, "What is a Christian?"  We know that eternal life involves fellowship and relationship with the Godhead, so that is part of this answer.  But there's more.  It seems that in the confines of the three verses of our text, our Lord looks at Christianity from every angle.  And so must we.  For the more we understand the true Christian faith, the more glorious we will find the whole Christian life.

 

There are three reasons why we need to understand what a Christians really is: (1) an unbeliever can find hope in the gospel; (2) a doubting Christian can find assurance of his salvation, and  (3) a believer can find clear direction on what he is in Christ and how he is to live his life as a believer.

 

We must be clear on what it is to be a Christian.  I would like to take the words of our text and offer a key word on which we can hang each thought, as well as a sentence of explanation.  I would ask you to honestly search your heart during this time, asking the Holy Spirit to confirm the reality of Jesus Christ and His saving work applied in you.  I would exhort you as believers to see precisely what is involved in being a Christian, so that you might apply yourself, by the strength of the Holy Spirit, to living the Christian life in its fulness.

 

1.  REVELATION:  Someone to whom the character of God has been revealed.

 

"I manifested Thy name to the men whom Though gavest Me out of the world...."  The Christian is different from the person in the world because of the revelation that has been given to him.  Now please understand, I am not referring to some kind of mystical revelation outside of Scripture.  There are plenty who have stumbled into this error and are on the way to eternal destruction without a true knowledge of Christ.  Instead, I refer to what the Lord stated that He had done for His disciples.  He "manifested" the name of God to them. 

 

The word, "manifested," implies that He 'made clear' the character of God to His followers.  The idea of "name" was another way of referring to the person or the character of someone.  So when Jesus revealed the name of God to His disciples, He was revealing the person or character of God to them.  When you begin to read through the Bible you recognize that it is a continuing revelation of God.  What we understand of God in the New Testament through Christ has its beginnings in the Old Testament.  We find God revealing Himself in a multitude of situations and typically, we find some name used for God which describes an aspect of His character.

 

We find God revealing Himself as Elohim in Genesis 1:1, which refers to Him as the Strong One, the One full of power and might, the One who alone is supreme Deity.  Then He reveals Himself as El-Shaddai, which implies that He is "God Almighty" (Gen. 17:1), a title that refers to the abundance, fulness, and richness of God's grace and goodness toward His people.  Then the title, Adoni, is used many times, referring to God as the owner or master over our lives.  You recall that time in Exodus 2 when God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush.  When asked what God's name was, God said, "I AM THAT I AM."  We normally call this name, Jehovah or Yahweh, according to the Hebrew letters used in it.  The name refers to God's self-existence, that He is one who has no beginning and no end, He is the God who is.  In this truth we find that God does not change, that He is always faithful to His character and being, as well as His promises.  There are a series of names in the Old Testament that have Jehovah as their root, but with an added term to describe some action of God toward His people.

 

To Abraham, God revealed Himself as, Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord who provides, as He provided the ram to be sacrificed in the place of Isaac.  To the children of Israel in the wilderness wanderings, He revealed Himself as, Jehovah who heals.  When Israel was victorious over the Amalekites by the hand of the Lord, they called God, Jehovah-nissi, 'the Lord who is my victory banner', for the Lord had conquered for them.  To Gideon, God revealed Himself as, Jehovah-shalom, the Lord who is our peace.  In the Shepherd's Psalm, we see God revealed as, Jehovah-ro'eh, the Lord who is my Shepherd.  To Jeremiah, God revealed Himself as, Jehovah-tsidkenu, the Lord our Righteousness (23:6).  To Ezekiel, God revealed Himself as, Jehovah-shammah, the Lord who is there--or ever present [refer to Lloyd-Jones, 49-53; Synonyms of the Old Testament by Girdlestone].

 

All of these names refer to some aspect of God's person, faithfulness or His character.  When our Lord stated that He manifested "Thy name" to His followers, He was referring to the character of God.  While we have an ongoing revelation of God in the Old Testament, we have the final and concluding revelation in Jesus Christ!  The writer of Hebrews clarifies this in 1:1-3.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.  And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of his nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.  When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.


You look at Jesus Christ and you see radiance of God's glory, the duplication of His character in bodily form.  Paul said that "in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form."  Jesus told the disciples, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father."  And later, "I and the Father are One."  All of the glory, righteousness, holiness, purity, justice, goodness, mercy, love of the Father is found in Jesus Christ.

 

This brings us to the whole point we see made by our Lord's words.  A Christian is someone to whom the character of God has been revealed.  It is an arresting matter when we have been walking along with the attitude or mind-set of the world toward God, when suddenly, by the grace of God, God's character begins to dawn in our understanding!  It is shocking!  We are aroused to see His holiness, His worth, His purity, His majesty; while at the same time we are suddenly brought to a realization of our own sinfulness, unworthiness, impurity, and depravity.  All this time we have had a head-knowledge of God.  We could tell you some of His attributes.  We could describe some of His acts.  But that truth never really grabbed us until He revealed Himself to us.  When this happens we are humbled by the very thought of God.  We are brought low to cry out for His mercy because we have seen Him with the eyes of understanding.

 

Let me show you the difference in someone to whom the character of God has been revealed and someone else who acts quite sincere and committed, but has never experienced this Spirit-born revelation.  When Zacchaeus, the little tax-collector, heard that Jesus was coming into his town, he climbed into a sycamore tree to get a better sight of this man called Jesus.  Tax collectors had the reputation of being liars, cheats, and crooked.  They typically made fortunes by extortion and overcharging.  Zacchaeus was no exception.  You know the story of how Jesus stopped at the tree, looked up at Zacchaeus, and called his name, telling him that he was to come down for that very day Jesus Christ would go to his house.  The Bible tells us that he hurried down the tree and gladly went with Jesus to his house.  The next thing we know, he is testifying to the Lord with a heart that had been humbled to repentance.  He said that half of his goods he would give to the poor and anyone he had defrauded, he would restore four-fold.  The revelation of God brought him to repentance and a new life.

 

On the other hand, we have the rich young ruler who came running to Christ one day, seeking to know what he could do to inherit eternal life.  He stood before Christ without any humility, for he unashamedly stated that he had kept all the commandments which Jesus had mentioned to him.  When our Lord told him he lacked one thing, he was to go sell his possessions, give them to the poor, then to follow after Christ, the man left.  He was sincere and willing to make a commitment to some ideal or to do some great deed for God.    But he never saw that he was standing before God Himself.  Jesus had exposed his idolatry, that in the face of Christ he could dare go on with "other gods before" him.  There was no humility in him, no sense of brokenness over his sin, only a sorrow that he could not buy his way to God.

 

The character of God had been revealed to Zacchaeus, so that he responded in repentance to Christ.  The rich young ruler had an academic grasp of God from his study of the Old Testament, but that truth had never grabbed his heart, so that he was brought low to the feet of Christ for mercy.

 

It will come in different measures, but when a person has the character of God revealed to him, he is never the same.  He flees to Christ for mercy.  He abandons the exalted view of himself with all of his native pride.  He sees the whole Bible in a different light, for he knows that in God's Word he will increase in his knowledge of God.  He is not simply concerned to learn academically.  he wants to know God, to understand more of Him.

 

Can you say of yourself that a time has come in your life where the character of God has been revealed to you in such a way, that you have never been the same?  It has brought about a new attitude toward God, one of reverence and awe.  It has left you with a deep sense of gratitude that you have experienced the mercy of this great, mighty God.  You find yourself loving God in increasing measure and it is a love that is personal and real.

 

Do you realize that as a believer you are to grow in the knowledge of God?  As you seek Him daily through the Word of God and prayer, as you meditate upon Him, as you seek to obey His Word, you will find yourself growing in the knowledge of God.  As you begin to see all of the circumstances of your life from God's perspective and with an eye on His sovereign working in your life, you begin to grow more in the knowledge of God.

 

That's a Christian!  He is someone who knows God by the revealing work of the Spirit.

 

2.  CHOSEN:  Someone on whom God Himself has laid special claim.

 

There is a repetition of the phrase, "Thou hast given," in this text.  It is found in verse 2, twice in verse 6, verse 9, and again in verse 24.  It is placing the emphasis on a certain action of God toward others.  Here, it is the action of God choosing out of the world those whom He will save, choosing them for sonship and an intimate relationship with Him for all eternity.  It is clearly a divine work which is necessitated because of our being in bondage to the whole system of thinking and living that stands in opposition to God, i.e., the world.

 

Let's be quite honest, many people have trouble over this idea of God choosing anyone.  Some have the view that either God chooses everyone or He chooses no one.  But for Him to choose everyone would mean that the teaching of universalism is true--all will ultimately be saved; while to embrace the latter would mean that man is left to his depravity, sinfulness, and bondage without God giving grace or hope.  Either of these choices is unsatisfactory.  One leaves all men saved, which contradicts the Scripture; the other leaves no one saved, which also contradicts the Scripture.

 

This verse parallels what has already been stated in verse 2, "...that to all whom Thou hast given Him [perfect tense, so a permanent act], He may give eternal life."  We can either ignore this verse, try to explain it away, or see what it means.  To ignore it or explain it away serves as one of the great neglects of the Christian church in our day.  To see what it means will help us to understand God, grace, and assurance of salvation much better.

 

The undeniable fact of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that God chooses certain people for Himself.  There are others that God leaves to themselves.  God chose Abraham but not Pharaoh.  He chose Isaac but not Ishmael.  He chose Jacob but not Esau.  Paul gave a reason for this, it was "in order that God's purpose according to his choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls" (Rom. 9:11).

 

Typically, there's a reaction to such a thing.  'God can't do that!  Why that would be an unjust, unfair thing!'  Just this week I was talking with someone who made that very statement concerning these things.  Yet, what does the Scripture say about this?

What shall we say then?  There is no injustice with God, is there?  May it never be!  For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION."  So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.  For the Scripture says to Pharoah, "FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH."  So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.  (Romans 9:14-18)


There are several things that we must consider on this matter of God's choosing or laying special claim to us for His glory.  First, election or God's choosing views the work of salvation from God's perspective, not man's.  Most people have a low-view of God and an exalted view of man.  They conceive of God as nothing more than a bit smarter than man with perhaps considerable more power.  But they neglect to think of His majesty, His transcendence, His holiness, His dwelling in unapproachable light!  God is not like us!  Let me repeat, God is not like us!  He does not think like us.  He does not act like us.  He does not see things like us.  We better thank Him for that!

 

Since God is not like us, rather God is God, then He will act according to His nature, purpose, and glory.  Everything that God does is right; even those things that we do not understand.  We may not even approve of what God does, but it is still right because as a righteous God, He can do no other than His righteousness.  So rather than trying to explain away this truth that God chooses some for Himself, we must admit that it is a divine truth and one that may not be fully comprehensible by our finite minds.  We must never deny a truth simply because we cannot explain it or understand it!  If it is true, it is true whether we believe it or not.

 

Second, the matter of God choosing or electing us to salvation does not mean that we have no more will nor that we have no responsibility.  On the contrary, every person has a will.  Every person has the responsibility to repent of their sins and believe the gospel.  The problem with the human will is not that it cannot make the right choice, but rather, that it won't make the right choice because it is affected by the sinful nature.  We must not think of the will as being in a neutral position, so that it is free to choose good or evil.  Adam's will before the Fall was not neutral, rather it was free as long as he was choosing the will of God.  When he sinned he was not exercising freedom but bondage.  Philip Edgcumbe Hughes wrote, "The will of man is free only when it is one with the will of his Creator.  It is then that man knows freedom which is true and full.  But when man arrogantly determines to exert his will in a manner contrary to the will of his Creator, it is then that his will ceases to be free" [The True Image, 144].

 

We have a will but it is in bondage to our sinful nature; so it is free to do whatever the sinful nature desires.  Augustine called it a bound will; Luther called it the bondage of the will.  The only truly free will is God's will!  That is because God Himself is not in bondage to anything, while we are in bondage to sin.  Our sinful, depraved natures affect our will, so that apart from the grace of God operating in our lives, we will not choose to believe the gospel.  Spurgeon expressed it like this,

Now, the reason why man can not come to Christ, is not because he can not come, so far as his body or his mere power of mind is concerned, but because his nature is so corrupt that he has neither the will nor the power to come to Christ unless drawn by the Spirit [Sermons on Sovereignty, 123].


It is a contradiction to the Sovereignty of God to give man the reigns of sovereignty.  If man can do whatever he pleases apart from the Sovereignty of God, then God is not the God of Scripture.  Any freedom or ability a man has is not derived from the man himself.  "...Man is not in himself sufficient" [Hughes, 143].  He is a finite creature, so he is not capable of personal sovereignty.  Unless God intervenes by choosing him, no man will choose God.

 

Third, a person will likely not understand this truth before he is saved.  He may never understand this truth and still be just as saved as the one who fully grasps it.  It is not a requirement to believe in God's choosing in order to be saved, however, it is your loss and a denial of one of the choice gems of Scripture when you try to explain this truth away.  This is a doctrine in which we grow in our understanding of it.  It is viewing our salvation from the divine perspective.  The more we see of it, the sweeter and more glorious it becomes.  Grace becomes our theme, for we realize that apart from God working by His grace quite apart from my interest and desire, I would never come to faith in Christ.

 

Fourth, Jesus Christ's work was to bring those whom God has chosen into a right relationship with the living God.  To whom did Christ reveal the character of God?  To those whom the Father had given to Him (v. 6).  To whom did Jesus Christ give eternal life?  To all those whom the Father had given to Him (v. 2).  "God's work of redemption in Christ is essentially a rescue operation for the purpose of setting free those whose sin has placed them in hopeless bondage to the devil (Heb. 2:14f)" [Hughes, 146].

 

So, what is a Christian?  He is a person who has been living under the bondage of the world, letting his mind and thoughts be dictated by the whole system that is opposed to God.  He does not seek after God because his nature is bent on following the world that is opposed to God.  He has no righteousness in himself, but he is a sinner in every part of his being [cf. Romans 3:1-18].  But God, for His own glory and purpose, chooses him out of the world, then gives him to Jesus Christ to redeem (or rescue!).  He is God's own special possession (I Peter 2:9)!  God Himself has laid claim to him by election (I Corinthians 1:26-31; I Peter 1:1-2).  That man may not understand the theology of it, but he experiences the reality of it.  The Holy Spirit breathes into him a consciousness of sonship, that he has been adopted into the family of God (Galatians 4:6-7).  He bears witness in this man's own spirit that he is no longer part of the world, but now he belongs only to the living God through Jesus Christ (Romans 8:16-17).

 

3.  UNDERSTANDING:  Someone who has grasped with the mind the truths of the gospel.

 

A Christian is not someone who just happens to have a good feeling about the gospel so he decides to jump on board.  Oh no!  He is one who has heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It has affected his mind.  Though he may not understand everything about it, he has grasped it to a sufficient degree that he repents of his sin and embraces Jesus Christ by faith.  Notice what the Lord prayed, "For the words which Thou gavest Me I have given to them; and they received them, and truly understood that I came forth from Thee, and they believed that Thou didst send Me."  

 

You will notice that there are several terms used that will verify that the mind must be used to understand some definite truths or propositions in order to have eternal life.  He states that the Father had given Him some "words."  John the Baptist testified concerning Christ, "For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God" (John 3:34).  All that Jesus spoke He received from the Father.  On another occasion, Jesus was addressing a group who professed to be disciples, but who would abandon Him.  He told them, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life" (John 6:63).  He was showing the distinction of a self-made religion and a Spirit-endowed life.  These false followers were of the flesh; they had not received the words of Jesus Christ unto life.  But for those who hear the words of Christ and believe, those words become life.  As Peter said on that same occasion, "You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68).

 

Let me emphasize that these "words" are stated propositionally.  These are truths that you can write down or read or state in plain language.  There is no secret code to His words.  There is no mystical condition in which you must get into a trance to understand them.  The gospel is stated as facts or truths that are clearly recorded in the Bible.  You are not getting 'a word from God' when you receive the gospel.  You are getting the Word of God, that which has been handed down to us through the apostles and prophets of old, recorded in the 66 books of the Bible.  

 

But a lot of people hear the "words" of the gospel.  So why do all not believe?  You will notice that Jesus said that He gave the words to those the Father had given Him and "they received them," but He does not stop, "and truly understood that I came forth from Thee," and He continues, "and they believed that Thou didst send Me."  There is a marvelous work taking place in Jesus speaking the words of eternal life.  First, those whom the Father has given Him will receive the words of the gospel.  That is, they will take these words into their minds as truth.  While many hear these words, they receive them.  They do not fancy it as mere speculation.  They do not "try" these words, like the signs that tell you to "Try Jesus."  No, they receive them.  Those words become life to them, because those words have been delivered to their minds to set them free.

 

He goes on.  They also truly understand the words of the gospel.  To understand the gospel means that it becomes light to you.  It is something that now claims you and for which you exercise faith.  You must exercise your mental faculties in order to be saved.  Let me underscore this for you.  The gospel first affects your mind and then your heart.  You may have heard the gospel a thousand times when suddenly it truly makes sense to you.  You find that you cannot turn away from it; you don't want to turn away from it.  Your mind and thoughts are filled with wonder at the truth that God has sent His Son to redeem you from the curse of sin and to give you eternal life.  It is the most incredible thing you've ever heard!  

 

This message of life goes to work in your mind.  It is a living word (Heb. 4:12-13), that takes root in your mind and begins to permeate your whole being.  Paul expressed it well to the church at Thessalonica, "And for this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received from us the word of God's message [note the reception of it], you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe" (I Thessalonians 2:13).  Yes, this gospel goes to work on you.  It accomplishes a saving, eternal, life-changing work "in you who believe."

 

So, what is a Christian?  He is someone who has heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and grasped its saving message by faith.  To him, there is nothing more precious than the gospel of Christ.  He loves the truth of what Christ has done for him.  He never tires of hearing it.  It stirs his heart.  It humbles him.  It lifts his soul in worship.  

 

My brethren, this is such an important area for us to see.  Our day has had a proliferation of people who are walking down the aisle or making decisions, but have never understood the gospel; they never grasped its essential truths with the mind.  So, they go through life with a false assurance of salvation and are numbed to the truth of the gospel.  They've 'made a decision' but they have not believed the gospel of Christ.  How can you believe something if you have not understood it, at least in its simplicity?  Please understand me:  I'm not suggesting that a person has no know every detail of the message of the gospel before he can be saved.  But I am stressing that he has to have at least a basic grasp of its essential elements.  I would summarize these as follows:

God is a holy God who has given us a divine standard of the Law.

 

Man has failed to keep the divine Law because of his nature and choice as a sinner, so that he is consequently under the judgment of God.

 

God became a Man in Jesus Christ, so that He might meet the demands of the Law on our behalf--to become our righteousness--and to bear the guilt and penalty of our sin before God on the cross.

 

Jesus Christ died on our behalf, bearing our sin and shame before God's justice, and rising from the dead to show that He has justified us and has given us life.

 

We must repent of our sins and turn to God in faith, trusting Jesus Christ and His saving work as our very own, receiving Christ as our Prophet, Priest, and King.


Have you grasped with your mind the truths of the gospel?  Have you believed the truths to the saving of your soul?

 

Conclusion (part I)

 

A Christian is not like anyone else in the world.  Everyone else is still under the pull and attachment of the world.  But the Christian has come to see the character of God, so that it has affected every part of his life.  He has within him that virtually unexplainable consciousness that God has laid special claim to him and that he is a child of God.  The world has no claim on him, he belongs only to the Lord.  And the gospel has gone from a bunch of words, to the words of eternal life for him.  He has grasped the gospel with his mind and responded to Christ by faith.

 

That's a Christian!  There's more, and Lord willing, we will consider more next week.  But in the present time, let me ask you:  Are you a Christian?

 

Part II

 

4.  SATISFACTION:  Someone who has found the deepest satisfaction in Jesus Christ and His finished work.

 

5.  TRUST:  Someone who has believed with the heart Jesus Christ and all His substitutionary work.

 

6.  OBEDIENCE:  Someone who has kept the saving word.

 

7.  DISTINCTION:  Someone for whom the world no longer has claim.

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