If you’re seeing this post on my Facebook feed, then no doubt you’ve also seen a dozen stories of Christian scandals pop up even today—so-called Christian politicians or disgraced pastors or division between Christian groups, stories that would rightly make a thinking person wonder why anyone would want to associate with those people at all. And all of it begs a question: what is a Christian, anyway?
If “Christian” is not roughly equal to “American” or “Protestant” or “Evangelical,” if it’s not what family you’re born into or even what moral code you live by, then what is it? Depends. Here’s a question, and not just for the grammar nerds—is “Christian” a noun or an adjective? Because if it’s an adjective (equivalent to Christ-like), then it ought to describe a set of actions or attitudes that shine in a Jesusy way: humble, for starters, kind, just, and holy. By that standard, not many of us are Christian, and most of what passes for Christian (at least insofar as it’s getting press) is emphatically not.
But if it’s a noun, something one can become, then the door is open for a whole collection of sinners and saints. And this is where we run into trouble, because goodness knows there are a lot of people in the clubhouse who don’t have country club manners.
I’ll tell you my story by way of example.
The moment at which I became a Christ-follower was just that, a moment. It was decisive, once for all time. One minute I was lost in my sin and separated from God. (I look to verses such as Romans 3:23 or Ephesians 2:12 on this score.) The next minute I was born again, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and launched into a lifetime of slow and steady sanctification (I Peter 1:3, Ephesians 1:13, and Philippians 1:6). How’s that for a mouthful of holy rolling?
Here it is in a plain-English nutshell: even though I was guilty, I was exonerated, and though I’m not perfect, I am a work in progress.
All that said, it is hard to remember that moment, that life-and-death crossing. I was very young. By my mother’s reckoning I about three years old, an age so tender that the whole account seems dubious. All I know is that the gospel story had been explained to me and I was simultaneously convicted and utterly charmed.
In Sunday school I heard about this Jesus and His forgiving love, even as I stole the class crackers and absconded with them under a table. (You see? I was already sinning, even at that tender age.) At bedtime, my mother explained that God’s love demanded a response from me. I knew, in my naïve way, that I sinned. I needed no convincing on that point. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” Ha! I’ve never met a non-sinner yet, have you?
I understood that Jesus loved me, took my punishment for me, and wanted me to love Him in return. And I did, wholeheartedly. You might knock Christianity on this score. Simplistic enough for a child! But I find that’s a great strength of this faith—it is not the province of the ivory tower, but simple enough for an uneducated child.
In grace He drew me, and in grace He spent the next 40 years beginning to fill in the enormous gaps of my knowledge and understanding. I feel very blessed that He spared me decades of hurt and struggle, but patiently discipled me all those years, is discipling me still—tutoring me on where I’ve got it wrong and pointing me in the right direction. (I think, by the way, that my testimony is incredibly hopeful for all Christian parents—it really is possible for a mustard seed of childlike faith to bear fruit over a lifetime. By all means, sing “Jesus Loves Me” with your little ones.)
I believe, as Ephesians puts it, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Surely it was not by works that a toddler such as myself was saved; that gift was unearned. It was by grace, through and through, cemented by a simple act of faith expressed in prayer. It is a gift available freely to everyone who believes (John 6:40, Romans 1:16).
So what to make of the unchristian Christian? The unloving, crooked, unjust, or unfaithful? Well, don’t judge the doctor by the patients in the waiting room. “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” as Jesus put it, good news for those of us who can’t heal ourselves without a little help. Though the hospital is packed with a diseased and contagious lot, when the physician gets through with us, we feel as if we’ve been reborn. And we truly have.
Brennan Manning was a divorced, alcoholic, Catholic ex-priest, whose major contribution to the world was his absolute astonishment at the undeserved grace of God and a keen awareness of his own sin. He wrote a little book called The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, which gives a pretty great definition of “Christian” in the title alone. Manning writes: “My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.”
This week when you read of the latest Christian scandal, remember that all of Christianity is itself a great scandal of grace. Thank God.
(By the way. I don’t get a flood of comments on here, although I like to. But I love to chat, and especially about questions of faith. Feel free to shoot me a message if you agree/disagree/are fuming/want more information about this topic, or anything I write about. I don’t have all of the answers, but hey, an excuse to pour some tea and talk? I’m in.)