What Does being a “Christian” Really Mean?
At the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning I was powerfully struck by the fact that the Sermon on the Mount was not read out loud to us before the emblems of Christ’s body broken for us and His blood shed for us were shared. In fact, in my experience it never has been, and I’ve been going to the Lord’s Table every Sunday morning for at least the past 50 years. No, the Scripture that was referenced at the Lord’s Table yesterday morning, just as it has been every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember was I Corinthians 11:23-26-
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
As I came to the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning this text directed my attention to what Jesus Christ was doing on the cross on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem one Friday afternoon rather than on what Jesus Christ taught on top of a hill above the Sea of Galilee. We didn’t come to the Lord’s Table last Sunday morning on the basis of our imagined obedience to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in the past week, or because of our good intentions to become more obedient to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount in the coming week. No, we came to the Lord’s Table on Sunday morning solely on the basis of our need for grace. We came to “celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” As an old Gospel hymn puts it –
Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night, Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy freedom, gladness, and light, Jesus, I come to Thee;
…Out of myself to dwell in Thy love, Out of despair into raptures above…
Out of my sin and into Thyself, Jesus, I come to Thee.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount isn’t an important part of New Testament Christianity. One of the truly defining books for me and my faith throughout these past 45 years has been E. Stanley Jones’ The Christ of the Mount (1931). It was an assigned text for the Life of Christ course that I took in my first year of Christian College back in 1971, and it has been on my bookshelf and in my head and heart ever since.
In The Christ of the Mount E. Stanley Jones argued that Biblical Christianity has both a redemptive dimension – a message about who God is and what it is that God has done for us in Jesus Christ – and an ethical dimension – what it is that we are supposed to be and do in response to who God is and what God has done for us in Christ. E. Stanley Jones was insistent that “if the ethical side of our Gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless” (17). And E. Stanley Jones was very clear that he believed that “the center and substance” of Christianity’s ethical dimension was the Sermon on the Mount, and he deeply lamented the fact the Sermon on the Mount wasn’t in the church’s historic creeds!
As the Apostles’ Creed now stands you can accept every word of it and leave the essential self-untouched. Suppose we had written it in our creeds and repeated each time with conviction: “I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and in its way of life, and I intend, God helping me to embody it!” What would have happened? I feel sure that if this had been our main emphasis, the history of Christendom would have been different. (12)
I don’t disagree. There is an ethical shape to the Christian Life, and I believe that the Sermon on the Mount is the standard New Testament summation of what that ethical life looks like. But having said that, I don’t believe that it is the Sermon on the Mount that makes us Christians, rather I believe that the Sermon on the Mount shows just how Christian we are becoming. This is the careful distinction that Ephesians 2:8-10 makes between being saved “by” grace “through” faith “apart” from works, and being saved “for” good works. These are two very different things in my mind.
First there is the matter of “becoming” a Christian – that matter of being saved by grace through faith apart from works; and then there is that matter of “being” a Christian – of doing the good works that God has prepared beforehand that “we should walk in.” If you are a Christian then it’s “predestined” that it’s eventually going to show in the things that you do. But this doesn’t happen instantly, or automatically. We have to “grow up” as Christians in every way into Christ (Ephesians 4:15), and that suggests a gradual process to me, as does Paul’s conversation in I Corinthians 3 about the difference between Christian believers who are spiritually maturing, and those who have gotten spiritually stuck. Paul didn’t throw the spiritually immature in Corinth – not even those who had become unnaturally stunted – out of the Christian pool. In fact, Paul went so far as to call even them “saints” (I Corinthians 1:2)! They were still “babies” long after they should have outgrown their spiritual infancy, but they were nevertheless still “in Christ” (I Corinthians 3:1).
This is what James Dobson was talking about recently when he called Donald Trump a “baby Christian” (“A Born-Again Donald Trump? Believe It, Evangelical Leader Says” – Trip Gabriel and Michael Luo – http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/26/us/politics/a-born-again-donald-trump-believe-it-evangelical-leader-says.html?_r=0), and it’s the context for Max Lucado’s recent criticisms in the media of Donald Trump’s disturbing behavior as a self-professed Christian (“Why Max Lucado broke his political silence for Trump” – http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/february-web-only/why-max-lucado-broke-his-political-silence-for-trump.html?start=3). Neither one of these two guys believe that Donald Trump is an exemplary Christian, and neither do I. In fact, I’ve written about this previously here (See: “Fruit Inspectors” – “Soundings” – March 1, 2016). But neither of them is prepared to throw Donald Trump out of the Christian pool, and neither am I.
Hold the Sermon on the Mount up to Donald Trump, or to Hillary Clinton for that matter, and I think that what it will show pretty quickly is that they, just like you and me, fall well short of how it is that God intends for any of us to behave as His people. This is, in fact, what I believe one of the real purposes of the Sermon on the Mount is as an expression of God’s “Law.” It was Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, who said that God only speaks two words to us as human beings – either “Law” or “Gospel.” “Law” is God’s word spoken to us about what it is that He wants us to do. “Gospel” is God’s word spoken to us about what it is that He has already done for us in Jesus Christ. And while the Sermon on the Mount is not completely devoid of “Gospel” (take another look at the Beatitudes – Matthew 5:3-12), it is nevertheless primarily “Law” in my judgment. In my next blog I want to explore how the “Threefold Function of the Law” – another useful Reformation idea – helps us to make sense of what it is that we are actually supposed to be doing with the Sermon on the Mount as Christians.
Suffice it for now to say that if it is our personal conformity to what the Sermon on the Mount teaches that makes us Christians, then – “Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3). By the standard of the Sermon on the Mount, who among us could claim to be a “good” Christian? This is not just a problem for our two current major political party Presidential candidates, both of whom tell us that they are Christians. This is a problem for every Christian I know, and for anyone who has ever been a Christian! “But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared” (Psalm 130:4). And that’s why I Corinthians 11:23-26 and not Matthew 5-6-7 gets read each Sunday morning at the Lord’s Table.
You see, the Lord’s Supper is not a Tribute Dinner at which we are the honorees who are being recognized for our own superior righteousness. No, the Lord’s Supper is where we return each week to be told again and again that it was while we were yet sinners that God demonstrated His great love for us in the death of Christ (Romans 5:8). So let’s stop with the “my candidate is more Christian than your candidate” rhetoric that fills Facebook and elicits our automatic “like” responses and gleeful forwards, not because of any particularly thoughtful Biblical/theological reflection about what it actually means to be a Christian on our part, but rather because it just suits our already settled partisan preferences better. Go ahead and make the argument for your candidate on the basis on those partisan conclusions if that’s what you want to do. Just don’t try to turn it into a referendum on the genuineness of the Christianity of any candidate. Nobody wins when that’s the game that gets played.
Jared Wilson began his book Unparalleled (Baker – 2016) with a fascinating discussion of what people in his unchurched mission field of Vermont think that the message of Christianity is. He says that the only answer he ever gets when he asks this question is some variation of the same “be good, do good” theme that gets used online to lambast some Presidential candidates, and to lionize others. And when he hears somebody saying this, Jared says that he always replies by saying, “What if I told you that the message of Christianity was that none of us is really good deep down, including pastors like me, and that we can never be sure that our good stuff is greater than our bad stuff, but that God loves us anyway?” And then Jared explains, “The essential message of Christianity is not that we should be religious or try to do lots of good works, but rather that God loves us so much that Christ died to forgive us” (16-17). He says that this usually confuses his unchurched listeners. It shouldn’t confuse us. This is, after all, what we’re being told every Sunday morning at the Lord’s Table. DBS +