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“A Christian in the truest sense of the word.”

I was recently reading a series of tributes written by teens for their youth pastors. One girl described all the great things her youth leader was doing and finished the accolade by saying, “He’s a Christian in the truest sense of the word.”

And that gave me pause.

Based on all the admittedly praiseworthy actions of this pastor, the girl judged him to be a Christian of some higher order, apparently more “Christian” than others who don’t do these things.

But can one be “more” Christian or “less” Christian? Isn’t being a Christian kind of like being pregnant: either you are or you aren’t?

This girl’s statement, well-intended though it might be, highlights a disturbing trend I’ve seen among young people — and not-so-young people — in our churches today. The judgment that one is a Christian is based increasingly on a person’s actions and not on his beliefs. In fact, I heard another well-meaning woman describe a certain magazine as “secular Christian.” She meant that it featured clean-cut images and wholesome content, which made it “Christian,” but nothing explicitly religious, which made it secular. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

To be sure, Christians are expected to behave in certain ways, but does behaving in those certain ways make one a Christian? More important, if a person fails to live up to those certain behaviors, does that somehow make him not a Christian? Or a “lesser” Christian, not a Christian “in the truest sense of the word”?

Unfortunately, trend is nothing new. In his preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis decried the watering down of the word’s meaning and the tendency to define Christian by certain behavior:

The word gentleman originally meant something recognizable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone a “gentleman” you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not a “gentleman” you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman. … But then came people who said-so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully-“Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behavior? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? … When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object; it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude to that object. … As a result, gentleman is now a useless word.

I’m afraid Christian is also in danger of becoming a useless word-first and foremost among those who claim the name. Remember, the name Christian was first given at Antioch Acts 11:26 to “the disciples,” those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. It said nothing about the way they behaved.

One is a Christian because of a professed belief and trust in Christ’s redeeming work on the Cross. In this biblical sense of the word, it is no contradiction to say Joe is a Christian and a sinner. Indeed, if anyone would be honest with himself, he would know it true of himself.

The New Testament does not sacrifice behavior for belief. We are called in Scripture to live godly lives, but first we must believe (John 1:12; Romans 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-9). Christ-like living is a fruit of salvation, not the cause. We mix up the two at our peril.

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