What Makes a True Christian?

Jesus healing the Paralytic, from Dura-Europos in Syria

One of the most wonderful things about being a student again is the opportunity to read through the jewels which litter the Anglican tradition. There is the systematic genius of Richard Hooker, the principled and poetic reverence of Thomas Cranmer, the preaching of Lancelot Andrews. There’s the practical advice of Jeremy Taylor and the stern exhortation of William Law. And we’ve just arrived at the evangelical fervour of first the Wesley brothers, then Hannah More and John Newton.

I’d like to briefly reflect on one theme which has recurred in several of these authors—the question of what signifies a true Christian. And I’d like to do so because I believe attempts to answer this question have been premised on a mistake.

I do not think that any of these bad attempts, though different intuitions may prefer some to others. To give a brief survey: Cranmer writes that anyone who ‘denieth [that we are justified by faith only] is not to be counted for a true Christian, nor for a setter forth of Christ’s glory, but for an adversary of Christ and his Gospel.’1 Hooker says ‘our naming of Jesus Christ the Lord is not enough to prove us Christians, unless we also embrace that faith, which Christ hath published unto the world.’2 Among the features which Taylor lists as marking the character of a Christian we find that they are ‘just in their dealing…, humble in spirit…, [who] does their duty because they love God.’3 John Wesley devotes the whole first section of A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity to laying out the marks of a true Christian, not least that they are ‘full of love to their neighbour: of universal love not confined to one sect or party… [a love which] soars above all these scanty bounds, embracing neighbours and strangers, friends and enemies.’4 And Hannah More tells us that ‘a real Christian will be more just, sober, and charitable than others.’5

All these writes describe things which we traditionally and uncontroversially associate with Christian faith. And they are all—at the very least arguably—laudable in their own way. But they all make a particular mistake: they look for the characteristics of a true Christian in the people which might be described as Christian.

If we are to find such characteristics, we must look not to ourselves or others. We must look to God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and the relationship which is revealed in this person. And this relationship is constituted by grace, given as love and forgiveness. We can see this in the healing of the paralytic and the man with the withered hand, in the Gerasene Demoniac and Jairus’ daughter. We can see it figuratively in the Prodigal Son and the lost sheep.

These are the true Christians of the Gospel, the true Christians across all time—not those who have manifested a lively faith, nor those who love their neighbour as themselves, but those who are loved and forgiven in the grace of God. Their existence is grounded in this grace. And it is grounded in this grace irrespective of how they might live or how they might believe: the power of grace is not determined by the actions of those to whom it is given.

In short, true Christians are not those who live a certain way; true Christians are those who are loved by God in Christ. And we cannot look for evidence of this love in our own conduct—we must look for it in the revelation of Jesus Christ, given in Scripture. There may be different accounts of this, of course, but for here I will simply cite to the Wisdom of Solomon, which tells us that God loves ‘all things that exist, and detests none of the things God made.’6

This certainly means that the most vicious people may be as true Christians as any. Such it is; if we seek to find what is true in Christian existence, we must look to Christ, not to ourselves or others. All it means is that the question of Christian living changes from ‘what can we do to be true Christians?’ to ‘what sort of life makes sense given that we are true Christians—that is, the recipients of God’s grace?’ The question of ethics does not disappear. It is just consequent upon (rather that posed as a condition of) true Christianity. (It is also worth noting that the love of grace can very easily be discomfiting; Jesus loved the rich young man before calling him to sell all he owned, after all.)

When we speak of what it is to be a true Christian, then, we should not look for the goodness, beliefs, holiness, charity, faith, or love of Christian believers. These are certainly things which Christians should pray and hope to manifest, and these authors were not wrong for trying to describe or inspire them.7 All the same, it is not the traits or practises, but that which our existence follows from which characterises the true Christian. It is the root and the vine, not the works or the beliefs—and this root is nothing more nor less than the love of God for lost sinners, given for us in Jesus Christ.

(A quick post-script: one potential problem with this account is the possible implication that everyone could be called a true Christian, including those who are explicitly not Christian, whether because they are atheist, Muslim, etc. I think it important to say that this account does not presume that ‘being a Christian’ in this sense either entails self-identification as a Christian or excludes identifying oneself as belonging to a different religious tradition. There is, however, a danger of presuming to impose an identity on those who would explicitly deny such an identification—and this must very much be borne in mind.)

  1. Of the Salvation of All Mankind. (I have changed all quotes slightly so as to be gender neutral. My citations are also fairly loose—if you want to know more precisely where these things are to be found, do comment and I’ll make it more formal!)
  2. Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 3.1.5
  3. Selected Works, p437
  4. A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity, Section 1.5
  5. Practical Piety, p42
  6. Wis 11:24
  7. Hope here is understood as a practical term, in the sense that it makes little sense to hope for something which it is in ones power to work towards, yet not attempt this work.

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