Position Paper 11

What Is A Christian?

by┬áT. Austin-Sparks (1888 – 1971)

NOTE: The author of this web site has elected to place this material here as a position paper that reflects the understanding of the web site author. By placing the material here I am not implying that I support all of the understandings and beliefs of T. Austin-Sparks.

And Agrippa said unto Paul, With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian (Acts 26:28; A.S.V.).

Let us say at the outset that we are using the word “Christian” strictly according to what is found in the New Testament, and it is assumed that this will be accepted. Our enquiry will take the form firstly of a process of elimination, and we shall observe –

What A Christian Is Not

(1) To become a Christian is not to become “religious,” or to adopt a new “religion.”

Among non-Christian peoples, a turning to Christ is often referred to as “becoming religious.” Such expressions, with their associated ideas, are altogether inadequate and indeed fundamentally false. There was no more religious man on the earth, in his time, than Saul of Tarsus. Read what he says about himself in Acts 22 and 26, and Philippians 3. Here was a man who was just aflame with religious zeal and passion. No argument is necessary, with history before us, to prove how wide of the mark religion can be.

And that is true of “Christianity,” when it is merely a matter of religion. To be a true Christian is not to accept a creed or statement of doctrine, to observe certain rites and ordinances, attend certain services and functions, and conform more or less diligently to a prescribed manner of life. All this may be carried very far, with very many good works; but those concerned may still be outside the true New Testament category of “Christian.” Herein lies the danger of an assumed acceptance with God, which may bring bitter disillusionment foretold by our Lord Himself in those startling words: “Lord, Lord, did we not…by Thy name do many mighty works? (Matt. 7:22, 23; A. S. V.).

No, religion is not Christianity, either more or less; it may be only a deception. So that when we seek that people should become Christians, we are not asking them to change their religion, nor are we asking them to become religious. Religion, as such, has never made this world happier or better.

(2) To become a Christian is not to join an institution called “The Church.”

If the truth were known, there is no such thing as “joining” the Christian Church. We never took any steps, either of word or deed, in order to get our limbs to become members of our bodies. There is no distinction between our members and our bodies – our members comprise our bodies; but they do so, not by organization, invitation, examination, interrogation or catechism, but simply by life. So, in the Church of Christ, provided that a true life-relationship exists, a “membership” in the technical sense is a superfluity, and may be a menace. If there is not that relationship, then no “membership” can constitute the Church of Christ.

There are multitudes, we fear, who have “membership” in what is called the “Church,” who are not able to stand up to the test which will be presented when we come to speak of what a Christian is. But let us say here that when we appeal to people to become Christians we are not asking them to “join the Church.” And it must be realized that Christianity is not just one more institution or society. You may go to many places called “churches,” and never really meet Christ, or find satisfaction.

Of course, that is negative. We must realize, however, that when we become Christians we share one new life in Christ with all other born-again believers, and thus we become one in Christ. That really is the Church. It is for us, then, to cherish that relationship and jealously watch over its sacredness. There are immense values in it.

(3) To become a Christian is not to become a part of a new movement.

It is true that there is a sense in which Christianity is a movement, a Divine movement from Heaven. But there are very many who conceive of Christianity in terms of a great enterprise for world betterment or even evangelization. The appeal is so often made that people will come and associate themselves with this great “work.” There is that in most people which makes a response to such an appeal, and would like to be a great movement. But such a way of approach is to court trouble, or at least to be found sooner or later in a false position. Moses got the “movement” idea in Egypt – and then had forty years’ inaction in the desert.

There is that which comes before the “movement,” and the movement is with God, not with us. The greatest value in movement, when God’s time comes for it, often is that we have learned not to move without Him.

We do not appeal to you to join a movement. We do not invite youth, saying, “Here is something into which you can throw all of your natural powers and youthful enthusiasm!” We would say: “God has a purpose: you are of concern to Him in relation to that purpose. But – you cannot even know or enter into that purpose until something has happened in you which has made you another person. In that purpose you will need much more than natural powers and youthful enthusiasm.”

That brings us to the positive side –

What A Christian Is

In seeking to show what a Christian really is, we can do no better than take the case of one who not only was a great instance himself, but whose experience has been that of every true Christian since. We refer to the one who was addressed by a Roman “King” in the words at the head of this chapter – the Apostle Paul. While the method of his conversion may not be the usual or general one, the principles are always the same.

Here, then, is the reality of a true Christian life.

“Who art thou?” “I am Jesus.”
The first thing is the inward realization that Jesus is (not was) a living Person.

The very first words of Paul when confronted by Christ were: “Who art Thou?” To which the answer came clear and strong – “I am Jesus!” It was a startling discovery, and Paul might well have exclaimed, “What, Jesus alive?” Jesus had been put to death, crucified. All that remained to do was to blot out the memory of Him and destroy what represented Him. To this work Paul (then Saul) had committed himself. We can hardly imagine, then, what a startling and paralyzing thing it was to be confronted with the fact that Jesus was not dead, but alive, and in glory. And not only with the fact, but with the Person Himself.

All that this implied and involved has been the teaching of many centuries since. But for those to whom these present lines are addressed, this can be resolved into a very simple matter. We begin our Christian life by an experience of this living reality. Not a Jesus of history, but a Jesus of heart experience. That He really is alive is the one thing which is open to be proved by us, and it is the most serious matter as to our eternal destiny.

This is the way of a discovery. We learn from the New Testament that the Spirit of God is abroad in the world just to bring about this discovery – to make real that Jesus lives to save and be our very life. This wonderful realization, that Jesus lives, comes to the heart of every one who honestly turns and puts it to the test; and everything springs out of that.

There is only one way, really, of knowing Jesus, and that is by coming to Him. The discovery that Christ is a living reality is the first thing in the Christian life.