What Religion? :: Gospel Fellowship Association Missions

What Religion?

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One number makes a big difference. Especially when that number is on a visa! 2023 is a lot different from 2027. It’s my daughter’s visa, and I inadvertently let it expire.

Now we must apply for a new one, and that’s an entirely separate story—one that is ongoing as I write. One question that all visa applicants must answer is this: What is your religion? Then you have to choose: Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, etc.

When I was filling out the form, my daughter was not quite 17 months old. What is her religion? Does she have a religion? According to the visa application form, she must have a religion. I chose Christian. Did I lie? That’s what I want her to be, but is my daughter really a Christian? Not yet.

This quandary highlights a cultural understanding of religion that produces a serious misunderstanding of what it means to be Christian. You can hear this faulty understanding in what people from various cultures say:

“Yes, he is a Christian, but he is not a saved Christian.”

When did you become a Christian? “My grandfather was a Christian.”

Was there ever a time when you were not a Christian? “No. I was born a Christian.”

When were you saved? “I met with an accident and had to go to hospital, but I recovered.” 

Are you a Christian? “Yes, I have attended church ever since I was a child.”

This false understanding of Christianity wreaks havoc in churches. Often anybody born to “Christian” parents or who grows up in a “Christian” community is automatically considered a Christian, regardless of whether that person is actually a follower of Jesus Christ. These “nominal Christians” may be accepted into the churches and given responsibilities in the church. The result is a weak, compromised church full of Christians in name only who do not truly believe in the Lord Jesus and whose master is not Christ. “Christian” is a name that means nothing for them. These folks are not Christian. Their lifestyle is not Christian. They are like the church in Corinth, where many were thieves, immoral, covetous, and drunkards (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). But unlike the Christians of Antioch, these “nominal Christians” had never been “washed . . . sanctified . . . justified” by the Lord Jesus. They were still involved in these activities, indicating by their fruits their lack of saving faith in Jesus Christ (see Matthew 7:20 and James 2:20).

So, what is a Christian? Acts 11:26 is clear on this point: “In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (ESV). A Christian is a disciple, that is, a follower or a learner. Whom do these disciples follow and from whom do they learn? They are Christ-ians. “The disciples” were called “Christians” because they were known to be followers of Jesus Christ. A Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ and his teachings.

Though this understanding of Christian is rather foreign in some cultures, we must make it crystal clear that Christianity is not a matter of heredity or culture. To be a Christian is to be saved from the wrath of God by faith in Christ (see Romans 5:9). To be a Christian is to be born again (see 1 Peter 1:23). To be a Christian is to be made alive with Christ (see Ephesians 2:5). To be a Christian is to belong to Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:23). To be a Christian is to be in Christ (see Romans 8:1). There is no such thing as a Christian who is not saved, and there is no such thing as a saved person who is not a Christian. There has never been anyone who is born a Christian for Christianity requires being born again (see John 3:3).

In cultures where the meaning of “Christian” is muddled, I emphasize how my Christian culture, family, and heritage had nothing to do with my identity as a Christian. Both my parents were Christians, but not just any Christians; they were missionaries. All four of my grandparents served in full-time ministry. One set of grandparents were missionaries. The other set of grandparents ministered in evangelism and itinerant pastoring. Growing up, I attended multiple church services every week. I was baptized as a child. Did this upbringing mean I was a Christian? No! It certainly had an influence in pointing me to Christ, but I became a Christian when I personally placed my faith in Jesus Christ at the age of five (see Romans 1:16).

It can be dangerous and misleading to talk about Christianity and Christians, assuming that those who hear you understand what you’re talking about. Do they really? What does it actually mean to be a Christian? Common understandings of Christianity and the biblical explanation of a true Christian can vary greatly. We must make sure we give a clear message to all so they too can become true disciples of Christ.