What does it take to be a Christian?

“Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

These kinds of pithy quotes abound, so much so that it can become dizzying to keep your head. It seems crazy to object to something like this. Bonhoeffer was a true Christian and a hero! For God’s sake, ERIC METAXIS wrote a biography about him! Who can dispute with a Bonhoeffer quote? This even sounds like a halfway gracey quote, let’s let this slide, right? However, I think this notion from Mr. Bonhoeffer is extremely wrong and damaging.

I think that being a Christian is more about believing that you are one whom Christ loves. We’re inevitably going to be less than perfect, and sometimes far less than perfect, at avoiding sin AND courageously and actively doing God’s will. When that happens does it mean I am no longer “being a Christian?” I need my justification every hour. I need a savior, not a leader, because I am a bad follower. That’s how I got into this mess. When I’m doing something active and even perhaps courageous, how can I know that I am doing enough? Even when I am in the middle of doing good things I still feel sinful and uncourageous and inactive. When is what we’re doing ever enough?

I’ve had this talk about 100,000 times now. I say the important part is to believe that we are loved by Jesus. John 3:16-21. 1 John all of it. Romans 3 and 5. And 6 and 7 and 8. 1 John 4:10. Psalm 103. Psalm 51. Basically the whole Bible. He loves us all the way to eternity. For real. HE has saved us. It is finished. This is a BIG DEAL. We are bound to fail. We can’t depend on ourselves, and this is beautiful. We don’t have to. He has loved us with an everlasting love. When you let go of everything else and believe that, it is a complete game changer.

And someone says, yes, but SANCTIFICATION! Sanctification sanctification sanctification. Sanctification (justification?) (janctification / sustification?) sanctification sanctification SANCTIFICATION. And I say, everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, 1 John 3:1-3. Hope and assurance come from forgiveness and acceptance in His blood. Mere belief in FORGIVING love and grace is the ground of hope and purification. We should be way more consumed with being loved (1 John 4:10), and we should be less consumed by our always paltry works.

At my house, many times we help “homeless” people by letting them live with us. I don’t care. I don’t believe in homeless people anyway; I believe in sinners who (just like me) need redemption. But I don’t trust in that “work”. I am ecstatic to do some little thing for them because I see them as someone that Jesus died for. It is BELIEF in forgiving love that does all of this. But I see Christians as largely engrossed in the “all of this” action who give no credence to the main treasure – His one -way unconditional awesome great beautiful spectacular enduring love for us! Our works are never enough, and the kingdom of God is a kingdom of gifts, not works. Well, I am taking my stand to defend this little hill: the gospel of forgiveness through mere belief is EVERYTHING! Stop worrying about your response to this and start worrying about your belief in it. From where I stand, a great deal of Christendom is way more consumed about justifying themselves through what they do and way less preoccupied with Jesus’ justification of them. Christians are just plain uncomfortable with grace. They even redefine it to mean works – “grace empowers us to love” and all of that. If you think the main purpose of grace is to empower us, you are not grasping the gospel. And that is some twisted stuff you’re spouting as a result. If you’re not really sure about how salvation in Christ works, then how about if you shut your mouth and stop damaging the world with your wretched tongue?

Think about it like a normal person for just a second: how can you say He was sacrificed for sins and then say that if you sin, the sacrifice is no good?

You know what else? What people call “sanctification” is ultimately about love, and love is really about relationship. The only people we can have relationship with are other imperfect sinners. So the only hope we’ve got for real working rubber meets the road sanctification is easy greasy sloppy agape grace. Otherwise you’re stuck judging and hating people. Including yourself. But easy greasy sloppy agape grace is not as convicting and manly. “My yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:30). “His commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Man oh man, we always want to lay that burden on thick and bring the sting with that convicting talk about sanctification! None of it works. You want more holiness? Get lost in how much He loves you! It’s the only thing that’s real about you anyway!

One more thing for the skeptical theologians among us: what about Romans 6? Ask yourself this, skeptical theologian: what does death to self really look like? That you try really really hard to do better? That’s death to self? Balderdash! It means, you forget yourself, you are lost in Christ, your identity has become completely wrapped up in His love for you. You don’t even think about whether you are doing bad or good at your sanctification. That is all about self-salvation. Instead you say, to live is Christ and to die is gain, because He has a very great love for me. People say of us, is that all they think about is Jesus Jesus Jesus? How gross! It’s like the old “us” isn’t even there any more. And I say – BINGO!!! That’s it! And when I forget that, and go back into worrying about sanctification – that is Romans 7:15 again. Living by the flesh. Measuring my goodness. Saving myself by my deeds. Being my own God. Worrying about my merit. But none of it is true of us any more. There is therefore now no condemnation!

So in the end it is very simple. Being a Christian is about knowing and believing the love which God has for us (1 John 4:17). It is about believing that when Jesus died for our sins, it worked. We’re really forgiven everything forever. We have, in Him, eternal life. We are very greatly loved. Being a Christian is about this.

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  1. Here’s a better quote, Jim: “But all the while, there was one thing we most needed even from the start, and certainly will need from here on out into the New Jerusalem: the ability to take our freedom seriously and act on it, to live not in fear of mistakes but in the knowledge that no mistake can hold a candle to the love that draws us home. My repentance, accordingly, is not so much for my failings but for the two-bit attitude toward them by which I made them more sovereign than grace. Grace – the imperative to hear the music, not just listen for errors – makes all infirmities occasions of glory.”
    ― Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace

    Blessings from England… in this wonderful grace.

  2. Hi Jim, this is an excellent article , and is something I have spent much time and effort studying, having been a Christian for 33 years and trying to get to grips with this subject for about 4 years. As regards Dietrich Bonhoeffer whilst I agree with your assessment of him, it must be born in mind that much of his theology would be troublesome to both you and I . He certainly was unorthodox regards his doctrine of God, Christ, and was really a cross between Karl Barth and Roman Catholicism . I believe his book ” the cost discipleship ” did a disservice to the church.
    in His name

  3. Just processing the quote. Seems to me it is changing “activity” negatively to focus on “changing” activity to the positive. Both, it seems to me, is a form of self-righteousness and takes our eyes off off Christ and His righteousness.

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