Many years ago I preached a sermon, subsequently published by BBC, called, “How to become a Christian.” Like many of my sermons, it was attended by some criticism; some of it very severe.
The premise, based on Acts 11:26, was that the goal of the gospel is to produce Christians to the glory of God. I explained that, when a person is born again, they immediately become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who subsequently begin the journey to becoming Christians. I was accused by some of teaching salvation by works. I was not. And I don’t—because the Bible does not.
In Acts 11 we read of many in Antioch (Syria) who heard the gospel, and by the hand of the Lord were converted to Christ (vv. 19–21). They were born again by the Spirit of God. Barnabas arrived, and having seen the fruit of salvation, he exhorted them to “continue with the Lord” (v. 23). Their faithful perseverance was blessed and “a great many people were added to the Lord” (v. 24). Barnabas and Saul (Paul) spent a year discipling these believers, and the result was that, for the first time in history, “the disciples were … called Christians” (v. 26). Note the order: “turned to the Lord” (v. 21), “taught … disciples” (v. 26), and “called Christians” (v. 26). This is the biblical order.
Unfortunately, in our day the term “Christian” is commonplace. In fact, it is almost meaningless. I remember once asking a man if he was a Christian. He replied in anger, “Of course I’m a Christian! What do you think I am, a Muslim?!” I should have asked him, “Have you been born again?” Or, “Are you following Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” In other words, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?”
The term “Christian” is only found three times in Scripture (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). It means one who follows Christ. Better, it means “little Christ.” And this takes time. That is why I like to say that those who are born again are immediately disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ whose pursuit is to be known as Christians—those who are Christlike.
I am willing not to quibble about terminology, but I am not willing to ignore the confusion that surrounds what it means to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am not willing to ignore the erroneous ideas of what it means to be a “Christian.” Eternal issues are at stake. Many who are designated “Christian” will in the end find themselves damned. This is serious.
I am grateful that we live in a country where there is great freedom to live as a follower of Christ. In keeping with 1 Timothy 2, we are blessed to be in a position where we can freely proclaim the gospel. We are grateful that we do not need to sneak to church or to hide from the authorities as we gather to worship our great God and Saviour.
But such blessings also have a downside. Our freedom makes it easy for people to identify as Christian, even if they are not. And it is for this reason that churches in South Africa face the danger of being swelled with members who are not really followers of Christ. This is a major motivation for why we as a church are so deliberate in our membership process. We truly care for the souls of those who want to identify with our congregation. What a tragedy for someone to be a church member, and yet on Judgement Day to hear, “I never knew you; depart from Me” (Matthew 7:21–23). It is because of this that we are committed to the biblical definition of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ; what it means to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
BBC is all about making disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of God. This is our mission, for it is God’s mission. We are not interested with mere professions of faith, but rather we are committed to spiritual maturity of every one who names the name of Christ (Colossians 1:28–29). That is, we are committed to edifying those who have been born again and who are therefore disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We do not make a distinction between “believers” and “disciples.” If you believe on Jesus, then you are His disciple. If you are not His disciple, then you have not yet believed on Him. And two of the clearest marks of the disciple, as revealed in the New Testament, are (1) cross-carrying, and (2) communing with cross-carriers.
Jesus often identified the terms of discipleship as taking up your cross and following Him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; 10:21; Luke 9:23; 14:27). But what does this mean?
The cross, of course, was a symbol the death penalty; one that was reserved for the worst of Rome’s criminals. Jesus’ work is inseparable from such a crucifixion. The holy Son of God was despised by men and even forsaken by God (Matthew 27:46) on behalf of sinners such as you and me. So when Jesus said that His disciples are characterised as cross-carriers, He was saying that those who follow Him will die to self. They are willing to be humiliated for His sake as they identify with Him. To be a disciple of Christ—to be a “Christian”—is to go against the flow of society. It is to be willing to be rejected and despised. It is costly. If your profession of faith costs you nothing, then it is nothing.
But we do not pay this price in isolation. We do not suffer this humiliation alone. Rather, disciples of Jesus, those who are “Christian” in the biblical meaning of the term, are blessed to be in communion with other cross-carriers. We call this the church.
It is fashionable in our day to claim, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” No early New Testament disciple of Jesus would say something so silly. In fact, the epistle to the Hebrews was written to warn those with such an attitude that they were in grave danger of apostasy. Though it is true that “going to church” will not make you a Christian, nevertheless those who are born again must be connected to a local church if they will grow in Christ. This was one reason for God giving us the church. The local church nourishes our soul as it feeds our faith and shapes our life in conformity to Jesus Christ.
The biblical fact is that those who are true disciples of Jesus Christ are part and parcel of the church (universal) and therefore will always be committed to communing with a church (local). Those who refuse to be a member of a biblical church have no right to the title of either disciple or Christian. Cross-carrying and congregational communion are as inseparable as moisture is from water.
It is time for the disciples of Jesus to get with His program. And His program is the church for which He died (Ephesians 5:25). Don’t buy into the mere “cultural Christianity” that so pervades our land. Such an aberration claims to have Jesus as Saviour while rejecting Him as Lord. And such an illusion will eventuate with a very rude and eternally ruinous reality.
Let us rather pray for revival. This will probably require a prevenient work of reformation concerning the Christian, the cross and the church. May God help us—for our good, to His glory.