Historians have long debated whether Abraham Lincoln was a Christian. Since his death in 1865, he has become a Rorschach test of sorts, upon which everybody projects their own beliefs. (I myself believe Lincoln was most certainly Presbyterian and probably Swedish.) In Michael Burkhimer’s book on the subject, he notes that before you can decide about Lincoln, you must first confront “the essential question of what it means to be a Christian.” He also notes that most writers and historians use three central beliefs as criteria. A Christian is someone who believes “that Jesus Christ was divine and part of a Trinity, that Christ died for the sins of the world, and that faith in this doctrine is necessary for one to gain salvation.” While Burkhimer acknowledges this simplifies the matter, he notes, “It is a foundation almost all are familiar with.” What is striking is that the intention to actually follow Jesus by doing what he said—which was his fundamental call—has no part to play in this Christianity-defining “foundation almost all are familiar with.”
Brad Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, notes that in social science research, a “Christian” is usually defined as someone who holds to certain doctrinal beliefs or who affiliates with a particular denomination or church.
Sometimes people’s definitions of “Christian” are far more toxic. To paraphrase pastor Andy Stanley, many people would define “Christians” as moralistic, homophobic, anti-science, judgmental bigots who don’t believe in dinosaurs but do believe they are the only ones going to heaven and secretly relish the idea that everyone else is going to hell.
Do you know what never defines the word Christian? The Bible. Literally. It never calls anyone to become a Christian, and it never records anyone becoming a Christian. Even Jesus never uses the word Christian. Jesus never says, “Here’s how to become a Christian.” Jesus never describes what a Christian is. Jesus himself wasn’t even a Christian; he was Jewish. In fact, the word Christian is used only three times in the entire New Testament and then only because Jesus’ followers were becoming too ethnically diverse to be regarded as a sect within Judaism. (World religions scholar Huston Smith notes that Christian simply meant “the Messiah-folk.”) Jesus didn’t tell his friends, “Go into all the world and make Christians.” But he did tell them to go into the world and make disciples.
In fact, the Bible uses the word disciple 269 times. As Dallas Willard writes, “The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples.”
How is a disciple different from a Christian? Are disciples a subcategory of overachievers? Are they the dean’s list? Is discipleship optional, like whitewall tires? Maybe the bar is higher. Maybe it’s only disciples who will get into heaven, while so-called Christians will be shut out—the lukewarm ones God will spew out of his mouth.
For many people—inside the church and out—Christians are thought of as people who believe the gospel of the minimum entrance requirements, who are saved because they believe the right things, which means they will be allowed into heaven when they die.
The gospel of the minimum entrance requirements is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace”:
The upshot of [cheap grace] is that my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgiven. I need no longer try to follow Christ, for cheap grace, the bitterest foe of discipleship, which true discipleship must loathe and detest, has freed me from that.”
But we now know that Jesus never said, “Believe the right things about me, and I’ll let you into heaven after you die.” His news was something far grander, more cosmic, more life-changing, more costly, more compelling, and more humbling than that.
To the contrary, Jesus’ Good News is that eternal life—life with God and for God, life under God’s care and life by God’s power—is available now. If you want that life, the logical step is to become a disciple—a student, an apprentice, a follower—of Jesus.
Simply put, discipleship is the means by which we learn to live the life that Jesus offers. Christianity was never intended to produce Christians. Just disciples.
Ortberg, John. 2018. Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum.