That seems to be the prevailing opinion of the world when it comes to the Christian religion—anachronistic fuddy-duddies who set the bar too high for everyone and then consistently fail to meet it themselves.
The data agrees. During a recent yearlong research effort in Scotland, the Barna Group found that the five phrases Scots were most likely to use in describing Christianity included “judgmental,” “hypocritical” and “out of touch with reality.”
And it’s not just Scotland. Those phrases are the stones slung at the Christian faith from all corners of the world—and I can’t say as though I fault those doing the slinging. If you were to lump all those who call themselves Christian into the same category, it would be hard not to look at the results with disappointment.
Look no farther than the Bible itself, and you’ll find Jesus Christ expressing frustration over those who “call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and [do] not do the things which I say” (Luke 6:46).
The lesson? Not everyone who takes on the mantle of Christianity is an actual Christian. In Scotland alone, seven out of 10 self-identified Christians are “legacy Christians”—that is, Christians who “do not believe basic elements of Christian doctrine or express personal faith in Jesus.”
That’s a contradiction in terms. The word Christian implies a follower of Christ. A follower of Christ who doesn’t follow Christ is a paradox, not a Christian. With ambassadors like that, it’s little wonder so much of the world casts such a disparaging eye on the entire religion.
But what about those who are genuinely seeking to follow Jesus Christ? They’re not exactly perfect, either. But is it right to expect them to be? And do their personal failures discredit Christianity as a whole?
What, in other words, is a true Christian supposed to look like?
Defining a Christian
We could spend weeks on that subject and only begin to scratch the surface. A Christian is many different things all at once, but so much of it comes down to action. The apostle James warned that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20) because, when it comes to believing in God, “even the demons believe—and tremble!” (verse 19). Believing in God is one thing, but unless we couple that belief with action, there isn’t much that distinguishes us from the demonic spirits who call Satan master. The demons believe in God, they even fear God, but they refuse to obey God.
A true Christian doesn’t stop at believing in God. A true Christian repents, is baptized and receives God’s Spirit (Acts 2:38). A true Christian pursues a relationship with God, studying His Word and speaking with Him in prayer, seeking to know Him better and better each day (John 10:27).
A true Christian is in a continual state of self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5), perpetually looking for ways to improve and grow. A true Christian is attentive to the will of God, striving to understand God’s commands and expectations and then live up to them, regardless of the personal cost or obstacles involved (1 John 5:3; Matthew 7:21).
A true Christian is all of these things, but not only these things. In fact, there’s at least one major attribute of a true Christian I neglected to include in this list. It’s an attribute I don’t think most Christians talk about as much as we should—maybe because we’re embarrassed by it or ashamed of it. I can understand that. It’s not a pretty aspect of following God; but it’s vital for us to understand it, talk about it and—even if we can’t exactly be proud of it—accept it:
A true Christian is still flawed.
It comes with the territory. No one likes to advertise their imperfections, but accepting the teachings of the Son of God requires first admitting our own sinfulness. Jesus came preaching repentance as the first step of His gospel message (Mark 1:15). He also said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mark 2:17).
Becoming a Christian requires adopting God’s commandments as your own standards—standards you know you’ll struggle to reach.
Becoming a Christian requires picking up the pages of God’s Word and saying, “This is right”—and then looking deep within your own heart and saying, “I’m not.”
Becoming a Christian requires knowing that who you are is not who you want to be—knowing that the final goal is always just ahead, that repentance and change and growth are processes requiring a lifetime of effort, not just a weekend.
Christians fail. Christians have shortcomings. Christians, from time to time, make terrible decisions and awful mistakes, because Christians aren’t Christ. They are flawed human beings trying to follow in the footsteps of a perfect God, and no one can do that without tripping from time to time.
Hypocrisy vs. humanity
In its most literal form, the Greek word for hypocrisy, hypokrisis, simply means acting. Theater productions in the time of Christ depended on the skill of the play’s hypocrites, or actors—the better the hypocrite, the more convincing the show. When Jesus accused religious leaders of hypocrisy, He was basically accusing them of being actors—playing a certain character, putting on an entire performance for the sake of the audience, while in their hearts they were someone completely different. Their piety was a performance, not a genuine action.
God knows He’s called His people to do some hard things, and He doesn’t expect them to make it through life without picking up some scratches and dings along the way.Two thousand years later, hypocrisy is a word we tend to throw around with a little less restraint. Rather than a word for clear cases of intentional deception, hypocrite is a label we apply to anyone who visibly fails to live up his or her own values.
That’s not always hypocrisy. Sometimes, that’s just called humanity. All human beings have trouble living up to a set of standards that don’t come naturally—the thing is, some of us just handle it differently.
Responding to our sinfulness
When you encounter something that’s broken, you can choose one of two responses. You can set about trying to find a solution, or you can convince yourself that the brokenness is an improvement and that it actually works better that way. Generally, the world tends to take the latter approach—it’s easier and means nothing has to change besides some people’s opinions.
We live in a broken world filled with broken people—broken by our own sins, our own rejection of God’s perfect way of life. Every time it gets worse, the world seems to throw a party and say that the new brokenness is an improvement, the way it should have been from the beginning. Meanwhile, God is working with the broken people who are willing to admit that they’re broken—who recognize that their brokenness needs to be fixed, not celebrated as the new normal.
And that’s what a true Christian looks like: a faithful servant of God on a lifelong mission to work with God and repair what’s broken and sinful in his or her own life. A Christian’s life isn’t flawless or free of mistakes. It’s not some shining alabaster monument to perfection; in fact, there are moments when it’s little more than an ugly, gritty mess in the process of being transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit into something special.
A Christian doesn’t quit
God knows He’s called His people to do some hard things, and He doesn’t expect them to make it through life without picking up some scratches and dings along the way.
As the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. … Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10, 16).
In this life, we’re going to get pummeled. We’re going to fail and make mistakes and fall short of God’s perfect standards, again and again and again. But a true Christian refuses to let the story end there. A true Christian knows that “a righteous man may fall seven times and rise again” (Proverbs 24:16, emphasis added).
It’s not about how many times you fall down; it’s about how many times you get back up.
No matter how much abuse the outward man takes, the true Christian’s focus is on what’s going on inside—“that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7).
And that, in a nutshell, is what it means to be a Christian. Followers of Christ aren’t made perfect on day one—rather, day one involves acknowledging perfection as the goal. Every day after is about pressing toward it.
For more information on going “on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1), read our free booklet Change Your Life.