What is a Christian?
To define a thing is not to understand it or to explain it. Human words are little more than labels which we use to stick on our thoughts. They are like coins minted by the human mind and passed into common circulation to facilitate the commerce of speech and friendship. But, just as few who carry coins understand the complex world of banking or finance, so few who use human words think much about their meaning. We speak of the sun, but who can understand the marvellous processes by which it rises and sets, bringing light and cheer to every creature? We speak of marriage and love, but behind such simple words is a mysterious web of emotions that we can explain scarcely at all. How do two hearts become intertwined? How can two persons become 'one flesh' and be committed to each other for a life-time? What unseen instinct leads a woman to 'leave her father and her mother', whom she has known for twenty and more years, and follow a man whom she has only known for five years, or one, or less? Who then can tell us what it is to be a Christian?
Nowhere is our vocabulary so insufficient as in the things of God and of Christ. Doubtless those who are counted worthy to go to heaven will marvel to discover when they arrive in glory that God is immensely different from their thoughts of him here in this life, and far, far better. Not one of all the billions of sinners, saved and unsaved, who have used the word 'God' over the centuries has ever used the term with a true understanding of what He is like.
The same might be said of everything to do with God. We speak of the Trinity, but what true conception do we have of the ineffable mystery of a God who is three-in-one? Neither Athanasius nor Augustine nor Calvin knew the thousandth part of what they meant when they confessed and affirmed 'the holy Trinity'. They admitted this themselves in what they wrote. They did not pretend to explain what they wrote about, but did not wish to be 'wholly silent' on these lofty subjects, as one put it. So what then is a Christian?
Our best thoughts of God come as far short of their glorious reality as a child's understanding of higher mathematics, astronomy or brain surgery. The point comes home to every parent who enters the primary school and looks at the pupils' work on the classroom wall. The drawings of men and houses, hills and rivers are recognisable as primitive attempts to portray reality. But how crude they are by comparison with the masterpieces of a Leonardo or a Rembrandt! And how crude are the efforts of these masters themselves compared with the realities which our great Creator has made! Just as our ideas of God are only crude and ill-shaped attempts by sin-retarded minds to conceive of him as he really is, so is our notion of being a Christian.
To state matters in this way is not to suggest for a moment that a Christian's thought of God is all wrong and therefore worthless. Every Christian mind has a true knowledge of God, just as every primary school child has a true knowledge of his or her own mother's face. But our perception, though true so far as it goes, is only a pale shade of the reality. The point of saying this is not to deny that we know God but to remind ourselves that God is immeasurably better than our knowledge of him and to whet our appetite to know him better than we do in this present life.
The Bible itself makes much the same illustration as we have used when it informs us that at the moment 'we know in part' and we only 'see through a glass darkly' (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). The point being made is that earthly knowledge of spiritual reality is very imperfect. The knowledge of God which we possess is valid but by no means complete. Our present level of understanding in the things of God is good and sufficient for us while we are still in our childhood state on earth. For here we understand and think 'as a child' (1 Corinthians 13:11). But in the world to come we shall have knowledge of God and of the purposes of God which vastly outstrips what we can expect to attain to at present. In the future state we shall think 'as a man' (1 Corinthians 13:11). There each one of us shall be a perfect Christian.
The means of grace, so necessary to us in this life, are a glass in which we behold the glory of the Lord and are changed 'into the same image, from glory to glory' (1 Corinthians 3:18). But we shall need no such glass in the world to come. There we shall see 'face to face'. Knowledge of the Lord then is to be immediate and direct. Here, meanwhile, it is mediated to us through a variety of God-given influences and agencies: through the created order, through mind and conscience, through law and authority, through prayer and meditation, above all through the sacred Scriptures and their faithful exposition by God-sent preachers.
It is because they were aware of this difference between earthly knowledge and heavenly knowledge that some of the old Scottish Covenanters, when mounting the scaffold to die a martyr's death, bade farewell to the Bible as well as to their families and friends. Their intention was to remind themselves and their hearers that the Bible's light will not be needed on the other side of death. There they would 'know even as also they were known' (1 Corinthians 13:12). Faith's light is that of the candle; heaven's is the radiant splendour of the meridian sun. To pass from grace to glory is to take a quantum leap, not only of comfort and of delight, but of knowledge and of understanding. As the enormous telescopes of our famous observatories magnify by many hundred diameters the sizes of the planets above us, so our comprehension of the ever-blessed God and Saviour shall suddenly undergo at death a dramatic enlargement. There and then we shall know Christ, not as now from afar and in the Book, but as at hand and by direct sight.
This full and open sight of Christ in glory, which the saints are to have, will certainly bring with it a whole new world of love and emotion to their hearts. Not that it will be absolutely and entirely new, because they have the first stirrings of it already. But as love grows by knowledge of the one loved, so our love to Christ will undergo a powerful magnification and intensification when he lies open to our wondering gaze. With rapt attention and breathless with adoration the whole church in glory will see at last into the meaning of all its theology in a moment and forever.
One element to be fully seen by the saints must be the entire sovereignty and fullness of their own salvation. If this is seen by some of them already in this life, it is certainly not seen by all of them, nor is it yet adequately seen by any of them. But the sight of a Christ covenantally-given by God to be the Redeemer and Husband of some sinners and not of them all will be more proof of absolute divine sovereignty than all the writings of the theologians of this world.
Then every saint will feel the full force and exquisite meaning of Christ's own words: 'Ye have not chosen me but I have chosen you' (John 15:16). This will excite within every bursting breast the yearning to exclaim:
Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.Revelation 1:5-6
Why such a God should love one and not another sinner, when neither was better than the other, cannot be unrelated to the ecstatic gratitude of this doxology. The saints find themselves in heaven, they know not how or why except by God's free will which is his love to them. Eternity itself will not make this mysterious choice by God any less marvellous or adorable in their eyes.
Then, too, the vision of a Jesus on his Father's throne will clear up all the errors of Christ-denying sinners at a single stroke. The eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus; his absolute equality with his Father; the merit of his passion and blood-shedding; the completeness of his victory over sin, Satan and the grave; the security of the Church which is the ransomed prize of his agony and self-offering on the Cross — all these and all related truths will be cleared up in the twinkling of an eye for every believer. His eyes shall drink in the panoramic spectacle of a Saviour in the midst of the throne of God. Then no Peter will thoughtlessly reproach the Lord with his, 'That be far from thee, Lord.' No Thomas will doubt. No mother of a John or a James will utter their over-ambitious prayers. No praises will be shared with saints or angels. No 'Hail Mary' will jar the seraphic anthem. God in Christ will be all the theme of all their praise.
Sin will then be seen in all its sinfulness as the contradiction of God's will and the provoking of his holiness. For only when Christ is fully known can God be fully loved for his burning purity. And only when God is so known can the sinfulness of sin be understood. Sin will be remembered in heaven. But it will be no grief to saints because it will be seen in the light of a redemption completed by a visible Christ. And as the sight of Christ will evoke our utmost assurance and affection, so the love of the Spirit will be endlessly poured upon our hearts and our Heavenly Father will ever speak words of peace and welcome to us. We shall know evil in that day only from the standpoint of good.
Furthermore, we shall at last and in the presence of Christ understand 'the manifold wisdom of God' revealed in the church (Ephesians 3:10). The church has been the most misunderstood institution on earth. Persecuted, rejected, afflicted, misrepresented in all ages, the Church of Jesus Christ will at last, and in his nearer presence, be vindicated and justified. The destiny of the people of God is to be one of final triumph. The laughter of saints will be inevitable when they see in that day how true and faithful God's words have always been. In their marvellous perseverance and eventual homecoming the angelic host will see God's many-sided wisdom displayed and exhibited in all its labyrinthine intricacy.
Each saint's conversion is different; each saint's experiences different; each saint's labours different; each saint's gifts different; each saint's enjoyment of Christ different; each saint's death and judgement different. Yet all the saints together will be happy, holy, heavenly, harmonious.
It is a church worthy now of such a Saviour and of such a God. Who then can say what it means to be a Christian?