What does it mean to be a Christian?

Recently, Scott Walker got a great deal of media attention for how he answered a question about whether President Barack Obama was a Christian. This was his response:

“I don’t know. . . . I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian? To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press. The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”

A wide variety of pundits jumped on Scott Walker for his answer and sharply criticized him. At least a few thoughtful pundits have considered his remarks in light of the theological perspective he brings as the son of a minister and a member of an evangelical church.

Tim Graham for instance pointed out that: “Walker, the son of a Protestant minister, hears the question very differently: asking if someone is a Christian is a very personal question, asking whether someone has committed themselves to Jesus in their heart. It’s like asking if he knows how often Obama prays. His reluctance to answer for someone he doesn’t know is not a “No.”

Over at New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig likewise echoed a similar thought: “And so Walker is probably right: Without knowing Obama personally and having enough of a relationship with him to both probe his convictions and develop an intuition of his beliefs, it is impossible to begin to forward an educated opinion about whether or not he is Christian. More to the point, it is not even possible to advance a litmus test for proving his Christianity that the general public can widely agree upon, and even if it were, there is no reason to presume one’s Christian-ness can or should be decided democratically. In short, we lack the public agreement necessary to begin to decide how we would even know whether or not Obama is truly a Christian.”

When I first read Walker’s answer, my immediate reaction, other than cheering for his willingness to take on the media who asks such irrelevant question, was that his answer was theologically consistent. Since joining the LDS Church, I have had conversations with many evangelical friends and we discussed the question of whether Mormons are Christian. The answer that I have most often heard from those who take their theology seriously is that while Mormonism as a religion is not in their mind Christian, Individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be Christian. For them, being a Christian has more to do with one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A Christian is one who has accepted Christ as his personal savior and is therefore saved. There are many many members of ostensibly Christian churches who are not Christian because they themselves have never accepted Jesus as Savior. Likewise, there may be members of Churches that teach falsely (such as ours in their mind) who nevertheless have come to know Jesus Christ and received a remission of their sins.

For someone like Scott Walker who comes from this background, the only proper answer when asked about whether another is Christian is “I Don’t Know,” This is especially true for someone that one has not had a religious or theological conversation with to asses whether that person truly knows Christ.

I think this goes to a deeper point about society and the role of religion. In popular culture, we like to treat religion as something like a hobby or a diversion. Religion is a social club that we belong to and attend sometimes. For the media, anyone who takes religion seriously is a fanatic and not to be taken seriously. Yet, this view is alien to the millions of religiously devout Americans who take their faith seriously. It is easy to grow somewhat cynical of those who attend church only periodically or seem to wear their religion solely as a social status symbol. Yet, Walker’s answer should remind us that we are not the one’s to judge the hearts and minds of others.

As for me, for me it is pretty easy to answer the question in the affirmative. In the Book of Mormon, we read about Individuals in the ancient Americas who were called Christian: “ For thus were all the true believers of Christ, who belonged to the church of God, called by those who did not belong to the church. And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come.” (Alma 46:14-15). While some might read these verses as suggesting that only members of the LDS Church are to be called Christians (those who belong to the Church of God), I think this is an inaccurate reading. At the time of Moroni, there was not the diversity of churches that exist today. Just as with the Church of Christ at the time of the Savior, there was one fold for all of those who believed. Moreover, the verse also speaks about “ALL true believers in Christ” taking upon themselves the name. Christian was a title that was at one point given derisively, and became a badge of honor for those who accepted Christ.

For me, these verses suggest that anyone who i willing to take upon themselves the name Christian and pledge to follow the savior is a Christian. This is true whether or not someone has some faulty theological ideas, or fully understands the savior. Christians are those who head the call of the Savior to “Come Follow Me.” They may do so imperfectly. The Apostles and Disciples of Christ who followed him did not fully understand him or his divine nature.

In the end, the wheat and the tares will be separated. Those who claim to follow Christ and yet do so without a sincere heart will be sifted like chaff and burned. Some of those who are burned will be those who claim to be members of Christ’s true Church. Yet, for this life all those who claim to be Christians are welcome to take upon themselves that badge. It is not my place to question them or to doubt their sincerity.

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Being Made Perfect in Christ

I want to highly recommend an article in the July ensign by Elder Gerrit W. Gong entitled Becoming Perfect in Christ. It is a really powerful article which testifies of the Atonement and the fact that each of us can become perfect in Christ.

 

One of my mission president’s favorite scriptures was/is Moroni 10: 32-33. He would often close conferences by discussing Moroni’s beautiful penultimate words

32 Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

My mission president emphasized that in in this verse perfection is never referenced without being followed by the words “in Christ.” Our perfection is not measured by never making a mistake in life. We are not expected to be absolutely flawless. Instead, perfection implies a process whereby through the grace of Christ and the power of his Atonement we are cleansed.

I also love the sense of progression in these verses. First, we may be perfected in him, which seems like a distant goal. Next, after we have denied ourselves of ungodly things and loved God, we may be perfect in him which is to me seems a more immediate and attainable goal. Next, through the power of God ye are perfect in Christ. I love that it is not our own efforts that move us from being potentially perfect to actually being perfect, but the power of God. As we continue to be perfect in Christ by his grace, we are sanctified in Christ due to our covenant relationship and his atonement. It is only ultimately after that process of perfection that the scripture says that ye become holy, without spot. For the first time, this last reference is without the words in christ implying that it is only after the process of refinement through the atonement that we can become holy and pure independent of the grace of the savior. Even still, while Holy, without Spot is wonderful, it is not quite the same thing as fully perfect, and to me that implies a continuing reliance on the Savior and his atonement that will continue beyond this life.

Elder Gong beautifully captures this process in his article

Understanding the Savior’s freely given atoning love can free us from self-imposed, incorrect, and unrealistic expectations of what perfection is. Such understanding allows us to let go of fears that we are imperfect—fears that we make mistakes, fears that we are not good enough, fears that we are a failure compared to others, fears that we are not doing enough to merit His love.

The Savior’s freely given atoning love helps us become more forgiving and less judgmental of others and of ourselves. This love heals our relationships and gives us opportunities to love, understand, and serve as our Savior would.

His atoning love changes our concept of perfection. We can put our trust in Him, diligently keep His commandments, and continue in the faith (see Mosiah 4:6)—even as we also feel greater humility, gratitude, and dependence on His merits, mercy, and grace (see 2 Nephi 2:8).

In a broader sense, coming unto Christ and being perfected in Him places perfection within the eternal journey of our spirit and body—in essence, the eternal journey of our soul (see D&C 88:15). Becoming perfect results from our journey through physical life, death, and resurrection, when all things are restored “to their proper and perfect frame” (Alma 40:23). It includes the process of spiritual birth, which brings “a mighty change” to our hearts and dispositions (Mosiah 5:2). It reflects our lifelong refinement through Christlike service and obedience to the Savior’s commandments and our covenants. And it recognizes the perfecting relationship between the living and the dead (see D&C 128:18).

 

Elder Gong explains that knowing this truth is essential to allow us to continue to develop and become more Christlike while avoiding the pressures of perfectionism and the accompanying feelings of guilty and inadequacy. I also bear witness that it is through Christ and his atonement that we are able to be made whole. While sanctification is a gradual process, it really does work. If we continue to have faith and press forward, we will be perfect in Christ and made whole, pure, and holy.

Christ in the Garden

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I recently attended the Sacred Gifts art exhibit at the BYU Art Museum and was really touched by this painting by Franz Schwartz called “Agony in the Garden.” I went back and saw it again a second time and continue to be mesmerized by the beautiful depiction. When I see Christ in the garden, I imagine him rent in agony and suffering. I love how Christ is obviously in the midst of prayer. I love all of the emotion and exhaustion that can be seen in his eyes. I also love how the angel comforts him, and how his wings are fully engulfing and embracing the savior. 

I love the parallels between the angels comfort, and the comfort promised by the savior as he spoke out of the darkness to the mourning grieving afflicted nephites: (3 Ne 10:1-6)

 1 And now behold, it came to pass that all the people of the land did hear these sayings, and did witness of it. And after these sayings there was silence in the land for the space of many hours;

 2 For so great was the astonishment of the people that they did cease lamenting and howling for the loss of their kindred which had been slain; therefore there was silence in all the land for the space of many hours.

 3 And it came to pass that there came a voice again unto the people, and all the people did hear, and did witness of it, saying:

 4 O ye people of these great cities which have fallen, who are descendants of Jacob, yea, who are of the house of Israel, how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you.

 5 And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, who have fallen; yea, O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen; yea, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not.

 6 O ye house of Israel whom I have spared, how oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, if ye will repent and return unto me with full purpose of heart.

This is the promise offered to us by the savior. He will take us fully under his wings and comfort and nourish us if only we repent and come unto him. How fitting, that in this great moment of trial, the father would send an angel to gather the savior literally under his wings and to offer comfort and nourishment.

 

Applying the atonement

I think one of the hardest things for members of the church, especially those that have been in it their whole lives, to truly get is how to apply the atonement of Christ in their life. Members may often view the atonement as something that only comes into place ‘after all we can do’ rather than throughout our lives at every moment. Moreover, members may view perfect obedience of the commandments as a prerequisite to having Christ’s atonement active in us. This perspective leads individuals to feel flawed, lost and forever removed from God’s grace.

 

The truth is far different of course. Having been baptized into his church, born or entered into his covenant and having received the gift of the Holy Ghost, we have become his children and Christ is our advocate. He is consistently pleading and praying for us to have the faith we need. His atonement is continually working even on those that are struggling or can not comprehend

“3 Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him–

4 Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified;

5 Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.”

Christ knows that we do not have perfect faith. Remember…He knows our weaknesses perfectly. Long ago, as his time upon the cross approached, he reminded one of his chief disciples that he was praying for him to have enough faith to deal with the challenge that would come his way.

But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.”

 

I testify that Christ likewise prays for and on behalf of each of us. He prays for those whose faiths are struggling and his atonement is ever ready to help.

Moreover, being bearers of the Holy Spirit means that even in those times when our faith is lacking and we know not what to say or what to pray for, Christ is still interceding with us through his Holy Spirit 

 “26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groaningswhich cannot be uttered.

 27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

 28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8).

I testify that Christ and his atonement are continually active in each of our lives, whether or not we fully appreciate it. The atonement is real and it does work. God loves us and Christ cares for us even when we are stubborn or faithless. We are never beyond the reach of his tender arm which is ever beckoning to us.