John 17:3, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent," captures the essence of what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian, or having eternal life, is about having a relationship with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. This does not exhaust all truth about what it means to be a Christian, but it summarizes it well. And it is a kind of key to putting all of the other aspects into their proper roles, much in the same sense as love is a summary of the law1. Being a Christian is not primarily about getting to heaven; nor is it primarily about getting forgiven2.
From the start of Genesis, to the end of Revelation, it’s taught that God’s word, His commandment, imparts life to us, like an instruction manual that comes with something you buy, that keeps you from breaking it and helps you to get the most benefit from it.
I have one event in my life that stands out in my memory as the clearest example of the truth of this concept as it applies to me personally.
About 20 years ago, I was working at a job where I didn’t interact with anyone all day long. We were building very specialized high-tech light bulbs. These bulbs were extremely high-wattage and were used for situations that required a lot of light, like, for example, the lights that were mounted on the space shuttle Challenger to light up the surface of Jupiter to photograph it.
We don't move from our physical family directly to our Christian faimily when we become Christians. We make God our Father, our source and sustainer of our lives, and the One we are to behave like, then, consequently, we become brothers and sisters of others who have done likewise. This distinction is significant. In fact, this is what we have in common, that we are His spiritual children. And if at any point we begin to value our connection to our brethren more than our connection to our heavenly Father, we have begun to serve an idol instead of God and we have lost that very thing that connected us.
Many Biblical passages that are pressed into service of the Christian unity message are not teaching anything of the kind. It would seem as though those who view the church according to fleshly, worldly principles, who view it as a human institution rather than a spiritual body, being given its life and being maintained by God Himself, think it is their duty to maintain church attendance numbers by promoting unity among believers. This is a mistake. Christian unity is only valuable insofar as it is truly Christian. Our unity in Christ will extend as far as we are walking in the truth and love of Christ, and no further.
The victim of child abuse probably wishes that Christians didn’t brag that they “aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” He or she wishes they would have been perfect at not doing that sin that hurt them so much. And the same with those who have been lied to, stolen from, cheated on, or raised in a broken home. Don’t Christians have to be good at all?!
But the Bible doesn’t teach that Christians “aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” In fact, Jesus said, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and the apostle Peter wrote, “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” Some Christians are saying that these kinds of commands and teachings from Jesus and His apostles were just to give us something to aim for, but that we were never expected to actually do it. But Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”1 And the apostle John wrote, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”2
Jesus was speaking to His disciples and to the crowd about their church leaders. After explaining that they don't practice what they preach, and that they aren't motivated by love, but just want people to look up to them, He made these curious statements:
What was Jesus getting at? First off, He wasn't saying we can't use language to make reference to those people that talk to students in schools, or a male parent, or those people that are in positions of government. These are real things and it is appropriate to use these words to communicate about them. The context of this teaching was about corrupt religious leaders—about not becoming like them, and not being misled by them. The first and the third statements here concern what we allow others to call us, while the second regards what we call others, but they all involve the same principle—not putting men in roles that rightly belong exclusively to God.