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Sunday, June 6, 2010

What IS Christianity?

An anthropologist correctly calls it religion, a psychologist correctly calls it relationship, but for me the essence of Christianity is the mystery of the indwelling Christ.

Some Christians want to deny it is a religion, but that is not entirely honest. No matter what identity you hold, it is impossible to avoid the anthropological dynamics. You cannot be a democrat or a republican, a teacher or a student, an American or a Korean, a computer programmer or a chef without adopting various behaviors with forms and functions motivated by various ideological concepts to connect you with that culture. So, as much as we might want to deny it, Christianity IS a religion and cannot stop being one because it will always show up in your life through forms, functions and expressed ideas.

Some Christians claim it is a relationship usually as part of the denial that it is a religion. And yes it is a relationship too. Even an atheist has to admit that the christian relates to God as if they had an ongoing relationship. Since a relationship involves mutual dealings, connections, or feelings that exist between two parties, Christianity is certainly perceived by Christians as a relationship of sorts. But that is still not what makes Christianity what it is at its most basic essence.

Christianity is the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory. The regeneration of the Holy Spirit the redemptive grace of God is brought to the believer through the indwelling Christ. That reality is hard to describe, hard to conceive, impossible to do so it can't be a religion in that sense. It also is difficult to relate to because in so many ways it involves God doing things from within that we neither understand, comprehend, nor are certain how to deal with. So it is more than just a relationship.

The transformation of the Christian is the result of the nurtured presence of Christ within. It results in a character that grows when allowed to but chokes when we try to control it, explain it or prove it. Who we are becoming in Christ-likeness will only happen because it will be the result of Christ within. It is this mystery that is the essence of Christianity.


  1. Great article, Bob.

    Question regarding your last statement: If this mystery is the essence of Christianity, and Christianity is largely a religion, how can we call them both Christianity? It seems to me that Christianity, as it is defined today in the minds of the general public, as a religion, must be abandoned at least to some degree in order to experience this transformational essence.

    While the Christian religion may contribute some truth, it seems to hinder truth that much more. Can the real Christianity be identified with a different term, or do you think the original term can be salvaged?

  2. Elizabeth, your question points out a genuine problem believers have when trying to explain Christianity to someone who does not believe.

    Perhaps an analogy could be drawn from the experience of a certain bitter flavor. Some people have a gene that allows them to taste the natural biochemical propylthiouracil which has a very bitter taste and occurs naturally in some vegetables like cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

    A paper soaked with propylthiouracil will be exceedingly bitter to those who have the gene but will seem to have a bland flavor to those who do not have that gene.

    If you do not have this gene then how can you really know this gene has that affect? Oddly, you sort of have to take our word for it. No amount of that chemical in your food or on paper will produce for you those bitter results.

    However, it is not as if it strains credibility. We have identified the gene and it helps if you can see the expression on our face as we taste the bitterness. You can also observe our behavior as we rinse our mouths with water to remove that unpleasant taste.

    Some believe in the bitterness of that chemical because they experience it. Others believe in it only because they have observed the behavior of those who apparently do taste it.

    Those who taste that chemical can assure you that observing their behavior and tasting the chemical are two very different experiences. However they don't deny they exhibit the outward behaviors concerning the inner experience.

    So too with Christianity. The essence of Christianity is a personal and private experience of Christ living within. But we cannot find the indwelling Christ in a brain scan or blood test. We can observe the behavior and talk of those who claim Christ lives within.

    In deed observing the behavior and explanations of those who claim Jesus lives within in some cases helps explain their behavior but in other cases it strains credibility.

    Imagine someone trying to imitate the behavior of those who taste the bitterness in an attempt to claim they possess this gene. Sneaking it into their food might help reveal the act. So too when someone does not grow toward a Christ like disposition it strains credibility and they seem to be putting on an act of merely observing outward behaviors and seem to be merely repeating ideas they have heard. But they seem void of a genuine personal experience.

    The behavior and explanations of those who truly know the indwelling Christ is their religion, but for those who know the indwelling Christ, the resulting behavior and explanations are not what its all about for them.

    For those on the outside looking in, our religion is all they can see. When we deny we have a religion I think we only add to the incredulity of our gospel claim. When we can however own the reality that our experience of Christ has altered our habits and thoughts but that the real flavor of Jesus is a spiritual experience that in some ways is inexpressible, then we can invite them to shift their focus from the observable externals to the possibility of the unobservable internals.

    The only way to salvage the word is for more of us to be a people whose primary -ism is Hism. Those who know the indwelling Christ and have lived with the ongoing process and transformation can over time exhibit a far more compelling claim that the reality of Christianity is not the effect you observe but the cause living within.

  3. When a person comes across a Christian who exhibits the indwelling Christ, they will know the difference. I had this happen the other day when a conversation between me and a Jewish lady was spontaneously ceased by God's Spirit. She shared with me her drastic forceful confrontations with 'Christians' and how she was turned off from it. She said she is apprehensive of the 'forceful Christians'. She didn't want to stereotype them, but over the years had not met a free believer and we had a glorious conversation.