No, but seriously. Thus spake Young Mom (the condensed version) some weeks ago:
When can you know whether or not someone is a Christian? After what faults is our faith "negated"? Sexual abuse of a child? Adultery? Child beating? Does contrition or a sufficiently long "sober" period make them a Christian again? Does sin reveal who you really are deep down? Can you judge the "realness" of someone else's Christianity by the type of sin they struggle with or the amount of sins they they commit?
I may be beating the dead horse, but these questions have been around for a while and, I hazard, will still be beating that horse long after the Internet and blogging have gone out of style. So, as October beat us into a dead horse, I pondered them because these questions are worth pondering.
The first important point is, however, about answers.
If I'm going to ask "What makes a real Christian?" or "What sign do I look for in a real Christian?", then I'd better be ready to wonder. These questions are not abstract, but rather pertain to real, individual human beings. The minute I think I've determined the answer, "THAT makes a real Christian," I've also made myself a judge in some manner of real, honest-to-goodness human souls. God, however, is the only judge of souls, and His ways are not my ways. So, I need to be ready to wonder at and ponder these questions all my life, until I actually meet the author of the Answer.
After making myself a child (wonder), then I asked, "What are all these questions about "real" Christians really asking?"
I think there are two reasons we want to know (and these reasons are assuming the best about human beings).
1. Wondering about "real" Christians is really wondering about salvation. We all want to know, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The young man asked Jesus, and we all ask Jesus, "What must I do?" There is no question, as Pope John Paul II said, that there is "a close connection between eternal life and obedience to God's commands... Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation (Veritatis Splendor, no. 12)." But asking for a laundry list of sins or good works that will define me as a Christian is asking the wrong question. "Following Christ is not an outward imitation.... Being a follower of Christ means becoming conformed to him who became a servant even to giving himself on the Cross (no. 21)."
Darn! I think a laundry list would be easier.
So, if John Paul II is right (and he's basically just quoting St. Paul here), being a Christian means that Christ dwells in the heart of the believer. And, in my experience, the indwelling of Christ is an ongoing process. It's not like I woke up one day and was perfectly conformed to Christ (hot diggity, that would be swell!). Salvation comes, Paul tells us, through the name of Jesus, through whom we are adopted as God's sons and daughters. It sounds like a "real" Christian, then, is anyone who has entered upon this ongoing process, who has begun to be conformed to Christ on the Cross. That could include a lot of "sinners," as Jesus himself suggested on several occasions.
2. Wondering about "real" Christians is really searching for true companions. Aristotle's idea of true friendship, in which one person desires the true good of another simply for the sake of that other person, holds every human heart captive. We all want relationships with others who desire our true good, and, after the revelation of Christ, this means we all want to be with others who want us to be with God. We somehow know that only true Christians, "other Christs," can be true friends (again, in the ideal sense of the term). We want friends who won't betray us, who won't let us down, who won't embarrass us as Christians. We know that sin and failures among Christians hurt the whole body of the Church, while good and great Christians build up the whole body. There is no such thing as an individual's sins "that don't hurt anybody else"; neither is the any isolated virtuous man whose goodness does not somehow refresh and multiply the lovers of Christ around him.
And here's where we have to be real: The only true Christians are those who have fought the good fight and finished the race. We can all betray Christ right up until the moment of death and our particular judgement. We can all fail miserably to be Christian right up until we hit that far shore of the River. That's why it's so important to build relationships with the saints in heaven.
But what about here? Who are the "real" Christians here? Where can we find the true friend in Christ here?
Here are a few more thoughts. And then we will have to just sit and ponder.
"If you love you me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14) For the professed and catechized Christian, the true way to show we are Christians is by keeping the external commandments for the right, internal reasons. Jesus is quite clear: you have to have both a heart and actions conformed to him.
But what about when we (or other professed, catechized Christians) fail? All I can say is, read Romans 8: "What shall separate us from the love of Christ?" If we are followers of Christ, we know that there is no unforgivable sin, except the refusal of God's mercy. Period. As long as that Christian has opened his heart back up to the mercy of God, guess what? He's still as Christian as the day he was baptized. If we can't believe in unconditional forgiveness of a particular sin, then that indwelling of Christ is still imperfect in us as well. We, as well as the pederast or the adulterer, have to beg mercy. We, like the "obvious sinners," are still "on the way," "strangers and sojourners."
[I'm emphasizing "catechized" here for one important reason. If this is really a question about "Who may be saved?", then we can't limit the answer to just "good Christians." There may be that "anonymous Christian" lurking out there, along with the anonymous Catholic, anonymous theist, etc... But that's another whole post, as they say.]
In the end, the whole "Who is a Christian?" question may be the wrong question. A better question may be Christ's question to Peter, "Do you love me?" The answer is always, "I do, Lord, but not enough. Help me love you more."