What is a Christian?
By Henry Drummond
Young men are learning to respect more, perhaps, than ever young men have done, the word “Christian.” I have seen the time when it was synonymous with cant and unreality and strained feeling and sanctimoniousness. But although that day is not quite passed yet, it is passing. I heard this definition the other day of a Christian man by a cynic – “A Christian man is a man whose great aim in life is a selfish desire to save his own soul, who, in order to do that, goes regularly to church, and whose supreme hope is to get to Heaven when he dies.” This reminds one of Professor Huxley’s examination paper in which the question was put – “What is a lobster?” One student replied that a lobster was a red fish, which moves backwards. The examiner noted that this was a very good answer, but for three things. In the first place a lobster was not a fish; second it was not red; and third it did not move backwards. If there is anything that a Christian is not, it is one who has a selfish desire to save his own soul. The one thing which Christianity tries to extirpate from a man’s nature is selfishness, even though it be the losing of his own soul.
Christianity, as we understand it from Christ, appeals to the generous side of a young man’s nature, and not to the selfish side. In the New Testament the word “soul” is always translated in this connection by the word “life.” That marks a revolution in the popular theology, and it will make a revolution in every Young Man’s Christian Association in the country where it come to be seen that a man’s Christianity does not consist in merely saving his own soul, but in sanctifying and purifying the lives of his fellow-man. We are told in the New Testament that Christianity is leaven, and “leaven” comes from the same root-word as lever, meaning that which raises up, which
elevates; and a Christian young man is a man who raises up or elevates the lives of those round about him. We are also told that Christianity is salt, and salt is that which saves from corruption. What is it that saves the life of the world from being utterly rotten, but the Christian elements that are in it? Matthew Arnold has said, “Show me ten square miles in any part of the world outside Christianity where the life of man and the purity of woman are safe, and I will give Christianity up.” In no part of the world is there any such ten square miles outside Christianity. Christian men are the salt of the earth in the most literal sense. They, and they alone, keep the world from utter destruction.
I want to say a word there about the Young Men’s Christian Associations. Many have criticized them. They have been the target for a great deal of abuse. Many of the best young men have sneered at them, and turned up their noses at them, and denounced them. I am speaking with absolute sympathy and respect, and even enthusiasm, for Young Men’s Christian Associations. But I will turn for one instant upon those men who turn against them, and tell them that it is not breadth that leads them to do that, but what one might call the narrowness of breadth – that breadth which denounces intolerance, and which is itself too intolerant to tolerate intolerance. And, as some one says, it is easier to criticize the best thing superbly than to do the smallest thing indifferently.
It is very easy to criticize the methods and aims and men of the Young Men’s Christian Associations. If, instead of looking on and criticizing those who know a thing or two, those who think they are wiser, and that they have the whole truth, would throw themselves in among others and back them and try to work alongside of them, they would get perhaps their breadth tempered by earnestness and by zeal, because the narrow man has much to contribute to the Christian cause, perhaps more than the broad man. But it needs all kinds of people to make a world; it needs all kinds of people to make a church, and every type of young men a Christian Association; and the greatest mistake of all is to have very man stamped in the same stamp, so that if you met him in a railway train one hundred miles off, you would know him as a Y.M.C.A. man. I would like to find many who would not wear the badge to pronouncedly, that every one should know them at a glance.
There is only one great character in the world that can really draw out all that is best in man. He is so far about all others in influencing men for good that He stands alone. That man was the founder of Christianity. To be a Christian man is to have that character for our ideal in life, to live under its influence, to do what He would wish us to do, to lie the kind of life He would have lived in our house, and had He our day’s routine to go through. It would not, perhaps, alter the forms of our life, but it would alter the spirit and aims and motives of our life, and the Christian man is he who in that sense lives under the influence of Jesus Christ.
Now, there is nothing that a young man want for his ideal that is not found in Christ. You would be surprised when you come to know who Christ is, if you have not thought much about it, to find how He will fit in with all human needs, and call out all that is best in man. The highest and manliest character that ever lived was Christ. One incident I often think of and wonder. You remember, when He hung upon the cross, there was handed up to Him a vessel containing a stupefying drug, supplied by a kind society of ladies in Jerusalem, who always sent it to criminals when being executed. And that stupefying drug was handed up to Christ’s lips. And we read, “When He tasted thereof He would not drink.” I have always thought that one of the most heroic actions I have ever read of. But that was only one very small side of Christ’s nature. He can be everything that a man wants. Paul tells us that if we live in Christ we are changed into His image. All that a man has to do, then, to be like Christ, is simply to live in friendship with Christ, and the character follows.
But it is only one of the aims of Christianity to make the best men. The next thing Christ wants to do is to make the best world. And He tries to make the best world by setting the best men loose upon the world to influence it and reflect Him upon it. In 1874 a religious movement began in Edinburgh University among the students themselves, that has since spread to some of the best academic institutions in America. The students have a hall, and there they meet on Sundays, or occasionally on weekdays, to hear addresses from their professors, or from outside eminent men, on Christian topics. There is no committee; there are no rules; there are no reports. Every meeting is held strictly in private, and any attempt to pose before the world is sternly discouraged. No paragraphs are put into the journals; no addresses are reported. The meetings are private, quiet, earnest, and whatsoever student likes may attend them. That is all. It is not an organization in the ordinary sense, it is a “leaven.” In all the schools it is the best men who take most part in the movement, and among the schools it is the medical side which furnishes the greatest number of students to the meetings. Some of the most zealous have taken high honors in their examinations, and some have been in the first class of university athletes. It is not a movement that has laid hold of weak or worthless students whom nobody respects, but one that is maintained by the best men in every department. The first benefit is to the students themselves. Take Edinburgh, with about 4000 students drawn from all parts of the world, and living in rooms with no one caring for them. Taken away from the moral support of their previous surroundings, they went to the bad in hundreds. It is now found that through this movement they work better, and that a greater percentage pass honorably through the university portals into life. The religious meetings, it is to be observed, are never allowed to interfere with the work of the students. The second result is to be seen in what are called university settlements. A few men will band themselves together and rent a house in the lower parts of the city and live there. They do no preaching, no formal evangelization work; but they help the sick and they arrange smoking concerts, and contribute to the amusement of their neighbors. They simply live with the people, and trust that their example will produce a good effect. Three years ago they printed and distributed among themselves the following “Programme of Christianity.” – “To bind up the broken-hearted, to give liberty to the captives, to comfort all that mourn, to give beauty for ashes, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” I suppose there are few of us with broken hearts, but there are other people in the world besides ourselves, and underneath all the gayety of the city there is not a street in which there are not men and women with broken hearts. Who is to help these people? No one can lift them up in any way except those who are living the life of Christ, and it is their privilege and business to bind up the broken-hearted.
I want to urge the claims of the Christian ministry on the strength and talent of our youth. I find a singular want of men in the Christian ministry, and I think it would be at least worth while for some of you to look around, to look at the men who are not filling the churches, to look at the needs of the crowds who throng the streets, an see if you could do better with your life than throw yourself into what work. The advantage of the ministry is that a man’s whole life can be thrown into the carrying out of that programme without any deduction. Another advantage of the ministry is that it is so poorly paid that a man is not tempted to cut a dash and shine in the world, but can be meek and lowly in heart, like his Master. It is enough for a servant to be like his master, and there is a great attraction in seeking obscurity, even isolation, if one can be following the highest ideal.
With regard to the question, how you shall begin the Christian life, let me remind you that theology is the most abstruse thing in the world, but that practical religion is the simplest thing. If any of you want to know how to begin to be a Christian, all I can say is that you should begin to do the next thing you find to be done as Christ would have done it. If you follow Christ the “old man” will die of atrophy, and the “new man” will grow day by day under His abiding friendship.