A Simple Explanation of What it Means to be a “Christian”
The term, “Christian,” was first used by the pagans in Antioch to describe those who were following the teachings of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:26). It was meant as a derogatory term against those who were acting like “little Christs” in their actions and attitudes. A Christian is someone who is a follower of the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Many people claim to be Christians, but their claim is true only in a cultural sense, not a Biblical one. A true Christian is conscious that apart from Jesus Christ they are hopelessly separated from God (Ephesians 2:12), because they have broken God’s laws and are guilty before Him (James 2:10; Romans 3:9-23) and incapable of doing righteousness (Isaiah 64:6). They are aware of Christ’s death and resurrection and understand the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in dealing with their sin (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). They have received grace from God by which the Holy Spirit enables them to believe the facts of the gospel and then to volitionally place their faith in Christ alone to provide forgiveness of sin and everlasting life (John 3:16; 4:16; Acts 4:12; 16:31; Ephesians 2:8-10).
As a result of salvation, a true Christian will serve the Lord (Ephesians 2:10) and strive to be obedient to Him (John 14:21) out of a changed nature (2 Corinthians 5:17) and a response of love for what God has done (1 John 4:19).
Grace Bible Church exists to glorify God by making disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19,20). We desire to help those still lost in their sins to place their faith in Jesus, and we desire to help those professing to be Christians live in obedience to Christ and for His glory.
The sermon below is a more detailed explanation of what it means to be a Christian.
On Becoming a Christian
Grace Bible Church
In order to become a Christian, one must first understand what a Christian is. There is a lot of confusion about the answer to that question due to the varied beliefs of those that claim to be Christians. However, the answer is not difficult if you will stick to what the Bible says about the issue, and ultimately, only what God says about the matter will count.
Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary gives several definitions for a Christian.
Christian (noun) 1 a : one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ b (1) : DISCIPLE2 (2) : a member of one of the Churches of Christ separating form the Disciples of Christ in 1906 (3) : a member of the Christian denomination having part in the union of the United Church of Christ concluded in 1961 2: the hero in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
Christian (adjective) 1 a : of or relating to Christianity <~ scriptures> b: based on or conforming with Christianity <~ethics> 2 of or relating to a Christian <~responsibilities> b : professing <a ~ affirmation> 3 : commendably decent or generous <has a very ~ concern for others>
Christianity 1 : the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as a sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies 2: conformity to the Christian Religion.
Those definitions may sound good to some people, but they are so broad that they can encompass people that fail to match the other definitions. For example, what do you call a person who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus, is involved with a religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as a sacred scripture, but they do not believe Jesus was born of a virgin, they deny the miracles Jesus did and they deny His deity. By Webster’s definitions such a person would still be a Christian, but by the Bible’s definition they would be apostate. Sadly, in many churches, such people are the pastors and denominational leaders (see 2 Timothy 3; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 2:18-32; 4:1-3; etc.).
What a person means when they say they are a Christian depends on their definition. They may be trying to identify with a certain religion, or a particular group, or that they have grown up in a certain culture, or that they are not Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists. However, the only definition that is really of any importance in the end is God’s. Only He can define who really is and who really is not a true Christian. In order to know God’s definition, we must understand His revelation of Himself and His plan for mankind as found in the sacred scriptures, the Bible.
The Bible is a blank book to many people. Either they have never read it at all, or they have not understood anything they have read. To them, the Bible might as well be a book full of blank pages. To others, they understand some of the broad teachings of the Bible, or they may even be able to tell you many of the stories in the Bible, but the Bible does not really make any difference in their life. That would be like a child’s coloring book in which there are outlines of a story, but there is no color, there is no life. That is not enough. God has revealed Himself in the Bible so that we might know Him and find life in Him. For those that truly seek God with all their heart, as Jeremiah 29:13 calls us to do, God will reveal Himself . The Bible will become full color to you as it becomes alive to your soul.
What then is the Bible’s definition of a Christian?
The first time the word “Christian” occurs is in Acts 11:26, “And he (Barnabas) left for Tarsus to look for Saul; 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And it came about that for an entire year they met with the church, and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
The word, “Christian,” is transliterated from the Greek meaning, “Christ one” or “little Christ.” To whom is that the term applied? Verse 26 plainly states that it is the “disciples.” Who are these disciples and who were they disciples of? Verses 20-21 tell us that these are either Greeks or Hellenized Jews that have heard the gospel and are now believers in Jesus Christ. A disciple by definition is someone who follows the teachings of someone else in order to become like them. Luke 6:40 states this plainly, “A pupil (disciple – maqhthV / mathetes) is not above his teacher; but everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher.” Those who had heard the gospel and believed and were now followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ were first called Christians in Antioch.
The term “Christian” was used by the Gentiles of Antioch to describe and label those who were following the teachings of Jesus and becoming like Him, hence “Christians” meaning “Christ ones” or “little Christs.” Historically, it was not a term used by those who believed in Jesus. It was a term used in derision or ridicule of the followers of Jesus. The term is only used two other times in the Bible. In Acts 26:28 King Agrippa uses it in scorn saying in response to Paul’s presentation of the gospel, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian.” In 1 Peter 4:16 it is also used in reference to how the Gentiles were responding to the followers of Jesus, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God.” Tacitus, writing at the end of the first century, remarks that “The vulgar (the common people) call them Christians.” It is in the second century that those who were disciples of Christ began to use the term for themselves as a label of honor.
What did these people call themselves or how were they referred to prior to the term “Christian” being used? In the immediate context of Acts 11, the Christians of Antioch were called “disciples.” That is by far the most common term used to label those whom we would now refer to as “Christians.” It occurs twenty-four times in the book of Acts alone.
For example, in Acts 6:7 we find, “And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” Those who were obedient to the faith were called “the disciples.”
In Acts 9:1 we find, “Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest.” The people Saul was seeking to persecute were “the disciples.”
In Acts 14 we find Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. Verse 21 states, “And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.” The disciples were those that responded to the preaching of the gospel.
The early Christians were also referred to as a sect of Judaism called, “the Way.” This term is used five times in the book of Acts. In Acts 24:14 when Paul is giving his defense before Governor Felix, he says, “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law, and that is written in the Prophets having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.” Those who were followers of “the Way” served the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and they believed the Old Testament. They also believed in a coming resurrection based upon both the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In Acts 9:1 we saw that Saul was searching for the disciples to persecute, and verse 2 records that he wanted letters of authority so “that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Those belonging to “the Way” are synonymous with “the disciples.”
The title, “the Way,” is derived from “the Way to God.” Jesus said that He was “the way, the truth and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father, but through [Him].” Those belonging to the Way were those that believed that Jesus was the only Way to God.
What then is a “Christian” according to a Biblical definition? A Christian is a person who believes the gospel of Jesus Christ and is His disciple. In other words, a Christian believes certain facts and in response to those facts becomes a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The early Christians were also often called “believers” (Acts 5:14, 10:45; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 2:10; 1 Timothy 4:10; 6:2) because Jesus called upon them to “believe in Him” (John 3:16; etc.). What are the things that a Christian believes about Jesus?
As already pointed out from Acts 24:
1) They believe in the God of the Old Testament. The God of Paul’s forefathers – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – is the eternal One that created everything that exists. He is the sovereign of the universe and yet is personally involved with the individual. He sets the standards for conduct and judges all people by them. He is righteous, holy and just, but also loving, merciful and gracious. If a person rejects any of these things, they cannot be a true Christian. A person that believes in any other god or any deistic ideas that God is some impersonal force is not a true Christian.
2) Also from Acts 24 we know that a true Christian believes that the whole Old Testament – the Law and the Prophets – is true. A person who rejects what the Old Testament says rejects the foundation and basis for everything we believe about Christ and therefore cannot be a true Christian. A person that says the Biblical accounts are fictitious stories or that the many prophecies were made up after the fact must also reject Jesus Christ since Jesus believed those stories to be true and was Himself the fulfillment of so many of those prophecies (Luke. 24:44). Jesus believed that Jonah was really swallowed by a great fish and was in the fish’s belly for three days and nights (Matthew 12:40). Jesus believed that Moses wrote the Penatuech (Matthew 19:8; Mark 7:10; Luke 16:29; John 7:19, etc.), and that Moses really led the Israelites out of captivity from Egypt and through the wilderness for forty years with its many miracles (John 3:14). Jesus freely quoted from the Law, Prophets and the Psalms as being authoritative. If you reject the Old Testament as being true, you must also reject Jesus Christ as being true for He believed the Old Testament as fact.
3) True Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. This is foundational. In many ways it is a central aspect of Christianity. The Old Testament teaches there will be a resurrection (Ezekiel 37) and its future fulfilment is made certain by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Many other verses attest to the absolute importance of the resurrection and that belief in it is critical. 1 Corinthians 15:16-17, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” If there is no resurrection, then there is no hope. Our salvation is dependent on the truth that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Romans 10:9-10 states, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus [as] Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; 10 for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
A person that rejects either the resurrection of Jesus Christ or the general resurrection to come cannot be a true Christian. Let me add that though reincarnation has become a popular belief, it and resurrection are mutually exclusive. Either one or the other is true. They both cannot be true, for either a soul will go from one body to another different body (reincarnation), or the body will be resurrected. A person that believes in reincarnation must reject resurrection and thus cannot be a true Christian.
4) True Christians believe that Jesus is God in human flesh. That was Jesus’ claim. He identified Himself as the “I Am” that existed before Abraham was born (John 8:58). Jesus claimed to have existed with and shared the glory of God the Father before the world was (John 17:5). He accepted Thomas’ worship when he claimed Jesus to be “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). If a person denies Jesus deity in any way, then they cannot be a true Christian. They may think Jesus to be a great religious leader, a wonderful ethicist, or a good example, but if they deny that Jesus is also God, then they must also conclude that Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic. Jesus claimed to be God, and if that is not true, then either He knew it was not true and said it anyway, in which case He is a liar, or He was deluded and believed it to be true, in which case He would be a lunatic. True Christians believe that Jesus’ claim to be God is true.
5) True Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God and had no earthly biological father but was born of the virgin Mary. There are some that do not think this is this fact is important, yet it is also critical to a Christian’s belief. Jesus claimed God to be His Father many times in many ways. Even at 12 years old He recognized this (Luke 2:49). He calls God, “My Father” at least 31 times in the Gospel accounts. In John 10:36 the Jews are seeking to kill Jesus specifically because Jesus is saying that He is the “Son of God.” This was the charge they brought against Jesus at His trail saying it was blasphemy (John 19:7), and in Luke 22:70 Jesus states this directly to them, “And they all said, ‘Are You the Son of God, then?’ And He said to them, ‘Yes, I am.’” You can either believe Jesus’ claim or not, but if you do not, then do not call yourself a Christian, because you are not a follower of the Jesus Christ of the Bible.
The virgin birth is also very important theologically. Romans 5 tells us our sin nature is inherited from Adam, not Eve. If Jesus had a human father, then He would have also inherited Adam’s sin nature and been born a sinner like the rest of us and therefore His death would not have been to our benefit.
6) True Christians believe in Jesus’ atonement for our sins. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 states that the important facts of Jesus’ atonement are that He died for our sins, that He was buried, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day. Jesus Himself said that He had come to give His life as a ransom for man (Matthew 20:28) and that His blood would be poured out for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28). A person who does not believe that Jesus died as the substitute payment for his or her sin cannot be a Christian. People who believe that Jesus did not really die on the cross, or that Jesus death was a tragic mistake, or a moral example, or anything else other than a substitutionary sacrifice for sin might be nice folks, but they are not saved for they are not believers in Jesus Christ. They are not Christians.
7) True Christians believe that they are forgiven for their sins because of God’s grace working through their faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for them. They do not believe they are good in themselves, or that they are better than other people, or that they have somehow earned a place in heaven. Jesus said in Luke 24:46-47 “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations . . .” Christians believe that salvation comes from faith in Jesus Christ which is initiated in their repentance when they turned from their sin to the Savior, from self reliance to trust in Jesus, from self righteousness to humble faith in Christ’s righteousness being imputed – given – to them by God’s grace. Anyone that is still trying to appease God and earn their own way to heaven by their own good works is not yet a true Christian.
8) True Christians believe that Jesus is going to return someday to take them to heaven to be with Him forever. Jesus said in John 14:1-3, “Let not your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. 3 “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, [there] you may be also. Those that place their hope in some sort of eternal existence on this earth are not Christians and they will be sadly disappointed for Jesus said in Matthew 24:35 that heaven and earth would pass away. 2 Peter 3:7-12 tells us the present heavens and earth will be destroyed by fire and that the elements will melt with intense heat. Those that hope for some sort of annihilation in which they will cease to exist are also not Christians and they will regret their rejection of what Jesus has taught throughout eternity. Jesus said in Matthew 25 that the wicked would be sent away to eternal punishment and the righteous to eternal life.
9) True Christians believe that Jesus is Lord. Romans 10:9 states, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus [as] Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” I know that some try to tone down the implications of the statement that Jesus is Lord by saying this is just a reference to His deity and does not imply submission to His authority, but you cannot get around the fact that if Jesus is Lord in the sense of being God, then He is also master, in the sense of the one that rules over us to whom we must submit. It is rather silly to try to argue that people do not have an obligation to submit to the authority of the God that created them, or that a person could somehow be saved without a submission to that authority. We have already seen that true Christians believe that Jesus is God which in itself implies a submission to Him by virtue of who He is.
This last belief brings up an attitude and way of life that marks all true Christians.
True Christians desire to submit to Jesus’ lordship and seek to follow Him. This does not mean they are perfect in doing so, for they will still struggle against sin during this life, but it is the general direction of their life. That is a logical response to His position as Lord God. It is also the basic meaning of being a disciple, for a disciple is one who follows the teachings of another. A person that claims to believe that Jesus is God and does not desire to also submit and follow His commandments has a serious problem. They are either liars, or they do not have any idea who they are and who God is in contrast. It would be the height of arrogance to think that you are wiser than God and that your plan for your life is better than His. In either case, not having a desire to submit to God is direct rebellion against Him.
Consider the commission that Jesus gave to the apostles and through them to all true Christians. We are to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19,20). Those are our marching orders. We are to proclaim the gospel in the effort to make followers of Jesus Christ. They in turn demonstrate their belief by personal identification with Jesus in baptism and then begin learning what Jesus has commanded so that they can obey.
It is quite ludicrous for someone to say they are a Christian, and yet never to identify with Him through baptism or refuse to obey His commandments. Yet, there are many that make that very claim. They deceive themselves, and that is a great tragedy. Jesus warned at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
What is a Christian? In simplest terms a Christian is someone who follows Jesus Christ. They are so identified with Jesus and what He was like that they are called a “Christ one” or a “little Christ.” A very fitting title since Romans 8:29 tells us that the very purpose of our salvation is that we be conformed to the image of Christ.
A true Christian believes certain things:
1) In the Creator God of the Old Testament
2) That Old Testament is true
3) In the resurrection of Jesus Christ and of the future resurrection of the righteous and wicked.
4) That Jesus is God in human flesh
5) That Jesus is the Son of God. He had no human father, but was born of the virgin Mary.
6) That Jesus died on the cross as a substitute payment for our sins
7) That God’s grace grants forgiveness of sin to those that turn to Jesus and place their faith in Him.
8) That Jesus will return one day to take us to be with Him in Heaven.
9) That Jesus is Lord.
There are others things Christians believe, but these listed above are crucial for unless they are believed, one cannot be a true Christian.
A true Christian also has an attitude of submission to Jesus and seeks to obey His commandments.
How does a person become a Christian? By God’s grace through faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). It comes down to a matter of what you believe, and what you believe will of necessity change your life. Good works cannot make you a Christian (Titus 3:5), but a person who claims to be a Christian that does not have corresponding good works probably has a fatally flawed belief system that does not match that of the Biblical Christian (See: Ephesians 2:10; Matthew 7:15-27).
If you are not a Christian, but want to be one, you will need to believe the truth about Jesus Christ including who He is, what He has done for you, and what He has promised as stated above which will invariably result in a radical change in your purpose in life and therefore the way you live. In order to believe those things, you will have to be humble enough to reject your previous belief system while asking God to forgive you for those false beliefs and the sins you have committed as a result. That is repentance which is a change of mind resulting in a change of action. The rest of the Christian life is simply growing in your knowledge and understanding of Jesus and His will for you resulting in becoming a better follower of Him.
One final challenge to those who profess to be Christians. The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 13:5 that you should test yourself to see if you are in the faith. That is my challenge to you. Examine yourself and what you believe and compare it to what the Bible says about what a Christian believes and does. If you fail the test, then it is time to repent and believe the truth instead of the lies and / or self-deception that has led you astray. Today is the day to begin to follow Jesus instead of something else.
If you are already a true Christian, then rejoice in the work God has already done in your life. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith, so that you may not waver.