What is a Christian?
A Christian is one whose identity and purpose are defined by being a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ. Since many cult members who hold heretical doctrines claim to believe in “Jesus Christ“ and to be “Christians,” it is paramount to remember that Apostolic Christianity was greatly concerned—as we should be as well—that people believe in the genuine Jesus, not some counterfeit Christ (2 Corinthians 11:1-4). The Apostle John stipulates that true and saving belief affirms that “Jesus is the Christ” (the divine Messiah) and that he “has come in the flesh,” which refers to his true humanity (1 John 2:22; 4:1-3). A Christian believes that Jesus is the Incarnate Word (John 1:1-3; 14, 18). Belief in Christ requires a monotheistic worldview. These Christological stipulations rule out any religious groups that deny the true deity of Christ (Colossian 2:9), such as non-Trinitarian Jehovah’s Witnesses or those teach that Jesus is one god among many (polytheistic Mormons) or those claiming that Jesus tapped into a universal “Christ Consciousness,” which is available to anyone sufficiently enlightened (New Age adherents), and so on. Christological errors are many (2 Corinthians 11:3-4), as is the wide path of destruction, as Jesus taught (Matthew 7:13-14).
A Christian has repented of his or her sinful ways (Acts 17:30) and has embraced the finished work of Christ’s earthly life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sin, justification before God, and the gracious gift of eternal life (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:1-9). A Christian’s saving faith is proven true by his or her ongoing confession of the Gospel and by Spirit-led works that display the sincerity and genuineness of that faith (James 2:14-26). The works themselves, however, do not contribute to one’s status as justified before God through the work of Christ alone by God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8).
A Christian belongs to Christ (Mark 9:41; 1 Corinthians 15:23) and confesses Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9). “Christian” was first used at Antioch to describe disciples taught by Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:26). The term is used two other times in the New Testament: when Agrippa accuses Paul of wanting to make him a Christian (Acts 26:28) and by Peter who challenges believers not to be ashamed when they “suffer as a Christian” because they “bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16). The term is taken from christos, which is Greek for the Hebrew messiah, the promised deliverer and anointed one. Christ is a title and office that exclusively refers to Jesus of Nazareth. “Christian” refers to countless people worldwide throughout the centuries who have entrusted their lives to Christ because other Christians have been faithful in making Christ known (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). The book of Revelation declares that the redeemed will include “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).
Although “Christian” has become the term most commonly used for followers of Christ, the New Testament employs a wealth of other descriptions, only a few of which we can address. The book of Acts reveals that Christians are often called “disciples” of Christ (Acts 14:21), as were the first disciples in the Gospels. This involves more than being a student or a religious consumer, because Jesus stipulates that: “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Acts also refers to Christians as “followers of the Way” (9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22), meaning the way of Jesus himself (John 14:6), the way of life instead of death (Matthew 7:13-14), the way of heaven instead of hell (Matthew 25:46: John 11:25-26).
Christians of both genders are referred to as “brothers” in Christ. This expresses the bond of divine love that all believers share (Romans 12:10; 1 Peter 3:8) through their friendship with Christ himself (Matthew 28:10; John 20:17; Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11-12). Every Christian is a part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). In the New Testament church this brotherhood revolutionized the relationship between a Christian master and his slave. Paul tells Philemon to receive Onesimus “as no longer a slave, but...as a dear brother” (Philemon 16).
Because the gospel claims that a person becomes a Christian through saving faith in Christ, those who have partaken of God’s redeeming grace are sometimes simply called “believers,” as opposed to “unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:15; 1 Timothy 4:10, 12). The New Testament repeatedly warns of those who profess Christian faith, but whose lives and/or beliefs belie their profession (Matthew 7:15-23; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 John 2:19).
All Christians are also called “saints,” because they are made holy or set apart by God (Ephesians 1:1), and because they become more holy (or sanctified) over time through the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:3). Their sainthood is completed when they are glorified in the presence of Christ after their earthly deaths (1 John 3:2). At the glorious and victorious Second Coming of Christ, Christians will be given resurrected and imperishable bodies (Philippians 3:22-21) and will dwell with God in a restored cosmos forever (Revelation 21-22).
1. R.C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker Books, 1995).
2. John Stott, Basic Christianity, revised ed. (Eerdmans, 1986).