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What Is A Christian?

Centuries before Christ, the Old Testament predicted that God would give “those who join themselves to the Lord” “an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa. 56.5-6; cf. Isa. 65.14-15).

This “new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name,” would be given in tandem with the conversion of “the Gentiles” to the “righteous” “light” of the Messiah (Isa. 62.2; Isa. 60.3).

In fulfillment of these predictions, the church of Christ began spreading the gospel to Gentile populations (Acts 8.3-4; 10.1ff). Shortly thereafter, the disciples of Christ “were first called Christians” in the city of “Antioch” (Acts 11.26; 26.28).

“Christian” is indeed a “noble name” (Jm. 2.7). We must not “be ashamed” of suffering “as a Christian,” but let us “glorify God” with “this name” instead (1 Pet. 4.16, ASV). For this reason, members of the church of Christ today wear the name “Christian” with honor and delight.

But what is a Christian?

The Basic Concept

The word “Christian” had its inception in the Greek language. Christianos was constructed from the root christos (Christ) and the suffix ianos. The suffix was “originally applied to the slaves belonging to the great households,” but “it had passed into regular use to denote the adherents of an individual or party” (Dickie, pp. 621-622).

For example, a Herodianos (“Herodian” [Mt. 22.16]) was a supporter of the dynasty of Herod. A Christian, then, is someone who belongs to and is “an adherent of Christ” (ibid.).

This basic definition by itself imposes a limitation on who is qualified to wear the name. Indeed, not everyone who resembles Christianity in some form or fashion is necessarily a Christian. Consider a few clarifying examples.

First, Christians believe in God; but not everyone who believes in God is a Christian. Speak to a Jew or a Muslim and they will tell you they believe in God. But they will correct you if you call them a Christian — and rightly so! Believing in God doesn't make you a Christian.

Second, Christians are also ethical people. We believe in extending compassion and aid to the downtrodden, treating our neighbors with love and respect, dealing honestly with all people; etc. But not everyone who shares these ethical values is a Christian. Many atheists are good neighbors, philanthropists, and people of integrity. But they reject Christianity. Being ethical doesn't make you a Christian.

Third, Christians are church-going people; but not everyone who assembles with a church is a Christian. Some churches utterly reject Christ (e.g., “the Church of Judas”; “the Church of Satan”), whereas others may accept some aspects of Christ while denying his deity (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses) or that he is the son of God (e.g., Unitarian Universalist Church). And some church members only attend for the social benefits, without genuinely following the lord. That is not what a Christian does.

In short, there is more to being a Christian than believing in God, being a good neighbor, and going to a church.

A Practical Portrait

In 1 Thessalonians 1.9-10, Paul summarizes what a Christian is in three tenses — past, present, and future. Let’s explore these points in more detail.

Our Past Conversion

In the first place, the Christians in “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Th. 1.1) had been converted to Christianity at some point in the past. Paul says they had “turned to God from idols” (1 Th. 1.9).

“Turned” (epistrepho) means to “turn around” (Mk. 5.30) — to have a “change of mind or a course of action” (Bauer, et. al., p. 301). The Thessalonians had served “idols” in the past, pursuing their own sinful wisdom and pleasure until they were confronted with the error of their ways, altered course, and began following God’s will instead.

Becoming a Christian, then, requires us to change — to convert to the Christian way of life. No one comes from the womb a Christian. And becoming a Christian involves more than just waking up one day and deciding to call yourself a Christian.

“Unless you are converted,” Jesus warned, “and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18.3). “Repent therefore and be converted,” insisted Peter, “that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3.19).

Conversion to Christianity includes three main stages.

(1) Conversion requires a change of mind.

To become a Christian we must think differently about God. We must learn who he is and what he is like (Jn. 17.2-3). We must learn that there is a way to live that displeases him, which he condemns (1 Th. 2.15-16), and a way we “ought to walk and to please God” (1 Th. 4.1; cf. Jn. 6.45).

The way to please God is revealed to us through Jesus, his “beloved son” (Mt. 3.17), to whom God has given “authority over all flesh” (Jn. 17.2; cf. Heb. 1.1-3; Mt. 28.18). Therefore, we can no longer believe that there are many paths to Heaven. Christ alone is “the way,” for “no one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus said (Jn. 14.6). God expects us to “hear him” (Mt. 17.5). Jesus said that those who refuse to “believe” in him shall “die in [their] sins” (Jn. 8.24; cf. Acts 3.22-23).

In turn, Jesus sent his apostles as “ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through” them (2 Cor. 5.20). Through the miraculous inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 14.26; 16.13), the words of the apostles reveal the very “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2.16; cf. 2 Tim. 3.16-17; Jn. 17.20). Jesus warned that to reject his apostles is to reject him, and to reject him is to reject God (Lk. 10.16).

Thus, to become a Christian we must study the New Testament and receive it “not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Th. 2.13).

Conversely, if you live by your own direction and guidance — if you pursue merely what you feel or think is right — then you cannot be called a Christian, for the Christian “turns to the Lord” for instruction (Acts 9.35; 11.21; 26.20). Indeed, the Christian rejects “arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God” and brings “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10.5).

In short, we must “turn” our minds away from thinking that our own preferred way is right (cf. Jer. 10.23; Isa. 55.8-9). Instead, we must accept the way of Christ revealed in the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 1.18-31; 2.5).

(2) Conversion requires a change of life.

While changing our mindset is vital, becoming a Christian involves more than just knowing God and Jesus or having an emotional attachment to them. Indeed, there are things we must stop doing, and there are things we must start doing.

First, to become a Christian we must put away false religion and sin.

When the Thessalonians “turned to God,” Paul said they gave up “idols.” Likewise, Barnabas and Paul urged the people of Lystra to “turn from” the “useless” practice of false religion (Acts 14.15). And Peter instructed the people of Jerusalem to “turn away…from your iniquities” (Acts 3.26).

If you have changed your mind and have developed faith in God and Christ, that is wonderful. But Jesus warned that if you neglect to “repent,” “you” shall “perish” (Lk. 13.3, 5; cf. Lk. 5.32). This certainly does not mean that a Christian will never sin again (cf. 1 Jn. 1.8-10). “We all stumble” from time to time (Jm. 3.2). Rather, repentance means that we have renounced sin and that we no longer allow it to dominate our lives. The Lord is our new master, not sin (Rom. 6.16-18).

Second, we must start keeping the commandments of Christ.

John wrote that anyone who claims to know Christ but “does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn. 2.4). “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord’,” Jesus asked, “and not do the things which I say” (Lk. 6.46)? Indeed, those who truly love Christ will keep his commandments (Jn. 14.15).

So not only must our mind be converted to Christ, but so too must the way we live.

(3) Conversion requires a change of condition.

Before we become Christians, we must acknowledge that we are in a “lost” condition (Mt. 18.11; 2 Cor. 4.3). Sin has “separated" us from God (Isa. 59.2; cf. Eph. 2.1). And “all the world” is “guilty” of sin (Rom. 3.19; cf. Rom. 3.23).

Now that our mind has changed (i.e., we have developed faith in God and Christ) and our life has changed (i.e., we have put away wrong and have embraced righteousness), we must change our spiritual status. So how do we go from being “lost” to “found” — from “separated” to “near to God” — from “guilty” to “forgiven”?

The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus provide the key (cf. 1 Cor. 15.3-4). He shed his blood for the salvation of mankind (cf. Jn. 1.29; Mt. 26.28; Gal. 1.4). His corpse was buried in a tomb (Lk. 23.50ff). Then, “on the first day of the week,” he was raised from the dead (Lk. 24.1ff).

Jesus’ precious blood “washes away” “our sins” (Rev. 1.5). So how do we access his blood? Having believed in Jesus (Jn. 3.16), repented of our sins (Acts 3.19), confessed our faith in him before others (Rom. 10.9-10), we must be immersed into water by faith in his name (Mk. 16.16; Acts 2.38; 22.16; 1 Pet 3.21).

Baptism is a “burial” into and a “resurrection” from water (Col. 2.12). Thus, Paul affirmed that when we are “baptized into Christ Jesus” we are “baptized into his death” (Rom. 6.3). In other words, in baptism we access the redeeming blood of the savior. Our former life of sin is “buried with him through baptism into death” (Rom. 6.4). Just as Jesus died and was buried, so the sinner dies to sin, buried in the blood of Christ. And when we are raised from the water, we are resurrected into “newness of life” “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Rom. 6.4). At this moment, we can be called a Christian.

When Jesus gave his apostles the Great Commission, he explained how to make disciples — who were later called “Christians” (Acts 11.26).

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Mt. 28.19-20).

Therefore, one becomes a Christian — i.e., a “disciple” (follower, adherent) of Christ — when he has been taught the commandments of Christ and has been baptized into his name.

At baptism, then, we are no longer guilty; instead, we have “the remission of sins” (Acts 2.38). We are no longer lost; rather, we are now “saved” (Mk. 16.16). We are no longer separated from God, but “now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2.13).

At the same time, we are converted from the “power of darkness” “into the kingdom of the Son” (Col. 1.13). Indeed, we are “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12.13), which is “the church” (Eph. 1.22-23; Col. 1.18). When Peter spoke of the worthiness of the name “Christian” (1 Pt. 4.16), he indicated that to be a “Christian” is to belong to “the house of God” (1 Pt. 4.17). But the “house of God” “is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3.15). Hence, Christians — penitent believers in Christ who have been baptized — are members of the church for which Jesus shed his blood (Acts 20.28).

This is how the church of the Thessalonians became Christians. They had “turned to God from idols” (1 Th. 1.9) when they changed their mind, their way of living, and their spiritual condition by obeying the gospel plan of salvation, at which point they were "added to the church" (Acts 2.47).

Our Present Purpose

In the next place, Paul says that the Christians of the church in Thessalonica had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God…” (1 Th. 1.9). A Christian is not merely one who has undergone a conversion process in the past. We were saved to serve.

First, we serve “the living and true God.” We do this in two ways.

(1) We serve God collectively — as members of the church that Jesus built (Mt. 16.18; 1 Th. 1.1; 1 Th. 2.14), purchasing it “with his own blood” (Acts 20.28). It is precious to him (cf. Eph. 5.23ff), and it should be precious to those who follow him.

When we “turned to God” (by obeying the gospel plan of salvation), the Lord “added” us to his church (Acts 2.47). Then, we are obliged to become members of a local congregation like the one in Thessalonica (“join” Acts 9.26; cf. Mt 19.5).

In this local assembly of Christians, we worship God together (Mt. 4.10); we assemble regularly to encourage our brethren and to be encouraged by them (Heb. 10.24-25); we engage in benevolent acts with them (Gal. 6.10); we teach others with them (1 Th. 1.8); and we strive to live as examples of righteous living with them (1 Th. 1.6-7).

(2) We also serve God individually — with sincerity and reverence (Heb. 12.28). We are “each one” responsible for our own souls (2 Cor. 5.10). A Christian is not someone who exercises his faith at church and then shuts it off elsewhere. A Christian follows Christ both in public and in private.

Second, we also serve our neighbors. Since Christ came “to serve” (Mt. 20.28), the Christian follows that example. Paul affirmed that though he was “free from all men,” he had “made [himself] a servant to all, that [he] might win the more” (1 Cor. 9.19). The Christian’s service toward others is especially designed to soften hearts, open minds, and win others to Christ.

Our Future Hope

Finally, a Christian not only has (1) “turned to God from idols (2) to serve the living and true God,” but also (3) “waits for [God’s] Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Th. 1.10).

A Christian is convinced that Jesus shall return someday. Therefore, we live in anticipation of his arrival.

First, his second coming shall be real.

Jesus himself promised to “come again” (Jn. 14.3; cf. Acts 1.11). Paul reassured the Christians in Thessalonica of its certainty, which should give the Christian "comfort" (1 Th. 4.16-18), for we don’t believe in myths or wishful fairy tales but in true historical events (cf. 2 Pt. 1.16). Let us not doubt it (2 Pt. 3.3-9)!

Second, his second coming shall be sudden.

There will be no warning signs. No one knows “when the time is” (Mk. 13.33). And it will be a day like any other — at least until the moment of his arrival (cf. Mt. 24.36-39). On that day non-Christians will think they live in “peace and safety,” but then “sudden destruction comes upon them” (1 Th. 5.3), just “as a thief” comes suddenly and brings the homeowner to ruin (1 Th. 5.1-6).

But the Christian remains ready for that day. Since we know he is coming but do not know the “hour” of his return (Mt. 24.36), we must remain spiritually awake (Mt. 24.44; Mk. 13.35-37) by engaging in “holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pt. 3.11-12).

Third, his second coming shall be final.

It shall bring about the destruction of the “elements” of the universe (2 Pt. 3.10) and “the end” of time (1 Cor. 15.23-24).


A Christian is one who (1) has been converted — i.e., “turned to God” through obeying the gospel, culminating in a penitent believer's burial in water "for the remission of sins" (Acts 2.38) — (2) serves “the living and true God” and others both collectively — as a member of the "churches of Christ" (Rm. 16.16) — and individually; (3) and “waits” for Christ to return “from Heaven.” In short, a Christian is devoted entirely — body, mind, and soul — to Christ. We belong to him; we adhere to his ways. We are here no longer to serve ourselves, but to serve him!

These three tenses of the Christian life — a past conversion, a present purpose, a future hope — indicate that being a follower of Christ requires a lifelong commitment. It is not something you decide to become one day and forget about the next. It demands dedication and vigilance.

We all want to meet again in heavenly bliss. But whether or not we shall be there depends upon our own choices. It is up to each individual to choose whether to become a Christian or not. No one can make that decision for us. But every genuine Christian will tell you that it is the most rewarding decision a soul could ever make.

With this basic overview of what being a Christian means, why not explore the
evidence supporting the Christian faith? See this seven-part series titled:
Bauer, Walter, William F. Ardnt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1975. Dickie, John. “Christian,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, James Orr (ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986.



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