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What Is A Christian?

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(Acts 11:26)

“And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”

            Acts chapter eleven is a transitional chapter, a chapter of change.  In this chapter, the focus of the Book of Acts switches from Jew to Gentile, from Jerusalem to Antioch, and from Peter to Paul.  Also, the followers of Jesus Christ were given a new name in this chapter.  They were called “Christians” for the first time in Antioch.  Indeed, this chapter is full of “firsts” in the Christian movement.  Here we meet the first official Christian missionary, Barnabas.  And we meet the first missionary team, Barnabas and Saul.  We read of the first missionary offering, the gift sent from the believers in Antioch to the impoverished saints in Jerusalem.  And, as mentioned, the believers were called “Christians” for the first time here.  Change is never easy to adjust to.  “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.”  But the Christian movement continued to expand right through these significant changes. 

            A woman entered a beauty shop where she saw a lady whom she thought was an old friend of hers.  She looked at her a moment, then exclaimed, “Why, Polly Smith, how you’ve changed!  You look taller, you’ve lost weight, and you’ve changed the color of your hair.”  The lady fixed a cold stare on the speaker and said, “I’m not Polly Smith!”  The other lady exclaimed, “How about that!  You’ve even changed your name!”  This is the story of a movement that was given a new name.

            The Christian Gospel had broken out of its Jewish limits and had embraced Gentiles as well as Jews.  Because the Jews were not certain God would accept Gentiles, they sent Barnabas the encourager to investigate the work in Antioch.  Barnabas saw that the work was a genuine accomplishment of the Spirit of God, and he remained there to disciple all the new-born babies.  However, the work became so large that he knew he could not do all that was required alone.  He made a long trip to Tarsus and enlisted the help of Saul, who had been out of the public eye for some eight years after His conversion. When they had returned together to Antioch, the two of them discipled the believers there for an entire year.  Paul and Barnabas were followers of Christ, and the believers in Antioch were modeled after them.  In Luke 6:40, Jesus said, “When the process of disciple-making is completed, the disciple will be like his teacher.” So it is perfectly suitable that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” 

            There are two extreme dangers in trying to define the elusive word “Christian.”  One is to make the definition too narrow, and the other is to make the definition too nice.


            Some make the definition two narrow.  A little boy asked his father, “Dad, what is a Christian?”  The father replied, “Son, a Christian is a person who believes in God and in Jesus Christ, behaves like Jesus, loves other people, prays often, witnesses for Christ, is faithful in church, gives his money to the cause of Christ, and serves other people for Christ’s sake.”  After a moment of thoughtful silence, the boy asked, “Dad, have I ever seen one?”       


            Friedrich Nietzsche said, “There has never been but one Christian on this earth, and that was Christ Himself.”  This definition is too narrow, because it was sinful (but saintly) people who were first given this name in Antioch.  Others say that a person who is born in America and hasn’t murdered anyone is a Christian!

            A man left a will that provided $500,000 “to help Christians.”  Ten of the deceased man’s family members filed a lawsuit to invalidate the will on the grounds that there was no way to adequately determine what a Christian is — and they won!

            Then there are those who use a definition of the word “Christian” that is far too nice.  In November of 1990, a Christian brother in Mount Vernon, Illinois, gave me an obituary notice taken from the Mount Vernon daily newspaper.  It contained the death notice of a three-and-one-half-month-old infant.  I will change the baby’s name for reporting purposes.  The notice was comprised of four brief paragraphs, and it closed with this statement: “John Jones was a Christian.”  To call a three-and-one-half-old infant a Christian is far removed from the truth revealed in the Bible.  This definition is too accommodating,  too sentimental, too ignorant of Biblical revelation, and too nice to be taken seriously.  And it is certainly not my intent to hurt feelings or insult anybody.  It is the truth that sets men free (John 8:32), and such statements are far removed from the mark of truth.

            At a point somewhere between these pendulum extremes, too narrow and too nice, lies the real meaning of the word “Christian.” I will use the word as synonymous with the words, “believer,” “saint,” and “child of God.” Someone said, “The word ‘Christian’ is the noblest nickname ever conferred, but the time has arrived for the word ‘Christian’ to be copyrighted, because great numbers of diverse groups are pirating the word today.”  In fact, a case could be made that the word “Christian” is the fuzziest, most nebulous, and most shapeless noun in the English language.  It has become a much misused, abused, and confused term today.  So the question is urgent.  Just what is a Christian?  Can we glean a description of a Christian from the revealed data of Scripture?  Surely we can!

                                    I.  SPIRITUALLY BELIEVES IN JESUS CHRIST      

            First, a Christian is a person who spiritually believes in Jesus Christ.  Give great attention to the word, “spiritually,” in this description.  It is necessary to differentiate between true faith and any other kind.  The Bible indicates that it is possible to “believe” in Jesus Christ, but to “believe in vain”  (I Corinthians 15:2).  A great picture of this possibility is given in John 2:23-25.  “When Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did.”  Note that the word “believe” is used to describe their response to Jesus Christ, and this is the very word that is used 100 more times in the Gospel of John.  In most cases, it refers to valid faith, but occasionally, as here, it refers to vain (or empty) faith.  How do we detect the difference between valid faith and vain faith?  This passage is a good place to begin.  Note the stated object of the faith of the “many” in this verse, and remember that faith is only as strong, dependable, and valid as its object.  Small faith in thick ice will enable a person to cross the ice-covered river, but great faith in thin ice may drown him!  The object is all-important.  Verse 23 says that they believed in Him “when they saw the miracles which He did.”  Their faith was superficial instead of spiritual, vain instead of valid and vital.  Their “faith” was vested in the miracles of Jesus instead of in the Master Himself. 

            Vain (or empty) faith is marked by several fatal deficiencies.  The person “believing” has no sense of urgent spiritual need.  There is thus no turning from sin.  There is no acknowledgment of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  The “believer” wants the luxuries of Jesus while ignoring His Lordship.  There is no commitment of life to Christ.  All of these are marks of false faith, a faith which is far too common in church-going people as well as others.  So the stated outcome is predictable.  “But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, and needed not that any should testify of man; for he knew what was in man.”  Note the opening word, “But.”  This word alone indicates that Jesus saw the real nature of their faith.  The word “commit” in this verse means to “entrust.”  “Jesus did not entrust himself unto them.”  What a paradox!  Believing men and an unbelieving God!  Their faith was vain and worthless faith. 

            In contrast, a Christian has true faith in Jesus Christ.  But what does this mean?  Believing in Christ means that I accept as a fact that Christ has come into the world to save me from sin and death and to make eternal life available to me.  True faith means that I totally trust Him alone as the Son of God who was made sin for me, who bore my sins in His own body on the Cross, who rose again for my justification, by whose blood I am cleansed from sin, and through faith in whom I am born again and receive power to become a son of God.  This kind of faith is a miracle of the Holy Spirit.  Thus I say that a Christian is a person who spiritually believes in Jesus Christ.

            The Greek word for faith is the noun, “pistis.”  This is the word from which we derive the word “pith,” which means “to become one with.”  True faith, God-pleasing faith (Hebrews 11:6), brings the believer into union with Jesus Christ.  True faith brings the believer into spiritual identification with Jesus Christ.  Thus, Christ and the Christian have a commonness of person and of purpose.  This commonness between the Christian and Christ is calling “knowing Christ” (John 17:4).  You see, you can be a Confucianist without knowing Confucius.  You can be a Muslim without knowing Mohammed.  You can be a Buddhist without knowing Buddha.  But you cannot be a Christian without knowing Christ. 

            Someone created a double acrostic out of the word “F-A-I-T-H.”  Saving faith means, “Forsaking All, I Take Him.”  Sanctifying faith (the proof of saving faith) is a “Fantastic Adventure In Trusting Him.”  You see, the English word “believe” is a contraction of two Latin words which mean, “To live by” — by life, or be-lief.  Your faith is whatever you live by!  What you behave is what you believe (no more and no less).  Everything else is merely religious talk.  A Christian is a person who spiritually believes in Jesus Christ.  Thus, he lives in vital, life-transforming union with Jesus Christ.

                                            II.  SPIRITUALLY BORN OF GOD              

            Second, a Christian is a person who has been spiritually born of God.  “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (I John 5:1).  Re-read the above statements about “believing” and put those ideas into the word “believe” in I John 5:1.  The person who believes in such a manner and with such effects is surely “born of God.”  We must be sure that we understand the meaning and content of the term, “born of God.”  The new birth is not a fantasy, a fancy, or a fiction.  The spiritual birth is as real as is the physical birth.  There is no physical life without birth, and there is no spiritual life without birth.  The only way to enter the human family is by birth, and the only way to enter the Divine family is by birth.  Jesus spoke of this birth as being born “anothen” or “from above.”  This is the same word that He used for Himself when He said, “I am from above.”This birth is from above.  Your physical birth gave you the nature of your parents, and the spiritual birth gives you the nature of the Heavenly Father.  II Peter 1:4 indicates that by this birth you become “a partaker of the Divine nature.”             

            In John 1:12-13, the Holy Spirit tells us how this birth occurs, how it cannot occur, and what its nature is.  “As many as received Christ, to them gave He the power to become the sons of God, even to those that believe in His Name, who were born, not of blood (a plural word, “bloods”), nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”  Notice the word “receive.”  There are two possible Greek words that might have been used at this point.  One is the word, “dechomai,” which means to “passively accept” something.  This is not the word that is used.  The other is the word, “lambano,” which means to “actively, aggressively take.”  However the action is initiated, it is surely not a chin-in-hand, elbows-on-the-table, response.  It has in it the urgency of a fire alarm, and the alert of major surgery!  This receiving is synonymous with “believing on His Name.”  So again, faith and the birth are associated.

            Then the Holy Spirit says that this birth is “not of bloods” — it does not occur by human ancestry.  No pedigree of blue bloods in your ancestry will take you to heaven!  Being raised in a Christian family of the godliest of parents will not get you to heaven.  In fact, that could cause displaced faith and keep you out of heaven!  This birth is “not of the will of the flesh” — it does not occur by human ambition.  No man can assure his own salvation by determination of his own will.  I repeat: he must be spiritually born of God!  And when a person is so born, he is different from all unsaved  people.  He has something no unconverted person has!  His inner character is an extension of God’s very own nature. 


              We must not miss this all-determinative truth.  Only the heaven-born are heaven-bound!  And when a person is heaven-born, he is a brand new person.  “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, behold, all things have become new” (II Corinthians 5:17).  Just as your physical human birth carried certain human equipment with it, this new birth provides a “factory-installed” Heavenly equipment.  Your eyes, nose, hair, mouth, teeth, fingers, toes, etc., were birth-installed provisions.  And you received a whole personality of spiritual attributes, benefits, and capabilities when you were born from above.  Your spiritual DNA is incredible!  Furthermore, your nature equips you with certain environmental and survival necessities.  Just as your skin is a protective covering for your physical body, and your lungs allow you to receive vital oxygen to sustain your physical nature, there are corresponding realities supplied by your spiritual birth. 

            Sometimes unsaved people express fears about their success in living a Christian life.  And they have perfect reason for such fears if they remain merely once-born people.  But those fears are unfounded for twice-born people.  Imagine unborn twins in their mother’s womb as the time of birth draws near.  Imagine them talking.  One says to the other, “I don’t think I want to go out there.  I don’t think I can hold out as a human being!”  The other (a better student of embryology, biology, genetics, etc.) might answer, “Hold out?  Hold out?  Don’t you know that your conception gave you a human nature, and your birth will carry that nature out into a world where it can function suitably?  Your human nature has in it all the equipment necessary to survive, exist and function as a full and true human being.  And it all comes at birth.”  You see, the new birth is real, radical, revolutionary, and relational.  By means of that birth, you enter and exist in a Forever Family with God as your Father, Heaven as your eternal home, and all other born-again ones as your eternal brothers and sisters.  You are an heir of God’s total estate, and a co-inheritor with Christ Himself.  A Christian is a person who has been spiritually born right out of God.

                                 III.  SPIRITUALLY BELONGS TO JESUS CHRIST

            Third, a Christian is a person who spiritually belongs to Jesus Christ.  This is a matter of ownership.  A Christian is Christ’s purchased possession.

            The word “Christian” is a very cosmopolitan word.  It is based on a Greek root word, “Christos.”  It contains a Hebrew concept, that of the “Messiah,” or “the anointed one.”  And it has a Latin ending, “ianos.”  The actual transliterated word is, “Christianoi.”  The Latin ending means, “a slave in the household of.”  So a “kaisarianos” was a slave in the household of Caesar.  Thus, the word “Christian” means “a slave in the household of Christ.”  Remind yourself that a slave has no rights of his own, no will of his own, no schedule of his own, and no property of his own.  He is his master’s purchased possession, his master’s personal property.  The master has full right to do with the slave whatever he pleases.  It is the master’s responsibility, on the other hand, to endow the slave with whatever resources he needs to live and serve.

            Two new acquaintances were conversing on the job one day.  One said, “I understand that you belong to the Baptist Church.”  “Oh, no, I don’t,” the other replied.  “Then I have received some wrong information,” the first said, “because I was told that you belong to the Baptist Church.”  “No,” said the new friend, “I attend the Baptist Church, but I belong to Jesus Christ.”  It would be wonderful if every Christian were so bold in acknowledging that he belongs to Jesus Christ. 

                                   III.  SPIRITUALLY BUSY FOR JESUS CHRIST

            Finally, a Christian is a person who is spiritually busy for Jesus Christ.  Busy at what?  Why, busy at the very business of Jesus Himself.  Note the word “called” in our text.  “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”  The word is “kramatisai,” a Greek word which means “to transact business.”  It is used to describe the habit of naming a person after his vocation or after the business that he conducts.  This is the way many family names were derived in the Western world.  Thus, we have such names as Miller, one who operates a mill; Baker, a baker of bread; Barber, one who cuts hair; Carpenter, one who builds with wood; Smith, used for a silversmith or locksmith or blacksmith; Cooper, a maker of barrels; Fletcher, a maker of arrows; Weaver, one who weaves; and Sawyer, one who saws.  The word “Christian” was attached to the followers of Christ in Antioch in the same way. 

To the residents of Antioch, a Christian was a person whose main business, interest, and concern was simply Jesus Christ. 

            The important thing to remember about the Antioch believers is that they earned the right to be called Christians.  Suppose you could not tell anybody that you were a Christian.  Would anybody know it?  Suppose you had to earn the right to bear this noble name?  Would anybody recognize you as a Christian?

            Perhaps the greatest of all Christian theologians is a man of 1500 years ago named Aurelius Augustine, known to history as St. Augustine.  One night in early manhood, he had a dream.  In his dream, he approached the gate of heaven and was met by a gatekeeper.  “Who and what are you?” the gatekeeper asked.  “My name is Augustine,” he replied, “and I am a Christian.”  “No, you are not a Christian,”the gatekeeper answered.  “In this place, we do not judge people by their words, but by their actions.  You are not a Christian; you are a Ciceronian, because you spend your life studying the Greek and Latin classics.  Because you spend most of your time studying Cicero, you are a Ciceronian.”  Augustine awakened from this sobering dream and determined to devote his life to Jesus Christ and spend his time studying Christ and His truth.  “I do not want to be known in heaven as a Ciceronian; I want to be a Christian.”


            Once upon a time there was a diamond ring — well, it looked like a diamond ring.  Everybody thought it was a diamond ring — well, everybody except the jeweler.  He said, “Diamonds and glass are made out of the same stuff to start with, but they turn out to be very different.  I can tell them apart because the diamond is totally transformed.  It has character that the glass does not have, as well as strength and endurance.  And it also has a high price tag on it!”

            Once upon a time there was a Christian — well, he looked like a Christian.  Everybody thought he was a Christian — well, everybody except God.  Christians and non-Christians are the same to start with — all sinners!  But they certainly turn out differently.  God can tell them apart, because the Christian is totally transformedHe has character that the non-Christian does not have.  He is a new creation in Christ.  And God’s strength and endurance are his!  But we must never forget that the price God paid for the diamond was very high — it cost the life of His own Son.


            Question: When the Master Jeweler holds you in the palm of His hand on Inspection Day, will  you be a Costly Diamond (with great cutting power, great beauty, and high value) — or will you only be a piece of cheap glass?  In conclusion, let me tell you how to become a Christian.  Becoming a Christian has several identifiable steps.  First, you must admit that you are a sinner.  Will you understand that this is an absolutely devastating admission?  Today, the word “sin” has been tamed into a joke or a glib concept, but it is anything but that.  When you genuinely “confess” that you are a sinner, you are admitting that you (yes, you!) are damnable (you deserve hell — which you do, whether you admit it or not); that you are depraved (wretched in your selfishness), and destitute (sin has deprived you of God and all He represents and offers).  So be very careful when you say you are admitting that you are a sinner.  This is the first step toward a radical new birth.  Second, confess your sins honestly to Jesus Christ, the One against whom you have sinned and are living in sin.  Third, repent of your sin.  This means that you accept an altogether changed view of sin, of Jesus, and of life.  The word repent is metanoia, which means a complete change of mind that leads to a change of character and conduct.  Fourth, trust Jesus Christ totally and only as your personal Saviour and Lord.  Remember that He loves you (yes, you!), died for you (yes, you!!), and rose from the dead, winning a Divine victory over sin, and death, and hell.  This victory becomes yours (yes, yours!) the very moment you truly and fully trust Him to save you and receive Him into your heart.  Finally, begin a lifestyle of confessing Him with you lips and your life.

1.      Admit that you are a sinner — damnable, depraved, and destitute.

2.      Confess your sins directly to Jesus Christ, the infinite, Divine Person                        against whom you have sinned.

3.     Repent of your sin, which involves a change of mind which leads to a                       change of character and conduct.

4.     Trust Jesus totally and only to save you, and receive Him into your heart as you personal Saviour and Lord.

5.     Confess him before others with your lips and your daily life.






Herb Hodges - Preacher/Teacher

3562 Marconi Cove - Memphis, TN 38118

901-362-1622     E-mail:

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