What is a Christian?


At the dawn of the new millennium, well-known leaders of the Protestant, Evangelical world—including Jack Hayford, Tony Evans, Crawford Loritts, Henry Blackaby, Anne Graham Lotz, Kay Arthur, and Bill McCartney—produced a video that was distributed to 300,000 religious organizations in the United States. In it was a clear testimony of the church’s perilous moral and spiritual decline and desperate need for revival. Here are a few quotes from the video[1]:

•“America is a reflection of the condition of the people of God, the churches.”

•“In a recent research study, out of 66 lifestyle categories, Christians are not demonstrably different than non-Christians in ANY of the 66 categories.”

•“Christians have no credible moral voice in this nation.”

•“God looks into our churches and sees as much divorce in the people of God as He does in the world. God looks into our churches and sees as much abortion in the people of God as He does in the world. God looks into our churches and sees as much gambling in the people of God as He does in the world. And the surveys taken say the difference between the churches and the people of the world is hardly recognizable.”

•“For the first time in history, here in the western world, the divorce rate in the church is higher…HIGHER…than those that are not churched.”

•“80% of all young people raised in the church, faithfully attending church…80% of all of them, have left the church when they leave home.”

•“We have substituted programs for prayer, and scheduled activities for the Spirit’s leading, and orthodoxy for obedience, and CEO’s for pastors and shepherds.”

•“We are at a crossroads, and have got to make serious changes in the churches. We stand on the critical moment of judgment or revival. We must decide if we’ll obey.”

•“We are at a decisive moment. God must do a new thing in His Church.”

•“We have so entangled our lives with the affairs of this world, and we have made Christianity a show.”

Clearly, problems so massive will require equally massive changes. We believers in Jesus have to be willing to take a fresh look at foundational issues in light of God’s Word, with prayer and fasting, to determine just what is wrong and what we need to do to change.

These thoughts are intended to spark that kind of re-examination of a very foundational issue: What is a Christian? What does that term even mean, Biblically? If they don’t have a clear grasp of God’s perspective, the people of God will remain mixed with the world, with no clear standard to discern the difference and no way to help those who are holding to a false sense of security. Can we look at this question together, as courageously and humbly as we know how, with God as our helper? Let’s examine, from God’s Word, what a Christian is not and what a Christian is.

What a Christian is Not

Being born in a “Christian” country does not insure that a person is a Christian.

An obvious point? Maybe. But even in our day, when respect for diversity is held up as the highest virtue, many people tend to associate a certain nation with a particular religion. The United States, some would say, is a “Christian” nation. So are England, Germany, and Australia. India, on the other hand, is a Hindu nation, while Saudi Arabia is Moslem and Thailand is Buddhist. From this point of view, a citizen acquires his or her country’s religion almost by default, as a sort of cultural heritage. “A Christian? Well, I was born in America—I guess I must be.” Apparently this kind of assumption explains the results of opinion polls where 81% of Americans identify themselves as Christians[2].

But hear what the apostle Paul said, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit: “God appointed the exact times and places where men should live. He did this so that they should reach out for Him and perhaps find Him, although He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). According to God, the fact that you were born in a certain time or place does no more than give you an opportunity to find Him. You still have the responsibility to “reach out and find Him.” The location of one’s place of birth or citizenship in itself means nothing. Being born in a so-called “Christian” country does not insure that a man or woman is a Christian.

Being born to Christian parents doesn’t mean that a person is a Christian.

Many people regard their religion as being something of a family tradition. “Of course I’m a Christian. My parents are Christians. They took us to services, baptized us, and read us Bible stories. Yeah, I’m a Christian. I’ll always know that’s who I am.”

But this kind of thinking betrays a serious misunderstanding. God says that the circumstances of one’s natural birth have nothing to do with whether he or she is a Christian! Listen to Jesus Himself: “The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven” (John 3:5-6). According to Jesus, the only life parents are capable of passing on to children directly is natural, human life. Children can’t inherit a relationship with God from parents. Each of us have to receive from Him a faith and a life that are radically new—and 100% our own.

John wrote: “But to all who believed Jesus and received Him, He gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn! This is not a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan—this rebirth comes from God” (John 1:12-13). Parents’ decisions obviously have a whole lot to do with the circumstances of our natural birth—but not with a spiritual rebirth. My parents could be vibrant believers, full of the eternal life that comes from God, but that would guarantee nothing for me. Someone might inherit her coloring from her father and her eyes from her mother—but Christianity isn’t passed down in the genes. A child might even acquire his dad’s aptitude for math and his mom’s love for the game of baseball—but being a Christian isn’t like that. It isn’t absorbed by osmosis! The genes and culture that went with your physical birth had something to do with producing the physical you. But only a second birth has any chance of producing a spiritual you. Having wonderful, believing parents doesn’t mean you are a Christian, any more than having pagan parents guarantees you will always be a pagan—thank God!

Belonging to a congregation and attending its services regularly does not at all guarantee that a person is a Christian.

Some assume that a “faithful member of the church”—one who attends services, supports the programs, and puts money in the contribution plate—must surely be a Christian. Sadly, many can testify that their experience proves otherwise.

One of my friends is an example. As the husband of new convert, he attended services and Bible studies several times a week. Soon he publicly confessed Christ and was baptized. He participated in men’s discipleship groups where other guys “held him accountable.” A successful businessman, he was one of the congregation’s major financial contributors. But he was not even saved. He later told me that at the time he was baptized, he was 95% sure that God did not even exist! But to please his wife (he thought) and to join the “in” crowd among his new circle of acquaintances—and because just maybe this thing was even true—he “took the plunge.” For a few years he was regarded as a “faithful member,” but in his heart he knew he didn’t believe. Finally, he got tired of the hypocrisy. He found the courage to knock on someone’s door and confess, “I don’t know God.” He began to bare his heart—and the fruit is something he’ll always be grateful for.

But here’s a haunting question: How many more are there just like my friend, sitting in pews and serving on committees and even rising to leadership, who really don’t believe the gospel of Jesus in their heart of hearts and who don’t truly have the Eternal Spirit, the person of Jesus Christ “dwelling mightily” within them, who are really only faking it? A recent survey supplies a disturbing clue. The large majority of those who identify themselves as “Christian” in the United States don’t even claim to be spiritually re-born. And on any given Sunday, 41% percent of the people who actually attend services regularly and are sitting in the pews don’t profess to have been born again. The survey adds: “Most of those people have been attending Christian churches for years and years, without really understanding the foundations of the Christian faith and its personal implications.”[3] You have to wonder—how many of those 41% think they are okay because of their regular attendance? You also have to ask yourself—how many of the remaining 59% even know what the term “born again” really means?

One thing is for certain. As Keith Green used to put it, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger!” And having goose bumps during “worship” surely doesn’t mean a person is living in the power of the Spirit! We must not use attendance patterns or religious affiliations as an indicator that a person is truly a Christian.

A belief that God exists and that Jesus is His Son does not insure that a person is a Christian.

At first thought this point may not seem quite as obvious. But consider for a moment whether a person is automatically a Christian if he or she is totally convinced that (1) the God of the Bible exists and (2) Jesus of Nazareth is His Son, the Holy One from Heaven. The answer, Biblically, is a clear no.

The demons themselves have an unwavering belief that God exists. “Do you still think it’s enough just to believe that there is one God? Well, even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror!” (James 2:19). And the first person to confess out loud that Jesus was the Holy One sent from God wasn’t Peter—it was a demon (Mark 1:23-26).

What is possible for a demon is possible for a human being, too—even a religious one. (That, after all, was James’ whole point in the letter we just quoted!) When the Bible speaks of a saving faith, it does not mean an intellectual acceptance—or a deep conviction, for that matter—of the basic facts that God is our Creator or that Jesus died on the cross to save people from their sins. While every Christian does believe those facts, not everyone who believes those facts is a Christian. Just ask the demons—there are no atheists in hell.

Calling Jesus “Lord” and performing signs and wonders in His Name does not demonstrate that someone is a Christian.

Today, signs and wonders are often taken to be foolproof evidence that God is truly among us. The ones who can perform them (or appear to be performing them on the stage of religion) are not only assumed to be Christians, but viewed as highly spiritual, on God’s “cutting edge.”

Jesus does not look at things that way. Signs and wonders can be a confirmation of the proclamation of the Word of God (Mark 16:15-18; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:1-4). However, they can equally serve to confirm a false gospel. In the end times, counterfeit signs and wonders will occur that will seem so valid, so on-target, that even God’s elect could be taken in—but these miracles will come from false messiahs and prophets (Matthew 24:24). The anti-christ himself and his henchmen are said to perform signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:9-20; Revelation 13:3,11-15). A true prophet is not recognized by his miracles, but by the fruit of his life (Matthew 7:15-20).

Let’s allow the full impact of these truths to sink in. They have a powerful effect on the whole question of who is a Christian. Jesus Himself said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and in Your Name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus wasn’t talking about the anti-christ here, or even wolves in sheep’s clothing, since they surely won’t be surprised on the last day. They’re counterfeits living a power-trip, and they know it. The people He was referring to actually think they are Christians. They aren’t so much trying to deceive others as they are self-deceived—and fooling the naive by their sincerity. Jesus portrays these people as shocked on the last day. They call Jesus “Lord” in their speech. And they “do the stuff.” What they predict will happen sometimes does happen. The demon-possessed and demon-oppressed may be delivered at their word. People are sometimes healed, visions are seen, and words are given. And all in the name of Jesus. But Jesus Himself doesn’t know them. No matter what they think, they are not Christians. And yet God has “given each of us a way out” and will continue to invite anyone with a “good and honest heart” into the Real Miracle of Transformation! Will we care enough and be humble enough to seek this out for ourselves? Is there really a true, supernatural, miraculous invasion from Heaven filling our lives? Or are we the product of culture, sentiment, and conscience?

An Honest Appraisal

Putting it together, then: a person could be born in a “Christian” country to Christian parents, believe wholeheartedly that God exists and that Jesus is His Son, get highly involved in the work and worship of a local congregation, and prophesy and perform signs and wonders in the name of the Lord Jesus—and not be a Christian. A Christian might do all these things, but so might a non-Christian, if the Bible is our standard of deciding such things. These matters of pedigree and profession and performance are irrelevant in discerning the state of someone’s relationship with God. They simply aren’t the issue. We need a different definition of what a Christian is.

What a Christian Is

In defining what a Christian is, we are not trying to answer the question of how to be saved. We instead are trying to say how we can recognize who is a saved person. In other words, we are not trying to say how to be born, but instead are hoping to learn from the Scriptures how to tell a living person from one who is still dead in his or her sins.

A complete description of a Christian is also beyond what we’re trying to accomplish here. Neither are we trying to outline a Christian’s growth from a place of spiritual infancy to being “conformed to the likeness of God’s Son” (Romans 8:29). We are simply trying to define the word “Christian” from the Scriptures so that we can strip away some historical and cultural baggage from the term and use it the way God does. Then, hopefully, we will be able to see our own spiritual environment more clearly, through His eyes.

Part of the problem is that the word “Christian” is only used three times in the entire Bible![4] Two of the instances are important, for sure, but don’t offer much help with a definition. When Paul gave his defense before King Agrippa, the king asked, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains” (Acts 26:28-29). This passage doesn’t tell us what a Christian is, exactly, but for sure we know that Paul was one! Then in Peter’s letter to churches in Asia Minor, he wrote, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16). Historically, it seems the name “Christian” arose as a derogatory term that a hostile world pinned on believers. Peter challenges us to bear persecution and insult with dignity and courage. Still, Peter doesn’t help us much here in defining who is a Christian.

The other use of the word “Christian” in the Bible is a real eye-opener, though. In Acts 11, we read of how the church in Antioch began. The writer, Luke, inserts this comment: “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” So a Christian is a disciple. The words “Christian” and “disciple” are synonyms—they mean exactly the same thing. The term “Christian” was invented, apparently, by unbelievers in Antioch as a label for disciples. This passage contradicts a popular assumption in many religious circles that a “disciple” is a higher level of Christian growth, a more committed version of a Christian. According to the Word of God, the only person who can accurately be called a Christian is a disciple. And if God’s Word contradicts our assumptions, wouldn’t you say that we’re the ones who have to change?

So let’s make an agreement that we are going to use the word “Christian” the way God does—even if it blows our worlds apart to do so! By looking at the scriptural definition of the word “disciple,” we will at the same time be defining the term “Christian.” And that should make matters easier, since the New Testament uses the term “disciple” almost 300 times!

A Christian is a disciple of Jesus

If we want a picture of what a disciple of Jesus is like, we need only look at the gospels. We read of men and women who are willing to place careers, family relationships, and social status on the line if only they can follow Jesus. Together, they sit with Him on the mountainside or walk with Him through the market place, hanging on His every word, listening with a dogged determination to obey Him, no matter what the cost. Watch them obey, with Jesus as their Living Master and Teacher! Watch them fall flat on their faces again and again, and bounce back instantly because they are determined to be the “wise builders” who put Jesus’ words into practice. See them seek the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness as their primary pursuit and goal in life, no matter what the current activity happens to be. They attend weddings and banquets. They go buy food. They saddle up donkeys. They walk through fields together, pulling off heads of grain and snacking on them as they listen. They are decidedly non-religious. But they are always marked by their settled, determined desire to stick with Jesus and each other so that together they can learn to obey Him. That’s a disciple. And that’s what a Christian is, too. The above sentences really aren’t a fanciful, romantic reconstruction of discipleship. It’s the standard Jesus Himself set in place. And He’s the one who gets to decide, right?

Every prophecy in the Old Testament and of the New Covenant and every teaching of Jesus bears out that “obeying His commands and decrees” is the mark of His Spirit within, proving our conversion and regeneration. Someone with that kind of life, that set of priorities, that habit of listening and obeying on an intensely practical level, is a Christian. People who aren’t living that way aren’t Christians, by God’s definition.

Let’s just look at a few of the times where God has laid out the basic definition of who a disciple is. Again, we’re not looking at how to be saved. We’re looking at how to identify whether a person really has entered into an obedient, obsessed, deeply loving, indwelling, and therefore saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)

The words, “If anyone would come after Me…” mean that this is a universal requirement—no exceptions. All of Jesus’ potential disciples must decide that they will:

deny themselves—no longer live to please themselves;

take up the cross—endure personal loss, whether through opposition or disappointment or pain or just flat telling themselves no; and

follow—conform to Jesus’ life and teachings in practical daily life.

Not much explanation needed, is there? Jesus was so clear. But what must be emphasized is that this description has to fit a person, or he or she is not Jesus’ disciple and therefore not a Christian. And Jesus was very consistent in His teaching. Hear Him again:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple…Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:25-27,33).

Three times in a row Jesus said, “If anyone does not ____ he cannot be My disciple.” He filled in the blank with three absolute, mandatory, 100% accurate descriptions of a disciple. All disciples put Jesus ahead of the desires and demands of family and of self. All disciples choose to die to their own rights. And all disciples hand over all that they own, every resource—whether time, relationships, preferences, money, possessions, or goals—to Jesus. He calls the shots in each of these areas. Anyone who instead tries to add Jesus in to the life they already have, while maintaining their control of it, is not a disciple and so not a Christian. Of course, there will be maturity issues in carrying these things out, but it is not a decision of “whether or not” for a true Christian. They may need help from others to see it and help in carrying it out—but the decision had already been made. Genuine Christians, “not their own, but bought at a high price,” have already decided to abandon all. It is not a new decision each time.

Is Jesus teaching a salvation by works and human effort here? Not at all. The disciples were saved by faith in Him, period. But saved from what? Sin, self, and “the empty way of life handed down from our ancestors (1 Peter 1:18). People who are delivered from that deadness will be recognized by the difference in their lives, if in fact they are saved. And saved by what? By God’s provision (grace) through their absolute trust in Jesus (faith). People who trust Jesus will do what He says. When they fail, they’ll repent and come right back to trusting Him. “If you (really) love Me, you will obey Me.”

To sum it up, the terms “Christian” and “disciple” are two ways of saying the same thing. A genuinely saved person, an authentic Christian, will have the characteristics of a disciple Jesus taught and His first followers displayed.

What Now?

Perhaps the things written here were obvious to you. Maybe you could have said them (better, no doubt!) yourself. Or perhaps these things seem strange or perplexing, and you’re not quite sure you agree. Either way, we ask you—for the sake of Jesus and His Kingdom—to do four things:

1. Go to Jesus with what you’ve read here. That’s the direction we must always take things—vertically, to Him. With prayer and fasting, please beg God for wisdom about these issues and what to do about them (James 1:5). In view of the mercy He’s had on us all, please lay your life and thoughts and opinions on the altar so that the way will be clear to discern His will (Romans 12:1-2). Please go to the scriptures we’ve referenced to see if the teachings here are true (Acts 17:11), but please don’t “slice and dice” them with human understanding and experience—lean on Him (Proverbs 3:5-6). Although as writers of these thoughts we do take responsibility for the contents and would be happy to discuss them with you, we’re certainly not asking you to respond primarily to us. Jesus is our Master and Teacher.

2. Let’s begin by applying it to our own lives. Teachings from God’s Word are powerful tools for changing lives (2 Timothy 3:16), but the lives they change must start with our own! These thoughts are not “ammo” so that someone with an attitude or resentment can attack someone else. They are meant to give us a way to search our own hearts. Our own minds and lives must be brought into conformity with God’s if we’re to have anything to offer others around us. We need personal repentance, not a slew of new programs or “ministries” that touch the externals but don’t change the heart. We need a Transforming Communion with the Living God!

3. Let’s take an honest look at our family members and friends and at the person next to us on the pew (or on the couch, for those who meet in living rooms). After dealing with our own issues, we really are meant to help others, too—that’s not judging, according to Jesus (Matthew 7:5). He commands us to be “ambassadors, as if God were making His appeal through us,” “as the very oracles of God.” The only truly loving thing to do is to see other people the way God does, and to try to help them with a redemptive heart. Sentimentality, family traditions, and personal comfort zones all have to be nailed to Jesus’ cross if we hope to live in a way worthy of Him (Matthew 10:37-38). Sermons and classes on the topic of discipleship won’t accomplish even a tiny fraction of the good that can be done by tapping a relative or acquaintance on the shoulder and saying, “Can we look at a few scriptures together and apply them to our lives?” If there is going to be any real change from the situation described by the religious leaders quoted at the beginning of these thoughts, it has to be intensely practical and personal, even intrusive. That’s the Biblical way (Hebrews 3:13).

4. Let’s agree that we will uphold this standard. If these pages reflect what the passages they quote are saying, let’s agree together to uphold this standard, regardless of what others may say, regardless of how “hopeless” things look, regardless of our having all the answers or not. Let us make a covenant with Jesus that we will never allow any circumstance or failure or fear of men to talk us into a disloyalty to His Word. Instead, let’s take every opportunity to raise His Standard so that others can have a chance to hear His Word and obey—and experience the life-changing power of His grace and Spirit Life flowing from within.

As they were walking along the road, a man said to Him, “I will follow You wherever You go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” He said to another man, “Follow Me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).

Let’s each, personally, acknowledge the Rightness of what Jesus Christ has said here, call out to the Risen Deliverer for His Life and Mercy and Grace for the Obsession He invites us into, and expect His Holy Spirit to saturate and empower us as we come to His All-Sufficiency from our poverty. He DEEPLY desires that for you and me—the Reality of “on earth as it is in Heaven”—describing us individually and every true Church!


[1] Quoted in True Hope for a New Millennium

[2] The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ

[3] “State of the Church Report,” Barna Research Group, as reported in Maranatha Newswatch, Issue 184, March 12, 2001.

[4] Of course the New Living Translation and some other versions use the word “Christian” dozens of times, but they’ve chosen to substitute it for what’s really in the text. The word “brothers” has often been translated “Christian friends,” for example. We can enjoy reading the NLT, but let’s try to keep in mind that the translators have often substituted modern lingo for Biblical terminology. If you check out a Greek interlinear—or just about any fairly literal translation, from the King James to the New American Standard to the NIV—you’ll discover that the word Christian only appears three times. You don’t have to take our word for it—look it up! : )

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