Who is a Christian?

by Steven Chan

Recently, in the US presidential election campaign, some voters wondered whether a certain nominee was a Christian. The reply was that the nominee believes that one must love God and love his neighbor, and practices the Golden Rule of conduct, and hence is a Christian. It appears that nothing more is required to be a Christian.

Also in recent months, a religious leader of a different faith declared that he was “more Christian” than so-called Christians because he followed Jesus more closely than them, in that he was circumcised as Jesus Himself was circumcised, and that he also abstained from unclean foods as taught in the Bible. To which, a member of the audience replied that that would make him a Jew and not a Christian. But that member went on and said that a Christian is one who follows the teachings of the church. The religious leader’s answer was quick: “may I know the teachings of which church that should be followed – as there are thousands of churches with different and oftentimes conflicting teachings”

Does it matter whether one knows who is a Christian? It matters so as to avoid confusion, misunderstandings and misrepresentations. As can be seen from the above two instances, there’s confusion as to which one is a Christian. Such confusion can lead to greater confusion in other discourses – for example, some may be confused if a so-called Christian believes that one should be circumcised in order to be a Christian (Acts 15:1). It is important to have a clear understanding of who really is a Christian.

Since all are generally agreed that the Bible is the source of authority for all the teachings of the Christian faith, one needs to study what the Bible says about being a Christian. The word “Christian” appears only three times in the Scriptures:-

Acts 11:26c: “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch”

Acts 26:28: “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’.”

1 Pet 4:16:  “but if a man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this name.” (ASV)

The key verse is Acts 11:26c where it is stated that those who were called “Christians” were “disciples” of Christ.

Following His resurrection from the dead, the Bible records in Matt 28:18-20 that Jesus commanded His disciples to “make disciples of all nations”: “ And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 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.”

In Mark 16:15-16, the account reads as follows: “And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

From the above two passages of Matt 28:18-20 and Mark 16:15-16, the following are evident:-

  1. The gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be preached in the entire world so that people may believe the gospel that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (John 20:30-31). In Acts 8:37, Philip the evangelist preached Jesus to the eunuch from Ethiopia and the latter then confessed his faith in Jesus as the Son of God: “And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
  1. The apostles were commanded by Jesus in Matt 28:19 to “make disciples” by teaching them the gospel (Matt 28:19 – KJV) and “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus taught that when the gospel is taught, “he who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15-16)

The eunuch in Acts 8:35-38  became a disciple of Christ in the manner commanded by Jesus:-

“Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”[c] 38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.”

At the first preaching of the gospel by the apostles in Acts 2, the people were told to do the same in order to have their sins forgiven (i.e. to be saved):

“Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

  1. Jesus commanded the apostles to continue to “teach them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19). A disciple of Christ must continue to “observe” or “believe, teach and do” ALL things commanded by Jesus Christ.

In Luke 6:46, Jesus said: “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?”

One cannot be a disciple of Christ if one does not “do the things” that Jesus said to do. Jesus was very clear in emphasizing the need to keep and do what He has said: “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.” (John 8:31)

The Bible warned those who “turned away” from keeping the commandments delivered by Christ and His apostles, as being in a “worse state”:-

“For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. 21 For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,”[e] and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.” (2 Pet 2:20-22)

From the above discussion, according to the Scriptures, a Christian is a “disciple of Christ” (i.e. learner and follower of Christ, His Lord) and he becomes a “disciple of Christ” when he is taught the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he believes that Jesus is truly the Son of God (Acts 8:37; Rom 10:9-10), and repenting of his sins (Acts 2:38; Luke 13:3) he is then baptized in the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 22:16), and having thus been “born again” (John 3:3,5; Titus 3:5) as a new creature (2 Cor 5:17; Rom 6:3-6)), saved by the grace of God (Eph 2:8-9), he is to “abide in His Word” (John 8:31; Matt 7:21; Luke 6:46; 1 Tim 4:16) being faithful to Him until death (Rev 2:10; 2 Tim 4:6-8). The person who has not complied with the above (for example if he has not believed in Jesus or has not been baptized for the forgiveness of his sins) is not a disciple of Christ or a Christian.

Jesus kept the old covenant/law that was mediated by Moses and having fulfilled the requirements of the Law, He took the Old/First Covenant/Testament away on the cross and replaced with the New/Second Covenant/Testament which is enacted on better promises. So today we are no longer obligated to keep the requirements of the Old Law/First Covenant such as circumcision, abstaining from unclean meats, offering of burnt sacrifices of bulls and goats. We are now obligated to keep the teachings of Christ under the New Testament (Eph 2:13-16; Col 2:13-17; Gal 3:19-27; 5:1-6; Heb 7:12; 8:6-13; 9:11-17; 10:1-14). ). Jesus lived under the Law (Gal 4:4) and Jesus kept the Law and was circumcised as required by the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1). But by His sacrifice and the shedding of His blood on the cross, He has replaced the old Covenant with the New Covenant (Matt 26:28)

It is the words of Christ who received them from the Father, which will judge us in the last day – the teachings of the New Covenant (John 12:47-50; 17:8)

However, if any one “turns away” from His teachings, his condition is “worse” than if he had not heard the gospel as the Bible warns that such an “erring disciple” faces a “certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”[e]says the Lord.[f] And again, “The Lord will judge His people.”[g] 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:27-31)

Knowing the fate of those disciples of Christ who have “erred from the truth”, we must do our best to “turn them back” so that their souls may be saved:  “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul[f] from death and cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20)  Let’s restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness  as stipulated by the apostles: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” (Gal 6:1; 2 Tim 2:24-26)

Let us allow the Bible to speak to us as to who is a Christian. Otherwise, we will be much confused. From the Scriptures examined above, it is evident that merely saying or claiming that one loves God, loves his neighbor (Matt 22:38-40) and follow the Golden Rule (Matt 7:12) is not sufficient to qualify one to be a disciple of Christ and be called a Christian as in Acts 11:26. One who claims to follow Christ but rejects His teachings and those of His apostles (1 Thess 2:13; John 14:26;16:13; 1 Cor 14:37; John 8:31) as regards various matters such as acceptance of “same sex” marriages (Rom 1:23-28; 1 Cor 6:9; Matt 19:4-5) and endorsing the right to kill unborn babes (Psa 139:13-16; Luke 1:41,44; Rom 13:9), cannot possibly be a faithful disciple of Christ. Similarly, insisting that one must be circumcised like Jesus was, would not qualify one to be a disciple of Christ because Jesus did not teach us to be circumcised in order to be His disciples; in fact, His apostle taught thus: “Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal 5:2-4).

Let us truly seek to be disciples of Christ by obeying the gospel and faithfully abiding in His Word (Matt 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; John 8:31; Acts 11:26; Rev 2:10). Then one can truly be a Christian and glorify Him in this name (1 Pet 4:16).

Let us be careful in our daily speech as regards whom we ascribe as a ‘Christian’ as an inaccurate or indiscriminate application of that name may convey incorrect ideas to those who hear us. For example, what would our hearers think of Christ and His teachings if we refer to the religious leader as a ‘Christian’ when he teaches that one needs to be circumcised in order to be a disciple of Christ? Be careful lest our speech betrays us as was pointed out to the apostle Peter in Matt 26:73:  “Of course you are one of them,” they said. “After all, the way you speak gives you away!” (GNB)