Just What Is a Christian Anyway?

by Ron Rhodes

In my childhood and through my teenage years, I thought I was a Christian because I attended church regularly. For years I participated in various church activities, sang in the church choir, and went through all the right motions. I had no idea at that time that I really wasn't a Christian according to the biblical definition of the term.

Like so many other people today, I was under the illusion that a Christian is merely a church-attender, or perhaps a person who is fairly consistent in governing his or her life in accordance with a Christian code of ethics. In this line of thinking, a person can look forward to a destiny in heaven as long as his or her good deeds outweigh the bad deeds by the time he or she dies.

Some time later I discovered the truth. At the most basic level, a Christian is one who has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a relationship that begins the moment you place faith in Christ for salvation (Acts 16:31). When you believe in Jesus (John 3:16), you start an eternal relationship with Him. (It's eternal because it lasts the rest of your life on earth and then continues forever in heaven after you die.) It is a blessed relationship in which the Christian has the profound privilege of spiritually walking with Jesus on a daily basis, trusting Him to meet each and every need. From a biblical perspective, then, Christianity is not so much a religion as it is a relationship.

We must keep in mind that being a Christian is more than just knowing ABOUT Jesus Christ. Becoming a Christian involves FAITH IN Christ, and this faith leads to genuine fellowship with Christ. "Our fellowship," explained the apostle John, "is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3).

It is fascinating that the word "Christian" is used only three times in the New Testament -- the most important being Acts 11:26. (The other two verses are Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16.) It is instructive to observe just what this word meant among those to whom the term was originally applied.

In Acts 11:26, we are told simply and straightforwardly, "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch." This would have been around A.D. 42, about a decade after Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead.

Up until this time the followers of Jesus had been known among themselves by such terms as "believers" (Acts 2:44), "brothers" (Acts 15:1,23), and "disciples" (Acts 9:26). But now, in Antioch, they are called Christians.

What does the term mean? The answer is found in the -ian ending. Among the ancients, the -ian ending meant "belonging to the party of." Herodians, then, belonged to the party of Herod. Caesarians belonged to the party of Caesar. Christians belonged to Christ. And Christians were loyal to Christ, just as the Herodians were loyal to Herod and Caesarians were loyal to Caesar.

The significance of the name Christian was that these followers of Jesus were recognized as a distinct group. They were seen as distinct from Judaism and from all other religions of the ancient world. We might loosely translate the term Christian to mean "one who belongs to Christ," "a Christ-one," or perhaps "Christ-follower." Christians are people who believe in Christ and have a personal relationship with Him.

You might find it helpful to ponder what one resident of Antioch might have said to another regarding these committed followers of Jesus: "Who are these people?" The other person would answer, "Oh, these are the people who are always talking about Christ -- they are the Christ-people, or the Christians."

Those who have studied the culture of Antioch have noted that the Antiochans were well known for making fun of people. It may be that the early followers of Jesus were initially called Christians by local residents as a term of derision or ridicule. History reveals that by the second century, Christians adopted the title as a badge of honor. They took pride (in a healthy kind of way) in following Jesus. They had a genuine relationship with the living, resurrected Christ and they were utterly faithful to Him, even in the face of death.

What Is Christianity?

If a Christian is a person who has a personal relationship with Jesus, then Christianity -- at its most basic level -- involves a collective group of people who have a personal relationship with Jesus. As J.I. Packer put it so well, "The essence of Christianity is neither beliefs nor behavior patterns. It is the reality of communion here and now with Christianity's living founder, the Mediator, Jesus Christ."

We should note that there is no instance recorded in the New Testament of the early Christians referring to their collective movement as "Christianity," even though the term "Christian" was used with greater frequency as the movement grew in numbers. By the time of Augustine (A.D. 396-430), the use of the term "Christianity" appears to have become widespread. It progressively became a term describing a movement of people who had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Great Christians down through the centuries have recognized that Christianity most fundamentally involves a personal relationship with Jesus.

  • Devotional writer Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) said, "Christianity is not devotion to work, or to a cause, or a doctrine, but devotion to a person, the Lord Jesus Christ."
  • Bible scholar Stephen Neill said, "Christianity is not the acceptance of certain ideas. It is a personal attitude of trust and devotion to a person."
  • Theologian John R.W. Stott said, "A Christian is, in essence, somebody personally related to Jesus Christ."

Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it. There is nothing left. Christ is the heart and center of Christianity. All else is mere circumference. Christianity is not primarily concerned with following Jesus' philosophy of life or seeking to imitate His ethic. Christianity is first and foremost concerned with personally relating to Him.

Let us never forget that to know Jesus is to know God (John 8:19). To see Jesus is to see God (John 12:45). To believe in Jesus is to believe in God (John 12:44). To receive Jesus is to receive God (Mark 9:37). To honor Jesus is to honor God (John 5:23). To worship Jesus is to worship God (Revelation 4-5). A relationship with Jesus, then, is the most important relationship you can have.

Taken from Reasoning from the Scriptures Newsletter, March 1998 Edition
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