WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?
Written by Doug Ponder on June 9, 2013
What’s in a Name?
Sometimes it seems the more often a word is used, the less we actually understand it. Perhaps this happens because we all assume we know what the word means, or maybe it happens we use the word with our own “personal” definition. This happens a lot with the word Christian.
What is a Christian? If asked the next ten people that you see, and you might get as many as ten different answers. That’s sad, because almost 8 in 10 Americans claim to be Christians. Yet how can we be so sure that we are Christians if we don’t even know what a Christian is?
In the Bible, the word Christian is used only three times (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16). In fact, the first people to use the word did so as an insulting label. It meant something like, “Those people belong to Christ,” or “Those people are followers of Jesus.” If being a Christian involves belonging to Jesus and following (or imitating) Jesus, then we should let Jesus define what it means to be a Christian.
The Right to Define
I once overheard two men debating whether or not Oprah, the bewilderingly popular talk show host, is a Christian.
“Oprah is not a Christian,” the first man said emphatically.
“She says she is a Christian,” the second man replied with equal emphasis.
Then they looked to me. “What do you think? Is Oprah a Christian?”
My response was not quite what they were expecting. “Well, who do you think has the right, the authority, to define what a Christian is?”
That wasn’t an attempt to dodge their question with a question. It was the only way to answer it. For if we let everyone choose their own definition for the word, then Christian can mean anything, and therefore it really means nothing.
So who has the right to define what a Christian is? Jesus, of course. After all, the word does refer to a “follower of Jesus.”
Christian according to Jesus
As it turns out, Jesus was clear about who his followers were to be and do. Whenever he called people to follow him, Jesus said: “Repent and believe the gospel!” (Mark 1:14-15).
To repent is to turn away from sin. Or as one pastor puts it, “Repentance is a change of mind that leads to a change of heart that leads to a change of direction and a changed life.” We repent, or turn away from sin, because of our faith in Jesus. It is our trust that Jesus is ultimately satisfying and sin is not, that he knows what he is talking about, and that he commands us to do what is for God’s glory and our good. Jesus acts for our good, and therefore is against our sin.
In this way, a Christian is someone who responds to Jesus’ invitation to repent and believe. In other words, a Christian is a repentant believer. It is someone who turns away from sin because they have turned to Jesus in faith.
Christians Keep on Repenting and Believing
There are three serious errors concerning Christians and repentance and faith.
The first of these errors attempts to turn repentance and faith into works or actions that earn God’s grace, love, and acceptance. People say things like, “Clean yourself up and believe in Jesus, then God will love you, accept you, and forgive you.” But that’s not how it works with God. We can’t earn anything from him, because we have nothing to offer him. Knowing that is one of the main “ingredients” of saving faith. It is knowing that Jesus is our only hope for God to forgive us, love us, and accept us. Therefore, we trust in Jesus knowing that he is the only way for us to be reconciled to God (John 14:6). Repenting and believing therefore doesn’t earn anything, but only receives what God freely gives in Jesus.
The second error concerning faith and repentance tries to separate them, as if you can have one without the other. According to Jesus, repentance and faith are a package deal—you don’t really have one without the other. They are like two sides of the same coin, for there is no such thing as a coin with only one side. (Even coins that are accidently minted with two “heads” or two “tails” still have two sides, a front and a back.) Repentance and faith are also like moving from one place to another. You have to leave one place to arrive in another. You can’t move to somewhere unless you also move from somewhere. In the same way, you are not truly trusting Jesus in faith if you have no desire to turn away from sin or to do what he says (John 14:15).
The third error that people make is to think of repentance and faith as onetime decisions, like checking a box or signing a contract. But Jesus didn’t come to call people to ‘sign on the dotted line.’ He came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) by calling sinners to repentance and faith in him (Luke 5:32). Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer put it like this, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In fact, the grammatical tense of Jesus’ command to “repent and believe” doesn’t allow us to limit these to onetime actions. Instead Jesus’ words could be translated, “Keep on repenting and keep on believing the gospel.” Thus, repentance and faith are not past tense decisions for Christians. They are a present tense way of life. Christians are people who continue to believe and continue to repent of their sin.
Am I a Christian?
Are you a Christian? How can you even know such a thing?
The New Testament never—not even once—tells us to remember a decision we made for Jesus in the past as evidence that we are Christians. On the contrary, the emphasis of the New Testament is always on the present.
Thus, we should not ask ourselves, “Have I repented and believed in Jesus?” Instead we should ask, “Am I repenting and believing in Jesus?”
But some will ask, “How can I know? What does it look like to repent and believe in Jesus?” There are three signs that you are a Christian, a repentant believer in Jesus.
First, you have an ongoing awareness of your deep need for Jesus. You believe that you have been set free from the penalty of sin (Rom. 8:1), but you know that you still need to be set free from the indwelling power and presence of sin in your life. Thus, you don’t think of yourself as “better” than non-Christians. Instead, you truly believe that you still need Jesus just as much as they do, and you don’t see Jesus as a ticket to heaven but as the Lord whose grace you need every single day.
Second, your assurance that you are a Christian is not found in the sincerity of some decision you made in the past, but in the confidence you have in Jesus in the present. You believe that even in spite of your continuing sinfulness, Jesus is more than able to save even you. Yes, you. When Christians sin, they don’t say, “Woe is me! I must not be saved.” Instead, they realize in that moment just how deep the Father’s love for us truly is. Jesus is able to save even you.
Third, because of their confession of sin and their confidence in Jesus to save them, Christians find new desires to obey Jesus and turn from sin welling up within them, like water bubbling up from a spring. The Holy Spirit puts those desires there (Phil. 2:13), enabling us to continue repenting and believing in Jesus, not by our own doing, but by the work of God in our lives to give us the grace to following Jesus (Titus 2:11-12; Phil. 1:6).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.