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What Is a Christian?

  • Donna Jones Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
What Is a Christian?

My daughter’s teammate wanted to know more about God. Maybe it was the recent rash of teenage suicides in our area. Maybe it was all the unrest in the world. Maybe it was simple curiosity. But for whatever reason, she’d reached out to my daughter, Ashton, to have a “God talk.”

Ashton joined her friend at Starbucks and opened the topic with a simple statement, spoken with utter sincerity: “I want you to feel free to ask me any question--anything at all--about what it means to be a Christian and I’ll try my best to answer.”

Ashton prepped for the conversation with her dad and me. She assumed her friend would ask about the Bible or how to prove the existence of God or some other heady topic. She was surprised by her friend’s response: “I hear Christians talk about how Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship. I have no idea what that means. What does it mean to be a Christian?”

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What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

My daughter’s friend is not alone in her confusion.

Why is there so much confusion over what it means to be a Christian?

Over two billion people worldwide profess to be “Christians” but not everyone has the same definition of what being a Christian means.

Some people say they are Christians because they were born into a “Christian” family, or go to church. Others explain being a Christian in terms of a religious denomination (“I’m (insert denomination), so I’m a Christian”). Some claim to be Christians because they have done certain religious acts like pray a prayer, have been baptized, or give to charity. My Jewish nephew thought Hitler was a Christian because he persecuted the Jews (true story). You’ve probably heard your own versions of these definitions. None of these definitions, though, fully explain what it means to be a Christian, according to the Bible.

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Where did the term “Christian” come from?

Where did the term “Christian” come from?

Interestingly, Jesus never called his followers Christians, nor did the early church call themselves Christians. Instead, people outside the church coined the name “Christian” to describe people who accepted, believed, and followed Jesus.

“Christian” literally means “of the party of Christ” or “follower of Christ.” Acts 11:26 says, “and the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch" (emphasis added). A disciple is more than a student; a disciple embraces a teacher’s ways as their ways. Early believers were called Christians because they believed Jesus’ teachings, they accepted Jesus’ death and resurrection as the payment for sin, and they emulated Jesus in the way they lived. These things are still true today. Simply put, a Christian is a follower of Jesus.

Christians believe the Bible is God’s Word and teaches the following about what it means to be a Christian:

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1. God loves all people and sent Jesus to demonstrate His love

1. God loves all people and sent Jesus to demonstrate His love

My daughter’s friend wasn’t the first person who wanted clarity about the message of Christ; a Jewish leader named Nicodemus came to Jesus with a few questions, too. Jesus told Nicodemus this: “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, so that whoever believes in Him, might not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

God loved, so God gave.

Jesus came to earth to demonstrate God’s love to everyone, and to give eternal life to anyone who chooses to believe in Him.

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2. None of us is born a Christian; we are re-born a Christian.

2. None of us is born a Christian; we are re-born a Christian.

The term “born again Christian” became popular in the 70’s and 80’s. Although it was meant to clarify what it means to be a Christian, for some, it made being a Christian seem weird. Honestly, the phrase can seem weird--that is, unless you understand Jesus uses the metaphor of birth because it’s a simple illustration all people, everywhere can understand. Everyone knows birth brings forth life.

Take a look at how the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus began:

 After dark one evening, he (Nicodemus) came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

Jesus replied, “I assure you, 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 birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ (John 3:2-7)

Remember how my daughter’s friend got confused about Christianity not being a religion? Turns out Nicodemus was a bit confused on this point, too. Jesus’ illustration clarifies why Christianity is unlike religion (His death and resurrection explain more--but we’ll get there in a moment).

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God Gives Spiritual Life

God Gives Spiritual Life

Consider this: if a Muslim family gives birth to a child, the child is Muslim. If a Jewish family gives birth to a child, the child is Jewish. But Christianity is different. Physical birth does not make one a Christian, spiritual birth, does.

People give physical life; God gives spiritual life. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”

This also explains why being a Christian isn’t a physical thing, like which church one attends, or what good deeds or religious practices one does. Being a Christian is experiencing a new birth that fundamentally transforms who you are, from the inside, out. It’s a relationship where you become God’s child. And like physical birth, spiritual birth happens one person at a time.

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3. A Christian humbly acknowledges that he/she is not perfect, but God is.

3. A Christian humbly acknowledges that he/she is not perfect, but God is.

There’s a reason the phrase “no one is perfect” gets repeated from generation to generation; it’s true!

We see imperfection all around us. We see imperfection in us. The Bible refers to this imperfection as “sin.” The term, “sin,” was originally an archery term that meant--you’re going to love this--“to miss the mark.”  The distance between a bulls-eye and where an arrow landed was called “sin.”

Romans 3:23 puts this concept into words: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We’ve all missed the bulls-eye in some way. No one is perfect. We know it in our bones. We see and experience the reality of this truth. Every. Single. Day.

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Sin Has Consequences

Sin Has Consequences

This imperfection, this sin, has consequences. Sin not only affects our relationships with one another, it affects our relationship with God, too. The prophet, Isaiah, wrote, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59:2).

Sin is real. Sin is hurtful. Sin separates people from people. And sin separates people from God.

We know this. No matter what our spiritual background--or lack of it--deep down in our soul, we know this is true.

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4. Christians believe in and accept Jesus’s perfect payment for their sins.

4. Christians believe in and accept Jesus’s perfect payment for their sins.

When I was a student at UCLA, a Jewish friend became intrigued with a group of us who were Christians. After observing the way we tried to love and live, her pre-conceived notions of what it meant to be a Christian were challenged. Her interest piqued. One evening, she asked me one of the best questions I’ve ever received.

To the best of my recollection, here’s what she said: “I get why Jesus lived. But why did he have to die? Honestly, making such a big deal about his death seems kind of creepy.”

Ah, honesty. I love it.

So, why do Christians make such a big deal about Jesus’ death?

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Sin Comes with a Price Tag

Sin Comes with a Price Tag

As in all relationships, human or divine, sin comes with a price tag. Romans 6:23 explains it this way: “The wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord”.

Ultimately, the price tag of sin is death, but Jesus Christ died on the cross in our place, to pay the price for our sins. God could have required you and me to pay the price for our own sins and He would have been perfectly justified in doing so. But in His great love, Jesus paid the price, the wage, for our sins by dying in our place on the cross. 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross”.

When someone dies for someone else to live, it’s a big deal. It is the ultimate sacrifice of love.

But there’s more! Sacrificial death is a big deal, but resurrection is even bigger. Three days after dying for the sins of the world, Jesus rose from the dead, signifying defeat over sin and power over death. Jesus’ resurrection validates his sacrificial substitution for sin and the certainty of eternal life.

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5. A relationship with God is a gift of His grace, received by faith

5. A relationship with God is a gift of His grace, received by faith

Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” 

No one is a Christian because their good works make them a Christian. None of us is that good. Are there good people in the world? Relatively speaking, of course! Are there perfect people in the world? Not even close.

Only God is perfect. Jesus came to live among us, to teach us, to guide us, and to die in our place, for our sins, to give us a new birth and eternal life. This is the free gift.

And the gift is available to anyone who chooses to accept it.

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6. Christians don’t just accept Jesus’ teaching in their head; they live it out in their life.

6. Christians don’t just accept Jesus’ teaching in their head; they live it out in their life.

Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” (John 14:23) James wrote, “What good is it, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14) After Paul explained how we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works, he continued, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

The night before Jesus died, he gathered his group of 12 disciples to share their last meal--the last supper.  With only hours left to live, Jesus said this: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Being a Christian is more than accepting certain truths about Jesus. A Christian believes Jesus is the Son of God, who loves us, died for us, and rose again. A Christian knows he or she is saved not by good works, but by the free gift of God’s grace. A Christian is so gripped by God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s welcome as His child, he or she lives out their faith by following Jesus in real life.

Simply put, a Christian follows Christ.


Donna Jones A pastor’s wife, author, and national speaker, Donna travels from coast to coast, helping people find and follow God in real life. For more information on what it means to be a Christian, check out her book, Seek: A Woman’s Guide to Meeting GodA southern girl, who’s now a southern California girl, Donna and her husband planted Crossline Church in Laguna Hills, CA, in 2005.  She is mom to their three young adult kids, who frequently sit on her kitchen counter, just to chat. Connect with Donna at www.donnajones.org or on Instagram @donnaajones.

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