What is a Christian?

What are the qualifications for being a Christian?

Is there criteria to be met?

What does it mean to be considered a Christian?


No surprise, the answer will depend on what kind of Christian you ask.  I would like to attempt to provide the answer I think Jesus and the Apostles would have given (understanding – I presume – that every kind of Christian would think he or she is doing the same thing).

Very broadly, the term “Christian” translates in the original Greek to “little Christ,” which implied that those who identified as Christians were attempting to model themselves after Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus a Christian is one who follows Jesus.  But lots of people claim to follow Jesus and go in a million different directions; is there a “right” way to follow Jesus, and what does it mean to “follow” Him in the first place?

A basic way to follow someone is to do what he or she says.  Indeed, Jesus Himself says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.”  The only accounts of what Christ said are the written New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and those it is widely agreed were written many years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

Thus from the outset we are dependent on tradition to determine what Jesus said and what He meant.  Oral tradition carried the gospel stories for decades, after which the Christian Church passed down the written accounts for 1,900 years.  Nearly all the other books of the New Testament expand on the Gospel accounts to further explain what the first Apostles understood about Christ, the human condition, and the Church.

Yet not everyone agrees how one ought to understand / interpret the writings of the New Testament.  It was obviously written thousands of years ago in a vastly different culture by a variety of authors.

So we rely on the various orthodox traditions of the Church in explaining the meaning of the texts, our historical-critical methods of analysis, and God’s guidance.

What, then, is the bottom line?  What everyone wants to know: what does it take to be “saved”?

Christian salvation has, unfortunately, been made out to be nothing more than a legal transaction in many Protestant Christian circles: I intellectually believe that Jesus died for my sins, then God imputes Christ’s righteousness to my life, and then I go to heaven when I die.

Umm….incomplete.  And generally misleading.

That is not the actual Scriptural account of the Christian life.  The New Testament Epistles are filled with admonitions from Paul to live life in a holy way; to run the race of life in a way that ensures we as Christians will finish (meaning there is the possibility that we won’t finish).


Take it from a brilliant contemporary Christian (and, as you might not expect based on what he says, Southern Baptist), Dallas Willard (from “The Divine Conspiracy”):

“If you ask any…American who says they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ what the Christian gospel is, you will probably be told that Jesus died to pay for our sins, and that if we will only believe he did this, we will go to heaven when we die.

“In this way what is only one theory of the ‘atonement’ is made out to be the whole of the essential message of Jesus.  To continue with theological language for the moment, justification has taken the place of regeneration, or new life.  Being let off the divine hook replaces possession of a divine life ‘from above.’  For all of the talk about the ‘new birth’ among conservative Christians, there is an almost total lack of understanding of what that new birth is in practical terms and of how it relates to forgiveness and imputed or transmitted righteousness…

“Certainly forgiveness and reconciliation are essential to any relationship where there has been offense, and also between us and God.  We cannot pass into a new life from above without forgiveness…We must be reconciled to God and he to us if we are going to have a life together.  But such a reconciliation involves far more than the forgiveness of our sins or a clearing of the ledger.  And the faith and salvation of which Jesus speaks obviously is a much more positive reality than mere reconciliation…

The issue, so far as the gospel in the Gospels is concerned, is whether we are alive to God or dead to him.  Do we walk in an interactive relationship with him that constitutes a new kind of life, life ‘from above’?  As the apostle John says in his first letter, ‘God has given undying life to us, and that life is in his Son.  Those who have the Son have life’ (1 John 5:11-12).

“What must be emphasized in all of this is the difference between trusting Christ, the real person Jesus, with all that that naturally involves, versus trusting some arrangement for sin-remission set up through him – trusting only his role as guilt remover.  To trust the real person Jesus is to have confidence in him in every dimension of our real life, to believe that he is right about and adequate to everything.”

It is in this way that a Christian is a follower of Christ – by following Jesus the person and trusting Him.  By loving Him, as He says, by following His commands.  By trusting those He left in control of His Church.

That is what it means to be “saved” – to begin living the new life God has made available through following His Son right now.  Salvation begins right now, when we do this.  It is a life transformed and submitted to Christ from the moment we submit until our last breath.

The transformation is never complete, but we move towards eventual completion in the power of God Himself, through His Spirit.  And there is grace and mercy for when we fall short.

But it is the intent of the heart in submission to Christ, demonstrated in some manner by the life that is lived in response, which marks those who are truly “little Christs.”

2 thoughts on “What is a Christian?

  1. Great post, David, and one that needs to be taken to heart! Not just trusting Jesus as sin-bearer but as Lord and friend and guide and empowerer and lover and life. Thanks.

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