What does it mean to be a Christian?

The Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom says that in 2011 59.3% of the population in England and Wales identified themselves as ‘Christian’. If the trend of the previous ten years has continued, this proportion will now be lower. But is this an accurate total of genuine Christians, or just those who ticked a box on a census form? You see, there are widely differing views and understandings of what a Christian actually is. According to Wikipedia ‘a Christian is a person who follows or adheres to Christianity.’ The BBC has said that ‘being a Christian is about… a friendship with Jesus Christ.’ Whilst definitions such as these are not wrong, they miss the fundamental point of what a true Christian is.

The word ‘Christian’ occurs just three times in the Bible:

1.     “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11.26). A Christian is a disciple, or follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

2.     “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (Acts 26.28). A Christian is someone who has made a decision to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a life-changing choice, and results in being saved from sin and judgment, all based on the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

3.     “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Pet 4.16). A Christian may suffer persecution for his faith and should live a life of service and faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.

In order to help us answer the question ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’ let us consider two helpful passages from the Bible, each written by the apostle John. The first passage, in chapter three of his Gospel, concerns a man called Nicodemus who listened to the Lord Jesus explain about the ‘new birth’. The second is a letter written by the apostle John to encourage Christians. His stated purpose in writing his Gospel was “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn 20.31). But he writes his letter to those who have already believed, to teach them that their lives ought to demonstrate their faith in the Lord Jesus. Christians, who have experienced the new birth, will have evidence of this in their lives.

A Christian has experienced the new birth – the account of Nicodemus

The Gospel of John chapter 3 describes a person named Nicodemus who was a man of wealth, responsibility, authority and knowledge. As a prominent leader of the Jewish religion, he would have lived a disciplined life. Although a successful man, he recognised there was something different about the Lord Jesus and wanted to interview Him. One night Nicodemus came to the Lord Jesus and at the start of the conversation he stated:  “No one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (Jn 3.2). Nicodemus was correct, but he needed to learn more!

“Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God”, the Lord Jesus declared (Jn 3.3). In bewilderment Nicodemus asked: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn 3.4)  The Lord Jesus went on to explain that He wasn’t speaking about natural birth, but spiritual. This was different to what Nicodemus had first imagined.  It involved receiving life from above. Birth, after all, is the start of life, so new birth is receiving life ‘from above’, life from God.

As the conversation developed, matters became more personal. “You must be born again” (Jn 1.7), the Lord Jesus said. There wasn’t anything theoretical or educational about the conversation now; rather, there was a direct challenge from the Lord Jesus Christ to Nicodemus himself. Did Nicodemus think about his religious position, success, and knowledge? Or did he understand that, in spite of all he had, he lacked the real life God offers? Was he beginning to see that he needed to be born anew – not physically, but spiritually? Did he realise he needed something only God can give? To Nicodemus, Jesus said: “You must be born again” (Jn 3.7).

Evidently Nicodemus did eventually obey the command of the Lord Jesus for he became a disciple. Just a few years later, along with a friend, Nicodemus approached the cross on which the Lord Jesus had been crucified and carefully took down His body for burial in a tomb.  That day Nicodemus must have thought about what it had cost the Lord Jesus to suffer and die on the cross, so that he (Nicodemus) could be cleansed from his sins and have life ‘from above.’

The biblical term ‘born again’ is often misunderstood.  It doesn’t describe a superior group of Christians or even an extreme sect.  Rather, the Lord Jesus Christ used the term to describe the wonderful experience of receiving eternal life ‘from above’ and being brought into the family of God. Labels are not that important; what is important is that each one of us receives the cleansing and the new life that God offers. It comes through being sorry to God for sin and believing in the Lord Jesus, God’s Son, who died to pay the penalty our sins deserved. Are you ‘born again? If so, you enjoy what Nicodemus received – forgiveness and cleansing, lasting peace and a living, eternal relationship with God, and finally a permanent home in heaven. All these blessings are true of those who place their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.

A Christian shows evidence of the new birth – The teaching of the apostle John

John knew what it was to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Lord moved into His more public ministry, John was one of the first two disciples who “followed Jesus” (Jn 1.37).  Having asked Jesus, “Teacher, where are You staying?” (Jn 1.38), they simply responded to His invitation to “come and see” (Jn 1.39). As one of the ‘twelve disciples,’ John followed the Lord Jesus for approximately three years, until the point He died on the cross (Jn 19.30), subsequently was raised from the dead (Jn 20.1-20) and ascended to heaven (Acts 1.9-11). Before the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, John, along with the other apostles, heard His instructions: “you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1.8). Until the close of his long life John continued as a faithful follower and servant of the Lord Jesus.

When an old man, he wrote his first letter to Christians.  In it he said, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin” (1 Jn 2.1). The term ‘little children’ comes from a Greek word ‘TEKNON’ that literally means ‘born ones’. He was writing to those who had experienced the new birth that the Lord Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about in John chapter three. They too had received new life from God, and forgiveness of sins. They were ‘disciples,’ ‘children of God’; in short, they were Christians. John's teaching was relevant to all as he addressed both experienced believers and recent converts.

John’s letter outlines the evidences by which Christians can know that they are genuine in their faith: “Now by this we know that we know Him” (1 Jn 2.3). We will consider five evidences that John provides.

The first is that “we keep His commandments” (1 Jn 2.3). True believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are obedient to the will of God for their lives, continually seeking how to serve and please the Lord. This includes obeying commands that are clearly taught in God’s word, working out the way to move through life in subjection to the will of God.

Secondly, “Whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him” (1 Jn 2.5). Whilst ‘keeps His word’ is similar to ‘keep His commandments’, ‘His word’ is perhaps a more general reference to the Bible. This is a continual action, day after day. The true Christian lives and grows by consistently reading and obeying the Bible. But John indicates that there is an outcome to a life of keeping ‘His word’ – the love of God is complete in such people; they show the genuine love of God in their lives.

In our third quotation, John says that “He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 Jn 2.6). A Christian has a personal relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ, which is what it means to ‘abide’ and, as in verse 3, to ‘know Him’. But here comes the challenge; those in a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus should “walk just as He walked” (1 Jn 2.6). What an amazing privilege for a Christian to show, however faintly, something of the Lord Jesus in their life and walk.

Later on in chapter 2 we have the fourth evidence, which this time is framed as a command: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn 2.15). The world religiously, politically, intellectually, rejected the Lord Jesus and continues to reject Him today. The Christian is commanded not to love the world and the things it stands for. This certainly includes the sinful activities of the world. How can a Christian be entertained by things the Bible describes as sinful, or by people that blaspheme the name of Christ?

Our final piece of evidence is in 1 John chapter 3: “this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him” (1 Jn 3:23, 24). Here John mentions a commandment which sums up the whole of the Lord’s teaching. It shows that believing and loving go together and one can’t exist without the other. A Christian, who believes on the Son of God, the Lord Jesus, as personal Lord and Saviour; who is trusting in Who He is and what He has done for salvation, will as a result love other believers also.

So, what does it mean to be a Christian? I have been born again by God’s grace. I have received life from above, I have been saved, because the Lord Jesus paid the penalty for my sins in His death on the cross and, because of His resurrection, I have been declared by God to be free from guilt.  I therefore seek to keep His commands, to read His word, to walk as the Lord Jesus walked, to maintain separation from the things of the world, and to love others as the Lord Jesus has loved me (Jn 13.34). These proofs of conversion are not easy things, they can only be demonstrated in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God. Are you a Christian? If so, how do you know? Are there evidences of new life? Would they be noticed by family, friends and neighbours?  Let us live to please the Lord Jesus, following Him, obeying Him, reading and applying the Bible to everyday life and showing God’s love to others.