What Does It Mean To Be a Christian?

Over one billion people in the world identify as Christian. Self-professing Christians live in countries all around the world. In the last millennium, most Christians lived in Europe and America. Today, more people are becoming Christians in Africa and Asia than anywhere else on earth. Many people know that being a Christian has to do with religion, but they don’t know more than that.

A Christian is someone who believes in and follows Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Following Jesus means trusting him alone for salvation as an expression of faith and living according to his teachings as the New Testament records them. The word “Christian” also implies that a person belongs to Jesus.

Where does the word “Christian” appear in the Bible? How does the dictionary definition of “Christian” differ from the biblical definition of it? Who first called followers of Christ “Christians”? When did Christian start referring to themselves as “Christians”? How does Luke refer to Christians in the book of Acts? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Also see How To Become A Christian to learn more.

meaning Christian
What does the Greek word for “Christian” mean? See below

The meaning of following Jesus Christ as a Christian

Jesus once asked the people around him, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15, ESV). Some said he was a blasphemer; others said he was a good person and wise teacher; yet others, like Peter, said he was much more. In response to Jesus’ question, Peter correctly replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Being a Christian means believing in Jesus and trusting what he did for people.

The person and work of Christ

Being a Christian starts with believing what Jesus said about himself. How can a person be a follower of Christ if they think he was mistaken about himself? How could people trust what he said about other topics if he was wrong about himself? Jesus taught that he was God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14), the long-promised Messiah (John 4:26), who came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).

Because Jesus was perfectly righteous (John 1:29), he was an acceptable sacrifice for sin. For this reason, he died on the cross (John 10:11) as an expression of love. The Gospel of John says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Thus, God became a man to die for sinners and give them eternal life (Rom. 3:23; 6:23).

Christians also believe that Jesus rose from death three days after his crucifixion. All four New Testament Gospels record the resurrection (e.g. John 20-21), which was a foundational belief of the early church (e.g. Acts 1:22; 2:24). After his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days later (Acts 1:9), yet promised he would return at an unknown time in the future (Acts 1:11; Matt. 16:27).

The greatest commandment

A person once asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. He replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Jesus added, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39).

The Bible includes many commands, some of which come directly from Jesus’ teaching. The first and second greatest commandments summarize all the individual instructions God gave to people. Loving God and loving others constitute a Christian’s core affections, values, and priorities.

What about the Bible, church, prayer, and good works?

Being a Christian includes certain behaviors, habits, and works, but such disciplines alone don’t make a person a follower of Christ. For example, most Christians attend church regularly. However, church attendance on its own doesn’t make a person a Christian.

  • Does going to church make a person a Christian? Most Christians go to church to worship God, learn the Bible, be baptized, partake of the Lord’s Supper, and fellowship with other followers of Christ. Yet, attending church doesn’t make a person a Christian, yet it’s a sign of a healthy and growing faith.
  • Does doing good deeds make a person a Christian? Doing good works, such as acts that show love to one’s neighbor, don’t make a person a Christian. However, they are the result of being one. Good deeds are the fruit of a person’s faith but not the core of it. The core of being a Christian is believing in the person and works of Christ (see above).
  • Does reading the Bible make a person a Christian? Christians called the Bible “God’s Word,” which reflects its importance. The Bible contains the words of Jesus and others who God inspired to write down his work in history and the commandments he gave his followers. Reading the Bible doesn’t alone make a person a Christian, but it’s an important part of being one.

Also see What Is a Lukewarm Christian? to learn more.

Christian church
What is the significance of Antioch regarding the term “Christian”? See below

Where does the word “Christian” appear in the Bible?

The Greek word translated as “Christian” in English Bibles comes from the term Christos meaning “Christ.” The Greek word “Christ” is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah,” meaning “Anointed One.” In the Old Testament, the Israelites anticipated that the Messiah would unite Israel, spread peace around the world, and defeat God’s enemies. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.

Greek wordΧριστιανός
ExamplesActs 11:26, 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16

Today, the conventional use of “Christian” can refer to any member of “the three major divisions of Christianity — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant — in distinction from the cultural proponents of other religions such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and the like.” [1]

However, Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains the biblical meaning of the term: “To be a Christian is not only to believe the teaching of Christ, and to practice it; it is not only to try to follow the pattern and example of Christ; it is to be so vitally related to Christ that His life and His power are working in us. It is to be “in Christ,” it is for Christ to be in us.” [2]

Four dictionary definitions of “Christian”

  • Merriam-Webster: “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ”
  • Cambridge Dictionary: “of or belonging to the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ”
  • Britannica Dictionary: “a person who believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ”
  • Dictionary.com: “a person who believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ”

“A Christian is not a person who believes in his head the teachings of the Bible. Satan believes in his head the teachings of the Bible! A Christian is a person who has died with Christ, whose stiff neck has been broken, whose brazen forehead has been shattered, whose stony heart has been crushed, whose pride has been slain, and whose life is now mastered by Jesus Christ.” – John Piper

Also see What Is a Progressive Christian? to learn more.

Who first called followers of Christ “Christians”?

Christians didn’t coin the term “Christian.” Acts 11:26 reveals that it was people in the town of Antioch that first called followers of Jesus “Christians” (ESV).

Acts scholar Eckhard Schnabel explains, “This term occurs in the New Testament only on the lips of outsiders. Josephus, Pliny, and Tacitus use the term as well. The first Christian usage of the term as a self-designation comes from the second century, which suggests the term ‘Christian’ was not a self-designation of the followers of Jesus as early as the 30s.” [3]

Antioch was an important city in the first century of the Christian church. Nicolas, who was from Antioch, was an early convert from Judaism to the Christian faith. “And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.” (Acts 6:5).

The first Gentile church was in Antioch. After the death of Stephen, followers of Jesus fled to Antioch, where they continued to preach the gospel. “But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:2).

Also see How To A Better (and More Mature) Christian to learn more.

Christian Bible
What other names did Christians have in the first century? See below

How does Luke refer to Christians in the book of Acts?

  • “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1)
  • “But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem.'” (Acts 9:13)
  • Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.” (Acts 1:16)
  • “And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10:45)
  • “And asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:2)

John MacArthur writes, “A Christian is one who follows Christ, one who is committed unquestionably to Christ as Lord and Savior, one who desires to please God. His basic aim is to be in every way a disciple of Jesus Christ. When he fails, he seeks forgiveness and wants to move forward. This is his spirit and his direction.” [4]

Also see How Did Christianity Spread? to learn more.

[1] The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms by Gregg Allison. p. 40.
[2] Spiritual Depression – Its Causes and its Cures by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. p. 293-294.
[3] Acts by Eckhard Schnabel. ZECNT. p. 524.
[4] The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur. p. 197.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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