Who Is A Christian
The purpose of life
As soon as people find out that I am a Christian, one of the first questions that I am often asked, is, “which church do you belong to?” Many years ago I, along with most of those who are a part of the Open Face Fellowship, stopped identifying ourselves with any denomination and just preferred to tell people that we were Christians – period. This answer was not acceptable to most people and it was interesting to see how many insisted that this was a position that was almost sinful and that we could not be Christians without belonging to a recognized denomination. It was somewhat amusing but also sad to see how deeply traditional ideas had taken root in the thinking of people so that they were completely confused about what it means to be a Christian.
On the other hand, I have met people who take a different position and refuse to identify themselves as Christians, preferring to call themselves, “believers,” “disciples,” or some such thing because they insist that Christians today have given the name a bad meaning.
We cannot find any record of the apostles or any members of the early church giving themselves or their organization any name, they did not seem to think it was something important. This is because their message was not focused on their religious organization or on themselves, they had one message, one exclusive focus and it was the preaching of Christ and his kingdom. Their mission was to exalt him, to proclaim his name to all the world and this was their whole emphasis.
It appears that the disciples at some point referred to themselves as being of “The Way (Acts 19:9; 19:23; 9:2),” But it does not seem that this was a name they called themselves, rather, it seems that it was just a way of stating what they believed, that is, those who belonged to this particular way of serving God. It was a descriptive phrase, not a nominative phrase.
The first place that a name became associated with the believers was in Antioch.
And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:26)
It appears that it was the people of Antioch who attached this name to the believers and it is not difficult to understand why. Christ was all the people heard them speaking about, he was their constant theme, the focus of their lives. So whether they referred to them in this way as a means of mockery, or whether it was simply a way of distinguishing them from other people, the name stuck and it seems to have been accepted by all those who believed in Jesus. So the name “Christian” stuck and it became a badge of honor that Jesus’ followers in all ages were proud to bear. Later on we find James embracing it in his epistle:
Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? (Jas 2:7)
This name has persevered over the ages and for 2000 years the followers of Christ have worn it. Even though with the passing of the years many different denominations have arisen, the names and labels of these groups have only served to divert attention from the primary message, Jesus Christ. Instead we have titles focused on particular pet doctrines, biases and people: Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals etc. With such a confusing multiplicity of groups all claiming to be Christians, but with so many focuses apart from Christ, that the question needs to be asked, who really is a Christian?
Christians are believers
As I pointed out earlier, the believers were called “Christians,” because of their single-minded focus on Christ, but it is evident that simply speaking about Christ does not make one a Christian. The story of the Seven sons of Sceva illustrates this graphically. These men tried to cast a demon out of a man and demanded that he depart in the name of Jesus. However, the devil replied, “Jesus I know and Paul I know, but who are you? (Acts 19:14-16)” Then the devil possessed man leaped on them and gave the seven of them a proper beating. While Christians certainly call upon the name of Christ and are constantly focused on him, there is more to the identity of a Christian than that.
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe. (1Tim 4:10)
These sons of Sceva were men for whom Christ died. As the verse says, God is the Saviour of all men, they included, but let us note the additional statement – “specially of those that believe.” There is a level to the relationship which goes far beyond the simple label of Christian and it is ONLY those who believe, that can enter into, and experience that privileged place. It is very important that this point should be thoroughly understood because there are many multitudes who are under the illusion that because they belong to a certain denomination or a certain group and they have head knowledge of Christ and the Christian way, this makes them a part of the family of Christ and qualifies them for salvation. This terrible deception will result in weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth on the day when Christ separates the sheep from the goats.
…. if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. (Rom 10:9)
Sceva’s sons fulfilled the first part of the verse, they confessed Jesus with the mouth, but they did not believe in their hearts, their lives were not committed to him. It is always disastrous in one way or another when people take the name of the Lord, but do not know him, and do not believe in him in their hearts.
The most vital element in the experience of a Christian is the element of belief, or of faith in Christ. Anybody can use the name, but only a believer may experience what it really means to be a Christian. Of course, when we speak of believing, or having faith, this is more than simply a superficial intellectual acknowledgement. As James tells us, even the devils believe in God (James 2:19), and this kind of belief does nothing for them except to make them afraid of God. Many who call upon the name of Christ are also little better off than the devils, because their belief is only an intellectual one which creates fear instead of a relationship of love and trust.
True faith, however makes a person devote his life to the service of Christ, it makes the name of Christ his constant theme, it causes him to admire, love and reverence God and his Son.
The Vital Element
But there is more to it; Calling upon the name of Jesus and believing in him entitles a person to salvation, But there is still another ingredient to Christianity, something which follows when we believe in Christ. This other element is the most important of all:
In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, (Eph 1:13)
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Rom 8:14)
It is important that we call on the name of Christ, it is essential that we truly believe in him and commit ourselves to him completely. However, neither of these things is the vital element in a genuine Christian experience. The central component in Christianity is what God does in us, not the words of our confession or the faith we exercise. The human involvement is important, yes, we believe and we confess, but we cannot change ourselves, our faith is only the means by which we open the door so that God can transform us into genuine Christians. The gift of the holy spirit is the life of Christ imparted to the believer, it is the key element which transforms a person from simply one who believes a theory, to a born again child of God. Notice, this is what the apostle Paul emphasizes in Eph 1:13:
“. . . . after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, (Eph 1:13)”
In Acts chapter 3 we find the experience of Peter and John healing a lame man at the “Gate Beautiful” of the temple. As the people gathered around in wonderment at this amazing act that had been done, Peter preached to them and explained the process by which they could become followers of Jesus (Christians) and obtain eternal life. Notice the formula that he presented:
“Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; (Acts 3:19 – NASB)
So we see that the formula for becoming a Christian is,
1. Hear the word
4. Be converted
5. Receive the holy spirit
Hear and believe
Each of these steps is specific and one follows the other. It is not possible to turn to God unless one first “hears” the word, that is, information must come to the person concerning God and Christ. Sometimes this information comes by reading, or by conversing with a person, sometimes by meditating on the things of nature or some other way, maybe even in a dream or a vision, but the bottom line is that knowledge of God and Jesus comes to an individual and having “heard,” he or she believes. In the case of these people at the temple, they heard the word through the preaching of Peter.
When the person believes, this leads to repentance. Repentance is a word that indicates that there is a sorrow for his or her condition, and a sense of need for a better life. People will often apply “repentance” strictly to regret for one’s bad actions, but many times a man will come to Christ not really focusing on individual acts of sin, but simply with a sense of needing somebody to take over his life because he senses that he is incapable and needs help. This is repentance, a recognition and regret for my own state, my own inabilities, my hopeless condition.
Conversion follows. Conversion really is a change of direction. Up to this point in his life a person has been living his own life as he pleased, but now, having repented and recognized his need of something better and more capable than himself, he changes the direction of his life. Instead of focusing on himself, he turns his focus to Christ, he turns around and starts walking the opposite way to how he has walked all his life. This is conversion. We should notice that up to this point, all of these steps are steps that depend on the individual. Even though it is obvious that the spirit of God has been working on his heart and pleading with him, these steps depend heavily on a person’s own input. The final step in becoming a Christian, however, is completely different, it is entirely the work of God and is really, the truly vital element in salvation.
Receive the holy spirit
This final step is the impartation of the holy spirit. What does a person have to do in order to receive it? What is his personal involvement? Having believed in Jesus, having repented of his condition, having been converted to Christ, there is nothing else that a person can do. At this point, according to the word of God, he is given the gift of the holy spirit, this is God’s seal of approval, his indication that this person belongs to him and has become his son or daughter.
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:38)
Led or Born?
At this point we need to emphasize a very important fact: There is a significant distinction between being “led” by the spirit, and being “born” of the spirit. In Romans 8:14, Paul says that those who are led by the spirit, they are the sons of God, but when we examine the relationship of the Christian to the holy spirit more closely, we see that more is involved than simply the leading of the spirit and Paul himself teaches that very clearly. There are many instances in the Bible of the spirit leading people and directing them when in actual fact, those people were not born of the spirit. For example, we have the case of Cornelius who was led of the spirit to send for Peter to come and direct him in the way of the gospel. At that time Cornelius had not yet heard of Jesus, neither had he received the holy spirit. He was not yet born again. Being led by the spirit indicates that the spirit is influencing a person’s life and directing him in a certain path and this is certainly true of those who are born of the spirit, but there is more to it than that.
A person who is born of the spirit is somebody whose spirit has been united with the spirit of God in a very literal sense. When I say “literal,” I mean it is a reality, it is not something figurative or just a way of speaking. The spirit of God is a real aspect of God, an element of his being and his spirit comes to unite with my spirit in a living relationship when I am born again. The reality of this experience was often demonstrated – especially during the early church – when supernatural signs often accompanied the reception of the holy spirit, demonstrating that this was not simply a change of mind, not simply an intellectual or emotional experience, but was in fact a union of the human spirit with the mind and abilities of God. People spoke in languages they had never studied, they had visions, they prophesied, they performed miracles. It was not simply the leading of the spirit, it was the indwelling of the spirit of God in such a literal way that God was able to exercise his presence and his power through those who were thus born of the spirit.
But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. (Rom 8:9)
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? (2Cor 13:5)
This is the true hallmark of Christianity, it is the identifying element and it is the only thing which sets a Christian apart from all other persons and makes him a part of the family of God.
This is why genuine Christianity can never be equated with any other religion. All other religions are focused on the idea that if we exercise enough discipline and put in enough effort we can improve ourselves and eventually become good enough so that God will reward us with eternal life. These religions focus on morality, self-improvement, human ability etc. but true Christianity is is not based on the efforts of man to improve himself, but on the miraculous transformation which takes place in a person when he surrenders to Christ and receives him. It is based on the receiving of life, it is focused on the reality that Christ gives us his own spirit and in this way changes our natures, recreates us in his spiritual image, changing us from the inside by his own miraculous act. The apostle John describes this change in the following verse:
Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. (1John 3:9)
Paul also speaks of this change and he makes it clear that this change is a not a consequence of human effort, but of the indwelling spirit of Christ:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23)
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. (Rom 8:2)
Power of choice
Of course, when a person is born again, this does not mean that God takes away the person’s ability to make choices. Such a person is still faced with temptations and he still possesses a physical body with all the inherent tendencies that he was born with, as well as those which he developed during his lifetime. What has changed is his spirit, his spirit is now united with the spirit of Christ and this gives him a completely different attitude to life. His desires are different, his perspectives are different, his intentions are different and he now possesses a strength of spirit which enables him to master his physical tendencies and to bring all his weaknesses under control through the new spirit within him.
Yet, he still has the power to choose, this is something that God will never take away from a person. Living the life of victory still involves our choice and though we are born again, we are still very much involved in how the spirit lives and operates in our lives from moment to moment. This is why even in the New Testament there are many places where born again Christians are counseled to continue to make the right choices. Though we have a new nature, it is still possible to act contrary to that nature. The Corinthians were one set of Christians who seem to have become confused on this reality and so, several unchristlike behaviors became prominent in their church. The apostle Paul rebuke them sharply and also to remind them of their responsibility to make the right choices and to remember that they were now no longer their own property.
For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1Cor 6:20)
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. (1Cor 10:31)
I suppose it is true today, that the predominance of fake Christianity makes it really a challenge for us to identify ourselves as Christians, but then, by what other name should we choose to be known? There has never been a time in the history of the Christian church that there have not been false disciples who brought dishonor upon the fellowship. This began with the little flock of Jesus himself which had Judas walking among them, identifying as one of them. God is not surprised by the presence of the many wolves among the sheep and we were informed right from the beginning that this is how it would be:
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. (Matt 13:24-25)
Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matt 7:21-23)
The presence of false disciples in the body is no reason to change our identity. The kingdom is still the kingdom in spite of the tares growing among the wheat, it is still the body of Christ. Of course a purging needs to take place, but the Lord has promised us that he will do this purging himself and in the meantime, we are still all Christians and it is still a noble, worthy name that we should be proud to bear.
Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Matt 13:30)
Knowing my identity
There is a phrase which is frequently used today to refer to the confused condition of those who are uncertain of who they are, this phrase is, “identity crisis.” This provides a good description of the state of those believers who feel that they must reject the name of “Christian.” Should the behavior of others cause me to deny my identity? When it comes to my connection to a denomination, to a social club, to a human institution, then I agree – if the behavior of such a group compromises my reputation then I don’t want to be connected with it, I don’t want other people to judge me because of what somebody else does. It is still true that “birds of a feather flock together” and “a man is known by the company that he keeps.” When the behavior (or beliefs) of a group does not reflect my values, then I have every reason to separate myself from such a group and no longer to identify with them and whatever name they bear.
However, when it comes to membership in a family, it is not so easy to lose one’s identity. The credentials which make a person a member of a family cannot be eliminated simply by changing a name. A family identity involves the physical features which members have in common, the genetic heritage which gives them outward and inward similarities. Even if a person changes his name, he will still possess his family identity until he dies, it is not possible to divorce himself from this.
This is why a Christian cannot stop being a Christian just by changing his label. A person becomes a Christian by being born again, he receives the spirit of Christ and is thereby born into the family of God. He receives a new identity, but this is based on the life which he now possesses, it is not merely the adopting of a label. In order to lose his identity, he has to do more than just say, “I don’t refer to myself as a “Christian.” He has to outrightly reject and deny Christ, he has to reject the holy spirit and go back to the service of Satan.
You see, the word “Christian” is more than simply a denominational label. It centers on a person and that person is Jesus Christ. Every time the word is used, Christ is always there in the background, the word makes people think of him, and whether people dishonor or glorify that name by their behavior, there is no escaping the reality that the name itself always focuses attention on Christ. This is why it is a name that every believer should continue to embrace.
Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice. (Phil 1:15-18)
There are many names which have been carefully formulated to draw attention to the ideals of a person or an institution. Among Christian groups I can think of names such as “Lutheran,” “Wesleyan Methodist,” “Jehovah’s Witness,” “Roman Catholic,” “Seventh-Day Adventist,” “Pentecostal,” “Baptist,” and myriads of others. Just consider those labels and consider what comes to mind when you hear them. None of these names really makes me focus on the one who saved me from my sin. Each one draws attention to the founder of that particular group, or to a particular doctrinal belief. Is this what our religion is based on?
The name, “Christian,” is focused on the only person apart from God the Father, who should be the center of our attention, our adoration, our appreciation, our glorification, our exaltation. This is a name that we should wear with honor and pride and never, ever deny, no matter how many may dishonor it.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)
(Source: David Clayton from Restoration Ministry)