The meanings of words tend to change over time. As such usage and context are invaluable in getting to the meaning behind a word.
The word “Christian” is no different. Christian is used by many people in many ways, but it appears to have quite a few definitions.
Here I hope to lay out exactly what I mean by “being a Christian” and exactly what a Christian is.
First, the definition. The word “Christian” as I’m writing it means “a follower of Christ.” Christ is Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, as recorded in the Bible.
By “follow” I don’t mean physically, as if he were literally walking around and I were literally following him. “To follow Christ” means to make my life reflect his; to make him the focus of my life.
But to do that, one must first understand first who Jesus is, and what his priorities are.
The question of which Jesus is an important one. Many different types and creeds claim allegiance to Jesus, and there have been a variety of sources claiming contradictory things.
The New Testament, beginning with the first four books, are the best source for reading about the authentic Jesus.
Jesus taught that in order to follow him, we must “take up our cross.” That phrase is another way of saying: “forget our desires, and adopt his.”
There’s a curious concept Jesus regularly attached to this notion of being a follower. He would say “…repent and follow…” If following is the what, then repenting is the how.
“Repent,” an archaic word to our modern diction, just means “to turn.” So, “…turn and follow…” The notion Jesus is expressing here is the exclusivity of the life of being a follower of his.
To miss this point would be like trying to turn on the lights while at the same time hoping to keep all the dark. You just can’t have it both ways. Once you turn on the lights you have automatically turned the dark off.
Following Jesus is like that. We must give up our own lives to find better ones in him.
But there’s also something else that defines a Christian. This is what really makes a Christian different from every other creed or ideology a person can live by. That is, Christians have the Spirit of God living within them.
Of course that doesn’t mean that Christians are perfect. Hardly. Freewill still abounds. Rather, God uses our life experiences to mold us to be more like him. It’s a process. And this process culminates in what the old-timers call “glory.” Or, when God finally comes back, righting all wrongs, and puts the world back the way it should be.
There are many reasons why people claim to be a Christian. Some, honestly, think they truly are a Christian, because they don’t really know what being one is. Other claim it for social reason; this is common in the American South. There are others still that believe that if everyone else is convinced of their Christian-status that this will somehow make them a legitimate Christian–sort of, fake it till you make it, if you will.
In light of the confusion that often swirls around this identity, the New Testament book of First John sets about outlining two very important distinctions for telling who’s who. First, belief in Jesus as both God and the exclusive-way are critical. This goes back to the very nature of salvation. We do not have the capacity to save ourselves, but are instead offered salvation as an unearned gift. This comes through Jesus.
The second distinction John gives us is the nature of the Christian. It might best be summed up in the cliché, “talk is cheap.” Anyone who continues to live a lifestyle antithetical to Jesus is not really a follower of Jesus.
Christianity has an interesting dichotomy. It is philosophically exclusive while being socially inclusive. To say that another way: there is only one way to become a Christian, but it’s open to every single class and type of people. It is inclusive because everyone–regardless of race or social class or past decisions–can give up their way and follow his.
The only thing one needs to do is come to the understanding that their way isn’t good enough to make it to the other side. But Jesus’ is. That’s why he came. For us.
From there, it’s only a matter of making up your mind. Jesus tells us that the only way to have a truly rewarding and fulfilling life is to live for something greater than ourselves–the life that our Creator has designed us to live.
To answer the question, what is a Christian? can be stated simply this way: one who has given themselves to Christ. With that, they are a “new creature.” The good begins to grow while the bad starts to fade. Life is now composed of purpose, peace, and everlasting joy. Hard? Perhaps harder. But eternally better.
If you’re still on the fence, or you’re new to the Christian life, I’m glad you’re here. My blog, Life Hacking Spiritual Disciplines, is about practical ways to live a life that follows Jesus. I try to focus on the critical parts of life and not shy away from the hard questions.
If this has helped in you any way, I’d love to hear from you.