What makes someone a Christian?

Nothing gives many non-Christians more joy than pointing out the flaws in Christians. Likewise, if a publicly professing Christian is found to be living a lifestyle that is not in keeping with their professed beliefs they are held up as an example of being “holier than thou.” For this reason, many people seem to think that Christians believe that they are better than everyone else. It is important that anyone who claims to be a Christian must understand what it means to be a Christian and what makes someone a Christian. To know what makes someone a Christian we can look to the Bible for the answer.

What defines a Christian?

This is the first question that must be asked when considering this topic. When I wrote my book, Silenced in the Schoolhouse, How Biblical illiteracy in our schools is destroying America, I used research I did for my doctoral dissertation. I proposed there was a direct relationship between Biblical illiteracy and the destruction of America. However, this was just the title to catch the reader’s eye. The real focus on the book was that Biblical illiteracy has a negative direct impact on the beliefs and behaviors of people. Likewise, Biblical literacy also has a positive direct impact on the beliefs and behaviors of people.

Next, I researched how the cultural beliefs and behaviors of the people lead to cultural practices in America. To do this, I first looked at the educational practices in American history since her founding. Then I compared these cultural beliefs and educational practices to those of other cultures from many areas of the world since the beginning of time. What I found was that when you compared the Judeo-Christian cultural beliefs and educational practices with other cultures throughout history, there was a definite difference in the attitudes and behaviors of the people .

Next, I compared the cultures and attitudes of those who called themselves Christians. There were three main groups that I studied. First, those that simply called themselves Christian without any other clarification of their beliefs. Second, those that called themselves Christian and professed a clear understanding and testimony of salvation by grace through faith in Christ that resulted in being born again. Third, those who called themselves Christian, had a clear understanding and testimony of salvation by grace through faith that resulted in being born again, and had a Biblical worldview. Having a Biblical world view was defined as seeing everything in life and in the world through the lens of the Christ-centered Biblical teachings of the Bible.

What I discovered was that the difference in cultural beliefs and practices were astounding (1). For example, Christians with a Biblical world view are nine times more likely to avoid adult material on the internet, four times more likely to boycott objectionable companies of products, and four times more likely to pray for the President of the United States during the week than non-believers. Christians with a Biblical world view are also twice as likely not to view a movie with objectionable material and twice as likely to volunteer to help needy people. (continued)

Noted researcher George Barna described in his book, Think Like Jesus, that there is a marked difference in the attitudes and behaviors of those with a Biblical worldview as follows (2)(3):

“Those with a Biblical worldview were 31 times less likely to accept cohabitation (2% versus 62%, respectively); 18 times less likely to endorse drunkenness (2% versus 36%); 15 times less likely to condone gay sex (2% versus 31%); 12 times less likely to accept profanity (3% versus 37%); and 11 times less likely to describe adultery as morally acceptable (4% versus 44%). In addition, less than one-half of one percent of those with a biblical worldview said voluntary exposure to pornography was morally acceptable (compared to 39% of other adults), and a similarly miniscule proportion endorsed abortion (compared to 46% of adults who lack a biblical worldview).”

“Among the more intriguing lifestyle differences were the lesser propensity for those with a biblical worldview to gamble (they were eight times less likely to buy lottery tickets and 17 times less likely to place bets); to get drunk (three times less likely); and to view pornography (two times less common). They were also twice as likely to have discussed spiritual matters with other people in the past month and twice as likely to have fasted for religious reasons during the preceding month. While one out of every eight adults who lack a biblical worldview had sexual relations with someone other than their spouse during the prior month, less than one out of every 100 individuals who have such a worldview had done so.”

The disturbing thing that I realized was that not all born again believers have a Biblical worldview! Likewise, those who identify themselves as born again believers without a Biblical worldview have attitudes and behaviors that are not much different than non-believers. Before I get into the details, I concluded that many people have no problem accepting Jesus as their Savior. Where they have a problem is accepting Jesus as their Lord! Therefore, it is no wonder that there is confusion about what it means to be a Christian and what makes someone a Christian.

Thankfully, the Bible gives us clear guidance about what defines a Christian. In Acts 11:19-26 we are told that the persecution of the early believers that became prominent with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6-7) resulted in many Jews leaving for other areas throughout the Mediterranean. Along the way, they preached the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ to Gentiles and they taught the new believers about being a Christian.

Barnabas was one such believer that was sent by the church in Jerusalem to Antioch. After arriving there, he realized that he needed help so he went to Tarsus to get Paul, whom had been sent there by the church in Jerusalem (Acts 9:22-31). When they arrived back in Antioch they taught the believers for a year. It was after this year of teaching that we learn that the disciples, or students, were the first ones to be called Christians (Acts 11:26). As we read on in Acts 11:27-30, we find that the Christians at Antioch became determined and active in living their lives for Christ and serving others in need. Therefore, we find that Christians are those who have trusted Christ as their Savior and have been trained in how to be a student and follower of Jesus Christ. (continued)

Who provides the training for believers to become Christians?

Since the believers in Antioch received training to become Christians we can see that their training resulted in them becoming like Christ. This is what is at the heart of being a Christian, the believer professing a testimony of Salvation through Jesus Christ and striving to become like Christ through training or discipleship. There term discipleship shares the same root meaning of the word discipline. Therefore, discipleship involves the process of being trained so that they can learn and become what is being taught.

An example of this can be seen in raising children. Many people believe that a child must be disciplined. Unfortunately, the use of the word disciplined has often been confused with the practice of spanking in a negative light. Instead, it must be understood that to discipline a child means that a child must be trained by someone that demonstrates a loving patience to inspire the child to positively grow. Without the loving patience that focuses on inspiring a child, discipline of any kind, including spanking, becomes abuse that results in a child not growing up to be like Christ. Instead, they grow up to be like their abusive teacher with the same abusive attitudes toward the children they will one day teach and discipline.

Therefore, disciplining someone also results in the person becoming like the person that is training them. In the case of Paul and Barnabas, they were training the disciples at Antioch how to become like Christ. Paul refers to this process of himself as the trainer being an example to those being trained in Philippians 4:1-9 as follows:

“Therefore, my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved. I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellowlabourers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.”

We see in the last sentence that Paul told them to think about the things that they have learned, received, heard, and seen him do and to do the same. Therefore, it is important that the person doing the training must also be someone that is a believer and trained to become like Christ, living their life as an example. Paul also mentioned this same perspective of the trainer being a believer and taking the things that they have learned to teach others in 2 Timothy 2:1-18. Therefore, it is important that whomever is doing the training or discipleship must be a born-again believer and trained so that they are a living example of Jesus Christ to those they train. (continued)

What type of training is given to believers to become Christians?

What was it that the disciples at Antioch were taught? We see in Acts 11:23 that Barnabas told them to cleave, or draw closer to Christ, with purpose of heart. It was only afterward that they were called Christians in Acts 11:26. To do this, they were taught for a year by Paul and Barnabas. The question then becomes what type of training was given by the believers to become Christians? Acts 2:37-47 provides an outline of the training given to the believers to become Christians.

“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? 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. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”

This passage of Scripture opens with people asking Peter and the rest of the apostles what they should do? Peter had just preached to them on the day of Pentecost an explanation of what had just happened (Acts 2:1-36). When they heard the preaching of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, they were pricked, or moved, in their hearts to trust Christ as their Savior. Therefore, with purpose of heart they were moved to draw closer to Christ and asked Peter and the apostles what they should do.

The response they received was to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and they too would receive the gift of the Holy Ghost that they had just seen the disciples receive. Therefore, we see the first two things that must be taught as the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ and baptism.

Remember, to be a Christian the first thing that must take place is that the person must be a born-again believer in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the remission of their sins. At the moment a person trusts Christ as their Savior, they are born again and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-21; Ephesians 1:9-14; 1 Peter 1:18-23). The Holy Spirit gives them eternal life, seals and keeps them until the day of redemption, and gives them the power to walk in newness of life (John 1:12-13; Acts 1:6-8; Ephesians 1:9-14; Romans 6:1-18; 1 Peter 1:3-5). The day or redemption is the day that they take their last breath on this earth and find themselves absent from their bodies and present with the Lord in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:1-11).

Second, the person must take the first step of obedience as a believer by being baptized. Remember, the believers were pricked, or moved in their hearts to do something. They had trusted Christ as their Savior and were ready to take their first steps as a new believer. Therefore, since they were born again and had received the gift of the Holy Spirit they were ready to be baptized. And baptized they were, about three thousand of them! Talk about a mega baptismal ceremony. I am sure Peter and the Apostles were water logged by the end of that day! But, praise be to God that these new brothers and sisters in Christ were now ready to move on to learning about how to become a Christian.

Next, we learn in Acts 2:42 what they were taught: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” We see four main areas of discipleship being taught here. First, they were taught the apostles’ doctrine. Second, they were taught about fellowship, or how to work and get along with one another. Third, they were taught about breaking bread. And finally, they were taught about prayer. (continued)

A more detailed explanation of these four areas of discipleship is as follows:

Doctrine (4)

Doctrine was the first area of training for disciples. If you were to ask people what the word doctrine means you might hear a variety of answers. Some would say that doctrine is nothing more than someone’s beliefs. Others would say doctrine is the cause of strife between religions. Still others would say that doctrine is not important and should be left up to those who strive to be theologians. But, the Bible tells us that the study of doctrine is very necessary to being a Christian (1 Timothy 4:13-16; 2 Timothy 2:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:14-17).

Practically speaking, learning doctrine involves learning the foundational teachings of the Bible. This would include classes that present an introduction to the Bible; classes on how to study the Bible; a survey of the Old and New Testaments; and a study of systematic theology, often referred to as a course in Bible doctrines. These five areas combined make up a typical introductory Biblical studies program.

The word doctrine means teaching. When it comes to the Bible, doctrines of the Bible are God’s teachings or lessons for mankind. Bible doctrines are the teachings found in the Bible that reveal God, His creation, and our relationship with Him. Studying Bible doctrines is a way that we can organize the different attributes of Godly things into easily understood topics. Bible doctrines help us to understand what we believe and why we believe it. Understanding what we believe and why we believe it helps us to have the confidence to live a life that is pleasing to God. It also gives us the ability to explain to others what we believe and why we believe it. Likewise, Bible doctrines help us to understand what we don’t believe and why we don’t believe it.

When we understand the truth of God’s Word then the error of other teachings are clear to see. The errors of other teachings are what lead us into trouble and eventually causes pain and suffering in life and the hereafter. Studying key doctrines helps us to understand the difference between God’s truth and man’s error. Simply stated, understanding Bible doctrines enables us to understand God.

Finally, the more we know about the Word of God, the more we know about Jesus. Likewise, the more we know about Jesus, the more we know about the Word of God. As we learn more and more about Bible doctrines we become more and more like Jesus. The more we are like Jesus, the more we demonstrate to others what a real Christian looks like. For this reason, we will be inspired to continue our study of Bible doctrines because they will make sense and be profitable. Therefore, studying doctrine enables us to grow Spiritually to become more like Christ as a Christian(continued)

Fellowship (5)

God created us in His image. Because of this we were also created to have fellowship with Him. However, because of sin, the face to face fellowship of man with God in the Garden of Eden ended. But, God had a plan that would restore our face to face fellowship with Him (Genesis 3:14-15). His plan was to give His Son, Jesus Christ, as the perfect payment for our sins by being crucified on the cross. When He did this, He made it possible for us to have fellowship with Him again.

Fellowship involves a mutual desire to be together. For us, this desire is produced when we realize that while we were yet sinners, God loved us so that we could be saved. The death of Jesus on the cross as a payment for our sins demonstrated God’s love for us. Therefore, we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). If you think about it, you cannot force someone to love you. But, if we love God, we should want to demonstrate the same love to others (Matthew 22:35-40; 1 John 4:7-21; 1 John 5:1-3).

We see this also demonstrated in Acts 2:44-45 when the disciples came together and brought things from home that others could use. They gave their possessions and goods to those that needed them and sold the rest to generate funds that they could use to help the others. This fellowship involved serving together in a ministry capacity, which draws people closer together in their personal relationships.

Loving others and having fellowship with them demonstrates the love that Christ has for us and His desire to have fellowship with us. This common desire to have fellowship also gives us a common desire to include sharing the Lord and what He has done in our lives with others. Therefore, fellowship enables us to grow socially to become more like Christ as a Christian. (continued)

Breaking bread

Most people equate breaking bread with having fellowship dinner with others. However, it means more than just having fellowship dinners. Breaking bread also involves going out into the world and sharing the gospel with others. We see this mentioned in Acts 2:46-47. The disciples grew to be more like Christ in that they were saved, baptized, trained and were serving others. In breaking bread, the disciples were going out to other people’s homes and not only sharing the Lord, but also participating in the Lord’s Supper with people who were unable to leave their homes.

We see this practice mentioned in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34. Many people think that the Lord’s Supper only took place in the church, but this passage along with Acts 2:46-47 teaches us that they went from house to house as well. In Corinthians, the practice of having the Lord’s Supper was described in detail. Yet, there were those whom would come to the gathering and not take time to examine the Spiritual significance. Instead, they would hurriedly eat before others arrived.

Paul instructed them to wait for the others and if they were hungry, to eat at home before they came there. The point being, breaking bread was supposed to be about sharing the Lord’s Supper with others, not just eating a fellowship dinner together. Therefore, breaking bread with others enables us to grow evangelically to become more like Christ as a Christian. (continued)

Prayer

Prayer was the final area mentioned in Acts 2:42. Of particular note is that right away in Acts 3:1 we find that Peter and John went up together to the temple to pray. It is very common for churches to not only have prayer in their services and ministry activities, but have designated prayer services where the believers come together to pray for one another. We see mention of this in James 5:12-20 where believers are encouraged to pray for one another in a variety of times and places and for a variety of reasons.

While praying together is encouraged, it is more important that each believer have a personal prayer life. We see this mentioned in Matthew 6:5-13. In Matthew 6:5-8, we are given specific instructions on the attitude and personal practice of prayer that we should have. It is to be one of personal time alone with God, not for showing off to others a public display of our piety and holiness so that we draw attention to ourselves.

In Matthew 6:9-13, we are given an overview of the things that prayer should address:

– God’s holiness (Matthew 6:9).

– God’s coming kingdom (Matthew 6:10 )

– God’s provision (Matthew 6:11).

– God’s forgiveness (Matthew 6:12)

– God’s deliverance from evil (Matthew 6:13) and

– God’s sovereignty, power, and glory forever (Matthew 6:13).

If we look elsewhere in Scripture, we find that Jesus prayed for these very things to the Father in heaven. Doing the same, these areas of prayer enable us to grow to become more like Christ as a Christian (Acts 8:26-34). (continued)

What should be the result of discipleship for a Christian?

The result of discipleship should be that the believer will grow to be closer to Christ and changed into His image (Romans 8:26-39; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; Colossians 3:1-17). It is this changing into the image of Christ that makes us a Christian. If we think about it, being a Christian means being like Christ. If we are not thinking and behaving like Christ, then we are not thinking and behaving like a Christian. Likewise, when we are not thinking and behaving like a Christian, we are not demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Instead, we are demonstrating the works of the flesh, which comes from our own selfish anti-Christian lusts (Galatians 16-21; James 1:12-15; 1 John 2:15-17). This brings shame and subversion of the gospel of salvation to those that see and hear us doing these things while professing ourselves to be Christians (Ephesians 5:1-21; Timothy 2:14-16). Instead, believers should live their lives in a way that demonstrates to others the loving character and person of Christ living in us.

What have we learned?

It is important that anyone who claims to be a Christian must understand what it means to be a Christian and what makes someone a Christian. Christians are those who have trusted Christ as their Savior and have been trained in how to be a student and follower of Jesus Christ. Christians are trained in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. The result of discipleship should be that the believer will grow to be closer to Christ and changed into His image. Christians are believers who should live their lives in a way that demonstrates to others the loving character and person of Christ living in us.

Resources – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, King James Version. (1) Williams, Michael L,. Silenced in the Schoolhouse: How Biblical illiteracy in our schools is destroying America. Pages 144-145. Albuquerque, NM: Wisdom4Today, 2008. (2) Barna, George, Think Like Jesus: Make the Right Decision Every Time, pp. 24-25. (3) Barna, George, A Biblical Worldview has a Radical Effect on a Person’s Life, http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=154. (4) Williams, Michael, (2013). Bible Doctrines. Pages 3-7. Albuquerque, NM: Selah Mountain Bible Institute. (5) Williams, Michael, (2013). Bible Doctrines. Pages 89, 101. Albuquerque, NM: Selah Mountain Bible Institute.  Image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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Dr. Michael Williams

Dr. Michael Williams is a pastor, author, Christian educator and Biblical counselor who has served in ministry since March of 2000. Dr. Mike holds under-graduate through post graduate degrees in Christian Education. Dr. Mike is the Senior Pastor of Selah Mountain Ministries, which he founded in March of 2010 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA (selahmountain.org). In addition to counseling, he teaches how to overcome life issues Biblically on topics such as anger management, marriage, addictions, and other subjects typically referred to as mental illnesses. Dr. Mike lives with his wife Pamela Rose and adult daughter Hollie Rose. He and Pamela have other adult children and several grandchildren as well. Visit the About page to learn more about Dr. Mike.