What is a Christian?

May 20, 2007

Last Sunday I preached at Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo on What is a Christian? I actually started thinking about the topic when Al Sharpton stirred up a theological kerfuffle during a debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens. During one exchange he said something that seemed to imply that Mormons don’t believe in God, a riposte that led Mitt Romney to denounce the statement as bigoted. Sharpton said his words had been taken out of context. And that led CNN to air a program called “What is a Christian?”

As I began to investigate the question, I found it fascinating from every angle–historical, cultural and biblical. As you get into it, you realize that there is no agreed-upon definition of what a Christian is or who is a Christian. And the New Testament doesn’t answer it directly because “Christian” is a term that was originally given by outsiders to the followers of Christ. They meant it in a derisive way–as an insult or a put-down. The earliest Christians didn’t call themselves Christians. They preferred other names, such as believers, brethren, disciples or saints. It was only with the passage of time that “Christian” moved from a derogatory term to a self-chosen designation for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

As I began to investigate the question, I found it fascinating from every angle–historical, cultural and biblical. As you get into it, you realize that there is no agreed-upon definition of what a Christian is or who is a Christian. And the New Testament doesn’t answer it directly because “Christian” is a term that was originally given by outsiders to the followers of Christ. They meant it in a derisive way–as an insult or a put-down. The earliest Christians didn’t call themselves Christians. They preferred other names, such as believers, brethren, disciples or saints. It was only with the passage of time that “Christian” moved from a derogatory term to a self-chosen designation for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

So what is a Christian? I decided that it is easier to describe than to define. Thus I chose a very early passage from the Apostle Paul (ca. AD 50-51) where he explains how the former idol-worshipers at Thessalonica had become true followers of Jesus. Here are the five truths I drew from the passage:

1) A Christian is someone who has been chosen by God.

2) A Christian is someone who responds to the gospel message.

3) A Christian is someone who regards Christ as infinitely more valuable than earthly suffering.

4) A Christian is someone whose life has been genuinely changed by Jesus Christ.

5) A Christian is someone who has gone “all in” on Jesus.

I also talk about the recent massacre of three Christian workers in Turkey, a question asked by a troubled woman during a TV interview, and a letter I received from a 19-year-old in an Arizona jail.

You can read the entire sermon here. I hope this message starts you thinking. How would you answer the question, “What is a Christian?”

As always, your comments are most welcome.

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