What is a Christian?

1 Thessalonians 1:4-10

May 20, 2007 | Ray Pritchard

A friend sent me an email telling about a question posed to her by a co-worker. Here is the exact text of the question:

How is a Christian defined? It used to be that if you were not Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist, you were a Christian, whether Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal or Baptist. But it seems now that the word means something more specific. Is it considered to be an actual religion other than Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal or Baptist or whatever. If so, what makes it different?

That’s a very good question. It shows that the person has been doing some seriously thinking about spiritual issues. It also reveals that she has penetrated to a core issue that has long confused millions of people–What does it really mean to be a Christian?

This question was in the news a few days ago when the Reverend Al Sharpton caused a theological kerfuffle during a public debate with atheist Christopher Hitchens. At one point he seemed to imply that Mormons don’t really believe in God, a riposte which drew a sharp response from presidential candidate Mitt Romney who called Sharpton’s statements bigoted. Sharpton later said his statement had been misinterpreted. Meanwhile CNN’s Anderson Cooper picked up on the controversy with a program called What is a Christian? I can simply say that anyone watching would likely be more confused at the end than at the beginning.

So what is a Christian? The answer is not as easy as you might think. Everything depends on how you define the word. You can’t really tell who is a Christian and who isn’t until you know what the term means. To muddy the waters further, recent polls report that 92% of all Americans believe in God while 83% call themselves Christian. If you went to any major American city and asked, “Are you a Christian?” you would get all sorts of answers.

“Of course I’m a Christian. I was born in America.”

“I was raised in a Christian home.”

“I’m a baptized Catholic.”

“I’m a Methodist.”

“I go to Woodland Park Baptist Church.”

“I read my Bible every day.”

“I walked an aisle, said a prayer, signed a card, raised my hand.”


Or you could make it simpler and say, “A Christian is anyone who calls himself a Christian,” which is basically how the pollsters came up with that 83%. It’s very American to say, “I’m a Christian if I say I am.” That reminds me of Humpty-Dumpty who said, “When I use a term, it means whatever I choose it to mean–nothing more, and nothing less.” I found a fascinating essay that ultimately comes to the same conclusion:

We accept as Christian any individual or group who devoutly, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian. Included are: the Roman Catholic church; the Eastern Orthodox churches, conservative, mainline, and liberal Christian faith groups; The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons); Jehovah’s Witnesses and a thousand or so other religious organizations that identify themselves as Christian. Also included are those who consider themselves to be Christian even though they do not identify themselves with any particular religious group.

The writers of the essay acknowledge the reality that by making the definition so broad, they have virtually emptied it of meaning. You are a Christian if you say you are a Christian. But, they say, since there is no consensus on what the word means, they have no other choice. You’re in even if someone else says you’re out.

You “Christ-ians”

As I have pondered this question, I realize that I can give my own answer on several different levels. First of all, it’s perfectly fine with me for people to identify themselves any way they like. If you say you are Hindu, I won’t say that you aren’t. If you say you are Muslim, I accept that at face value. If you call yourself a Christian, far be it from me to argue with you. Second, acceptance doesn’t imply agreement. I can be friends with many people who hold divergent views about ultimate reality. And I can have a conversation with someone who says things I regard as absurd. To accept you doesn’t imply that I agree with you. Third, since I try to base my faith on the Bible, I want to know what the Bible says about what it means to be a Christian. And right at this point we have a problem because the Bible only mentions the word Christian three times:

“And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

“In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28).

“Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16).

Here are some interesting facts to consider:

1) The name “Christian” was not invented by early Christians. It was a name given to them by others.

2) Christians called themselves by different names—disciples, believers, brethren, saints, the elect, etc.

3) The term apparently had a negative meaning in the beginning: “those belonging to the Christ party.”

4) It was a term of contempt or derision.

5) We can get a flavor for it if we take the word “Christ” and keep that pronunciation. You “Christ-ians.”

6) It literally means “Christ-followers.”

7) Over time a derogatory term became a positive designation.

8) Occasionally you will hear someone spit the term out in the same way it was used in the beginning. “You Christians think you’re the only ones going to heaven.”

9) There was a sense of suffering and reproach attached to the word in the New Testament.

In working my way toward an answer to “What is a Christian?” I decided to check out the dictionary. I found these two definitions:

“1. One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. 2. One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.”

That’s actually quite helpful because it gives some content to the word. To be a Christian means that you …

Believe Something

Follow Something

Live Something

A Fully Devoted Follower

To borrow a contemporary phrase, we could simply say that a Christian is a “fully devoted follower of Jesus.” As I think about that, two insights come to mind.

1) It doesn’t happen by accident. You are not “born” a Christian nor are you a Christian because of your family heritage. Being a Christian is not like being Irish. You aren’t a Christian simply because you were born into a Christian family.

2) It requires conversion of the heart. By using the term “conversion,” I simply mean what Jesus meant when he said that to be his disciple meant to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). The heart itself must be changed so that you become a follower of the Lord.

In order to flesh out the answer to “What is a Christian?” I want to take a look at 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10. This particular passage is useful for several reasons:

1) 1 Thessalonians is one of the oldest books in the New Testament. Scholars date it at approximately 50-51 A.D., meaning that it was written only 18 years after Jesus’ life and death. As such it is one of the earliest pictures we have of the Christian church in the very beginning. It is, in fact, our earliest missionary document.

2) Most of the believers at Thessalonica had come to Christ from idol-worshiping paganism. Paul’s brief ministry resulted in a small congregation made up mostly of converted Greeks along with a few believing Jews and some leading women of the town (Acts 17:4). As Paul says, they had turned to God from idols (1 Thessalonians 1:10).

3) This passage tells us how these idol-worshipers became followers of Christ. Thus it offers us what might be called a street-level description of what it means to be a Christian. I say that because the transformation had been so complete and so obvious that these former idol-worshipers had a huge impact as brand-new Christ-followers. They became the “talk of the town,” so much so that it was said of Paul and Silas that they had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

This is Christianity in its purest and rawest form, stripped of centuries of acculturation and religious tradition. This is the “Christ-message” as it invaded and transformed the Roman Empire. This is how it was in the beginning. This is the message that turned the world upside down, spread like wildfire, threatening the power structure, challenging the status quo, upsetting both the pagans and the hyper-religious alike.

Sometimes you see a label on a bottle of powerful cleaner that says, “Do not use at full strength. Dilute with water first,” because the liquid is too strong in its undiluted form. In this passage we see Christianity in its earliest, undiluted form. No wonder the first Christians turned the world upside down.

What is a Christian? Let’s let the Apostle Paul give us the answer.

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

“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you.” (v.4). The key phrase is “he has chosen you.” That speaks of the sovereign grace of God in salvation. Did you know God chose you to be saved? If he had not chosen you, you would never have been saved at all. Sometimes we speak of “finding” the Lord, but if he had not found us first, we would never have found him at all. Salvation begins with God, not with us. He chooses us and then we believe. In putting the matter that way, I simply mean to declare that salvation is all by grace, all of God, all the time.

A Christian, then, is person who has been called and chosen by God himself. Being a Christian is not a work of merit or a personal accomplishment but an act of God’s free grace.

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

“Because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (v. 5). Here we come to the other side of the coin. God’s election becomes effective in us through the preaching of the gospel. When the Word is preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, it produces deep conviction in the hearts of the hearers. Even when we have done our best as preachers, it will count for nothing without the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the hearers. That’s why “full conviction” matters so much. It means people are so deeply convicted of their sin and their need for a Savior that they run to the cross and embrace Jesus as their only hope of heaven.

So we must preach and we must pray and then we must depend on the Lord to give people the grace to respond with saving faith. This explains a mystery many of us have wondered about. Why is it that two people can listen to the same message and respond in utterly different ways? Why will one brother follow Jesus while another completely rejects the gospel? Why does one person believe and the other say, “I want nothing to do with Jesus”? The answer must be that one person had an open heart while another person had a hard heart in terms of the gospel. Without the “full conviction” that the message must be believed, no one will ever become a Christian.

A Christian, then, is someone who having been called and chosen by God responds to the gospel message and is saved.

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

“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (v. 6). This third characteristic may surprise some people because it speaks of how the Thessalonians responded to the gospel message. In their particular situation, coming to Christ from a background of idol worship, they faced enormous cultural pressure. No doubt some faced opposition from family members who thought they were nuts to believe in Jesus. In those early days of the Christian movement, it wasn’t popular to be a “Christ-follower.”

Notice the little phrase “in spite of severe suffering.” The word literally means to be “pressed to the limit.” It has the idea of being under the thumb of another person, feeling the pressure pushing you down. To receive the Word with joy has the idea of opening your home and heart to another person. In this case it means that the Thessalonians were so glad to be saved they couldn’t be stopped, not even by persecution.

We see this often on the mission field. I have seen it in Haiti and Israel and India and in Russia. In those places where being a Christian really costs something I have seen much deeper joy than I see in American churches. Here we tend to take our blessings for granted. There every day is gift from God and every Sunday is an oasis in the desert of suffering.

Jesus never invites us to receive him on a trial basis, although some try to do just that. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” True conversion means that you continue to follow Christ even when the going gets rough.

On Wednesday, April 18, three Christian workers were brutally murdered in eastern Turkey by a group of young men who were part of an Islamist movement. (Read more about it here and here.) One was a German missionary, one was a Turkish pastor, and the other was a local believer. They were murdered at a Bible publishing house in Matatya, a Turkish province 300 miles northeast of Antioch where believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The young men were supposed to meet the three Christians for a Bible study. But they had come for a completely different purpose. After torturing the three men, they apparently took pictures of their evil work on their cell phones.

The funeral for Pastor Necati turned into a triumphant moment as believers gathered to bury one of their own:

Necati’s funeral was a beautiful event. Like a glimpse of heaven, hundreds of Turkish Christians and missionaries came to show their love for Christ, and their honor for this man chosen to die for Christ. Necati’s wife Shemsa told the world, “His death was full of meaning, because he died for Christ and he lived for Christ… Necati was a gift from God. I feel honored that he was in my life; I feel crowned with honor. I want to be worthy of that honor.”

What is a Christian? A Christian is someone who joyfully chooses to follow Christ no matter the cost. Our Turkish brothers and sisters understand this better than we do.

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

“You became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything” (vv. 7-8). The word “example” is the Greek word tupos, which refers to the impression left by a piece of metal when pressed into clay. Here is a great secret of evangelism. The best way to win others is by the example of your own changed life. Remember what Jesus said to the formerly demonized man who wanted to accompany him on his travels, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you” (Mark 5:19). We all know that a satisfied customer is always the best advertisement for any product. The best place for you to make an impact for Christ is right where you are. You don’t have to go overseas to be a missionary. You can start by living for Christ and showing others the difference he makes on a daily basis.

The word translated “sounded forth” means to strike the cymbal. As the Thessalonians shared Christ, the message reverberated throughout the entire region. In the words of one commentator, “The Thessalonians sounded ‘Reveille’ and the whole province woke up.” Here, then, is the evidence of true Christianity clearly explained. First you receive God’s Word gladly, then you live it on a daily basis. As you do, the message of the gospel reverberates in every direction. And those around you begin to sit up and take notice.

The wife of one of the three Turkish martyrs was asked during a television interview how she felt about the young men who had killed her husband. She did not want revenge, she told reporters. “Oh God, forgive them for they know not what they do,” she said, echoing the words of Christ on the cross (Luke 23:34). One columnist wrote of her comment, “She said in one sentence what 1000 missionaries in 1000 years could never do.”

A Christian is a person whose changed life changes others because of a commitment to be like Jesus and to follow him wherever he heads.

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

“You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (vv. 9-10). Note the key verbs in these two verses:

You turned.

You serve.

You wait.

The whole Christian life can be found in those six words.

You turned from the old life.

You now serve the living God.

You wait for Jesus to return from heaven.

These three phrases give us the three tenses of the Christian life:

In the past you turned from your idols.

In the present you serve the living God.

In the future you wait for Jesus to come back.

There comes a moment when we have to decide to go “all in” about what we believe. You have to look at your cards, look at your chips, and then you have to say, “All in.” That means you are risking everything on that one hand. If you’re right, you win it all. If you’re wrong, you lose it all. It’s that way in the Christian life also. You can’t hold on to your cards forever. Somewhere along the way you’ve got to make a stand. Years ago I decided to go “all in” on Jesus. I’m pushing my chips to the center of the table and I’m going “all in” that he is the Son of God, that he died on the cross for my sins, that he rose from the dead on the third day, that he is the Lord of the universe, and that he will someday take me to heaven. Lewis Sperry Chafer said that believing in Jesus means trusting him so much that if he can’t take you to heaven, you aren’t going to go there. I like that. If Jesus can’t take me to heaven, then I’ll never make it because I’m going “all in” on him. I don’t have a Plan B.

Let me go back to the question posed in the email I mentioned at the beginning of this message. “How is a Christian defined?” Here is my answer.

A Christian is a person who has been truly converted to Jesus Christ.

1) It begins with God and his choice of us.

2) It requires the true preaching of the gospel.

3) It leads to a heart-felt acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior.

4) It results in a changed life that changes other lives.

5) It means that we go “all in” on Jesus.

It starts with God.

It is based on truth of who Jesus really is.

It changes everything about my life.

Are You Satisfied With Jesus?

During a TV interview several weeks ago, we took a phone call from a listener who sounded very confused about her spiritual condition. Even though she knew the Lord, she still wasn’t sure she was a Christian. Evidently she had been going through some struggles that made her question everything she believed. And she felt bad because of her struggles. “How do I know I have enough faith?”

Her question reflects the doubt that most of us experience from time to time. And it’s an honest question because who among us would say, “My faith is strong all the time”? I would never say that because I know how wobbly my faith can be. This is how I responded to her question.

It all depends on where you look to find the answer. If you look within yourself, you will always be disappointed because your faith will almost always seem like it isn’t enough. If you look at your heart, you will see your own sinfulness. If you look at your outward performance, you will be discouraged by your failure to live like a true Christian. An honest self-examination leads to this conclusion:

We have done those things we ought not to have done.

We have left undone those things we ought to have done.

Either way you look at it, we’re all miserable failures, pathetic losers in the great game of life, and if God only wants winners in heaven, then we’re never going to make it because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Don’t look to yourself to find the answers because you will only be disappointed.

You have to look outside yourself. That means looking to the Lord.

When we look to the Lord, this is what we find. Two thousand years ago Jesus died on the cross, shedding his blood for our sins. He died in our place, bearing our sins, taking our punishment, that we might be saved, cleansed, forgiven, declared righteous, be born again and become the true children of God. When God looked down from heaven and saw Jesus dying there, he said, “I am satisfied with what my Son has done.” We know he was satisfied because on the third day, he raised Jesus from the dead.

God is satisfied with what his Son has done.

Are you?

That’s the central question of the spiritual life. Are you satisfied with Jesus? Or do you think that you need to add something to what he did for you? Is Jesus enough for you?

What is a Christian? A Christian is a person who is truly satisfied with Jesus and what he did on the cross. A Christian is someone who is so satisfied with Jesus what he says, “I am trusting the Lord Jesus Christ completely for my salvation.”

Upon a life I did not live,

Upon a death I did not die,

I stake my whole eternity.

A Christian says, “If Jesus can’t take me to heaven, I’m not going to go there.”

Are you satisfied with Jesus? Look to him for your salvation. Trust him completely. Place all that you are in his hands and say, “Lord, I’m coming to you as my Lord and Savior.” It’s as simple and as profound as that.

Cody’s Story

I received a letter from a young man in jail who had received a copy of my book An Anchor for the Soul. Here is part of what he wrote.


Mr. Pritchard,

My name is Cody. I’m currently in jail in Arizona. The last few years of my life have been very hard for me. I have been lost in addiction to methamphetamines and lost in a life of crime and sin. I recently picked up the Bible and have been trying to find my way to Christ. I’m 19 years old and really want to change my life. I believe the only way I will be successful is through my Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I just (about ten minutes ago) finished reading An Anchor for the Soul. It was a very good book and answered a lot of my questions regarding Christ and how to go about accepting him into my heart.

Before I picked up the Bible, I always wondered if I was “good enough” to go to heaven. Now I know that I am not. But thanks to God giving his one-and-only Son for my sins, I will go to heaven. I know this now, and I trust Christ will lead me there. I am no longer afraid of death because I know the Father will accept me.

Thank you and God bless!


CodyThat’s what God can do. That’s true conversion. That’s the first step in becoming a fully devoted follower of Christ.

It’s not enough to be Baptist or Methodist or Lutheran or Catholic.

It’s not enough to be American or Chinese or Greek or any other nationality.

It’s not enough to be religious.

It’s not enough to go to church.

I urge you to turn to God from the idols of your heart. If you have the slightest desire, turn. If you want to be converted, turn. If you seek a new life, turn.

Have you ever been converted? If the answer is no or if you are not sure, with all that is in me I urge you to turn to God. Turn from your sin. Turn from your idols. Turn from your past. Turn from your self-worship. Turn from all that is evil. Turn to God and say, “Lord Jesus, I transfer my trust to you as my Savior and Lord.”

May God help you to do it.

May God give you faith to believe.

Go “All in” in Jesus! That’s what it means to be a Christian.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?