What is a Christian?

November 3, 2005

by Steve Owen

The word ‘Christian’ appears only three times in the NT (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1Peter 4:16). We learn from Acts 11:26 that the name ‘Christians’ was first used in Antioch. It appears not to have been at first a word that Christ’s followers used of themselves, but to have been used by outsiders to describe them, probably as a term of scorn or abuse. We read, ‘The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.’ Therefore to be a Christian is to be a disciple of Christ. So what is a disciple? It (Gk. Mathetes) means a student; someone who is being taught or trained; someone who is learning of Christ. Not all disciples were true believers. We read in John 6:66 that ‘From that time, many of His disciples went back and followed Him no more’ and in John 8:31, we read, ‘Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”’ There are true and false disciples. Yet these, presumably, are the same disciples whom the Apostles baptized in John 4:1-2. So we need not feel ashamed if those whom we baptize prove not to be true disciples so long as they were credible in their profession. However, after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out, we hear much less of disciples proving false, though it still occurs throughout the NT.

Is it possible for an infant or very young child to be a disciple? The argument of some paedo-baptists is that they baptize babies and then teach them, so they (the babies) are disciples. I suggest that this is untenable. First of all there is no mention of infants in connection with the word Mathetes anywhere in the NT, and secondly, from John 8:31 above we see that a synonym for ‘disciple’ is ‘believer’, and we read in Acts 2:41 that ‘Those who gladly received (ie. believed) his word were baptized.’ Those same people ‘Continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine’ (v42)- they were disciples, learning from the Apostles the things of Christ. So a Christian is a believer; how can a tiny baby be described as such? We read in Acts 11:21 that, ‘A great number believed and turned to the Lord.’ They became Christians when they believed. There is no mention of infants in connection with the word ‘believe’ or ‘believer.’ Not every believer is a true believer (Acts 8:13, 20-21), but a believer is one who professes faith in Christ, something an infant cannot do. That does not mean of course that we should not teach children about Christ just as soon as they are able to understand. ‘Let the little children come unto Me,’said the Lord Jesus, and so we should.

Another word that is used for ‘Christian’ is ‘Saint.’ Paul writes (Phil 1:1), ‘To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi….’, and again, ‘To the saints and faithful brethren who are in Colossae’ (Col 1:2). Whom can he mean except the Christians there? Now the word ‘hagios’ means ‘holy’ or ‘separated’, so a saint is a ‘holy’ person, or one separated from the world for holy purposes. It is true that children are referred to as ‘holy’ in 1Cor 7:14, but a closer examination of that text reveals that ‘holy’ in this instance is being used as the opposite of ‘unclean’.

A fourth word used frequently in the NT to refer to Christians is ‘Adelphoi’, ‘Brethren.’ We have seen it used in Col 1:2 above. Its first NT appearance is in Mat 23:8; “For One is your teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.” It appears in Acts 12:17; ‘Go, tell these things to James and to the brethren” and also in 1Cor 15:6. The singular, ‘brother’, appears in 1Cor 6:6; ‘But brother goes to law against brother.’ By comparing this verse with verse 2, we can see that ‘brother’ is a synonym for ‘saint.’ Love for ones Christian brothers is one of the marks of a true Christian (1John 3:14; 4:20-21).

A word frequently used by the apostles in their letters to the churches is ‘agapetoi’, ‘beloved’ (translated weakly in the NIV as ‘dear friends’). Now are the Christians beloved by the apostles or by God? By both, no doubt. Certainly love is a hall-mark of a disciple, as we read in John 13:35, but the previous verse tells us that the mutual love of Christians is based upon Christ’s love for us (cf. also 1John 4:11). When John writes (1John 4:7), ‘Beloved, let us love’, he might mean that the Christians to whom he was writing were beloved by John, by each other or by God, and doubtless all three were true. But when Paul writes in 2Thes 2:13, ‘But we are bound to give thanks always for you, brethren, beloved by the Lord’, it is abundantly clear that a Christian is one whom God loves.

The final word used as a synonym for ‘Christian’ is ‘kletos’, ‘Called’. In Romans 1:7, Paul addresses his letter, ‘To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints’, and Jude writes, ‘To those who are called, sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ.’ The Christian is one whom God has loved from all eternity, and called to Himself in time (Rom 8:28-30; cf. Jer 31:3).

As we compare these words, ‘Christian’, ‘Disciple’, ‘Saint’, ‘Believer’, ‘Brother’, ‘Beloved one’, ‘Called one’, we may see that a Christian is someone who is loved by God, has been effectually called by Him, who believes in Christ for salvation, is learning more about Him, is separated from the world by the Holy Spirit, and is united to his fellow-believers by the bonds of spiritual brotherhood. It is hard to see how these descriptions could be applied to a tiny infant.

Finally, as we look at the New Testament letters, we can make the assumption that they were written to Christians as we look at the opening addresses (eg. Rom 1:7; 1Cor 1:2; 2Peter 1:1 etc ). The following descriptions are based largely upon what the writers of the letters say about the recipients.

A Christian is someone who has been taught by God. He has learned of the Father and therefore fled to Christ for salvation (John 6:45; 1Thes 2:13). Although he has been taught in this way, he still needs to grow in the faith by hearing, ‘the pure milk of the word’ (1Peter 2:2) and indeed, by graduating to the ‘meat’ (Heb 5:12-14).

A Christian is someone who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9; 1John 2:20).

A Christian is someone who knows the Lord, has His laws written upon his heart and has his sins forgiven (Heb 8:10-11).

A Christian is someone who knows God as his Father (Rom 8:15). He needs no man to tell him how to know God (Matt 16:17; Heb 8:11; 1John 2:27).

A Christian is no longer a citizen of this world but of heaven (Phil 3:20; Heb 11:16).

A Christian is someone whom God has called out of darkness into light (Eph 5:8; Col 1:13; 1Thes 5:5; 1Peter 2:9).

A Christian is someone who has been baptized (Acts 2:41; Rom 6:4). Not because water baptism makes one a Christian, but because being baptized is our Lord’s command for those whom He saves (Matt 28:19; Acts 2:38).

A Christian is someone who is kept by the power of God (John 10:27-30; 17:11; Rom 8:38; 1Peter 1:5).

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