In 2011* a National questionnaire involving all adults showed nearly 60% said that they were ‘Christian’ – yes that is 60 out of every 100 adults [ii], but only 5 out of 100 go to church! So that begs the question: “What is a Christian?”
I expect that if most of that 60% from the questionnaire were asked; ‘What makes you a Christian?’ they would reply saying something like; “Well this is a Christian country isn’t it?” But they probably would be hard-stretched to give a personal, heartfelt answer.
This article looks in depth at what is a Christian, the history of Christianity, what the beliefs are and how far-reaching Christianity is.
( * In 2002 the figure was 72% and still only 5 out of 100 went to church).
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Table of Contents:
1. A Christian is not defined by a set of rules or rituals
So many people see being a Christian as just following rules.
But the Bible tells us that it is not about keeping rules and laws:
For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands.Romans 3:20 NLT
The law simply shows us how sinful we are.”
The commandments;Romans 13:9-10
‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’
‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’
and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command:
‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
Love does no harm to a neighbour.
Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.”
A Christian is not defined by doing rituals, or even attending a church.
Being a Christian is not just trying to obey God’s laws because it will only end in us getting condemned as we fail to follow God’s holy ways.
But by believing in Jesus it is He who then fulfils the law’s demands and the believer can say; ‘Help me Lord I cannot fulfil all your laws, but I know that I am not condemned because the apostle Paul tells us’:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.Romans 8:1-4 NIV
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
From then on it is God’s love within us which makes us naturally want to fulfil his laws.
What is God like – he wants us as his children.
How approachable is God, can we live without God?
2. What the word ‘Christian’ actually means
To help answer the question: ‘What is a Christian?’ did you know that the word ‘Christian’ was a nickname!
It could have been a mocking name, to make fun of them.
The reason for the nickname was that these people based their whole lives on the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, if we call ourselves a Christian, we are saying that CHRIST is the most important thing in our lives.
Perhaps we can’t say that.
Perhaps we replace the Christ bit with ‘ME’:
- ‘I am my own boss’
- ‘I am the most important thing in my life!’
What is a Christian? They are someone who follows Jesus Christ, not just occasionally, but for the rest of their lives.
Is there a ticket to get to heaven?
A modern parable about the relationship between a king and his son.
It took discipline to follow Jesus day after day.
Jesus’ followers were called ‘disciples’ because they were disciplined.
Jesus laid out the rule for being one of His followers:
If anyone wants to be a follower of Mine, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.Matthew 16:24-26 The Living Bible
For anyone who keeps his life for himself shall lose it; and anyone who loses his life for me shall find it again.
What profit is there if you gain the whole world – and lose eternal life?
What can be compared with the value of eternal life?”
This speaks of the cost of being a follower, a disciple, of Jesus.
It doesn’t mean that we must die to follow Him.
Jesus is talking about living our lives for Jesus and not selfishly for ourselves.
3. Where does the word ‘Christian’ appear in the Bible?
The Bible tells us where Jesus’ followers were first called ‘Christians’:
So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people.Acts 11:26 NIV
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
It obviously became a well known term because king Agrippa knew these groups of believers as ‘Christians’:
Then Agrippa said to Paul,Acts 26:28 NIV
‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ “
The Bible itself uses this term ‘Christian’ for believers of Jesus Christ:
However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”1 Peter 4:16 NIV
The term ‘Christian’ may have started as a nickname – even a mocking term, but the Bible tells us that it is great to be a Christian and that you can thank God for being his child.
What is a Christian? It’s about friendship – a friendship with Jesus Christ.
Are you willing to follow Him? Is Jesus Christ the most important person in our life?
4. What is a Christian and what do they believe?
If there is ever any confusion over a Christian issue it is always best to test what the Bible says about it.
So the question to ask is; ‘What is a Christian according to the bible?’
The early church also grappled with this question because false teachers were propagating erroneous teachings.
Followers were confused as to what the Christian faith was and doubts began to arise.
So their solution was to draw up creeds which listed out the main doctrines (teachings) which would combat those errors.
So for example the Nicene creed (dated about A.D. 325) declared:
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,Nicene creed: Translation © 1988, Faith Alive Christian Resources, Christian Reformed Church in North America. [iv]
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism (opens in a new tab) is a catechism (a form of questions and answers) written in 1646-47 by the Westminster Assembly, a synod of English and Scottish theologians.
Here are the first eleven questions with the answers. The answers in the original document each have a Bible verse to show where to find the answer in the Bible:
- Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
- Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
- Q. 3. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A. The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
- Q. 4. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
- Q. 5. Are there more Gods than one?
A. There is but one only, the living and true God.
- Q. 6. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
A. There are three persons in the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
- Q. 7. What are the decrees of God?
A. The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.
- Q. 8. How doth God execute his decrees?
A. God executeth his decrees in the works of creation and providence.
- Q. 9. What is the work of creation?
A. The work of creation is, God’s making all things of nothing, by the word of his power, in the space of six days, and all very good.
- Q. 10. How did God create man?
- A. God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.
- Q. 11. What are God’s works of providence?
A. God’s works of providence are, his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions…
The majority of the answers are timeless and excellent, and a few are answered according to their generation. For example the keeping of the Christian Sabbath.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism is well worth studying because it gives a good résumé of the Christian faith and what Christians believe.
5. How many Christians are there in the world?
On the Christianity page Wikipedia states:
Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with about 2.4 billion followers.‘Christianity’ Wikipedia [i]
Its adherents, known as Christians, make up a majority of the population in 157 countries and territories, and believe that Jesus is the Christ, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament in Christianity, and chronicled in the New Testament.”
6. What are the characteristics of a Christian?
The most common expectation from Christians is that they do not swear!
But the Bible goes deeper than that. If we look at the biblical criteria for becoming a leader we see these essentials, that they must have, and therefore a good Christian should also have:
- above reproach – not open to blame,
- faithful to their spouse,
- temperate – someone who is sober, who has boundaries and who does not go too far,
- respectable – worthy of respect,
- hospitable – kind to strangers,
- has an understanding of the Bible,
- not given to drunkenness – not quarrelsome, insolent whilst under the influence,
- not violent – not a bully or one who strikes out,
- gentle – considerate, fair, reasonable, mild, patient,
- not quarrelsome – peaceable, without conflict,
- not a lover of money – not greedy, not covetous but generous,
- proven practically proficient at running a home,
- that their children are not out of control,
- a good reputation with outsiders – well thought of.
These qualities are what Christians according to the Bible should have.
7. A child-like relationship by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones
- What does it mean to be a child of God?
- How to know are a true member of God’s family.
- Loving what God loves.
- The Bible does not deny that Christians sin, but we should live a life of repentance
- In the sermon he asks ‘Am I a child of God?’ ‘Am I trusting in Jesus Christ for my salvation?’
Below is a video of D. M. Lloyd-Jones preaching on ‘A child-like relationship’ based on John 1:12-13:
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8. Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
Who brought Christianity to England?
1) The truth is that the time before Saint Alban has no written records, so we just do not know when Christianity came to Britain, but there is some early evidence:
2) The martyrdom of Saint Alban could be as early as 209 AD which was during the period when Emperor Septimus Severus visited Britain. Others put his death in the reign of Diocletian about 300 AD.
3) In 313 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity, so from then on Christianity easily spread throughout Europe and at some point to Britain.
4) St John Chrysostom (347-407 AD) confirms that the Christian Church was in Britain. He wrote his ‘Contra Judacos’ where he says: “Even the British Isles have felt the power of the Word, for there too churches and altars have been erected: there too, as in the extreme East… or in the South, men may be heard discussing points of Scripture, with different voices, but not with different belief.”
5) St Jerome (340-420 AD) also confirms that there was a Church in Britain. In his Epistle 101, he wrote: “The church of the city of Rome is not different from that of the whole world. Gaul and Britain, Africa and all barbarous nations adore one Christ and follow one rule of truth.”
6) In 410 AD, the Romans left Britain. [v]
7) In 595 AD, Pope Gregory the Great chose Augustine to lead a mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons of Britain. [vi]
How old is Christianity?
Many say that Christianity was started by Jesus Christ in Judea, so the date would be about 30 AD.
But the writings in the Old Testament point to the coming of the Messiah (the Christ):
Isaiah around 700 BC prophesied about the Messiah, see Isaiah 52:13-53:12 “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness – so he will sprinkle many nations…”
Even right at the beginning of the Bible the Messiah is prophesied, see Genesis 3:15 “…he will crush your (Satan’s) head, and you will strike his (the Messiah’s) heel.”
Therefore you can say that Christianity is over 6000 years old.
What Does it Mean to be a Christian?
1) Just going to church does not make someone a Christian.
2) Vaguely believing in God does not save us.
3) Being baptised, as a baby or as an adult, does not make you a Christian.
4) Coldly giving mental accent to Jesus will not not get us to heaven,
5) The Bible tells us what makes a Christian and how to become one:
“if you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” (Romans 10:9-10 NIV)
What language did Jesus speak?
The area where Jesus lived had various languages and Jesus probably spoke at least the first three:
1) The Jews primarily spoke Aramaic.
2) Hebrew was their second language and their Scriptures were written in Hebrew (apart from some small portions).
3) Common Greek was the language of trade.
4) Latin was used by the Roman army and government.
5) There were a lot of regional dialects of Aramaic.
To explore this further see: ‘Did Jesus speak Greek?’ [vii]
The superpower, Assyria, was doing evil things so God sent his prophet to warn the king.
In 1939 Adolf Hitler withdrew to the Berghof where God warned him that there would be terrible destruction and suffering. See what happened – this is true!
Let’s learn a bit about God’s purposes from the life of Jonah in the Bible.
Jesus taught that we are slaves to the wrong things that we do, so how do we break free?
Life is a journey, but where will it lead us?
References: (Opens in new tabs)
[i] ‘Christianity’ Wikipedia
[ii] National Census 2002.
[iii] ‘Research report on population estimates by ethnic group and religion’ Office for National Statistics
[iv] Christian Reformed Church in North America
[v] ‘Christianity in Britain before St Augustine’ by Fr Richard Whinder at English Catholic History Association
[vi] ‘Who was St Augustine?’ English Heritage
[vii] ‘Did Jesus speak Greek?’ Tyndale House
Cartoon Images: thanks to Serif ARTGallery CD