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What Is a Christian?

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There are many notions about what it means to be a Christian. Many think they understand the term, yet many also mean different things by it. For some it’s a matter of family history: “I grew up in the church.” For others it means someone who lives by the Golden Rule, ascribes to certain political views, goes to church, or simply chose to identify that way at a particular point in time—perhaps by going to the front of a church during an altar call.

But what does it really mean to be a Christian? We want to answer not in sociological terms (as the culture sees it) or personal terms (as individuals see themselves) but in biblical terms (as God sees it). In that respect, we can say that we know a Christian when we see someone who is subject to a new heavenly reality evidenced by in an inner change and outward proclamation resulting in an enduring faith among a holy community.

A New Heavenly Reality

When Paul wrote to the Ephesian believers, he offered this assessment of the change that came over them when they became Christians: “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (2:13).

Unless we have undergone that definite change from far to near, we have no right to the name Christian.

What were the Ephesians “far off” from? God! As Paul says in the previous verse, they were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (v. 12). Indeed, the natural state of all humanity is separation from the Creator as a result of Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12). It is a state of corruption in the self and a state of liability to God’s judgment for wrongdoing.

There is good news, though: these people who were “far off” from God were “brought near.” Their relationship to God fundamentally changed. They went from having no hope to having hope of eternal life, from being without God to being with Him. What brought about this change? It happened “by the blood of Christ.” Jesus died on a cross to reconcile sinners to a holy God, and on account of His blood we know God’s forgiveness rather than His judgment, His fellowship rather than estrangement. Once we are “in Christ Jesus,” identifying with Him by faith and entrusting our lives to Him, we experience His nearness.

Importantly, Paul expresses this experience passively. The Ephesian believers didn’t bring themselves near; they were brought near. They didn’t go to listen to the Gospel preached with some determination that they were going to believe. They listened, and God did something, drawing them to Him by faith. It is only when God works that people’s lives are changed for eternity.

The Bible teaches that the whole world is divided down the lines of being in or out of Christ. Being a Christian ultimately doesn’t have to do with background, race, gender, wealth, social status, or even with success in doing good. The ultimate division between Christians and non-Christians is that some sinners have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ, and other sinners are still blind to their need for salvation.

An Inward Change and an Outward Proclamation

When we who were far away from God are brought near, we have become what the Bible calls a Christian. Unless we have undergone that definite change from far to near, we have no right to the name Christian.

But that’s not where Christian identity ends. When some among the crowd of the apostle Peter’s first sermon believed what he was telling them about Jesus, they asked, “What shall we do?” His answer was twofold: “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:37–38). Repentance is a conscious decision to turn from sin to God in faith (that is, trusting Him to receive, save, and sustain us)—and it is possible because of the blood that Jesus shed on the cross to win our forgiveness.

In other words, for Christians, there is a moment when, by God’s grace, they experience a change of heart—not a change to perfection but a change in direction, so that even amid the ongoing struggles with sin, the outlook of their lives will be that they no longer live for themselves but for Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:15). This inner change is an expression of the heavenly reality by which God has brought them near to Himself through faith. And these will ultimately be accompanied by a moment of proclamation, when a Christian says to a community of believers through her baptism that she has undergone that change.

Perseverance proves the genuine nature of the inner change we have undergone and testifies to the heavenly reality of our having been brought near to God.

Not every true Christian may be able, with the same level of detail, to identify the precise day or hour when the inner change took place. But every Christian should be able to say, “I once was far away, and I now see that I have been brought near, and my baptism testifies to this inward change and heavenly reality.”

An Enduring Faith

When Paul described this change from far to near to the Christians in Colossae, he said,

You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard. (Col. 1:21–23, emphasis added).

In these words, Paul teaches us that perseverance—faithfulness to the very end—proves the genuine nature of the inner change we have undergone and thus testifies to the heavenly reality of our having been brought near to God.

Perseverance is not a question of whether a genuine Christian can cease to be one. It is a question of whether the faith that someone professes is genuine. You can’t begin your Christian life, go on with your Christian life, or finish your Christian life without the enabling grace of God (John 15:5). But if that grace is truly there at the beginning, it will remain to the end—which is why Paul can say elsewhere, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).

When we understand that we have been brought near to God in Christ, we reveal that measure of assurance not by sitting back and settling into old sin and unbelief but by pressing on in obedient faith. Christians will experience dangers, toils, and snares, but since God has brought them near in Christ, He will carry them through such obstacles, preserving their faith.

A Holy Community

One of God’s great tools for faithfulness and perseverance is community. In biblical terms, it isn’t possible to become a Christian without being a part of Christ’s church. To be in Christ is to be in Christ’s family. It is a bitter incongruity when somebody says they are a Christian but, by their own choice, they are not members of a gathered congregation of Christians.

Christianity is not and cannot be a solo mission. If you have been placed in Christ, then you have been placed in the church. It is not the church that makes the Christian, but there is no one whom God has made a Christian who is not, by virtue of that transformation, part of the universal church. Therefore, it is just not right for anyone claiming the name Christian to purposely isolate himself from the family of faith.

What Is a Christian?

A Christian is someone who once was far away from God and now has been brought near (a new heavenly reality) by their repentant faith in the blood of Christ to save them (an inward change), expressed in their baptism (an outward proclamation), and is preserved by God in this state (an enduring faith) in fellowship with His people (a holy community).

Do you fit this description? Can you identify the time in your life before Christ and the time after you truly met Him? Is your faith enduring through all its ups and downs in the context of a local church? In other words: Are you a Christian?

There is no more important question for you to answer. If you cannot answer yes, or if you do not know, then it is imperative that you consider what the Gospel is and ask yourself whether you are ready to hand your life over to Jesus Christ.

This article was adapted from the sermons “What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?” and “Established and Firm” by Alistair Begg.

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