Definition of a Christian

What does it really mean to be a Christian? It seems to me that this term is used too loosely nowadays. Can you give me a brief, easily understandable definition?

The term “Christian,” as we understand it, refers to anyone, man, woman, or child, who trusts in Jesus Christ as his or her Savior and Lord and who strives to follow Him in every area of life. As evangelicals, we place great stress on the importance of an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We believe that this relationship is lived out by way of prayer, study of God’s Word, fellowship with God’s people, and service to others in Jesus’ name. There’s an important sense in which Christian faith has to be expressed in the context of community with other believers. But in the final analysis, it’s an intensely personal and individual matter, not a question of church membership or doctrinal orientation. The Bible backs us up in this regard: ” Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:13; Joel 2:32).

That said, we should point out that Focus on the Family has always been on the side of what C. S. Lewis called Mere Christianity. Lewis used this term to refer to that body of core Christian truths which is common to believers from all kinds of church backgrounds. In other words, we are not committed to a particular denominational understanding of what it means to be a “Christian.” We’re an interdenominational ministry, and we strive to remain faithful to the spirit of St. Augustine’s famous motto: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

It’s worth adding that our definition of Christianity also takes serious account of the pronouncements of the historic councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. These councils formulated important theological definitions and made crucial statements about the Trinitarian nature of God and the “hypostatic union” of the human and the divine natures in Jesus Christ. As we see it, these biblical principles are indispensable in gauging the true “Christianness” of any particular body of religious teachings.

To say this another way, we don’t necessarily believe that a “Christian” is simply anybody who claims to “believe in Jesus” and to “follow His teachings.” If this were true, we would have to concede that the Gnostics, the Manicheans, the Arians, the Marcionites, the Docetists, and the first-century Judaizers were also faithful members of the fold. This is something that the writers of the New Testament and the Fathers of the early church were clearly unwilling to do.

If you’re asking us to identify personal “attributes” or “characteristics” that distinguish a true Christian from a non-Christian, we would have to say that Christ’s own definition is still the best. The “mark of the Christian” (as the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer called it) is love. “By this all will know that you are My disciples,” said Jesus, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

It’s also important, of course, to give some measure of credence to a person’s verbal confession of faith. But beyond this, it’s impossible to lay down hard-and-fast rules by which to distinguish the real disciples from the mere posers. As Jesus indicated in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13), that is a question that God Himself will resolve on the Day of Judgment. “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

If you have further questions about this, or if you’d simply like to discuss these ideas at greater length with a member of our team, don’t hesitate to contact us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


What Every Christian Ought to Know Day by Day: Essential Truths for Growing Your Faith

The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters

Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know

Mere Christianity


Christian Research Institute

Insight for Living

Becoming a Christian

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