Question: What Is A Christian?

Answer: The primary question that needs to be addressed concerns the definition of a Christian. What is a Christian? Simply stated, a Christian is a person who has trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Terms That The Bible Uses To Describe Those Who Believe In Jesus

There are a number of terms that are used in the New Testament to describe those who believe in Jesus. They include the following.

1. Christian

While Christian is the common term today for those who believe in Christ, it is only used once in the New Testament by believers to describe themselves. Peter used the term for those who suffered persecution by the Romans.
Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name 1 Peter 4:16 NRSV).

Though the term Christian was first given to believers in Christ by non-believers, it soon became the common word to describe those who believe in Jesus. Today it is the primary designation for believers.

2. Disciple

In the New Testament, one of the common designations for those who believe in Jesus is “disciple.” Often, they are called “His disciples.” For example, we read the following in Luke’s gospel.

Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” (Luke 9:18 NIV).

Jesus commanded those who believe in Him to make disciples. Indeed, the final words of Matthew’s gospel contain this instruction. We read

When Jesus came near, he spoke to them. He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19,20 God’s Word).

The word disciple comes from the word for discipline. A disciple is one who follows a particular master. In the case of believers, that Master is Jesus Christ. We are to follow Him in all things. The Bible says that He is our example.

If we say we are his, we must follow the example of Christ (1 John 2:6 CEV).

We are to live our lives with Jesus as our example.

We Can Only Serve One Master

Jesus made it clear that we can only serve one master. Matthew records Him saying.

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24 NASB).

Therefore, the Christian has only one Master, Christ.

3. The Elect

Those who believe in Jesus are also called the “elect.” Paul wrote to Timothy about how he endured hardship for the sake of the elect. He put it this way.

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory (2 Timothy 2:10 NIV).

Elect has the idea of someone who is chosen. The Bible says that Jesus has chosen those who believe in Him. We read in John’s gospel the following statement of Jesus.

You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name (John 15:16 NRSV).

We have been chosen, or elected, by Him.

4. Believers

Those who trusted Christ as their Savior are also called believers. In the first chapter of the Book of Acts we read the following.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, (Acts 1:15 NRSV).

The object of their belief is the Person of Jesus Christ.

5. Servants Of Christ

The New Testament also designates believers as “servants of Christ.” Paul used this description when he wrote to the Corinthians. He said.

So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God (1 Corinthians 4:1 NIV).

This is consistent with our calling. Those who believe in Jesus are His servants. They follow the example of their Master who came to earth to serve others. Matthew recorded Jesus explaining His coming inot the world in the following manner.

Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28 NKJV)

Jesus is our example of what a true servant should be, one who looks to the needs of others.

6. Saints

Those who believe in Jesus are also called “saints.” This had the idea of being set apart for service to God. Paul addressed all believers as saints. We find this when he addressed the believers in Corinth. He wrote.

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia (2 Corinthians 1:1 NKJV).

Believers in Christ are saints. We have been set apart to serve Him.

Terms Used By Unbelievers To Describe Christians

There are a number of terms that unbelievers used to describe those who believed in Jesus. They include the following designations.

1. Christian

The first use of the term Christian was by the unbelievers in the pagan city of Antioch in Syria. We read about this in the Book of Acts. It says.

And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch (Acts 11:26 NASB).

The Gentiles (non-Jews) called those who believed in Jesus “Christians” to distinguish them from the Jews who did not believe in Jesus.

King Agrippa Used The Word Christian

The second usage of the designation “Christian” was by unbelieving King Agrippa. This occurred when the Apostle Paul was attempting to convert him.

Agrippa said to Paul, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” (Acts 26:28 NRSV).

This is another example of the word being used of believers.

2. Followers Of The Way

When the Saul of Tarsus was persecuting Christians he was looking for those who belonged to “the Way.” The Book of Acts records the following about Saul and his mission.

He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them-- both men and women-- back to Jerusalem in chains (Acts 9:2 NLT).

The Christians were called “the Way” by unbelievers.

3. The Sect Of The Nazarenes

The Jews called believers in Jesus, “the sect of the Nazarenes.” This is how they described the Apostle Paul.

For we have found this man a plague, a creator of dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5 NKJV).

This was a derogatory description of believers by unbelievers.

The Term Christianity Is Not Found In The New Testament

The term “Christianity” is not found in the New Testament. Its origin is usually traced back as far as Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 50-117). He used the term “Christianism” to distinguish the belief in Jesus from Judaism. It is interesting to note that both terms “Christian” and “Christianity” originated in the city of Antioch. Christian was a term used by the unbelievers while “Christianity” was a term used by believers.

This briefly sums up the various designations given to those who believe in Jesus.

Summary To Question 1 What Is A Christian?

It is important that we know exactly what a Christian is. Simply stated, a Christian is a person who has trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior. However, it is not the common term used in the New Testament for those who believed in Jesus. In fact, it is only used once by Christians to describe who they are.

One of the more common terms used to describe Christians was disciple. Jesus’ disciples were those people who followed Him. The term is used of any group of people who follow a particular master.
Christians are also called “the elect.” This has the idea of certain people being “chosen.” The Bible makes it clear that God has chosen us to follow Him. We are thus “the elect of God.”

The term “believers” is another designation of those who followed Christ. They were “believers” in His promises as well as believers in Him personally.

Those who trusted Jesus as their Savior are also recognized as “servants of Christ” seeing that He was their Master. As servants, they obey the wishes of the Master.

Finally, the New Testament believers are also known as saints. This has the idea of those “set apart” for Him.

We also find several different ways in which unbelievers designated those who believed in Jesus. On two occasions, they are called Christians. In each of these occasions the term is used in an uncomplimentary manner.

The Apostle Paul, before his conversion, persecuted this group known as the “followers of the Way.” Later in the Book of Acts, unbelievers spoke of Christians as “the sect of the Nazarenes.” Thus, we find the believers in Jesus were given a number of different designations by the unbelievers.

The term Christianity is not found in the New Testament. The earliest we can trace it is to an early believer named Ignatius of Antioch.

This question is from my forthcoming book Living The Christian Life
The important thing to note is this: whatever those who believe in Jesus are called, whether it may be terms used by believers, or by unbelievers, it speaks of people who accept Jesus Christ for whom He claimed to be; the Savior of the world and the only hope of humanity.


Don Stewart is an internationally recognized Christian apologist and speaker. He graduated cum laude from Talbot Theological Seminary and the International Seminar in Theology and Law in Strasbourg, France, as well as from Biola University. Don is also a best-selling and award-winning author/co-author of over seventy books. [ read more ]


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