A 2014 survey disclosed that 70% of Americans consider themselves to be Christian. Today the total number of self-professed Christians in the world is estimated at 2.2 billion. Christianity is by far the largest religious affiliation in the world. What is a Christian? Is a person a Christian because he claims to be one? Is a person a Christian because he has an affiliation with a Christian church or is something else required?
The word Christian has a wide range of meaning depending on the speaker . In its broadest use Christian is applied to anyone who attends a Christian church or claims to be a follower of Christ. This widest range of meaning allows nearly anyone to call himself a Christian based upon his personal association with the term.
People were first called Christians when Christianity was still a very small minority religion within the Roman Empire. At that time the message of Jesus was primarily restricted to the region of Palestine and a few outlying areas. Those who followed Jesus were almost entirely Jews. As the church began to spread into regions outside Judea it began to interact with Greek culture which was not familiar with the promises of a Jewish Messiah.
The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch of Syria. “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26) The term was probably one of scorn to mock the disciples for their devotion to Christ. Despite its derisive intent “Christian” eventually became the most common title for those who follow Jesus.
The origin of the term begins to narrow the common definition to form a Biblical definition. A Christian is one who is a disciple of Jesus. A disciple, a Christian, is one who follows Jesus. A disciple looks to Jesus as most important and as Master. A disciple trusts Jesus, and only Jesus, to give eternal life. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life;” (John 10:27-28)
The New Testament expands this definition of following Jesus to provide specifics truths which must be believed to be a genuine follower of Jesus. A follower of Jesus believes Jesus is God, (1 John 2:23) Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sin, Jesus rose to life again and Jesus is eternally alive. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
A Christian is one who responds in faith to these truths. Mere acknowledgement of facts does not make a person a Christian. Instead, to be a Christian the individual must turn to Jesus trusting Him alone for full forgiveness. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
Though a person identifies as a Christian, he is only a Christian in the Biblical sense if he believes the truth of God’s Word about the person, character and saving work of Jesus and if he trusts Jesus alone for salvation.