A person would not have to look very hard to see that there are some major divisions in the religious world, even amongst those who claim to be followers of Christ. The divisions are not just over what the various denominations teach on matters such as organization, authority, or the use of instrumental music in the worship, but begin with even how one may be recognized as a true Christian. The teachings on how one becomes a Christian are almost as varied as the number of denominational groups, so how does one know which, if any, are right?
Like anything else, one cannot simply look at all of the different teachings and make a decision based on our own personal likes and wishes, or by looking at which one is the biggest, or by following the one that is the most popular at the time of our decision. Like any spiritual matter — the things that have to do with our standing before God — the primary consideration should be what God has to say about it. In fact, it is the only consideration, for what God has determined to be truth is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is not "His truth," or a "different truth." So, what does God say about it?
To Be A Christian, One Must Meet The Qualifications. Before we look into God's word and see what God says about what properly defines one as a Christian, we should think about what does not define us. The first, and most important, thing to understand is that one is not a Christian just because they say they are. If that were true, then half of the world could be considered Christians at any one point in time, because many, at one point or another, have claimed to be a Christian. But saying I am the President of the United States does not make it so. I have to qualify for the office, must run for the office, and must be elected to the office. Only after meeting all of these qualifications and having taking the oath of office could I then be called the President. The same principle applies when we endeavor to understand who might be qualified to be truly called a Christian.
To know what qualifies one to be a Christian, we must follow a logical line of Scripture and reasoning to come to the proper understanding. This takes some investigation, so bear with me as we briefly go through this.
When we look into the New Testament, we find that the Christians were those who were the disciples of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:26; more on this later). Now, let's consider the occasion of Christ with His disciples (the apostles, in particular) just before He ascended into heaven. On this occasion, He commanded the apostles to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." (Matt. 28:19, NASB) Here, Jesus specifically commanded that the apostles go out and make disciples (i.e., Christians). What would make someone a disciple? By looking at the parallel passages in Mark 16:15, 16 and Luke 24:44-49, we find that, first, they had to go out and "preach the gospel." This means that the word of God had to be heard by potential disciples. Luke writes that Jesus commanded they preach the message of "repentance and remission of sins." That is what the gospel message is: a demand of repentance that brings remission (forgiveness) of sins. Jesus went on to say that "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." We should all agree that only the one who believes the gospel message could qualify to be called a disciple; one who rejects it could never qualify. But considering this passage and looking back at Matthew's account, we see that baptism is also required, for Jesus commanded that the apostles baptize those who heard and believed, and He also said that it is only the one who believes and is baptized who may be saved.
These facts match with later accounts of conversions when those same apostles went out and made disciples. In the first example of conversion, we see people who were convicted in their hearts by the gospel message and were told to "Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." (Acts 2:38) Later, others were told to "Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out." (Acts 3:19) Many of those who "heard the word believed." (Acts 4:4) When Philip went up to Samaria and "preached Christ to them," we find that "when they believed Philip as he preached,… both men and women were baptized." (Acts 8:12) Philip would later preach Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch, who responded by asking, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:36) After His confession of his belief that Jesus was the Christ, they both went down into the water and Philip baptized him (vv. 37, 38).
All examples of conversion record these requirements as having been fulfilled for them to be called a disciple of Jesus Christ — a Christian. This is just the beginning of what defines the true Christian, but it is necessary, nonetheless. If one never meets the foundational requirements of what defines a Christian, everything afterwards wouldn't matter a bit, for he never qualified. I could be over 35, never convicted of a crime, and be politically astute enough to run this country if elected, but if it was discovered that I never was a citizen of the United States, I could not claim the office of the President, for I would not have met the qualifications.
If I have not met the initial qualifications to be called a Christian (one whose sins have been forgiven), nothing else would matter, for it would not bring me even one step closer to being rightfully called a Christian. If I have never even believed the gospel, if I have never repented of my sins, and if I have never been baptized for the remission of those sins (made possible through the blood of Christ, 1 Pet. 3:21), then I never became a Christian at all!
A Christian Is A Disciple. In Acts 11:26, we find that "the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch." Those who were the disciples (of Jesus Christ, of course) were called Christians. That makes sense, because a disciple is defined as one who adheres to the teaching of a master. These disciples were following the teachings of their Master, Jesus Christ, so they could rightly be called Christians. It should be pointed out that they were following Jesus and His teachings, not just following Him around. There were many who followed Jesus around as He walked throughout Galilee, but when He started making demands of them that they were unwilling to bear, they turned away from following Him (John 6:60-66).
Many today are following Jesus, but could not be called His disciples for they are not adhering to His teachings. Many turn away when they hear hard sayings or things that do not match with their own desires, but — for some reason — they still want to be identified as a "Christian"! Again, just because we say we are Christians does not make it so.
To be called a true disciple of Jesus Christ, our Master demands that we love Him more than even our own family (Luke 14:26), bear our own cross (v. 27), and forsake all for Him (v. 33). But we also are required to continue in His word (John 8:31), love one another (13:34, 35), and bear much fruit (15:8). These are the marks of a true Christian, and should we fail to meet the qualifications, our claim to be a Christian should be thrown in doubt. Are you a real Christian?
By Steven Harper