We will have to define some terms in order for me to communicate what I believe. If you and I have a different definition for a term, you can only misunderstand my meaning. These misunderstandings are the reefs on which conversations so often founder. So bear with me for a bit and I will eventually come to a point.

The word "Christian" has come to mean a wide variety of things to different people; to the point that the term is in danger of becoming completely meaningless in the present day. I'm not aware of all the possible definitions used in every place in the world, but allow me to list a few that I've heard here in America.

Western. That is, those who are part of western civilization which grew out of a Judeo-Christian culture for the last 1,700 years. The problem is that a great many people in the west do not consider themselves Christians. This view of Christians is typically held by non-westerners, but I've met westerners that consider themselves Christians simply by virtue of their western culture.

American. That is, anyone who is an American citizen. But there are many Americans who do not consider themselves Christians. These first two definitions can be considered "cultural Christianity", with the idea that the culture automatically confers Christianity upon its members.

Republican. That is, someone who is a member of the Republican party, or at least vote for Republicans in elections (or are "conservative"). The problem is that half of the people I know who call themselves Christians are Democrats. And several Republicans I know are not Christians.

Practicing. That is, someone who acts in certain ways. This has a wide variety of meanings. For example, it might mean someone who lives a "moral" life. It might mean a church-goer someone who attends church. To some, regular attendence is required to earn the "Christian" moniker. To others, attendence once or twice a year is sufficient. It might mean someone who prays and/or reads their Bible on a (semi-)regularly basis. It might mean someone who donates to "worthy" causes, or who tithes. It might mean someone who celebrates Easter and/or Christmas. It might mean someone who never swears. It might mean someone who wears a crucifix. Really, it could mean almost anything that someone does (or doesn't do) that is somehow associated with religion.

Denominational. That is, someone who is a member of a particular religious organization, or one of an array of organizations (for example, "mainline denominations").

Confessing. That is, anyone who self-identifies as a Christian, regardless of their beliefs or behaviors.

Doctrinal. That is, anyone who believes a specific set of doctrines. Different people or groups determine which doctrines are essential to be considered a Christian, and they are not always in agreement. Examples of doctrinal Christians would be "Fundamentalists" or "Evangelicals". However, those terms have also be nebulously redefined over time such that they mean different things to different people, which may have no relation to the original definitions.

Other. Some combination of the above, or some completely different definition. Doubtless many others are in use - some used by people for pejorative means and lacking any substative definition; and some definitions matching a unique idea that exists only in their own mind. In the latter case, the word becomes completely useless - it becomes a synonym for "I am an individual". When a word means something unique to each person, it ceases to mean anything to everyone.

The above are the answers I've gotten from people over the years when I ask them to give me their defintion of the term. You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that none of these definitions have any direct correlation to the Biblical definition of "Christian". In fact, some of those who conform to a Biblical definition of "Christian" refuse to call themselves "Christian" at all, because the word is so misused and misunderstood. Messianic Jews are Biblical Christians, but never refer to themselves that way precisely because the term is associated with the Catholic church and the anti-semitism it has sometimes embraced. Personally, I only refer to myself as a "Christian" when I know the person I'm talking to shares the same definition as I have. Otherwise, when someone asks me if I'm a Christian, I ask them how they define it. Then I can answer them, "well, according to your definition of Christian, I'm..." Hopefully that will lead to a more in-depth discussion, but in any case, it is the only way I can answer the question according to their definition of terms.

The term "Christian" comes from the Greek word Christianos, which means "of Christ", or "follower of Christ". It was coined by nonbelievers in Antioch1. Many believe that the term was intended as a perjorative. But the early believers gladly adopted it. The English word "Christian", using the "ian" suffix indicates "related to", "of", "belonging to", or "like". Whereas it originally meant "like", it has now come to mean "related to". Hence, a lot of unChristian behavior and ideas have been associated with Christianity due to nothing more than there being some tenuous relation to Jesus.

Even the term "believer" is somewhat vague. Just what do you believe? Is it simply another way of referring to Doctrinal Christianity? Plenty of people that call themselves "Christians" have core beliefs that are contrary to scripture. We are told that even demons "believe" in Jesus2, in terms of an "intellectual assent". If one connects "believer" with "Christian", as the terms often are used interchangably, we could define a "Christian" as a believer in Christianity. This doesn't clarify anything, but it illustrates why I will use the terms as synonyms in the following.

"Belief" and "faith" are also often used interchangably, though I think faith is a better term and I'll explain why in a bit. I submit to you that a believer in Jesus is someone that has faith in Jesus. Thus, a Christian is someone who has faith in Jesus. In fact, even if you defined the term to mean someone who "believes Jesus", that would mean that they believed what He said, which would lead to the same end result, since Jesus said "believe IN me"3 and said that He was the only way to God the Father4. It also excludes demons since they believe Him, but do not believe in Him - in other words, they do not have faith in Him. I would argue that a person who merely believes some of what Jesus says, but not everything, doesn't indicate a Biblical Christian - they are merely someone who holds Jesus in high regard as a great moral teacher. But Jesus demanded complete and unwavering loyalty to Him. A few examples:

  • Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me."5
  • Jesus replied, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."6
  • "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me."7

This kind of commitment is echoed by the other writers of the New Testament. For instance, Paul says "Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is your true and proper worship."8 A sacrifice has no say in what happens to it - its life is given up completely - and that is how Christians are to view themselves in regard to God. You can't be more committed than that!

This is why Jesus says to consider the cost of following Him before you make a commitment.9

Commitment isn't the same thing as faith, but it is the natural consquence of it. The Greek word translated as "faith" is "pistos" and has two aspects: belief (which is an intellectual acceptance) and trust (which indicates reliance upon). Thus, demons have belief, but not trust - and therefore they do not have faith. If you completely trust God, you will do what He says rather than what you think is best, (or what you want to do). A person who disregards God's will because he does not trust that God knows best cannot consider himself to have faith in God. That is not to say that a true Christian never has doubts or sometimes acts on those doubts - none of us is perfect. But someone who consistently lives contrary to God's will cannot consider himself a Christian by Jesus' own definition.

Incidentally, henceforth my use of the term "Christian" will mean someone who conforms to the Biblical definition thereof - ie, a Biblical Christian.

How does one become a Christian? I will avoid a formulaic approach to becoming a Christian. Not that such approaches are inherently bad - some people find them useful. But there is no one single recipe that someone must follow. The fact is that becoming a Christian is nothing more than a decision to be committed to Jesus. In my case, when I was 19 years old, God revealed to me in a single moment that being a Christian meant being completely committed to Him. This was a huge realization for me who had always considered myself a Christian that was merely "backslidden". At that moment I decided to be committed. I didn't realize it at the time, but now I know, that was the moment that I became a Christian. I finally exercised true belief (that is faith). There was no ceremony, or formula, or the approval of man involved. It was a moment - a split second - when the decision was made.

Jesus said, "Whoever believes in me will be saved".10 The word "believes" here is that same Greek word for faith. That is to say that having faith in Jesus is the only thing that is needed to be saved. Only Christians are saved - salvation and Christianity, in the Biblical sense, are identical. Thus, becoming a Christian is simply making a decision to enter into a lifelong relationship of trust with Jesus. If something like "the Four Spirital Laws" booklet is helpful then great! If it is a divine revelation such as what Paul experienced,11 that is great too. If someone leads another to faith, that is awesome. The point is, God does His work in our lives in a way that is unique to each person and we shouldn't be overly reliant on formulas or rituals.

Faith in Jesus is all that is required, however there are some prerequisites. First, one must recognize that one is a sinner. After all, if you don't think you are a sinner, you have no need to be saved by Jesus. Only someone who admits that they are a sinner would need Jesus. Of course, we all are sinners, but some of us don't admit it. Second, you have to realize that our sin has made us enemies of God. Without Jesus, there is no way to be reconciled to Him. Let me restate: Outside of Jesus, there is no salvation. Don't take my word for it, that's what Jesus said.12 If you think you can be saved through membership in a group, or through Buddah, or by "being good", then you are trusting in something other than Jesus - you are not believing in Him. Without these understandings, one cannot become a Christian, because there would be no reason to commit oneself to Him.

There is one more thing to consider. As mentioned above, Jesus said to count the cost. There is a cost to following Him. It may literally cost your life. It will require you to fight against your selfish nature for the rest of your life. Following Jesus is simple, but it is not easy. Fortunately, He gives His followers the ability to follow. In other words, He makes it possible to do what was impossible without Him. But it still requires dying to ourselves - there's the living sacrifice aspect. God doesn't want to trick people into following Jesus. He wants us to make an informed decision. Now, no one knows what the future holds: what challenges one will face or what struggles one will endure. But we do know that things can be hard for those who follow Jesus. What we are told to do is to recognize this fact, not to understand every last detail of the consequence thereof. If we understand that, but trust God to lead us through it all, then we have counted the cost. I like how the singer/songwriter David Meece puts it in his song "Count the Cost":

The modern day disciple
Still has a price to pay
There's a war within
And war with sin
And he fights it ev'ryday
So be sure and understand
The voice you hear behind the call
You can't come with half a heart
Because He's asking for it all.

And consider the lyrics that opened my eyes all those years ago, from the song "To Obey Is Better Than Sacrifice" by Keith Green:

To obey is better than sacrifice
I want more than Sunday and Wednesday nights
'Cause if you can't come to Me every day
Then don't bother coming at all

To summarize, to become a Christian, you make a life-long decision for whole-hearted devotion to, and trust in, Jesus. You can't say that you'll follow Jesus, except for how you spend your time or money, or except for your addition, or except for your immoral lifestyle, or except for your politics, or except for your standard of living, or except your choice of entertainment. That is not whole-hearted. You cannot simply add Jesus to your life and consider it good. You have to surrender your life, your heart, your resources, your hopes, your security, your energy, your hobbies, your habits, and your thought life to Jesus. Note: your surrender is to Jesus, not to some cult leader, or pastor, or teacher, or popular speaker, or political party.

And that is what a Christian is, stumbling and imperfect though we may be. There may be times when following Jesus is a grinding trudge of dogged determination through trials, but He does not abandon us to our own (lack of) strength and understanding. Remember, Christianity is a relationship with Jesus, and He provides for His followers in amazing ways. It is not only the eventual hope of heavenly paradise (as important as that is), but the fact that He walks with us through the rest of our lives, providing the encouragement, peace, and power that only God can provide. But that is a topic for another time.

There is one last important point that I need to make here. Some people recognize the extent of their sinfulness and doubt that God would (or could) forgive someone like them. While the humility of heart in admitting their sinfulness is admirable, there is still some pride present: to think that God's salvation is smaller than our sin. When we think that our sin is so great that God is unable to forgive us, we diminish the greatness of God and place limits on His love. This is wrong! God's forgiveness is open to all humans. Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Ted Bundy, Kim Jong Il - any and all of them could have been forgiven if they had surrendered their lives to Jesus before they died. So, do not allow your past to convince you that you are beyond the reach of God. You may not be able to avoid suffering the natural consequences of your past, but the spiritual consequences are optional. So, choose forgiveness!

1 Acts 11:26
2 James 2:19
3 John 14:1
4 John 14:6
5 Matthew 16:24
6 Luke 9:62
7 Matthew 10:37-38
8 Romans 12:1
9 Luke 14:28-30
10 John 3:16
11 Acts 9
12 John 14:6