What It Means to Be a ‘Christian’

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Ask a dozen people at random what it means to be a Christian and you are likely to get nearly as many different answers. Some of the most popular responses include having Christian parents, going to church, having certain moral or political views, or living in a certain area.

Clearly, much confusion exists in America today about what it means to be a Christian. Yes, there are many shared traits among Christians living in America. Any of these mentioned above, as well as many others, might describe shared experiences among any number of individual Christians. But none of these really gets to the heart of what Christians throughout history have traditionally held to be the essentials of our common faith.

The word ‘Christian’ traces back to the middle of the 1st century. The word itself comes from ancient Roman convention. It was common to name a group of followers or slaves using a combination of their leader’s or master’s name with the ending -ianus (Latin) or -ianos (Greek). This is how ‘Christian’ became the popular designation for followers of Christ.[1]

In the Bible, the word ‘Christian’ first occurs in Acts 11:26, which says, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” It is noteworthy that the term was not initially adopted from within the church, but instead was the common label others gave to those who followed Christ.

The word ‘Christian’ only occurs two other times in the Bible, once as a term of derision (Acts 26:28) and once associated with suffering (1 Peter 4:16). It is important to understand that, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, identifying as Christian was a death sentence. A Christian was seen as someone who worshipped a foreign god instead of the Roman emperor. It was not until the 2nd century when ‘Christian’ became a popular designation within the church, first referring to those who suffered martyrdom for their faith.[2]

The origins of the name ‘Christian’ illustrate the core meaning of the name. The heart of what it means to be a Christian is to identify as a follower of Jesus Christ. It means embracing a distinctly different way of thinking and living from those of other worldviews, a way centering on the person, teachings and works of Christ.

In a secularized culture where truth is often thought to be relative and the goal of life tends toward the pursuit of self-satisfaction, it is easy to lose sight of what it means to be a Christian. That is why it is important for Christians to remind ourselves of the essence of our faith—to reorient our minds and hearts to the centrality of Christ and seek to live out this reality as a testimony of God’s goodness and glory to the world in which we live.


[1] Robert S. Rayburn, “Christian,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 234. Logos Bible Software.

[2] Michael J. Wilkins, “Christian,” in Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1:925. Logos Bible Software.

Who Is the Holy Spirit?

Jan van ‘t Hoff – The Baptism of Jesus – Gospel Images

Introduction

Many Christians have a lot of questions about the Holy Spirit. Who is He? What does He do? How do I relate to Him? The Bible has answers to many of our questions about the Holy Spirit. The goal of this brief study is to begin to answer these questions by looking at what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit—who He is, what He does, and how we relate to Him in our lives.

Who or What Is the Holy Spirit?[1]

The first question, “who is the Holy Spirit,” is a question about His nature and identity. Traditional Christianity holds to the idea that the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity. He is a ‘he’ and not an ‘it’ because He is a Person and not some kind of impersonal spiritual attribute, force, or influence.

There are many verses in the Bible showing that the Holy Spirit is a Person. For example, the Holy Spirit possesses knowledge, a mind, and a will (1 Corinthians 2:10–11; Romans 8:27; 1 Corinthians 12:11). He can be blasphemed, lied to, resisted, and grieved (Matthew 12:31–32; Acts 5:1–3; 7:51; Ephesians 4:30). He undertakes many activities, such as convicting, guiding, speaking, and glorifying Christ (John 16:8, 13). These are not traits and activities of impersonal attributes, forces, or influences. These are the kinds of things that describe what a person is and does. These examples show that the Holy Spirit is a Person.

The Holy Spirit is fully God. That He is God is seen in passages like Acts 28:25–27 and Hebrews 10:15–17, where the New Testament attributes to the Holy Spirit what the Old Testament attributes to God (see Isaiah 6:3; Jeremiah 33:33).

However, the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son. For example, at the baptism of Christ (the Son), the Father speaks from heaven as the Spirit descends on Christ, who is in the Jordan (Matthew 3:16). This shows all three Persons active at the same moment in history. Similarly, that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Son and proceeds from the Father also shows how they are distinct Persons (John 15:26).

In summary, the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity. He is fully God—having the very same nature shared completely with the Father and the Son. But He is His own distinct Person in the Godhead—with His own activities, knowledge, will, etc.—alongside the Father and the Son.

What Does the Holy Spirit Do?[2]

The second question, “what does the Holy Spirit do,” is a question about His activities and ministries. There are many different activities and ministries of the Holy Spirit and a few of these are mentioned below.

One foundational ministry of the Holy Spirit in the world of humankind is convicting hearts of sin. Jesus mentions this ministry in John 16:8–11, which includes convicting the world “of sin, because they do not believe in Me [Christ]” (v. 9).

One foundational ministry of the Holy Spirit toward Christians is the impartation of new spiritual life. Many passages speak to this ministry, such as John 3:5–8; 4:10–14; and 7:37–39. As Romans 8:11 clarifies, the Spirit is the intermediary agent through whom the Father imparts new life to us, which is provided as a primary benefit of the Spirit’s indwelling us.

The Holy Spirit has many other ministries toward Christians as well. For example, the Holy Spirit’s sealing ministry serves as a promise of our future eternal life (Ephesians 1:13–14).

Baptism in the Spirit is one of the Holy Spirit’s more controversial ministries. The biblical idea of baptism in the Spirit is found in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” In other words, baptism in the Spirit refers to the Christian’s inclusion as members of Christ’s body, which is the church (Colossians 1:18).

For some Christian traditions, baptism in the Spirit refers instead to the impartation of spiritual gifts to Christians. The Bible refers to these as ‘gifts’ or ‘manifestations’ (1 Corinthians 12:4, 7). As 1 Corinthians 12:7 explains, these spiritual endowments are to be used “for the profit of all” to strengthen the faith of the saints and the unity of the church (1 Corinthians 14:12).

The Holy Spirit also empowers Christians to live as witnesses for Christ. As Acts 1:8 says, 
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” This empowerment to witness for Christ is one of the ways the Spirit glorifies Christ (John 16:14).

One often-overlooked ministry of the Holy Spirit is His authorship of Scripture. This is a ministry that ended with the completion of the Bible but has ongoing benefits in the world and in our lives. We can think of the Bible like this—the Holy Spirit is our teacher (John 14:26) and the Bible is the training manual He wrote for us (2 Peter 1:19–21). As we commit to taking in God’s Word, the Spirit brings His Word to life in our hearts and minds to equip, guide and empower us to apply it in our lives (1 Timothy 3:17; Galatians 5:16).

How Do We Relate to the Holy Spirit?[3]

The third question, “how do we relate to the Holy Spirit,” is a question about interacting with the Holy Spirit on a personal level in our lives. The ministries of the Holy Spirit describe many of the activities the Holy Spirit works in and through us. Our relationship with the Holy Spirit can also be described by the three positions He takes in our lives.

The first position the Holy Spirit takes with any person is His presence with them. As Jesus says in John 14:16, “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever” (italics added). Before a person believes in Christ, the Holy Spirit is with them, convicting them of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8–11).

The second position the Holy Spirit takes with Christians is His presence in us. This is His indwelling presence, which bestows many benefits toward Christians. This begins the very moment we believe in Christ. As Romans 8:9 clarifies, “But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” This includes the filling of the Spirit, which involves a voluntary ongoing yielding of our will to His (Ephesians 5:18).

The third position the Holy Spirit takes with Christians is His presence upon us. This is His empowering or overflowing presence. This is a dynamic spiritual power that makes us able to live as witnesses for Christ and, as the Spirit wills, includes gifts and manifestations of the Spirit that are to be used for strengthening the faith of the saints and the unity of the church (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 12:7).

A final note of relating to the Spirit concerns our response to His presence. The Spirit’s position with the unbelieving world and upon Christians are entirely at His discretion. He is always active among the unbelieving, drawing them toward faith in Christ. And He sovereignly empowers us with gifts and manifestations for moments of evangelism and ministry. However, His position in us begins when we believe in Christ, so this position depends on having believed in Christ. Similarly, His filling us and growing spiritual fruit in our lives depends on our being yielded to His will in our lives (Ephesians 5:18; Galatians 5:22–25).

Conclusion

When we have questions about the Holy Spirit, we can look to the Bible for answers. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity—fully God, but distinct from the Father and the Son. He is active in the unbelieving world and the lives of Christians in many ways, including convicting the world of sin, indwelling Christians, and empowering Christians to live as witnesses for Christ. And for the Christian, yielding our hearts to His will is vital to enjoying His infilling presence and seeing His fruit in our lives.


[1] For a more detailed introduction to the nature and identity of the Holy Spirit, see Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 395–398.

[2] For a more detailed introduction to the ministries of the Holy Spirit, see Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 409–443.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of the three positions of the Holy Spirit, see Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today: 2000), 31–36.