What does it mean to be a Christian? What many people today understand by “Christian” is rather different from the meaning that it had in the Bible and for many centuries in the church.

What “Christian” does not mean:

  • The moral sense – the idea that to be a Christian means to hold and live by good moral principles – to be kind, caring, compassionate.

  • The cultural sense – the idea that Christianity is part of the traditional culture of our society, and that those who identify with that cultural heritage are “Christians”.

  • The philosophical sense – the idea that a Christian is someone who believes in God – so “Christian”, in this sense, is the opposite of “atheist”.

  • The institutional sense – the idea that being a Christian is defined as belonging to the church.

  • The political sense – the idea that “Christian” means essentially “western” – so that when news reports about events in the Middle East speak of “the Christian sector” of an area or a city, they mean the area under western influence or control, as opposed to those under Arab control.

So if those things do not, in themselves, add up to “being a Christian”, what does it mean?


The simplest way to explain what a Christian is – though it will need some further definition – is to say that a Christian is a person who believes in Jesus, and on the basis of that faith in Jesus lives in relationship with God.

So what does it mean to “believe in” Jesus?

In modern English, we use the phrase “believe in” in three different ways. It can mean:

  • to be of the opinion that something exists – as when people say things like “I believe in fairies”, “I believe in the Loch Ness monster”, “I believe in flying saucers”;

  • to hold something as a value, as an ideal to be striven for – so people might say things like “I believe in equal pay for women”, “I believe in free speech”;

  • to trust a person, to have confidence in someone – as when someone says “I believe in my doctor.”

When most people talk about “believing in God”, they almost always mean it in sense [1] – they are of the opinion that there is a God – they are not atheists. But when the Bible speaks of believing in God, it is hardly ever in the sense of believing in the existence of God. In fact, almost the only explicit reference to faith in that sense is found in the letter of James, and is made in order to deny that “believing in God” is in itself faith in the real Christian sense. “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.” (James 2:19)

In a similar way, when people say they “believe in Christianity”, they might mean it in sense [2] – they agree with and try to live by the principles, especially the ethical values, associated with Christian faith. They think it is right that people should be kind, forgiving, generous, compassionate, and so on. But that, though obviously very good and laudable, is not the same thing as faith in the biblical sense, which is about living in a relationship with God. A bachelor can “believe in marriage”, in the sense that he holds marriage to be, as the traditional marriage service puts it, “an honourable estate” – but that’s not the same thing as being married.

In the Bible, to “believe in” Jesus, or to have “faith”, always means “believe in” in sense [3] – it’s a personal relationship of trust. When someone says “I believe in my doctor”, he is not saying that he is of the opinion that his doctor exists – nor is he saying that he approves of the values of the medical profession. He means “I trust him – I have confidence in him.”

That is Christian faith in Jesus. It means trusting him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to forgive our sins and bring us into a new relationship with God as Father.


Jesus himself defines what Christian life is in John 17:3. “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

It’s the word “know” that is often misunderstood, and that can put people off. When it comes to faith, anyone who claims to “know” will be dismissed as being a big-head, and will be told that, in the area of spiritual faith, you can’t “know” anything for sure – you can only “believe” things.

But just as the phrase “believe in” does not mean, with reference to Christian faith, what many people think it means, so the word “know” can mean two quite distinct things. Other European languages have two different words for “know”; in French, “savoir” and “connaître”, in German, “wissen” and “kennen”. In English we use “to know” for both.

One sense of “know” (French “savoir”, German “wissen”) means to know a fact in your head – it is the knowledge of information. So a person might say that he knows that 2 + 2 = 4, or he knows that Cary Grant’s birth name was Archibald Leach.

But there is another sense of “know” (French “connaître”, German “kennen”) which means to know a person – it is the knowledge of relationship. When a man says that he “knows” his wife, he doesn’t mean that he has an encylopedic knowledge of all the facts about her – he means that he knows her, that he lives in a personal relationship with her.

Jesus says, “This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God…” – not “that they might know all about you”, but that they might “know you”, that is, might live in a personal relationship with you.

And it is Jesus himself who enables us to relate to God in a personal way – to “know” him.

“Born again”

Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:3,7). This word, and simply the phrase “born again”, is essential: Jesus says you must be born again. But it is also terribly misunderstood; it has become in many people’s eyes a catch-phrase rather than a spiritual reality. So what does it mean?

It means that people need to receive a completely new kind of life. To be born is to receive life. People have been “born of the flesh” – that is, they have been physically born with ordinary human life, which they get from their parents (“flesh gives birth to flesh”, John 3:6). But that ordinary human life will not bring them into God’s Kingdom. They need to have a different kind of life “birthed” in them, the kind of life God has, which is usually called “eternal life.” The Spirit of God reproduces that kind of life in those who believe in Jesus (“the Spirit gives birth to spirit”, John  3:6 – in other words, God’s Spirit reproduces in us the kind of spiritual life that God has). It is possible to have religious practice and moral principle as part of our ordinary human lives; religious practice is not in itself the same as or evidence of being born again.

Biblical point of interest…

When the New Testament speaks of the “flesh”, it does not mean our physical bodies. “The flesh” means “ordinary human life”, what we are by nature. So our emotions, temperaments, attitudes, etc., are all part of “the flesh.” The opposite of “the flesh” is not our “souls” – that just means our human personalities, which are part of “the flesh” – but the new spiritual life that God plants in us through the Holy Spirit when we believe in Jesus.

How do we receive this new birth? The answer is stated in the famous verse 16, as well as many times in John: it is through faith in Jesus.


We have already said that “faith”, as the Bible defines it, is not the belief that God exists, but personal trust in him. There are some other vital things that distinguish biblical faith from the normal secular understanding of what it means to “believe” things.

1.   Faith is focused in Jesus

To believe always means to believe in Jesus. Many will say they believe in God; they may say that they believe in prayer, or that they believe in the church, or that they believe in the Bible, or that they believe in Christianity; but unless all those things are expressions of the fact that they believe in Jesus, what they have is not the faith of which the New Testament speaks. Christian faith is personal trust in Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life.

2.   Faith looks to the cross

The faith that brings us into eternal life is not just faith in God in general, and not even faith in Jesus in general. It is the faith that believes and trusts that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. When Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the message that they heard and believed, he says that what is “of first importance” is “that Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Faith that leads to new birth and new life is cross-shaped. It means trusting that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins, and so by his death won for us the gift of forgiveness and the possibility of a brand new start in life, which we could never achieve for ourselves.

3.   Faith looks for help and salvation

Faith is not simply believing things about Jesus, but looking to Jesus for salvation and mercy. If faith is simply theoretical, and does not arise out of sense of personal need, it is not biblical faith. Real faith is not a creed, but a cry; it says not “I believe”, but “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Many people’s idea of faith in God is providential: they believe that God loves them, will care for them, lead them, protect them, provide for them. That is quite true – he will; and Christians can rightly affirm their faith in God as our generous Provider. But what brings people the experience of new life and a relationship with God is not providential faith, but redeeming faith. It is the faith that asks God to forgive and save us.

4.   Faith is a commitment

Faith that leads to new life means entrusting ourselves to Jesus, and committing ourselves to follow him faithfully.

Biblical point of interest…

That biblical “faith” necessarily means a commitment to Jesus is indicated by one small but vital point that does not come across in our English translations. Whereas we say in English “believe in Jesus”, the usual phrase in New Testament Greek is literally “believe into Jesus”; so the famous words in John 3:16 are literally, that God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, “that whoever believes into him shall not perish but have eternal life”. Faith is not static but dynamic. I can stand on a station platform and “believe in” the train in front of me; but it is if I get into the train that I will actually get where I need to go. Faith does not mean believing “in” Jesus, but getting on board with Jesus – believing “into” him, handing our lives over to him.

5.   Faith is a choice and a decision

Just as it is not merely a belief in our heads, so it is not merely a feeling in our emotions. The Bible uses phrases about believing “in our hearts” or “with all our hearts” (e.g. Proverbs 3:5, Acts 16:14, Romans 10:9-10); but whenever we use such language, we need to remember that the metaphorical use of the “heart” in the Bible is not the same as its use in the tradition of western lyrical poetry. In that western tradition, the heart is understood as the seat of the emotions; hence, for example, William Wordsworth’s poem which begins “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky.” But in the Bible the heart is understood as the seat of the will. It is with the heart that we make choices and decisions; it is like the bridge of a ship, where the course is set that the ship should follow. To trust in Jesus with “all our hearts” does not mean to make an emotional response to him; it means to make a conscious choice that we will trust him and start to follow him, and that our commitment to him will be at the very centre of the whole of our lives.