According to Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion. But what does this word actually mean? Does a person have to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and accept His teachings in order to be “Christian?” 

Can you believe in God, without believing in Jesus?

Can you be a Christian, yet reject Christ?

What Is a “Christian”?

The original use of the word “Christian” to describe those who were disciples of Jesus is found in Acts 11:26. Barnabas had left the city of Antioch to bring back Paul to teach the new believers. “And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” 

In this verse, we see two words that are key to a biblical understanding of what it means to be a Christian. The first is “disciple,” which is translated from the Greek mathētēs; this word describes a learner, a pupil, or one who follows the teachings of another. Blue Letter Bible explains that the literal meaning is "a learner" (from manthano, “to learn,” from a root math-, indicating thought accompanied by endeavor).

The second word is “Christian,” from the Greek word Christianos. The root word is Christos, whose literal meaning is “anointed” and always refers to the Messiah, the Son of God, in scripture. Christianos refers to a “follower of Christ.” The curious thing is, the disciples did not begin this practice of calling themselves “Christians;” instead it was initially a derogatory term of scorn, applied to the followers of “The Way.” It was only later that it became an honor to refer to oneself as a Christian, as those early believers willingly gave up their lives to persecution and martyrdom.

So, according to the teachings of Scripture, a Christian is first and foremost a disciple, a person who follows and learns from Jesus, and accepts His teaching.

I’ve met many people who tell me they are Christians, yet they do not follow the teachings of Jesus; rather they pick and choose which aspects of the “Christian” life they believe is beneficial to themselves and to society, and discard the rest of what the Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, has to say.

This brings me back to my original question. Can a person believe in God, and yet reject Jesus? Can a person call themselves a Christian, when, by definition, they are not a follower, nor a student, of Christ? Can you separate Jesus from God? Can you separate God from Jesus?

Witnesses to Jesus’ Sovereignty

I submit that it is impossible, if one is serving the God of the Bible. In fact, I would further submit that when a person professes a belief in God apart from Jesus, they are not serving God at all, but only an imitation, an idol, which they have created of their own will and desire. They have made up a god who serves them, instead of serving the God who created them.

Jesus Himself faced a people reluctant to believe in Him, yet who were outwardly and vocally committed to serving God. We know them as Pharisees and Sadducees. In John 6, He offered His detractors three witnesses to the fact that He was indeed the Son of God, and ought to be accepted as the promised Messiah. Their own laws required that a matter was to be confirmed on the evidence of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:15), so Jesus gave them three.

Witness #1 was John the Baptist, whom they had accepted as a true prophet (Matthew 14:5, 21:26; Mark 11:32; Luke 20:6). John baptized Jesus in a public place, and at that event, God confirmed verbally that Jesus was His Son. John testified that Jesus was the Son of God (John 1:29-34).

Witness #2 were the miracles (works) that Jesus was performing among the people. He opened blind eyes (John 9:6-7), healed the sick (John 5:7-9), fed thousands with a few fish (John 6:11-14), cleansed lepers (Luke 17:11-14), turned water to wine (John 2:6-9), walked on water (John 6:19), cast out demons (Matthew 12:22; Luke 8:26-33) and even raised the dead (John 11:38-44). The people recognized that only God could perform such miracles (John 7:31, 9:30-33, 10:21)

Witness #3 was God the Father, Himself, first at Jesus’ baptism, and again when He was transfigured, seen in His glory with His face shining like the sun and His garments as white as light. In both instances, God spoke verbally from heaven, declaring that Jesus was indeed His beloved Son, and that we ought to listen to Him! (Matthew 3:13-17, 17:1-5). 

What did the Pharisees and Sadducees do with these witnesses? Instead of believing the undeniable testimonies, they sought reasons to dismiss them. Herod had John the Baptist imprisoned after being confronted by him for his sinful behavior, and later beheaded him (Matthew 14:1-12). The Pharisees tried to discredit Jesus by accusing Him of performing miracles by the power of demons (Matthew 12:22-24), and repeatedly attempted to seize Him to stop His teaching, afraid of losing their position and power (John 11:48).

Where Does Jesus Affirm That He Is God?

Jesus does not want us to be confused about who He is. He openly taught that He came from God, is the Son of God, and that to reject Him is to reject God.

John 5:23 – “So that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.”

John 5:38 – “You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him who He sent.”

John 6:29, 40 – “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’ … For this is the will of My Father that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:45 – “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.”

John 5:37-38 – “And the Father who sent Me, He has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent.”

John 8:42-43, 47 – “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. … He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.’”

John 7:17 – “If anyone is willing to do His will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from Myself.”

John 16:27 – “For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father.”

John 17:3 – “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”

What Does It Mean to Believe in Jesus?

The greatest evidence that Jesus is truly God and must be acknowledged and worshipped by those who believe in God is His death and resurrection. Jesus overcame death and rose from the grave, leaving no doubt that He was indeed who He claimed to be. More than 500 people witnessed the resurrected Christ over a period of 40 days, before He ascended into heaven in full view of His faithful disciples (Acts 1:1-11). If nothing else convinces us, His resurrection should be proof enough.

But accepting the facts about Jesus is not the same as believing in Jesus. John 1:12-13 tells us, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Jesus answered Nicodemus’ unasked questions by stating clearly that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, nor can he enter the kingdom of God.

True belief begins with a recognition of our separation from God (Romans 3:23), turning away from our sin (repentance) and a surrender of our lives to His authority and lordship (Roman 10:9-10; Matthew 4:17; Acts 2:38). This belief, this faith in Jesus, is a gift from God who opens our eyes to the truth about who Jesus really is.

2 Corinthians 4:6 – “For God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of why people do not want to believe in Him and try to separate their belief in God from Him. The cross confronts our sin, and we don’t like to admit that we are sinners, separated from God  and in need of salvation. We believe in a God who watches over us and protects us from troubles, and occasionally answers our prayers if we’ve done enough good deeds to earn His favor, but we don’t want to believe in a Savior who calls us to account for our sins.

Are You a Christian, or Do You Simply Believe in “god”?

Today’s culture would have us believe that there are many ways to get to heaven, and that you can believe in a god who accepts you on your terms. This is deception at the highest level. While it may sound tolerant and loving to believe in the god of your choosing, in the end it will lead to destruction and an eternity separated from the Most High God who created you to worship Him, and sent His Son to tell you how.

John 14:1-7 – “’Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.’ Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.’”

Photo credit: Unsplash/Wang Xi

Author Sheila Alewine is a pastor’s wife, mother and grandmother. She and her husband lead Around The Corner Ministries, which serves to equip Christ-followers to share the gospel where they live, work and play. She has written several devotionals including Living In Light of the Manger (Advent), Just Pray: God’s Not Done With You YetGrace & Glory: 50 Days in the Purpose & Plan of God, as well as Going Around The Corner, a Bible study for small groups who desire to reach their communities for Christ. Sheila has a passion for God’s Word and shares what God is teaching her on her blog, The Way of The Word. Connect with her on her blogFacebook, and Instagram.