What Makes a Christian, a "Christian"?

One of the core ideas of the Christian gospel is that it affects everything. When God looks at the world, he does not see the divisions we put in place between our church lives, work lives, social lives, and family lives. God is asking us the question, always: Will you be faithful to me in this—this time, this place, this moment?

In Titus 2:11–15, Paul the apostle offers his young apprentice Titus specific instructions about how to represent Jesus in everything he does. These instructions were meant to inform Titus of both how he should live and what he should teach. These instructions help us answer a major question: What makes a Christian, a "Christian"? 

The Grace of God Has Appeared

In Titus 2:1–9, Paul offers specific instructions for each segment of the Graeco-Roman household in the first-century AD. But in Titus 2:11–14, he offers an overarching theology of serving Jesus anywhere, at any time. In Titus 2:11–14, he says:

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:11–13 NIV).

The grace of God has appeared. Jesus has come. And he offers salvation to all who believe (Titus 2:11; compare Romans 1:16; John 3:16–18). But how do we live this message of salvation? That’s the question each Christian should be asking. And Paul has answers.

What It Means to Live a Godly Life

Paul tells us that salvation in Christ “teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness” (Titus 2:12). The Greek phrase the NIV translates here as “say ‘No’ to ungodliness” (ἀρνησάμενοι τὴν ἀσέβειαν, arnēsamenoi tēn asebeian) could also be rendered as “reject ungodliness” or “renounce impiety.” The core idea is that the Christian, when faced with the evils present in the world, will always stand against them. The Christian will show reverence to God. “Say ‘No’ to ungodliness,” Paul says; and he continues, saying, “live … godly lives in this present age.”

Paul is contrasting here: there are those who live “godly” lives (εὐσεβῶς, eusebōs) and there are those who live “ungodly” lives (ἀσέβεια, asebeia). These two words share a root in common, σεβω (sebō), to “show reverence.” There are those who don’t show God reverence and those who do.

Thus, how we live the gospel is contextual to where and when we live, as Paul has shown earlier in his specific instructions (Titus 2:1–9), but there are certain core values that are uncompomisables. Showing reverence to God is one of those uncompromisable values.

Paul clarifies further by using the phrase “worldly passions.” The Greek phrase translated here, τὰς κοσμικὰς ἐπιθυμίας (tas kosmikas epithumias), could be rendered as “worldly desires.” In other contexts, this type of desire is often coupled with seeking that which is not yours or that which is against God’s will. Think of seeking another person’s spouse, greedily seeking gain, or lustfulness (1 Timothy 6:9; Galatians 5:16, 24; compare 1 John 2:16–17). These are the kinds of things Paul has in mind for us to avoid. 

Paul, then, first tells us what Christians do not do: Christians do not live according to the standards of their societies. When greed, lust, or selfishness are promoted; the Christian will stand in opposition. The Christian’s very personhood will represent the opposite values. 

Paul then tells us what Christians do: they “live self-controlled, upright and godly lives” (Titus 2:12). The second word here, “upright,” δικαίως (diakaiōs), could also be rendered as “fair” or “just.”

3 Things All Christians Should Do

When all of the above is put together, it seems that Paul is looking for Christians to do three things:

  1. Show “self-control” in their daily actions.
  2. Seek what is “just” and “fair.”
  3. Show reverence to God and his ways.

The Christian lifestyle is marked then by: (1) personal discipline, (2) a desire that God’s justice reign in the world, and (3) a love of God and his ways. This is another way of phrasing the same three points.

Paul explains that this is how we navigate our current, present age. This is how we represent Jesus in everything we do. As we await “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” these actions represent the Christian life.

Thus, in this section of Titus, Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is God. And we show our love to this God, who has come to earth, by how we live. And the very idea of God coming again, in flesh, to earth should prompt us to live as an authentic Christian in the here and now (Titus 2:13).

What Then Makes a Christian?

Jesus makes a Christian, a "Christian." It is the free gift of salvation. But there are implications to this great "grace of God." It changes how we live. In Titus 2:14–15, Paul says:

“Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you” (Titus 2:13b–15 NIV). 

Because of Jesus' saving act for us, we are to live as people who are disciplined, seek justice, and who reverently seek God (Titus 2:11–13). This is what it means to be Christian in the here and now. When faced with the great difficulties of our world, this is how we respond. When faced with the problems in our culture, this is how we respond. When faced with what it means to be a Christian, this is our answer. We should be “eager to do what is good.”

3 Markers of the Christian Life

Here's another way to look at this same idea, derived from Paul's letter to Titus. There are three markers of the Christian life:

  1. The Christian doesn’t just reject ungodliness in speech; he or she first and foremost lives “godliness” (Titus 2:12). The Christian realizes that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify [us], a people, [as] his very own” (Titus 2:14). The Christian lives a “self-controlled” life (Titus 2:12).
  2. The Christian doesn’t just say what is unjust or unfair; he or she acts to create justice (Titus 2:12). The Christian is “eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:14).
  3. The Christian doesn’t just speak of reverence to God, but actually lives in reverence to God, “encouraging” others to do the same (Titus 2:15). The Christian acknowledges that since Christ has “released” us or “set us free”—“redeemed” us—that we should live into that freedom.

Let us then be a people who are willing to “encourage and rebuke [one another] with all authority.” Let us not be people “despise” or “look down” on this sort of direction, but instead people who embrace it. We can sharpen one another as Christians. We examine our own lives and invite others to examine our lives. We can live as people who, “in the present age” act as God’s “people” who are set apart as “his very own, eager to do what is good.”

Discipline. Justice. Reverence. These three should mark God’s people, in everything they do.

This article is part of our series, "How to Authentically Live as a Christian: Paul's Letter to Titus."

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John Barry
John Barry


CEO and Founder of Jesus' Economy. John is the General Editor of the highly acclaimed Faithlife Study Bible and Lexham Bible Dictionary. His new book is Jesus' Economy: A Biblical View of Poverty, the Currency of Love, and a Pattern for Lasting Change. It is widely endorsed by Christian leaders from around the world.