Summary: With cultural Christianity being the norm in America, nominal faith is what people see most often, and it’s what comes to mind when we tell people we’re a Christian. So, what is a "real" Christian? This message points out five traits.

I wish to begin our message this morning by sharing a story by Franklin Graham. He tells us, “Some years ago, I was in a cab when I asked the driver about his faith. He replied that he was a Christian, and I asked him how he became one. I’ll never forget his reply: ‘Oh, I was born a Christian’.” Graham continues to say, “People often use the term ‘Christian’ as simply a category for describing someone’s cultural, religious, or family heritage. Other people believe that a person is a Christian because he or she attends church or was raised in a godly home. For still others, the term ‘Christian’ is no more than a box to check off on an application or survey form.”(1)

A report from LifeWay Facts and Trends tells of a survey conducted asking believers to give their opinion on what it means to be a Christian. The survey was comprised of guided questions, but at the end people were allowed to share their own thoughts. “15 percent volunteered some form of following the golden rule, while 13 percent said trust or belief in God, and [only] 11 percent said salvation through Jesus.”(2) This apparent lack of spiritual understanding reveals the prevalence of cultural Christianity in America.

The website says, “A ‘cultural Christian’ is a nominal believer. He wears the label ‘Christian,’ but the label has more to do with his family background and upbringing than any personal conviction that Jesus is Lord. [In] cultural Christianity . . . the gospel is often presented as a costless addition to one’s life: just add churchgoing to your hobbies, add charitable giving to your list of good deeds, or add the cross to the trophies on your mantle. In this way, many people go through the motions of ‘accepting Jesus’ with no accompanying surrender to His lordship.”(3)

With cultural Christianity being the norm here in America – especially in the Bible-belt of the south – nominal faith is what people see most often, and it’s what comes to mind when we tell people we’re a Christian. So, when we share our faith we run into some problems. People will reason, “I’m a Christian, because I go to church” (meaning Christmas and Easter), and “I’m a good person.” On the other side they’ll say, “Christians are a bunch of hypocrites. They say they believe this or that, but then they don’t live it.” Both responses are the tragic result of cultural Christianity, which is a false representation of our faith. So, what is a Christian, really? Well, let’s see if we can find out as we look at our passage.

Primary Text: 1 Peter 4:1-5, 14-19

1 Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 3 For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles – when we walked in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. 4 In regard to these, they think it strange that you do not run with them in the same flood of dissipation, speaking evil of you. 5 They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead . . .

14 If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 Now “If the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” 19 Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.

What Does the Word Christian Mean?

Let’s look at verse 16 for a moment and then we’ll come back to the other verses. Here, we encounter the term “Christian,” the word by which believers today identify themselves. In researching this word, I learned some new things. First, I’ve been taught all my life that the word Christian means “little Christ,” and that we’re supposed to model Jesus in such a way that people see Christ in us. This information is true and makes a good point; however, the Greek term Christianos also means, “like the Anointed,” or “follower of the Anointed.”(4) Not only are we to be “like the Anointed” as little Christs, but we are to “follow” Him; or rather, be fully committed to Him.

I also learned that the term Christian is the least frequently used name in the New Testament to identify believers, used only three times (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The second most frequently used name for believers is “the Way” or “Followers of the Way,” found six times in the book of Acts (9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:22); not to mention John 14:6, where Jesus identified Himself as “the Way,” which probably inspired early believers to call themselves this.(5) However, according to an article from Relevant Magazine, “In the Bible, the title most often used was ‘Saints’.”(6)

Here’s something else I learned. In Acts 11:26, which a verse we’re probably familiar with, we read, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Author Mark Mattison says that the term “Christian” was not so much a name that they chose as a name that was applied to them. The text says they “were called Christians.” It was possibly a term of derision, a term placed upon Christ’s followers by their critics.(7) If you are a committed “follower of the Anointed,” then you probably realize by now that real Christians are no strangers to derision and criticism. I want to draw a conclusion about these findings near the close of our message; but for now, let’s continue looking at our text.

Point #1: A Real Christian Denies the Flesh (vv. 1-2)

Verse 1 tells us that if we are true to Christ, then we will suffer in the flesh. This means we must be willing to deny ourselves the lusts and pleasures of the flesh. Does this mean that Christians can’t have fun or pursue meaningful activities? I’m pretty sure that’s not what Peter had in mind. He meant that we must give up what is sinful; things like recreational drugs, excessive drinking, sexual sins, and such. We must give up the things that displease God; the things we do to serve our own sinful nature; and we must place God’s desires first. When we do, this is a sign of true repentance.

Franklin Graham says, “To be a Christian, you must make a conscious choice to turn from your sins – that’s repentance – and by faith believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” He then asks, “How do we tell if it’s real in our lives?” His response? “The Bible says, ‘We know that we have come to know Him if we obey His commands. The man who says, ‘I know Him,’ but does not do what He commands, the truth is not in him’ (1 John 2:3–4). A Christian, then, is a person who is born again by the Spirit of God as he or she wholeheartedly trusts in Jesus Christ and seeks to follow Him in obedience.”(8) Did you happen to catch that last part that Graham mentioned? “A Christian . . . wholeheartedly trusts in Jesus Christ and seeks to follow Him in obedience.”

Following in obedience is huge! Verse 2 says of the Christian that “he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” How many Christians truly live for God instead of themselves? 2 Corinthians 5:15 says of Christ and His followers, “He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.”

Point #2: A Real Christian Is Separate from the World (vv. 3-5)

Verse 3 says, “For we have spent enough of our past lifetime in doing the will of the Gentiles.” That word “Gentile” simply refers to an unbeliever or lost person; and according to verse 4, as Christians, we no longer “run with them.” This does not mean we should hide from the world in our holy huddle. We must strive to be like Jesus and spend time with the lost if we wish to see them saved.

What Peter is saying is that we must no longer “act like them.” But today, some Christians have the notion that we’ve got to look like the world, to be relevant and connect with the world. I have heard young Christians say they go to the bars to reach people, and they drink a little so as not to offend. We have a whole generation of Christians today getting tattoos, even though Leviticus 19:28 says, “You shall not . . . tattoo any marks on you.” Many new church plants will make certain they dress like rock stars, being sure to show off their new tattoos; and even singing secular songs in church.

My wife talked to a lost coworker who confided in her that people like herself think Christians who act like this are posers, trying to be something they’re not, or trying to be something they shouldn’t; and that she and her friends think these types of Christians are strange and they don’t want any part of it. You see, even the lost know that a Christian should be different; so, when are we going to get a clue? The problem is that many Christians have not yet crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. They still have one foot in the world; and they’re trying to justify their love of the world by claiming that they’re trying to be relevant and an effective witness.

When Jesus ministered to the lost, it’s true that He spent time with them where they were, but I’m pretty sure He drew a line at some point. In the Bible, do we see Jesus participating in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries, as Peter mentioned we should no longer do? No! 1 Thessalonians 5:22 admonishes, “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (KJV). I must side with Peter and say that we’re not supposed to run with the lost by doing the things they do. Peter said we’ve already spent far too much time in our past living like that; and I’ll add, we’ve spent too much time looking like that too!

Point #3: A Real Christian Is Reproached for Integrity (vv. 14-16)

Back in verse 4, Peter said that if we choose not to run with the lost, they will speak evil of us. Perhaps, another reason some Christians feel they must look and act like the world is because they’re afraid that people will speak evil of them; they’re afraid of ridicule and mockery; but I must ask, “Why are we so concerned about what unbelievers think of us? What about what God thinks?” Verse 14 says that we will surely be reproached for Christ. It is a given! We will indeed be mocked for our stand to walk in integrity. It will happen!

Jesus said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). We will suffer for Christ. If we’re not suffering, then something is wrong. If we’re preaching and witnessing, and people are only speaking good of us, then perhaps we’re sharing a watered-down message; one that speaks only of God’s love and leaves out His judgement on sinners. Such a message will quite often lead to conversion; however, it will be a conversion without repentance.

In verse 15, Peter said that when people do things such as murder and steal, or do anything to transgress the Law, then of course they will suffer. They will suffer for their stupidity, and they will suffer as a transgressor of the Law should they be caught. I remember when I was in college trying to witness to this one fellow. He pulled up and asked me to get in his car. After I got in, I noticed he was smoking marijuana; but in pretending to be cool, so as not to blow my witness, I said nothing – that is, until he was driving 100 mph down the highway! If we had been in a car wreck, then I would have suffered in my attempt to witness to this guy; but that’s not the kind of suffering that brings glory to God. In the eyes of the Law, I would have been seen just as guilty as he was for being in that car!

In verse 16, Peter said that if we suffer as a Christian, let’s make sure the things we suffer do not leave us ashamed. Let’s make sure that our suffering is not the result of having one foot still in the world. If we are walking in integrity, staying clear of those things that break the Law; and making sure that our hearts are pure before God; then when we find ourselves being reproached, it will be because we have done the right thing; and as a result – and only in this way – will the Lord be glorified (v. 14).

Point #4: A Real Christian Believes God’s Justice (vv. 17-18)

Back in verse 5, we earlier read, “They will give an account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” In verse 17, Peter told us, “For the time has come for judgment,” and in verse 18, he asked a serious question: “Where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” In the book of Revelation, John declared, “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books” (Revelation 20:12).

No one likes to hear of judgement. Both society and nominal Christians will say that a loving God doesn’t judge and neither should a Christian; but a true Christian realizes that God’s justice and judgement are real. In fact, it “begins at the house of God” (v. 17). In 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, we learn that in the Day of Judgment believers will be saved – but only after enduring the heat of Gods’ refining fire. According to Peter, we will be “scarcely saved” (v. 18). With this sobering truth in mind, we should respond by living a life of holiness in the fear of the Lord; and by preaching God’s Law to sinners, warning them of the coming justice and judgment of the Lord.

When we conduct community surveys using “The Way of the Master” strategy, we share the Law of God, the Ten Commandments, because the Law is what holds human beings accountable. The Law allows us to see that we really are sinners headed for judgement. The reality of God’s judgement is what leads a person to repentance; and as a real Christian, we will not hold back this hard truth.

Point #5: A Real Christian Does Selfless Works (v. 19)

Verse 19 says, “Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.” Doing good is something a lot of people acknowledge as being associated with the Christian walk; because of which, many believe it’s how someone gets to heaven. That’s why when we do community surveys, we ask people a few questions about good works. About half of those surveyed in “our own” community said that a person goes to heaven by living a good life, and 91 percent think they are a good person. But the Bible says in Titus that God saved us “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through . . . Jesus Christ” (Titus 3:5-6).

People are not saved through good works (Ephesians 2:8-9), yet God expects believers to be engaged in acts of service as an expression of our faith. James said, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17); and Rich Mullins said that faith without works is “as useless as a screen door on a submarine.” Those “without” Christ do good deeds to earn their place in heaven, or maybe to receive some kind of personal fulfillment, or perhaps even to merit the applause of men. If you’re wanting only to do good deeds then go join the Peace Corps; but let me tell you, it won’t get you to heaven. Paul said there are many people doing good works “to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:25).

As Christians we are expected to do acts of service, but it’s our motive that sets us apart from the rest of the world. As believers, our motivation in doing good works is to demonstrate the love of Christ and cultivate relationships, in and through which we can share a message – the most important message a person can ever hear; the good news that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). If we are to be truly set apart from the world, then we must be involved in selfless acts of service, those in which we do not expect honor and praise from men or personal reward.

Time of Reflection

I earlier shared some information about the term “Christian.” There are believers today asking, “If the name Christian was originally used in a derogatory manner, then why do we call ourselves Christians?” and “If the term Christian is now just cultural, and anyone can be a Christian – including those who live contrary to the teachings of Christ – then why don’t we just come up with some other name for ourselves?” There are churches today choosing to abandon the title Christian, calling themselves something else; and one such example is “Followers of the Way.”

But I must ask, “Is renaming ourselves the answer?” In the article from Relevant Magazine, the writer says, “The early church was called ‘Christians’ by the powers-that-be for the first time in Antioch . . . It is often assumed that the name ‘Christian’ was given somewhat flippantly or even derogatively . . . [but the people of Antioch gave us this name because of our radical faith]. Today it’s up to us to keep that reputation alive.” He concludes that “the ‘Christian’ label is ever-redefining based on the reputation we give it . . . It’s up to us to recover that distinction [of radical faith]; to defy the world’s categories once again.”(9)

If we are to recover what sets us set apart as Christians, then: 1.) We must give up the things that displease God, the things we do to serve our own sinful nature, and we must place God’s desires first and follow Him in obedience; 2.) We must stop trying to look and act like the world. Christians should become the new trend-setters; 3.) We need to start doing what’s right in the eyes of God, and stop getting our feelings hurt when unbelievers don’t like us; 4.) We need to believe what the Bible says about God’s justice and judgement, and not be ashamed to proclaim it; and 5.) We need to set aside time to be more involved in good deeds and acts of service, in order to build relationships in which we can share the message of hope and salvation found in Christ.

I want to share that message with you right now. Romans 3:10 says, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” Romans 3:23 tells us, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You see, none of are good enough to make it to heaven on our own, or through our own good deeds; and not only that, but there is a penalty for our sin. Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death,” which is spiritual death, or spending eternity in hell. But praise God that Romans 6:23 doesn’t stop there! It continues to declare, “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

So, how does a person receive this gift? Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”


(1) Franklin Graham, “What Is a Christian?” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:

(2) Aaron Earls, “Survey: What U.S. Christians Say It Means to be a Christian,” LifeWay Facts and Trends:

(3) “What Is Cultural Christianity?”

(4) “Sect of ‘The Way,’ ‘The Nazarenes’ & ‘Christians’: Names Given to the Early Church”:

(5) Ibid.

(6) “Where the ‘Christian’ Name Really Came From”:

(7) Mark M. Mattison, “What Is a Christian?”:

(8) Franklin Graham, “What Is a Christian?” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:

(9) “Where the ‘Christian’ Name Really Came From”: