The words “believer,” “Christian” and “religious” are often and wrongly used interchangeably.
If we want to know if a person is a “believer,” we ask if he or she is a “Christian” when neither term guarantees the other. Being apparently “Christian” doesn’t guarantee one is a “believer” and becoming a “believer” (saved) doesn’t guarantee a full, immediate and irreversible changeover to only Christian ideals. These terms are not synonymous.
It also doesn’t help that any person referred to as “religious” is generally assumed to be both a believer and Christian-like. Even believers, the ones who should know better, get the tags mixed up, which only adds to the confusion.
These terms are similar, yes. They overlap in some ways, yes. But the differences are significant.
There is no guarantee a person will live a Christian life or get involved in religion just because they believe.
- Some believers – good salt-of-earth types – never go to church or adopt the lingo associated with church goers. Their problem isn’t with God or truth but with church and the people who attend.
- They are Christian-like in the sense they are honest, reliable, generous, patient and so on, but don’t make in-your-face claims about how Christian they are.
Even though we hate to admit it, we know this is possible based on what the Bible teaches.
Attempting to display Christian qualities (being a good person) or engaging in religious activity is neither the means nor the proof of salvation. The opposite is also true. Lacking certain qualities or failing to engage religiously may baffle us but it doesn’t rule out the possibility a person is a true believer.
We know this to be true but still use the terms without distinguishing one from another. It’s been done this way so long, people do it without thinking. Semantic confusion at it’s worst. Fortunately we are sensible enough not to do this in other areas. Fishing equipment is a good example. Even though fishing poles, seines and spear guns have a common purpose no one mistakes one for the other. The terms are never used interchangeably.
But mention the words “believer,” “Christian” and “religious” and things get blurred. Please allow me to explain why that should change. The differences are bigger and more significant than you might think.
Let’s start by explaining the significance of each term.
“Believer” refers to a saved individual and the evidence of salvation is a changed heart – a new outlook, better attitude and even a new nature. Additionally, salvation is paid for by Christ, is secured immediately upon believing and apart from belief requires no effort from the person being saved. We can neither deserve nor earn the right to salvation.
“Christian” however, is different to salvation. “Christian” (aka Christian living) focuses on a person’s life – how they act. The difference is, while salvation saves a soul, Christian living saves a life and it does that by molding the character of the newly saved person from what they used to be to what they should be. Instead of lying they speak the truth. Instead of lazing they work.
Belief happens in your heart and is personal and invisible yet evident. Christian living is also personal but unlike belief is very visible. Both require a conscious choice.
Belief happens in a split second and requires no qualification outside of faith but Christian-like character, believer or not, takes time and human effort to develop. “Belief” doesn’t eradicate the old character, it overrides it but only if we work at it.
The important point to note is it takes just as long and requires just as much effort to develop higher character qualities after salvation as it does before salvation. Belief produces heart change instantly. Life change – becoming reliable instead of flaky, loving instead of hateful, sensitive instead of dismissive – happens over time.
Developing into a Christian can take years of human effort, trial and error.
Religion is different to both “belief” and “Christian” living. Religion is the organized effort of Christians to spread the message of salvation to others and coach character change in those that get saved.
“Religion” has many formats: church, para-church, house church, evangelistic agency, etc. Religious efforts can work in churches, with churches, through churches or apart from church. Ideally the participants should always be characterized the same: saved individuals developing sufficient Christian character to reliably make a contribution. And the target is always the same even when the activities are different. Helping widows, supporting orphans, feeding the hungry and articulating truth are all very different activities with one common purpose. Share the love of Christ and engender an interest in the Gospel.
Articulating truth, normally referred to as “preaching,” can be done in many ways: spoken word, written word, musical word, dramatic performance, visual art and more, and can be done anywhere. Paul exemplified this. He preached in temples, public squares, prison, human courts and drew from common surroundings and experiences: statues, human philosophy, foreign religious practice and culture to make his point.
If we understand religion to be the organized effort to spread the Good News of salvation, life change and service, then Paul showed that it is culturally, circumstantially and methodologically neutral.
Let me reiterate.
- Belief (Salvation) changes a person’s heart.
- Christian living can be done by believer and nonbeliever alike but in the case of a believer is an outgrowth of salvation, changing a person’s character or life – how they live.
- Religion is a further outgrowth of the first two, organizing those with changed hearts and solid character into groups that cycle salvation and life change to others.
These terms should never be used interchangeably.
But there is more.
If we were to classify each word as a group, and we were talking only about a culture predominantly influenced by Christian principles, the smallest of the three would be those under the heading of “believer.” The largest group would be “Christian” and the group in the middle would be “religious.” These groups only intersect and never correspond exactly. They are never equal.
Belief is one decision and living the Christian life is another and unlike belief the decision to be Christian must be ratified on many different occasions.
- Deciding to love your neighbor when your neighbor is hateful.
- Deciding to be patient when waiting is the last thing you want to do.
- Deciding to be committed, to contribute faithfully in a state of fatigue.
And through these decisions we develop the ability and the experience to know which commitments to make and how to keep them.
We usually, and misleadingly, refer to a saved person as a Christian and in a sense they are but not really. They are just saved.
And that brings us to a significant passage in the New Testament, Acts 11:19-26. It accommodates us with the evidence to prove the point of this article.
Following persecution, the believers in Jerusalem scattered and traveled as far as Antioch (+/- 300 miles) preaching salvation. Many people in Antioch got saved. When the Apostles heard about this they sent Barnabas to take care of these new believers and Barnabas, in turn, enlisted Paul’s help to train them. After Paul and Barnabas taught these believers for a whole year the text says:
The disciples were called Christians first in Antioch (v. 26).
The unbelieving people in Antioch began calling the believers “Christians” not when they became believers or when they began talking about it but when they began to live differently. The believers didn’t claim to be Christian, they were “called” Christian. Name calling? Maybe but not necessarily. The text doesn’t imply anything negative.
But the point is, this didn’t happen immediately following their salvation. It took place only after Paul and Barnabas (a very capable teacher/mentor team) had taught them for an entire year and that doesn’t count the time Barnabas ministered to them before Paul joined the effort.
What happened in Antioch demonstrates that “Belief” is very different to “Christian” and the two shouldn’t be confused. And as a side note it might be a lot better if today’s believers spent more time trying to “be” Christian rather than “talk” Christian. That would be more convincing and palatable.