Christians sometimes do not agree on what constitutes a genuine Christian. Yet most agree that a person must believe in Jesus. But what does it mean to believe in Jesus? On matters of faith, Christians should appeal to the Bible.
Jesus was a Jew. Jews believed that their God promised to send a king to deliver them from Gentile oppression, gather all Diaspora Jews to their ancestral land, and make Israel the chief of all nations in a worldwide government of peace. They identified this promised king as “the Messiah.” Messiah translates mashiach in the Hebrew Scriptures, meaning “the anointed (one).” Thus, God would anoint this king with his (Holy) Spirit.
Christians claim, and the New Testament (NT) affirms, that to be a Christian a person must believe that Jesus is Israel’s promised Messiah. “Christ” is the English word for Messiah. The early Jewish believers in Jesus called him “Jesus the Christ.” They soon dropped the definite article to form a new name for him—Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. By calling him the Christ, they soon came to be called “Christians” (Acts 11.26). This label signifies, first and foremost, that these early believers in Jesus regarded him as the Christ.
Luke relates in his book of Acts about the evangelistic activities of these early Jewish Christians and the content of their message. He says as soon as the Apostle Paul was dramatically converted from being an enemy of Christians to becoming one of them, he traveled about “proving that this Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 9.22). It was his fundamental message. For, Luke later informs that Paul was “solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18.5 nasb). Luke adds that Paul “powerfully refuted the Jews in public, demonstrating by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (v. 28).
Christians also insist that to be a Christian one must believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Indeed, the core message of the NT gospels is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 1.1, 16; Mark 1.1; Luke 1.32, 35; 2.11; John 20.31). Luke says Paul “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9.20).
But what does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God? Most Christians have understood it to mean that Jesus is God. They have believed that he preexisted as the eternal Logos-Son and came down from heaven to earth to become a man, called “the incarnation.”
Christians have believed this because church fathers erred by interpreting the status of Jesus as the Son of God according to Greek metaphysics. They reasoned that just as a man procreates a son to become a man, so God generated a Son who must be God.
Consequently, the Nicene Creed of CE 325 declares that Jesus is “very God of very God,” also called “the deity of Christ.” And this creed pronounces anathemas (curses) on those who deny this declaration. Popular American Presbyterian Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul asserts, “A denial of Christ’s deity is the essence of unbelief.”
No way! Gabriel announced to the virgin Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1.35). So, Jesus is the Son of God because God supernaturally accomplished his conception, which does not make him a deity.
Christians rightly proclaim that a person must believe Jesus arose from the dead to be a Christian. The Apostle Peter made Jesus’ resurrection the centerpiece of his evangelistic preaching (Acts 2.24, 32; 3.15; 4.10). And the Apostle Paul says Jesus’ resurrection testifies to his being the Son of God (Romans 1.4). Paul defines the Christian gospel, saying that “Christ died for our sins,…was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” from the dead (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). Paul says these are of “first importance,” meaning it is necessary to believe this to be a genuine Christian. If believing Jesus is God is of first importance, why didn’t Paul include it? Paul never says Jesus is God.
Most Christians also rightly claim that we must believe Jesus is Lord in order to be saved. Paul wrote, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10.9). Indeed, “Jesus is Lord” was the first Christian creed (1 Corinthians 12.3). It means people are real Christians if they let Jesus become Lord of their lives by living to some extent a lifestyle in obedience to him. He had said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7.21).
Christians also rightly claim that people must believe in Jesus as their Savior to be a true Christian. That is, we must believe, as Paul states above, that Jesus died on the cross bearing our sins as a sacrificial atonement. Then God will forgive us, cleanse us from all unrighteousness, and make us a member of his family. An angel announced this at Jesus’ birth, “today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2.11).
Jesus being the Savior is implied in his name. The Gospel of John says of him, “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” (John 1.12). What does the name Jesus mean?
Jesus and Israeli Jews in his time spoke Aramaic as their native language. The name Jesus translates the Aramaic Yeshua or Yeshu. Ye is the shortened form of God’s name, which is YHWH, which can be rendered Yahweh or Yehvah. Shu(a) means “to save” or “salvation.” So, Yeshua means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.” It means that Yahweh saves through Jesus. An angel implied this when he said to Joseph in a dream that Mary, his soon-to-be wife, “will bear a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1.21).
Must a person believe in Jesus’ virgin birth (conception) to be a genuine Christian? The NT has two narratives about it (Matthew 1.18—2.12; Luke 1.26-56; 2.1-38), and it is important to soteriology. But the NT never mentions it again. Since the virgin birth is not in any nt evangelistic messages or gospel definitions, it must not be necessary to believe it.
In sum, the NT proclaims that to be saved, and thus be a real Christian, we must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, that he is Savior by dying for our sins, that he arose from the dead, and we must allow him to be Lord of our lives. But the NT never says we must believe that Jesus is God in order to be a genuine Christian.