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Christian or Follower of Jesus?
Posted by Clare

Would the people who know you best consider you a Christian or a follower of Jesus?

I still remember the stunned look on Dave’s face when I asked him that question over breakfast ten years ago.  To give him a chance to recover a bit, I took the time to clarify my question.  “What I mean Dave is this: based on how you live, the things you talk about, your passions, what you spend your discretionary time and money on, would your wife, your children, co-workers and fishing buddies, would they consider you a Christian or follower of Jesus?  And by the way, you don’t have to answer that question to me today.  I’m not your spiritual authority.  But, Jesus already knows the answer.  The question is, do you?”

I’d known Dave for a few years, but not well.  He was forty something, husband and father of three, attended a conservative church in town, and was involved in a men’s Bible study – a typical Christian.  Our kids went to school together and we’d talked a number of times at school functions, but not in depth.

His reason for wanting to meet that morning was to ask if I would spend some time with him to help figure out some moving parts in his life.  His relationship with God was flat.  The company he was working for was in turmoil.  He and his wife were struggling.  The usual mid-life stuff.  I’ve mentored many men in our community, so it was no surprise that he would ask me to help him sort things out.  But, obviously he’d not expected to be hit by this truck.

Dave’s first question after he’d regained his composure was, “What’s the difference between a Christian and a follower of Jesus?”  It was a fair question but I wanted to hear his answer first.  So I asked him to take a crack at it.

“Well, when you put it that way, I would say a Christian is someone who believes Jesus is the Son of God, died on the cross and all that, believes the Bible is true, goes to church regularly, tries to live a good Christian life, volunteers in church – things like that.  I would think a follower of Jesus believes all the same stuff and does all the same things, but is a lot more excited and serious about actually living like Jesus and being like Jesus in everyday life.”

Are Christians saved?

“Not bad”, I told him with some admiration.  Before I could say another word, he asked me this penetrating question with just a hint of fear in his voice.  “Are both Christians and followers of Jesus, saved?”  I told him the truth.  “I don’t know with certainty of course, but I don’t think so.

With that, he grew quiet.  I thought it best to leave him alone with his thoughts for a minute, so I went to the restroom.  My reason for asking this question of Dave is that most of us intuitively know if we are serious about following Jesus, or if we’ve been content with the average Christian life.  This question simply forces a conclusion most of us don’t want to think about.

Words wear out.

In Chapter 12 of The 10 Second Rule, I wrote this, “Some words wear out.  It’s not that they’re wrong – simply that they’ve out-lived their original meaning.  I think the word Christian could be just such a word.  It’s a word that’s centuries old.  In Antioch in the decades after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, it was first applied to those who believed in Jesus and lived his teachings.  And in the first few centuries of the church, when obedience was still costly, all Christians were also committed followers of Jesus – the terms were interchangeable.  Today, all followers of Jesus are still Christians.  But it’s clear that the reverse is not true – not all who call themselves Christians, even those sitting in church every Sunday, are truly his followers.

Having said that, it’s impossible to accurately measure our devotion to God and our love for others.  I don’t have a faith-o-meter I can pull out every day and point at myself and others to keep score.  Nevertheless, we do keep score, don’t we?  And it’s the self-delusional nature of sin that causes us to believe we’re better followers than most other Christians.  Aside from the statistical impossibility of that being true – it’s the wrong measure.  The only true measure is Jesus.”

So here’s the question again, which I’ve asked thousands of people in the past dozen years but now I’m asking you:  Based on how you actually live your life, what you’re passionate about, how you conduct yourself when you’re at home, or out with your friends and how you treat others, would your spouse, your children, your co-workers or friends – more importantly, does Jesus consider you a Christian or a true follower of his?

My second question for you:  How do you think Jesus himself would define his followers?  (Please try to do it in one sentence, if possible and let’s see what you come up with.)

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Comments (13)
  1. Sue Mitchell said...

    Mr. DeGraaf, First of all, I’m the friend of Jenn who came over to your house one day while you babysat all of your grandkids so I and all your daughters could go out for lunch. Remember me? I have 5 boys and live in Chicago? Okay, well, that’s me.

    I love this. LOVE this. Exactly what I’m thinking through in my own life right now. I’ve grown up with the majority of my family as “Christians.” By the GRACE of GOD alone, I am so thankful that I am a follower of Jesus.

    BUT, these sentences struck a nerve with me: “Nevertheless, we do keep score, don’t we? And it’s the self-delusional nature of sin that causes us to believe we’re better followers than most other Christians. Aside from the statistical impossibility of that being true – it’s the wrong measure. The only true measure is Jesus.” Wow, that is me. Always worrying about how other people are living or not living their lives and placing judgement on them. I would love to hear more about that last sentence, “The only true measure is Jesus.”

    Or, as they say, do I need to read the book?

    • Clare said...

      Sue, thank you for you’re transparency! Nobody shouldn’t have to buy this book to know how to follow Jesus. As I’ve said before, following Jesus really isn’t all that complicated. It’s all the excuses we creatively and almost effortlessly come up with to not have to actually obey Jesus that’s complicated. That’s why it’s so much easier to measure ourselves by others. In a minute I can think of 10 Christians who are bigger jerks than I am. ( Of course, that’s in my humble opinion.)

  2. JR said...

    For starters: the word “follower” implies action, walking in His Way, which was denying self. Not a state of “being”, but one of “doing”.

    • Clare said...

      Amen JR! here’s where it get’s tricky. Every Christian thinks they’re following Jesus even if they just show up for church, pray at Thanksgiving, or throw a five in the collection plate. They think of that as self denial because they know people who say they’re Christians who don’t even do that!

  3. JR said...

    Tricky indeed, and this is where I struggle. I was brought up to “follow the rules”, to be obedient in my Christian life. And generally I have been an obedient “Christian”. My problem is that the parameters of these rules were, and are, within “my” guidelines as taught by my parents and pastors. I like to please because I don’t handle guilt very well, in fact fear it. Going outside that box and giving away my constraints is what really causes fear for me. And doubt. Doing good things and obeying almost seems the easy way out, as long as I control it.

    • Clare said...

      Rules aren’t all that bad. They give life order. And guilt keeps us in line sometimes and keeps us from doing things we know we shouldn’t do. Here’s the difference; Were your parents rules religious because that’s what the people in their church thought good Christians ought to do, or did they seriously try to obey Jesus’ specific teachings, regardless of what any of their Christian friends thought?
      I grew up in a religious community and they had more “thou shalt not’s” than Jesus. In spite of that my parents had very few religious rules, they just expected us to be kind, generous, forgiving, serving,reverent and respectful. I felt guilty when I wasn’t those things and I should have felt guilty- it’s what I refer to as “good guilt”- Holy Spirit guilt. The problem is that talk show hosts and therapists have been trying pound guilt out of us for years. Obviously some guilt is wrong and crippling, but Holy Spirit guilt is good guilt.
      Live like Jesus, love the things he loved and you won’t go wrong. The 10 Second Rule isn’t some new rule I made up. It’s simply a reminder of the oldest rule in christianity- to love and obey Jesus.

  4. Darlene said...

    Hi Clare,

    Great thought-provoking questions which will continue to niggle at me–for the good, of course.
    2 Corinthians 13:5 admonishes us to continually examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith; to test ourselves, which is a real stretching experience of coming to grips with just how sinful my soul still is!
    While I still follow imperfectly, God has increased my desire to follow Him more quickly, more completely and more consistently—which is a daily prayer–and it’s not me doing it but God’s grace and purpose to conform me to the image of Christ.
    Our ‘doing’ has to be more about learning to understand what it means to ‘be still and come to an intimate understanding of a personal relationship with an invisible, but evident God.’ I had asked Him to show me what that intimacy looked like. In response to my question, He gave me one of those ‘turning points’ experiences a couple of years ago by calling me to spend an extended quiet time with Him. During my first time at a silent retreat I had the sense of God’s surrounding me with love, as if in a bubble, and experiencing Him as a ‘safe place’ unlike ever before. He’s been gradually unfolding an understanding of Phil. 2:12b-13 to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
    Our ‘doing’ needs to increasingly be about understanding the ‘being’ in Christ, and not ‘trying’ to do anything.
    Lastly, guilt is only used by the Holy Spirit to bring me to acknowledge that I have wrong thinking. After I confess it, He uses it to help me grow.

  5. JR said...

    I re-read my own latest posting and it seemed a bit “puffed up”. Guess that’s the risk you take when spontaneously putting your thoughts in print. I do pray that my epitaph reads that he lived a spirit filled life and not that he was a good Pharisee, both on my tombstone and before God. My other earnest prayer is that the Bread of Life will feed a hungry world through me, to His glory and His honor, leading others to The Way, the Truth, and the Life.
    Now, it is time for me to give this a rest and encourage others to share as well. Hopefully, I can return with an encounter Christ has brought me to, that I can share.
    Clare, thank you for this forum and allowing God to use you in a very special and powerful way.

  6. Rob Betts said...

    Wonderful post!

    I think and hope that the people in my sphere of influence think of me less as a social/political Christian and more as person who knows that Jesus is Lord and that all that is, is under His authority. My desire is that those in my sphere of influence know that my first consideration is : What has our Lord said and how is the Holy Spirit leading? These question are the core of what drive our thinking wand actions daily and even situation by situation. When I operate this way, I feel in communion with our Lord and that what I am doing pleases Him. When I don’t, I feel empty and a bit lost.

    We can be social Chistians without obeying His word or yielding to the Holy Spirit. We can only be followers of Jesus by obeying His word and yielding to the Holy Spirit.

    My intent and goal is to be a follower.

    Now I’m forced to ask those around me to see if I’m hitting the mark.

    Thank you for loving the Lord and his people enough to ask this question.


    • Clare said...

      Wonderful insights Rob. I have an accountability group and we occasionaly ask that question of ourselves about other peoples perceptions of each of us.

  7. Dwight said...


    My brother directed me to your blog and thinks very highly of you. I’m in that 40 ‘something’ category and enjoy your straight to the heart questions.

    Regarding Jesus, could you clarify your comment that “today ALL (emphasis mine) followers of Jesus are still Christians.”
    There are many who follow him and his teachings but claim that he was a prophet or a good man. Obviously, these people would not be classified as Christians. As you said, and I agree, the reverse is not always true. The critical distinction of course is who a person claims that Jesus is.

    To your question of how Jesus would define his followers. He said it best when he spoke of taking up our cross and following him. I think for all of us it’s a daily (moment by moment) thing that I’ve far from mastered. Jesus’ core character trait was humility which led to submission. We all submit to someone or something at any given moment. We grow to resemble the God (or gods) we worship. Who, or what then, is the object of our affection?

    Thanks Clare.

    • Clare said...

      I like the way you think and ask questions yourself. Hopefully, in my Monday blog I’ll get closer to answering your question. If not, fire away!

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