The Importance of the Christian Name

Adapted from a Sermon by Samuel Davies

In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Acts 11:26

Mere names are just empty sounds and are of little importance. And yet it must be admitted, that there are names of honor and significance; and, when they are joined with the things which they denote, they are of great and sacred importance! Such is the Christian name; a name about two thousand years old. And now when the name is almost lost among countless denominations, and the things denoted by the name are almost lost in ignorance, error, vice, hypocrisy, and formality, it may be worth our while to consider the original meaning of that sacred name, as a proper way of recovering both name and thing.

The name of Christian was not the first by which the followers of Christ were distinguished. Their enemies called them Galileans, Nazarenes, and other names of contempt. And among themselves they were called Saints, from their holiness; Disciples, from their learning their religion from Christ as their teacher; Believers, from their believing in him as the Messiah; and Brethren, from their mutual love and their relation to God and each other.

But after some time, they were distinguished by the name of “Christians.” This name, they first received in Antioch, a heathen city, a city infamous for all manner of vice and debauchery: a city that had its name from Antiochus Epiphanes, one of the bitterest enemies the church ever had. Antioch was a very rich and powerful city, from where the Christian name would have easily spread; but it is long since laid in ruins, unprotected by that sacred name. In such a city was Christ pleased to bestow his name upon his followers; and you cannot but see that the very choice of the place reveals his wisdom, grace, and justice.

The original word, which is here translated "called", seems to imply that they were called Christians by God’s appointment, since it generally is used in relation to a declaration from God; For example in Luke 2:26, it is the same word that is used to indicate a divine revelation to Simeon regarding the coming of Christ. And so, it follows that the very name Christian, as well as the thing, was of a 'divine origin'; taken not by a private agreement of the disciples among themselves, but by the appointment of God! And in this view, it is a remarkable accomplishment of an old prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 62:2, "The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give." (Is 62:2) Also Isaiah 65:15, "You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse, and the Lord GOD will put you to death, but his servants he will call by another name." (Is 65:15)

This name was at first confined to a few; but it soon spread far and wide throughout the world to this day.

And we, in particular, call ourselves Christians, and we would be offended to be denied the honor of that name. But do we really understand the meaning and sacred importance of that name? Do we really know what it is to be Christians indeed? That is: are we in reality, what we are in name? Certainly, it is time for us to consider the matter; and it is the goal of this sermon to help us do so.

Now we may consider this name in various ways; particularly

1) as a name of distinction from the rest of the world, who do not know the Lord Jesus, or reject him as an impostor.

2) It is also a family name, pointing out the Father and Founder of our holy religion and the Christian church; as a badge of our relation to Christ as his servants, his children, his bride.

3) It hints at our anointing by the Holy Spirit, or our being the subjects of his influences; as Christ was anointed by the Holy Spirit, or replenished with his gifts above measure, (Consider how the word ‘anointed’ is the English of the Greek name Christ, and of the Hebrew, Messiah).

4) It is shows that we are the property of Christ, and his peculiar people.

5) as a universal name, intended to bury all party denominations; and

6) as a name of obligation upon all that wear it to be Christians indeed, or to form their attitudes and practice on the sacred model of Christianity.

Each of these views might be expanded and dwelt upon. But for our present goal we will consider the Christian name only in the two last views: a universal name and a name of obligation.

I. Let us first consider the Christian name, as a universal name, intended to bury all party denominations.

The name Gentile was loathsome to the Jews, and the name Jew was loathsome to the Gentiles. The name Christian swallows up both in one common peacemaking name. He who has taken down the partition-wall, has taken away partition names, and united all his followers in his own name, as a common denomination. For now, says Paul, "there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." (Col. 3:11) And “you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Gal 3:28) According to a prophecy of Zechariah, "the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one." (Zech. 14:9)

It is but a due honor to Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, that all who profess his religion should wear his name alone. They pay an extravagant and even idolatrous compliment to his subordinate officers and ministers, when they name themselves after them! Had this evil attitude prevailed in the primitive church, instead of the common name 'Christians', there would have been as many party-names as there were apostles or eminent ministers! There would have been:

Paulites from Paul;

Peterites from Peter;

Johnites from John;

Barnabites from Barnabas, and so on.

Paul took pains to crush the first risings of this party spirit in those churches which he planted; particularly in Corinth, where it was most evident. While they were saying, "I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ!" Paul asks this cutting question of them: "Is Christ divided?" Are his servants the ringleaders of so many parties? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in or into the name of Paul, that you should be so fond to take your name from him!

Paul counted it a happiness that Providence had put him into such a path as gave no hint of encouragement to such an evil attitude. "I thank God," he says, "that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius” for fear that any should say, that I baptized in my own name, and was merely gathering a party or sect for myself." (1 Cor 1:12-15)

But sadly! how little has this convicting reasoning of the apostle Paul been payed attention to in the future ages of the church! What an endless variety of denominations have been derived from some leading men, or from some little theological peculiarities! What 'denominations' have prevailed in the Christian world, and crumbled it to pieces, while the Christian name is hardly regarded!

I may indeed believe the same things which Luther or Calvin believed, but I do not believe them on the authority of Luther or Calvin, but upon the sole authority of Jesus Christ, and therefore I should not call myself by their name, as one of their disciples, but by the name of Christ, whom alone I acknowledge as the Author of my religion, and my only Master and Lord.

If I learn my religion from one of these great men, then it is indeed correct that I should take on their name. If I learn it from an assembly of men and make their beliefs the rule and ground of my faith, then it is enough for me to be of their religion, be that what it will. I may then, properly be called a mere conformist; for that is my highest character! But I cannot be properly called a Christian, for a Christian learns his religion, not from an assembly of men, or from the determinations of councils, but from Jesus Christ and his gospel!

To guard against mistakes on this matter, let us agree that every person has a natural and legal right to judge and choose for himself in matters of religion; and that is a foolish person indeed, who unthinkingly accepts the teachings of any man, or body of men on earth, whether pope, king, parliament, convocation, or synod.

Yet, in the exercise of this right and searching for himself, a serious person will find that he agrees more fully in lesser as well as more important points with some particular church than others; and based on that, it is his duty to join in official communion as a member of that particular church. And he may, if he pleases, assume the name which that church wears, by way of distinction from others; this is not what is being condemned.

But for me to glory in the denomination of any particular church as my highest character; to lay more stress upon the name of a Baptist or an Independent, than on the sacred name of Christian; to strictly adhere to the little peculiarities of a certain church party, and to make that the test of all religion; to make it the object of my zeal to gain converts to some other name, than the Christian name; these are things which deserve universal condemnation from God and man! These come from a spirit of prejudice and faction, directly opposite to the generous universal spirit of Christianity, and hurtful to it!

This is not to say that we should not have convictions about even the smaller points of religion: the modes and forms, which are the matters of contention between different churches. We should rather endeavor to find out the truth even in these non-essentials, at least so far as is necessary for the direction of our own conduct. But we should never make these non-essentials, the whole or the principal part of our religion. We should never be excessively zealous about them, or break the peace of the church by imposing them upon others. Have you definite beliefs in these little disputable points? That is a good thing; but as Paul says to the Romans keep it “between yourself and God” (Rom 14:22) and do not disturb others with it!

But now we go on to consider the other view of the Christian name which we have set out to describe; and that is,

II. As a name of obligation upon all who bear it, to be Christians indeed, and to form their character and practice upon the sacred model of Biblical Christianity.

And this subject naturally leads to the question, "What is it to be a Christian?"

To be a Christian, in the popular and fashionable sense, is no really difficult or excellent thing. It is to be baptized, to profess the Christian religion; to believe, like our neighbors, that Christ is the Messiah, and to attend public worship once a week, in some church or another. In this sense a man may be a Christian, and yet be unconcerned about eternal things. He may be a Christian, and yet fall short of the morality of many of the heathen. He may be a Christian, and yet a drunkard, a swearer, or a slave to some vice or other. He may be a Christian, and yet a willful, impenitent offender against God and man. To be a Christian in this sense, is no high character; and, if this be the whole of Christianity, it matters very little whether the world is Christianized or not.

But is this to be a Christian, in the original and proper sense of the word? Absolutely not! that is something of a very different and superior character. To be a Christian indeed, is the highest character and dignity of which the human nature is capable! It is the most excellent thing that ever graced our world! It is a thing that heaven itself beholds with approval and delight.

To be a Christian indeed, is to be like Christ, from whom the name is taken!

To be a Christian indeed, is to be a follower and imitator of Christ!

To be a Christian indeed, is to have Christ's spirit and character; and to live as He lived in the world!

To be a Christian is to have those just, exalted, and divine beliefs of God and divine things; and that just and full view of our duty to God and man, which Christ taught.

In short, to be a Christian, is to have our sentiments, our character and practice, formed according to the sacred model of the gospel. Let us expand a little upon this agreeable character.

1. To be a Christian, is to depart from iniquity.

To this, the name obliges us; and without this we have no right to the name. "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity," (2 Tim 2:19) That is, let him depart from iniquity, or not even dare to take that sacred name. Christ was perfectly free from sin: he was "holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners." (Heb 7:26) His followers will also be perfectly free from sin, in a little time! Before long they will enter into the pure regions of perfect holiness, and will drop all their sins, along with their mortal bodies, into the grave! But this, for now, is not their character in the present state, but the remains of sin still cleave to them. Yet even in the present state, they are striving to be perfect in holiness. Nothing can satisfy them, until they are fully conformed to the image of God's dear Son!

They are in conflict hour by hour with every temptation, and vigorously resisting every iniquity in its most alluring forms. And, though sin is perpetually struggling for the mastery, and sometimes, in an unguarded hour, gets an advantage over them, yet, as they are not under the law, but under grace, they are assisted with divine grace, so that no sin has any habitual dominion over them. (Rom 6:14)

And so it is that they are free from the gross vices of the age, and are men of good morals. This is their habitual, universal character; and to pretend to be Christians without this prerequisite, is the greatest nonsense!

To forsake iniquity, is essential to Christianity, and without it there can be no such thing as a Christian!

There was nothing that Christ was so far from than sin! And therefore, for those that indulge themselves in sin, and yet to wear His name, is just as contradictory and ridiculous as for a coward to call himself a great hero; or a thief to call himself a person of virtue!

Therefore, if you will not renounce iniquity, then renounce the Christian name! You cannot consistently keep both!

It is vain for servants of sin to wear the name of Christ! It makes them the more ridiculous, and only aggravates their guilt! They may just as much call themselves 'princes' or 'kings', as 'Christians', while they are so unlike to Christ! They are a scandal to His precious name! His name is blasphemed among the Gentiles through such.

2. To be a Christian, is to deny yourselves and take up the cross and follow Christ.

These are the terms of discipleship fixed by Christ himself. He said to them all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)

To deny ourselves, is to abstain from the pleasures of sin, to moderate and restrain our sensual appetites, to deny our own interest for the sake of Christ. In short, it is to sacrifice everything inconsistent with our duty to him, when these come into competition.

To take up our cross, is to put up with sufferings, to encounter difficulties, and break through them all, in imitation of Jesus Christ, and for his sake.

To follow Christ, is to trace his steps, and imitate his example, whatever the cost may be.

These, and these only, are the terms, if you would be Christians, or the disciples of Christ. He honestly warned people of these terms when he first called them to be his disciples. He did not take advantage of them, but let them know beforehand what were the terms of admission. "Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple”” Luke 14:25-27

We are to understand “hating” here to mean a smaller degree of love. The love for Christ is so great that all other love can be comparatively called ‘hatred’. That is, if we would be Christ's disciples, we must be willing to part with our dearest relations, and even our lives, when we cannot keep them in a way consistent with our duty to him.

He goes on: "Whoever does not bear his own cross", and endure the greatest sufferings following my example, "cannot be my disciple." The love of Christ is the ruling passion of every true Christian, and for his sake he is ready to give up everything, and to endure all that earth or hell can inflict. He must run all risks, and cling to Christ's cause at all cost.

This really is the essential character of every true Christian. What then shall we think of those crowds among us, who wear the Christian name, and yet will not deny themselves of their sensual pleasures, nor part with their worldly interest, for the sake of Christ? Who are so far from being willing to lay down their lives, that they cannot stand the force of a laugh or a sneer in the cause of Christ, but immediately stumble and fall away?

Are they Christians, whom the commands of Christ cannot restrain from what their depraved hearts desire? No! A Christian, without self-denial, mortification, and a supreme love to Jesus Christ, is as great a contradiction as fire without heat, or a sun without light, a hero without courage, or a friend without love!

I cannot see into your heart and so it is my duty to ask that each of you examine yourselves to see if this does not really strip you of the Christian name and prove that you have no right at all to it.

3. A true Christian must be a follower and imitator of Christ.

"Be imitators of me," says Paul, "as I am of Christ." (1 Cor11:1) Christ is the model after whom every Christian is formed; for, says Peter, He left “you an example, so that you might follow in his steps." (1 Pet 2:21) Paul tells us, that we must be conformed to the image of God's dear Son, in Romans 8:29; and that the same mind must be in us, which was also in Christ Jesus in his letter to the Philippians. (Phil. 2:5) Unless we have this spirit and look like him in practice; unless we are as he was in the world, we have no right to take his name!

And here it is good to note that whatever was miraculous in our Lord's conduct, and peculiar to him as the Son of God and Mediator; that is not a pattern for our imitation, but only what was done in obedience to that law of God which was common to him and us.

Christ's heart glowed with love to His Father! He delighted in universal obedience to Him; it was His food and drink to do His will, even in the most painful and self-denying instances! He abounded in devotion, in prayer, meditation and every pious duty.

He was also full of every grace and virtue towards mankind! He was meek and humble, kind and benevolent, just and charitable, merciful and compassionate towards all. Caring for the souls and bodies of men was the business of his life; for “he went about doing good.” (Acts 10:38)

With respect to Himself, He was patient and resigned, and yet undaunted and brave under sufferings. He had all His appetites and passions under proper control. He was heavenly-minded, above this world in heart, while He dwelt in it.

This is an imperfect sketch of his graceful character; and in these things every one who deserves to be called after his name, does in some measure resemble and imitate him. This is not only his earnest endeavor, but what he actually attains, though in a very limited way; and his imperfections are the grief of his heart.

This resemblance and imitation of Christ is essential to the very being of a Christian, and without it, all profession is only vain pretense!

Does your Christianity stand this test? May one know that you belong to Christ, by your living like him, and manifesting the same character and spirit? Does the character of the divine Master spread through all his family; and do you show that you belong to it by your character and conduct?

Sadly, how many, if they were called according to their characters would be called Epicureans from Epicurus, the sensual atheistic philosopher; or mammonites from Mammon, the imaginary god of riches; or Bacchanals from Bacchus, the god of wine; rather than Christians from Christ, the most perfect pattern of living holiness and virtue that ever was demonstrated in the world!

If you claim the name of Christians, where is . . .

that ardent devotion,

that affectionate love to God,

that zeal for His glory,

that eagerness in His service,

that resignation to His will,

that generous benevolence to mankind,

that zeal to promote their best interests,

that meekness and forbearance when badly treated,

that unwearied activity in doing good to all,

that self-denial and heavenly-mindedness

which shone so conspicuously in Christ, whose holy name you bear?

Sadly! while you are destitute of those graces, and yet wear his name, you only mock it, and turn it into a reproach both to him and yourselves.

And we must add, that the Christian name is not hereditary to you by your natural birth, but you must be born anew by the Spirit to entitle you to this new name.

Every Christian is also a believer; believing in him whom he calls his only Savior and Lord.

Every Christian is also a true penitent. Repentance was incompatible with Christ's character, who was perfectly righteous, and had no sin of which to repent. But it is a proper virtue in a sinner, without which he cannot be a Christian.

And as we come to a conclusion let us turn to a few practical reflections.

1. First, you may from all of this see that the Christian character is the highest, the most excellent and sublime in the world; it includes everything truly great and lovely. The Christian has exalted views of the Supreme Being, just notions of duty, and a proper character and conduct towards God and man.

A Christian is a devout worshiper of the God of heaven, a cheerful observer of his whole law, and a broken-hearted penitent for his imperfections.

A Christian is a compilation of all the good and useful graces and virtues: temperate and sober, just, liberal, compassionate and benevolent, humble, meek, gentle, peaceable, and in all things conscientious.

A Christian is a good parent, a good child, a good employer, a good employee, a good husband, a good wife, a faithful friend, an obliging neighbor, a dutiful subject, a good ruler, and an honest citizen. And as far as he is such, so far, and no farther, is he a Christian.

And can there be described a more amiable and excellent character? It is an angelic, a divine character. Let it be your glory and your ambition to wear it with good grace, to wear it so as to adorn it. To acquire the title of kings and princes, is not in your power. To spread your fame as scholars, philosophers, or heroes, may be beyond your reach. But here is a character more excellent, more amiable, more honorable than all these, which it is your business to deserve and maintain.

And blessed be God, this is a dignity which the lowest among us may truly attain to. Let this therefore be everyone’s ambition and pursuit, and let every other name and title be despised in comparison of it. This is the way to rise to true honor in the eyes of God, angels, and holy men.

And what if so called Christians of our age and country ridicule you? let them consider their own irrational conduct and be ashamed. They think it an honor to wear the Christian name, and yet persist in unchristian practices; would they come to their senses and see the foolishness of this. A beggar who imagines himself a king and trails his rags with majesty, as though they were royal robes, is not so ridiculous as one that will take the Christian name without a Christian practice! And yet such 'Christians' are the favorites of the world. To them, to give up the profession of Christianity is barbarous and profane; but to live according to that profession, and practice Christianity, is preciseness and fanaticism!

Can anything be more contradictory? This is as if one should ridicule learning, and yet glory in the character of a scholar!

2. Secondly, as you can imagine, if all the professors of Christianity should behave in the true character of a Christian, the religion of Christ would soon appear divine to all mankind and spread through all nations of the earth. Were Christianity displayed in its true light, in all its native inherent glories, it would be as needless to offer arguments to prove it divine, as to prove that the sun is full of light. The conviction would flash upon all mankind by its own intrinsic evidence.

If Christians demonstrated the religion they profess, all the world would immediately see that that religion which made them so different a people from all the rest of mankind, is indeed divine, and every way worthy of being accepted by everyone. Then would Heathenism, Islam, and all the false religions in the world, fall before the heaven-born religion of Jesus Christ. Then it would be sufficient to convince an infidel, just to bring him into a Christian country, and let him see how different things are there, from all the world beside. But sadly,

3. in the third place, how different is the Christian world, from the Christian religion! Who would imagine that those who take their name from Christ, have any relation to him, if we observe their spirit and practice?

Should a stranger learn Christianity from what he sees in predominantly Roman Catholic countries, he would conclude that it principally consisted in bodily austerities, in worshiping saints, images, relics, and a thousand trifles, in theatrical displays and insignificant ceremonies, in believing implicitly all the pronouncements of a fallible man as infallibly true, and in persecuting all who disagree with them.

In protestant countries, sadly, things are no better as to good morals and practical religion. Imagine an unbeliever taking a tour through Canadian Protestant Churches to learn what their religion consisted in from their general conduct. What would he conclude? Would he not conclude that all the religion of the generality consisted in a few Sunday formalities, and that the rest of the week they had nothing to do with God, or any religion, but were free to live as they please?

And were he told these were the followers of one Christ, and were of Christ's religion, would he not conclude that Christ was certainly an impostor, and the minister of sin?

But when he came to find that, notwithstanding all this looseness, they professed the pure and holy religion of the Bible, how would he be astonished, and pronounce them the most inconsistent, and striking hypocrites!

And clearly, great and heavy is the guilt that lies upon our country because of this. It is a scandal to the Christian name; it is guilty of confirming unbelievers in their prejudices and hinders the propagation of Christianity. Let none of us be complicit in this dreadful behavior but rather let us do all we can to make the Christian religion attractive to all!

4. Fourthly, and lastly, let us examine whether we have any just entitlement to the Christian name; that is, whether we are Christians indeed; for if we have not the thing, to retain the name, is the most inconsistent folly and hypocrisy, and will do nothing but aggravate our condemnation! A lost “professing Christian” is the most shocking character in hell! And unless you are such Christians as have been described, it will before long be your end!

Therefore, be followers of Christ, receive his spirit, practice his precepts, and depart from iniquity. Otherwise he will sentence you at last as workers of iniquity. "And then will I declare to them," (these are Christ's own words!) "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." (Matt 7:23)

"In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians."

May God grant that each of us here present may wear this name with honor, for his glory and our eternal happiness.