What Is a True Christian?
A Christian is someone who has obeyed the gracious command of Jesus Christ, “Look to me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Is 45.22). As one believing into Jesus, the individual who was once a lost and wandering sinner is made a new creation in Christ and a true disciple of the Lord: old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (2Cor 5.17).
But how can you tell if you really are a Christian? How can you know if you have been born again? What are the definite marks of a new creation in Christ?
The apostle John addresses both the new birth and its evidences. He wrote his gospel so that we might know that Jesus is the Christ, believe, and be saved (Jn 20.31). Later, he wrote his first letter so that believers might “know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God” (1Jn 5.13). John’s first letter will help us to answer the vital question: “What is a true Christian?”
There are many things which the world – and many outwardly religious people in the world – assumes are certain marks of true Christianity. These things fool many into imagining that they are true believers when they are not. Even many Christians build their assurance on these things, and find that they fail them when they need them, because they form no sure foundation. These are inconclusive indications.
An excellent book by Gardiner Spring called The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character suggests seven things that are not, in themselves, conclusive marks that a professed work of grace is true or false.
Visible morality. An outwardly upright character is no sure indication of love to God. A fair appearance does not necessarily indicate true heart righteousness (1Sam 16.7). There are many people who can maintain the facade of morality without ever possessing eternal life and developing true conformity to Jesus Christ.
Head knowledge (mere speculative knowledge or intellectual perception) as opposed to spiritual understanding of the truth (Rom 1.21; 2.17-20; Jas 2.19; 1Cor 2.14). It is possible to know a great deal about Christ without truly knowing Christ; a man can know a lot of the Bible, without ever bowing to the God of the Bible.
A form of religion. Many have the appearance of religion without the reality, the form without the power (2Tim 3.5; Mt 25.1-12; Is 58.2-3). The Pharisees are the prime example of such people: a great reputation for religion, but a heart far from God.
Eminent gifts. Some have great natural abilities (and, perhaps, verbal dexterity – the gift of the gab – is something that is often taken to indicate a heart for God), which they employ even in religious contexts (again, the gift of ready speech is one that people often mistake as a sign of true godliness). Balaam and Saul both enjoyed eloquent prophetic experiences without entering the kingdom (Mt 7.22-23). John Bunyan was known as “a great talker in religion” before he became a true believer, and several of his characters in Pilgrim’s Progress demonstrate the same problem.
Conviction for sin. We must be careful here. Conviction for sin is necessary for salvation but not necessarily joined with salvation (note also that many Christians feel conviction for sin far more acutely after they are saved than before, and that some who are brought up in godly homes and converted young may have relatively little clear and distinct sense of sin). Awareness of and a sense of guilt concerning sin do not mean that a man is saved or will be saved (Jude 14-15). Ask King Saul, King Ahab, or Judas.
Strong assurance. There is a difference between believing you are saved and believing in Christ and therefore being saved. It is possible for someone entirely persuaded that they are right with God to be wrongly persuaded (Mt 3.7-9).
Notable time or manner of one’s professed conversion. Even unusual and distinctive experiences do not demonstrate that one’s profession of faith is genuine. There are some who live and die trusting in the memory of a moment – perhaps some warm and fuzzy feeling, or raising a hand or walking an aisle or responding to a call – without ever having known true spiritual life.
There is almost nothing more dangerous than to imagine oneself saved and yet to remain unsaved. There is nothing more blessed than to know oneself a Christian grounded on a solid foundation, as the Spirit witnesses in the heart and to the work he is accomplishing in those whom he indwells. To recognise these inconclusive indications for what they are liberates the true believer from the tyranny of mere subjectivism, and strips away the flawed and rotten supports on which we – and others – too often build our hopes.
What, then, are the Scriptural indicators that a genuine work of grace has taken place in the heart of a sinner? When John writes his letter, he does so in carefully-planned circles. Like an aircraft circling the same territory, John notes the same heart-terrain repeatedly. At least four indispensable indications of true Christianity become plain as we circle through John’s letter.
The first indication is a humble and wholehearted embrace of the divine diagnosis of and remedy for sin (1Jn 1.7 – 2.2; 2.12-14; 3.5, 6, 23; 4.2, 9-10, 13-16; 5.1, 5, 10-13, 20). A Christian man has an accurate view of himself as a sinning sinner. He acknowledges the just judgments of a holy God (Ps 51.4; Lk 15.18; 18.13). This Spirit-wrought conviction of sin leads to genuine repentance as his heart breaks over his godlessness: he becomes revolted by his sin and turns from it and forsakes it because it offends the Lord God (Jl 2.12-13). With repentance is joined faith in Jesus as the Lord Christ is presented in the gospel in his might and majesty, his meekness and mercy. Faith receives Jesus, looks to Jesus, comes to Jesus, flees to Jesus, leans upon Jesus, trusts in Jesus, holds to Jesus, and rests upon Jesus. Let us remember that this is the essential point and gives birth to all that follows: the dying thief never had an opportunity to manifest the other three marks of saving faith (though he would have done had he lived), but still the Lord assured him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23.43). Whoever trusts in Jesus, though he believes one moment and dies the next, has his life hid with Christ in God.
The second indication is a humble reverence for and joyful devotion to God and his glory(1Jn 1.3-5; 2.12-15; 3.1-2; 4.12-13, 19; 5.1-2). A radical reversal of priority has occurred: the idol Self is toppled and God reigns in the heart. A change has occurred: a heart that by nature is enmity with God (Rom 8.7) has been replaced by one that loves God entirely (Lk 10.37). The man who lived for self now lives for God, offering himself as a living sacrifice (Rom 12.1-2). Gratitude for grace received and delight in God himself issues in joyful service of the Lord of glory. This is a man convinced of God’s excellent glory, for its own sake: he would, if called upon, serve without reward for he recognises God’s worthiness to be served: Romans 11.36 seems entirely pleasing and proper to him, for God in Christ is now at the pinnacle of his thinking and feeling and doing. The testimony of such a man’s heart is “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73.25-26). He believes it, knows it, pursues it, and repents afresh because he does not know and feel and prove it more. He is concerned for God’s name and God’s people and therefore his time, energies, graces, gifts, faculties and efforts are consecrated to God, whether in the apparently spectacular or the genuinely mundane (1Cor 10.31). His chief end and great delight is to glorify God and to enjoy him now and forever. God in Christ is all in all to him, and he longs to know and feel and prove it more.
The third indication is a principled pursuit of godliness with an increasing attainment in holiness (1Jn 2.3-8, 15-16, 19, 29; 3.3, 6, 10, 24; 4.13; 5.2-5, 21). The hypocrite likes the reputation of holiness, but the true child of God is satisfied only with the substance. He considers his ways, and turns his feet back to God’s testimonies (Ps 119.59). The world no longer sparkles as it did – or, at least, his attraction to it and affection for it have been fundamentally altered – and now he lives for God, called to be holy as God himself is holy (1Pt 1.16). The bonds to sin have been broken, and the persistent habit of unmortified sinning has been shattered because of his union with Christ. The new root brings forth new fruit (Mt 7.20; 12.33-35). His obedience – though not yet perfect – is universal (throughout the whole man), habitual (a regular and consistent part of life), voluntary (he does it willingly, not because he is forced) and persevering (he continues to pursue obedience to the end). He has taken up his cross, and continues to do so daily, as a disciple of a crucified Christ (Mt 16.24-25). He pursues Christlikeness – it is the burden of his private and public prayers. He increasingly manifests the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.22-23); he has no love for the world (Jas 4.4); the previous pattern of conformity to, company with and compromise for the sake of the world is over (2Tim 3.4; 1Cor 16.33). This is not sinless perfection, but laborious progress. It does not mean that a Christian faces no battles but rather than he fights great battles, opposed as he now is to a raging and committed enemy of malice and power (Rom 7.13-25). Sometimes he wanders; sometimes he is on the back foot; sometimes, grievously, he backslides. However, the tone and tenor of his life is one of advance. The trajectory of his life over time is upward. The points plotted on his spiritual graph are not a seamless upward curve, and there are painful plateaus, but the line of best fit indicates persevering progress over time as sin dies and godliness is cultivated.
A fourth mark that John identifies is affection for and attachment to God’s redeemed people (1Jn 2.9-11; 3.10-18, 23; 4.7-11; 4.20 – 5.2). This is more than natural affection (just liking them), mercenary attachment (what you can get out if it), party spirit (a gang mentality), or mere presence (just turning up at the right place at the right time). The true Christian loves God’s people because they are God’s people, even though they may be unlovely in themselves. In that sense, he needs no other reason, and yet he has several. He loves them because of what they are to God, loved by him and saved by Jesus, and it is therefore Godlike to love them. He loves them because of what they are in themselves, marked out increasingly by the image of God, by likeness to the Jesus whom he loves. He loves them because of what they are to him, members together with him of the one body of which Jesus is the saving and sovereign head (1Cor 12.12-14, 26-27). He loves not in word only: it is manifest in his thoughts and deeds (Eph 4.1-6, 12-16, 25-32). He is a true churchman: he does not simply “do church” but views and responds to the saints individually and gathered together with affection, commitment, service and investment. He is not a spectator but a servant, concerned not just to get out but to put in.
These four marks will invariably be present in a true child of God. They will not be perfect until glory, but they will be present now.
We cannot afford to be fooled, imagining ourselves saved when we are not. This is a most desperately dangerous condition to be in, and a devastating conclusion to daw. We do not need to be confused, either always doubting or building on a wrong foundation. We can know whether or not we are saved. John writes so that we can be sure, knowing ourselves saved and enjoying eternal life.
If these indispensable indications, these marks of a true believer, are not in your heart and life, then you are not a Christian, whatever you claim or imagine, and you should not fool yourself nor dishonour Christ by claiming his name without walking in his ways. You blaspheme Jesus and expose him to scorn by taking the label of a true believer but living apart from his gracious power and saving wisdom. The hypocrite gives other unbelieving men a reason to scorn and deride true religion by pretending to what he does not have. We see this written on a large scale when those professing to be a true church depart from the truth, teach their own concoctions, live without godliness, and give occasion for men to blaspheme. “Call that Christianity?!” No! No, it is not Christianity – it is an empty masquerade that gives opportunity for sinners to deride or despair of Jesus, which leaves your hands with the blood of men upon them, and which will ultimately damn you if you are not saved from it. It is better to know yourself outside than falsely to imagine yourself inside: you must therefore flee to Jesus, and acknowledge your need, repent of your sin, and trust in the Saviour.
But if these things are present in you and true of you then you are a Christian, and you should not dishonour Christ by denying the source of grace in you. Some doubting and fearful saints are terrified that they will lay claim to God’s grace in Christ without having it, and so walk in shadow if not in darkness, robbed of joy and neither being blessed nor blessing others as they might. But consider: these things simply do not grow in the soil of the unregenerate heart, and to possess them without a Christian testimony is to know the privileges of the kingdom without wearing its livery. It might give the impression to some that the fruits of grace can grow in natural soil, and imply that unconverted men can attain to true godliness and genuinely Christian morality, and so prompt a despising of the work of God’s Spirit. Others might be profoundly discouraged, imagining that a man can show marks of true holiness but not really be saved, and so wonder if they can ever truly testify, “I am his, and he is mine.” Friend, if you have these things in you, then honour the God who put them there by owning yourself saved of God, and live accordingly.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps 139.23-24). If you need Jesus, go to him now and you will be saved. If you have Jesus – if he has you – then hold fast, love him, serve him, and rejoice in him, for you are a child of God, and he will keep you to the end, perfecting that which he has begun in you.
Jeremy Walker is a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church. He blogs at The Wanderer and is co-author of A Portrait of Paul: Identifying A True Minister of Christ (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).