It’s about as puzzling as it is pervasive. Especially in our nation, people assume the label, “Christian,” for themselves as easily as a food preference. A 2014 survey revealed that about 70% of Americans consider themselves Christians. Often at funerals (in an understandable grasp in grief) individuals—even clergy—will proclaim with certitude the individual’s presence in the eternal place for Christians, despite an absence of Christianity in the individual’s life. Some of the more common answers to the question, “How do you know that you are a Christian?”, are things like, “I have always been one,” “I believe in God,” “I was baptized or confirmed,” “At camp I came forward,” “I just grew up that way,” “I prayed a prayer,” “Because I am a decent person,” or, “Because I grew up going to/go to church.”
But how do those reasons match up with the Christian manual—the Bible—on what it means to be a Christian? Are 70% of 300 million Americans characterized by the Bible’s definition of Christian characteristics? What does the Bible say about what it means to be a Christian?
It’s critical that we use God’s objective word when evaluating whether or not we are a Christian, and not our subjective opinion. Scripture, not experience or sentiment, is the say on the status of our soul. After we die, when we stand before God in the judgment (Heb. 9:27), he is not going to ask, “So, did you think you were a Christian in life? You did? Oh, OK, come on in to heaven.” He will judge by his standard. And, according to Jesus, on that day many will be surprised when they are shut out from heaven for all eternity (Matt. 7:21-23).
So, this matters. Eternity is at stake. This is a matter of our own souls and those we love. Thus, it is inappropriate, and even more, perhaps, spiritual suicide, to respond, “Who are you to question me?” The answer, of course, is, “someone who cares about you and your eternal well-being.”
Before some Christian evidences are given, a word of encouragement.
Evaluation is a normal thing. We do it with our diet, our car, our dentist, and our golf swing. A willingness to evaluate one’s soul is also to be normal. The Apostle Paul exhorted a local church, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5).
If we have zero willingness to evaluate whether or not we are a Christian, there is a problem. So, though a willingness to do so is not the means by which one enters heaven, it evidences the presence of a healthy humility.
I have personally witnessed far too many people appear to live as Christians for years, only to walk away from Christ. These are people who said they were Christians, talked like Christians, acted like Christians, and even believed that they were Christians. They had no major outward evidences that they were not. Yet, after a time, they ended up openly denying the Christian faith. It happens far too much, which is why a little soul diagnosis is necessary.
Even the Apostle Paul—a fairly godly guy—was willing to go in for periodic soul-check-ups (1 Cor. 9:27). He did not see himself as above the need for such diagnoses. Where does that put us? So, if you never see the need to evaluate whether or not you are a Christian, you might not be one. And if we are eager to, unforced, evaluate our teeth at the dentist, should we not be all the more willing to do so with our soul?
With that, here are a few signs which evidence that an individual is a Christian.
- Awareness of, and sorrow over, personal sin and moral imperfection.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:3-4).
Here in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12), Jesus is not giving prescriptions for how to get to heaven, but descriptions of those already going there. In v. 3, he speaks not of physical, but spiritual poverty. The Greek word translated “poor” did not mean, “barely making ends meet each month.” There was a word for that in Greek and this is not it. This word refers to a beggar in abject destitution; destitute of both provision and the ability to provide. If you were to see this individual, they would be the raggedly covered (if covered at all) beggar, cowered over with head down and hand out (TDNT, 6:886).
A Christian is someone who understands that morally/spiritually, they are destitute before God. They have nothing, morally, to offer God, in and of themselves. A Christian personally embraces the truth that they are infinitely in the red morally before God, and thus, contribute nothing to their right standing with God and entrance into heaven.
Steve Lawson said, “No one giggles through the narrow gate, but all who enter come mourning over their sin.” John Owen wrote, “This is the test of the real efficacy of the gospel: It keeps the heart humble, lowly, sensible to sin, and broken on that account. The Spirit of grace moves us to repentance and teaches us to detest sin” (Triumph Over Temptation, 80). Octavius Winslow remarked similarly, “The contrite heart is a blessing of the Holy Spirit.”
2. A confidence in Christ alone for acceptance with God.
“[A]nd may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9).
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God…” (1 Pet. 3:18).
This is the big one. Jesus Christ did for man what man could never do for himself: render him in permanent right standing with God. Christ’s substitutionary atoning death and resurrection is that single package in the universe which removes sin’s penalty. Heaven’s doors fly open to the sinner who clings to Christ and his cross alone by faith for moral status with God.
A Christian possesses total confidence that, apart from Christ’s finished work on the cross, he deserves to spend eternity in hell. He agrees with Richard Baxter who said, “So then, let ‘deserved’ be written on the floor of hell but on the door of heaven in life, ‘free gift.’”
It is by Christ’s work and not our contribution, not 1%, that contributes to acceptable standing before God. If we believe that one act of morality provides us with even the slightest lift into heaven, we are condemned (Gal. 1:8-9). If we presume that Christ’s hands push open heaven’s doors, and our hands help just a tad, then we are not a Christian. We cannot place an ounce of confidence, for example, in sacraments to be a Christian and go to heaven. I am not trusting in a past emotional experience I had for assurance of my salvation, but in Christ and his sin-bearing work. I am not placing confidence in reassurance from a family member, clergy, or friends, but in the righteousness of Christ.
Becoming a Christian means sprinting from any supposition that our nature and deeds leverage acceptance with God. Becoming a Christian means we look to Christ’s death on the cross as that which diverted God’s righteous anger from us to himself, and quenched it all. We are justified by faith alone in Christ alone (Rom. 3:28, 5:1, Gal. 2:16).
We trust the glorious biblical truth that our standing before God the Father depends on Christ’s standing before God the Father. A Christian trusts that his daily moral performance does not achieve justification. As Sinclair Ferguson has written, “We are as fully justified before God as our Lord Jesus is. We are as finally justified as our Lord Jesus is. We are as irreversibly justified as our Lord Jesus is.”
The other day, I asked a young woman who had been a Christian for about two weeks this question: “If you died today and God asked you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ What would you say?” Without anyone having to tell her, she answered, “He shouldn’t let me in. I don’t deserve it.” She went on to express her faith alone in Christ alone for acceptance with God. She answered that way because she is a Christian, by the grace of God.
3. A love for Christ.
“If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22).
I am not saying, “Do you we love Christ as much as he deserves and we ought?” A Christian will not do that until he/she has been entirely exterminated of sin in heaven. Rather, the idea is, do we actually love Christ? And what does it mean to love Christ? We cherish him. We respect him. We are attracted and drawn to him. We are impressed by him. We desire to be loyal to him because of him. We are happy in him. We seek to spend time with him and prioritize him, and we want him to be known and embraced. We obey him.
4. A progressive victory over sin.
“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rom. 8:13-14).
That you are a Christian is not evidenced by a guilt or grief over personal moral imperfections alone. Judas Iscariot, in and through whom the devil was at work, showed sorrow in the wake of his sin (Matt. 27:3-5). But he never turned to Christ. It’s possible to experience self-centered sorrow in response to sin (2 Cor. 7:10).
In addition to grief, a Christian will experience progressive victory over sin. Christians are those whose subjection under law has been discontinued. Sin is no longer master because we are under grace (Rom. 6:14). And, we are under Christ’s grace, not to perpetually lengthen our no-worries-if-we-keep-sinning leash, but so that sin may abound no longer. That’s just what grace does. Dan Phillips writes, “Grace is the sufficient, efficient, indispensable and unerring cause for practical holy living, for obeying the written word of God. It isn’t our ‘get out of obedience’ card.”
Understanding what it means to be a Christian has much to do with a correct understanding of the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. By God’s grace through the indwelling power of the Spirit, the Christian experiences victory over sin. We often do not experience that victory at the rate we would like, but we do experience it. A pitbull is a fairly strong beast. But, throw a lion in the yard with a pitbull, and that pitbull will be progressively put to death. So it is in the soul of man: before he is a Christian, sin roams freely in his heart. But, upon conversion, the Spirit enters his heart, and inevitably will do progressive damage to sin. Much of this simply comes down to this: God the Holy Spirit, who indwells every Christian, is more powerful than the Christian’s indwelling sin.
5. A presence of personal godliness.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23).
From the inside, these virtues comprise the work which the Holy Spirit progressively brings about in God’s people. It’s not automatic or effortless, but, by the power of God, it’s inevitable. The tree may be low on fruit at times in our lives, but it will never be without fruit, because it is the Spirit who produces it.
- A desire to plug into a New Testament kind of local church.
“For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4-5).
The NT teaches that God saves us into the body and family of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-14, 18). Becoming a Christian is, in part, the act of God adopting a sinner into connected, corporate life with other Christians. That’s why the phrase “body of Christ” is used.
The book of Acts, for example, demonstrates that the practical outworking of this truth is sinners being lovingly saved and gathered into local churches. The consequence of the Spirit’s work in saving sinners was Christians becoming connected members in local bodies. It was natural and desirable. D.A. Carson said, “It would have been inconceivable in the first century to call yourself a Christian but not join a church.”
If you are resistant to expressing yourself as a member of the body of Christ, then it’s doubtful that you are a member of the Body of Christ. If you are averse to expressing yourself as a member of a NT church, then you’re probably not a member of the NT Church. If you will not gather regularly with Christ’s people, then you should not consider yourself as one of Christ’s people. Now, going to church no more makes you a Christian than wearing a Bronco’s jersey makes you a player for the Denver Broncos. However, involvement in a NT kind of local church will characterize a Christian.
The Holy Spirit in Christians is like a magnet who draws us towards doing local church life with other Christians. “There is one Spirit…” (Eph. 4:4). That Spirit moves in every Christian, propelling us inward towards each other into biblical one-anothering as NT local churches. It’s not something that the Christian creates. It’s just what the Spirit does by the sovereign church-building of Jesus Christ. So, Christians love the church and they love church.
7. A love and hunger for the Bible.
“I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Ps. 119:47-48).
One thing is sure about God’s people: they love God’s word (Ps.19:9-10; 119:34-36, 97, 103-104, 161-162). A Christian is someone whose heart beats for Scripture. The beat may be slower at times, but it does not flatline. Christians are awakened to God’s word because they are awakened to God (1 Cor. 2:14-16). They want to sit under biblical preaching corporately and biblical reading privately.
Maturing in God’s word characterizes God’s people. As a child matures physically through the intake of food, so the Christian will mature spiritually as they take in the Bible (1 Pet. 2:1-3). A person never hungering for the Bible is spiritually dead in the same way that a person never hungering for food is physically dead. Hunger characterizes the living in matters spiritual and physical.
8. A love for people, especially other Christians.
“By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).
The Apostle John could not be more clear. In addition to practicing biblical righteousness, a Christian is someone whom God has transformed to have an ever-growing love for people, especially the family of Christ. We cannot receive the magnitude of love from Christ in forgiveness, and that freely, while remaining unchanged or unloving towards people.
9. Obedience to God’s word.
“[B]y this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4).
By the rebirthing power of the Holy Spirit, a Christian is someone who delights to obey the word of God. Because of indwelling sin, our delight will not always match our doing. Sadly, we will often fail to obey we desire. And, though this grieves the Christian deeply, there will be a growing pattern of obedience, by God’s grace.
John MacArthur has written, “Freedom in Christ, then, is not freedom to sin but freedom from sin—freedom to live as God intends, in truth and holiness (cf. 1 Pet. 1:16).”
10. A persevering in the Christian faith.
“But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15).
The story of redemptive history, in part, is the story of God sovereignly keeping those who could not keep themselves. Saving faith is a sustained faith. A Christian is someone who has, and will be, kept as such even through the thickest of times (1 Pet. 1:3-7). There is no such thing as, “I used to be a Christian,” because there is such thing as God losing his children (John 10:26-30).
One final encouragement: consider evaluating yourself with the help of other mature Christians who know you. When taking ski lessons, you hire someone else to help you. And you don’t hire another beginner skier, but an expert. Consider asking your pastor or biblically mature Christian friend to assist you in this. And when you do, consider asking your pastor and closest church leader something like, “If you had to do my funeral tomorrow, could you say in good conscience and with biblical certainty that I was with Christ in heaven? If so, why? If not, why not?”
More could be said when it comes to soul check-ups. And if you find yourself without evidence of conversion, be comforted that Christ holds out his loving, pierced hands to you, ready to eagerly receive you and forgive all your sin through his substitute death on the cross and resurrection. He loves you. Abandon your sin and throw yourself on him, trusting in him alone. By faith in him, you will be rendered right with God, a child of God, and one day welcomed into heaven for all eternity.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 5:21-6:2).