- Is it right to expect certain behaviors, attitudes and actions from people who profess to believe in Christ?
- Is believing more than correct thoughts about God and Jesus?
“Jesus said to the people who believed in him, ‘You are truly (ἀληθῶς) my disciples if you remain faithful (μείνητε) to my teachings’” (John 8:31 NLT).
These questions are important on a number of levels.
1. Counseling: In counseling others, I am often trying to understand why an individual displays consistent patterns of thought and behavior contrary to God’s will. How can I hold someone accountable for ways of thinking and behaviors produced by the Spirit of God if he has never truly come to faith in Christ? When I do not see, for example, evidence of a conflict like the one described in Galatians 5:17, I want to know if the individual has been genuinely converted to Christ.
2. Church membership: Another level relates to our requirements for Church membership. According to our church constitution, “Any person professing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as his/her own personal Savior, giving evidence of regeneration, is in agreement with the Statement of Faith, Constitution, and By-Laws of this Church and having been baptized as a believer shall be eligible for membership.”
What kind of evidence of regeneration should we look for?
Regeneration refers to rebirth, being born again (born from above) or born of the spirit (John 3:1-8). It is the new creation of God (II Cor. 4:3-7; 5:17-18). In our natural state by human birth, we are “dead in trespasses and sins” until we are “made alive” (regenerated) by Christ when we place faith in Him (Eph. 1:13,14, 2:1ff.; I Jn. 5:11-13). God is the source of regeneration (Eph. 2:1,8; Titus 3:5-6).
Is it right to expect evidence of regeneration? Are we obligated to accept a person’s profession of faith because he tells us his story of salvation? If we avoid making these kinds of judgments, do we run the risk of joining believers and unbelievers in covenant membership? Is this part of the reason why so many Churches are ineffective in the ministry of the gospel? Unregenerate and regenerate minds see life differently.
Consider the following:
Profession of faith does not always mean possession of faith:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).
“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?” (James 2:14). “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:19-20).
“just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions” (Matt. 7:20). “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT).
What do these verses imply about one who truly comes to faith in Christ?
- Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”
- Luke 18:13,14 – “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ ”I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.’”
- II Corinthians 4:7 – “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
- I Peter 5:5 – “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”
- I Corinthians 6:19-20 – “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
Scripture offers objective measures for confirming genuine believers:
- The primary direction and characteristics of a person’s life- I Jn. 3:9
- Works of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit – Gal. 5:19-24.
- The wisdom from below vs. the wisdom from above – Ja. 3:12-18.
- The works of darkness vs. the fruit of the Light – Eph. 5:5-11.
- The unrighteous – I Cor. 6:9-11.
- Love for the world vs. love of the Father- I Jn. 2:15-17.
- Love for other believers – I Jn.3:14; 5:1.
- Keeping God’s commandments – I Jn. 2:4, Ti. 1:16.
Five desires found in true believers: A practical summary for easy communication
- To please God (II Cor. 5:9)
- To know God’s Word (I Pe. 2:1-2)
- To be with God’s people (Heb. 10:25;I Jn 5:1)
- To share the gospel (Matt. 28:19-20)
- To overcome sin (I Jn. 3:9)
While it is clearly possible for a true believer to have serious moments of disobedience and unfruitfulness, the focus of the lists above is on the primary emphasis of one’s life (Rom. 7:19; I Jn. 2:1; II Pet. 1:5-10).
If the overall direction and characteristics of a person’s life is described by the negative side in the 8 lists above, the person does not have any firm reason to believe that he or she is saved.
If my life testifies against my profession—the apostle Paul’s words apply: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves.” (II Cor. 13:5).
Some other considerations:
- Most apostates will have attitudes of defiance and rebellion (see: Heb. 3:12-14). This is true except in the case of those whom Satan disguises (Mt. 7:15; II Cor. 11:13-15).
- If an individual in question displays very little shame or sorrow in regard to sin and very little desire for God and His Word, concerns should be raised (II Cor. 7:10-11; I Pet. 2:1-3).
- The person who openly practices sin without repentance should be encouraged not to claim identification with Christ (II Tim. 2:19b, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness”).
- When trying to reach someone in question, point him to the above lists to prompt self-examination.
We must recognize how close someone can come toward salvation without ever genuinely receiving it. People can come into the Christian community and culturally adjust by learning acceptable practices and words, and yet deceive both themselves and the community as to the genuineness of their salvation.
The most sobering illustration of this is Judas. Jesus revealed to the twelve that one of them would betray Him (John 13:21). Did the disciples all say, “We know who that is!”? No. According to John 13:22, the disciples were unsure about who Jesus intended. Judas had so cunningly hidden his true identity that none of the others immediately thought of him. A parallel gospel informs us that, “each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’” (Mt. 26:22).
Two primary marks of a true believer are continuation in Christ’s word (obedience) and chastening by the Lord (discipline) (see: Jn. 8:31; I Jn. 2:19; Heb. 12:12).