Are you a Christian? How about that person over there? They say they are—but are they really?
This question isn’t just an intellectual exercise—it has eternal significance. Will we see our beloved family member in Heaven? Should I believe that politician’s claim to faith?
A couple of weeks ago, in my post “Just Believe,” I stated,
I sadly suspect that many who claim the title “Christian” have merely given intellectual assent to the fact that God exists, and that Jesus lived, died, and lived again. They think they’ve got their “fire insurance” and that they’ve made peace with God, when in fact they don’t even know Him.
This begs the question—how do we tell the difference? Is it even possible for us to know whether or not a person has “accepted Jesus”?
I’m convinced that the only person we can truly, confidently state is or is not saved is ourselves. We look on the outward appearance, but only God knows our hearts. Given that caveat, however, there are some clues we can use to make an educated guess about someone’s eternal destiny.
“I’m a Christian” can mean a number of things—I was born in a “Christian” country. I’m not Jewish or Muslim or an atheist, so I must be a Christian. I go to church. My parents were Christians. I’m a good person. However, 1 Corinthians 12:3 gives a more accurate test: Does the person actually claim that Jesus is Lord?
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
Of course, anyone reading this verse out loud will end up saying both phrases—Paul doesn’t mean a literal speaking of these words. A more accurate interpretation asks what a person means when they talk about Jesus.
Another clue is someone’s priorities. What do they spend their time and money on? I’ve heard a number of preachers claim that checkbooks never lie! I’m not saying that a bit of fun is bad—in fact, I just wrote about how much Pete and I enjoyed our recent vacation. But overall—what claims someone’s allegiance? Are they generous? Do they spend time hanging out with God? Do they set aside their own desires to serve others? This is what James was referring to when he stated that “faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26b).
A third indication of someone’s spiritual status is the presence or absence of fruit in their life. Are they growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? Are they becoming more like Jesus? We each have different starting points, but if the Holy Spirit is active in their life, they should be making progress.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is do they obey Jesus’ teachings? In John 14:23 Jesus replies, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And what is His teaching?—to love God and to love our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-39). In fact, Jesus Himself explained how everyone will know who His disciples are:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
None of these clues considers details of interpretation such as how they were baptized, how they view communion, or what denomination they belong to. When you come right down to it, these things don’t matter. I highly doubt we’ll have divisions and factions in Heaven! Rather, they look for outward indications of the Holy Spirit’s presence in someone’s life.
It’s pretty painless to apply these litmus tests to someone else, but the more important question is, how do I measure up? If someone else was questioning my faith, would they be convinced? Jesus told us to love other people and to go make disciples. In light of those commands, we should certainly care whether or not someone else is following God. Still, I keep coming back to the story about Jesus, John, and Peter in John 21:20-22:
Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. … When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” (italics mine)