Am I Really a Christian? How Could Anyone Tell?

“You know, sometimes I will listen to that man’s sermons, especially when you can almost hear God’s anointing being poured out on him, and I almost have to wonder whether or not I really am a Christian.”

This only-somewhat-serious remark was once offered in passing by a friend of mine in an otherwise laid-back social setting; the topic immediately at hand was a particularly-convicting line of Christian thought that this speaker had so very clearly articulated. (For the record, the man referred to on this particular occasion was John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and Desiring God.) Right away, I knew exactly what she meant, except that I probably would have taken her remark a bit further; I find that a similar response often arises within my heart whenever I read good Christian authors (C.S. Lewis, Jerry Bridges, Paul Tripp, Tim Keller, etc.) or play various faith-related podcasts on my laptop. For that matter, the members of The Crossing’s preaching team regularly bring conviction upon me with their Sunday morning messages, occasionally causing me to wonder if perhaps I’m self-deceived.

So have you noticed yet how faithfully living out the Christian life is absolutely rife with maintaining various intellectual tensions and truth-balancing acts?

On the one hand, God is very clearly One (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and yet on the other hand, He has also chosen to reveal Himself as Three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:13-17). God is entirely sovereign over all people and events in the entirety of human history, right down to any one individual’s choice to accept or reject Him (Romans 9:14-18), and yet we are also fully and completely responsible for the decisions we make (Joshua 24:15).

These are just two of the tensions you hear about often, but I’d like to humbly suggest that there is another tension that is worthy of consideration at the level where the rubber meets the road in day-to-day living, namely “Am I really saved? Does the Spirit of God really, truly live in my heart…or am I just kidding myself?”

Again, on the one hand, we are commanded to examine ourselves to make sure that we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5) and yet as we do so, we know for certain that Satan breathes out lies against us constantly and accuses the faithful day and night (Revelation 12:10). So we are instructed to confidently approach Jesus in prayer and ask Him to intercede on our behalf whenever we hear something like “Come on! You can’t possibly be worthy of God’s love! How could you even think that you might be a true Christian? Think of all the horrible sins you’ve committed!” So the tension comes again when we try to decide: Is this conviction we’re feeling the Spirit of God, urging us to submit our souls to rigorous examination…or is it more lies of the enemy, and now it’s time to go to Matthew 16:23, a.k.a. “Get thee behind me, Satan?”

I suppose we are all prone to hearing these kinds of lies breathed out against us, perhaps no more so than when we seek to serve and honor Christ through prayer and service to others. For whatever this is worth, I have found that a lot of people struggle to discern if they are truly one of God’s elect or if they are kidding themselves, simply going through the motions…attending various church activities to increase their social network, get free donuts and/or bagels on Sunday mornings, have some more spots filled in on their weekly calendars, meet nice people of the opposite sex and/or maybe hand out a few business cards to promising leads. We know without doubt that every church is filled with both saved and unsaved people (Matthew 7:21-23)…so how do I know for sure which category I fall into?

Now along comes Francis Chan with his book Forgotten God to prod me even further on this issue and to helpfully put his finger squarely on one area where I personally feel somewhat weak, namely the discernible presence of God’s Holy Spirit taking up residence in my heart. Affirming the message that Luke captures in the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts, Chan writes:

I believe we need to reexamine our faith just as much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door need to reconsider theirs. Remember, the Bereans were lifted up as good examples because they questioned the things they were taught. They made sure that even the apostle’s teachings were in line with what was written: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11 NIV).

The central premise of Chan’s book is that the modern church has “forgotten” the Holy Spirit. While we may readily acknowledge the reality of His existence in our creeds and affirmations, modern Christians seem content to leave it at that, failing to enter into fellowship with the Spirit in such a way that His holy power would be effectually released, not only in the coming eternal reign of Jesus Christ but right here and now, today, in our day-to-day lives. Chan continues:

I think the worst part is when you get outside the church’s walls and interact with believers and nonbelievers in the same sphere. Can you really tell a difference? If you didn’t recognize their faces from church, would you know from their actions and lifestyle that they were followers of Jesus? Honestly, sometimes I am embarrassed by some of my “Christian” neighbors because my unbelieving neighbors seem more joyful, welcoming, and at peace. Why does this happen? And how is it even possible?

So I’m only a few chapters into his book, and already this guy Chan is punching me right between the eyes. It’s true…I often see more everyday joy in some of my unbelieving friends than I see in myself. Yes, there are times when my attitudes and behaviors so closely resemble those of unbelievers that you could easily be forgiven for wondering if I have been sleeping through all of those church services, seminary classes, podcasts and conferences. So does this mean that I am, in fact, unsaved? Is it time to panic? After all, Paul has made it clear that if we do not believe that Christ has been raised, then we should “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Why continue with all of the outward professions of faith if the inner evidence of saving faith is something I have concocted all on my own just to help me wade through the various disappointments and vicissitudes of life?

I suspect that I very likely will be writing more about Forgotten God in at least one subsequent blog entry, but for now it seems clear that Chan is merely affirming scriptural truth when he says that salvation (in other words, eternal life…or death) hangs on the question of whether or not the Spirit lives within us (1 John 4:13-14).

While I am obviously eager to read more of what Chan has to say, I wanted to pass along something else – also written in plain English – which I have found tremendously useful in assessing my own spiritual condition. It comes from pastor and author John MacArthur, and it is based primarily on truths he gleaned while reading “A Treatise Concerning the Spiritual Affections,” written in 1746 by Jonathan Edwards. Since most of us probably won’t ever pick up a book by Edwards, I for one am grateful that MacArthur has boiled down much of Edwards’ thoughts into an easy-to-read pamphlet called Is It Real? 11 Biblical Tests of Genuine Salvation. Here are the 11 penetrating questions that make up the core of MacArthur’s short riff on Edwards:

  1. Have you enjoyed fellowship with Christ and the Father?

  2. Are you sensitive to sin?

  3. Do you obey God’s Word?

  4. Do you reject this evil world?

  5. Do you eagerly await Christ’s return?

  6. Do you see a decreasing pattern of sin in your life?

  7. Do you love other Christians?

  8. Do you experience answered prayer?

  9. Do you experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit?

  10. Can you discern between spiritual truth and error?

  11. Have you suffered rejection because of your faith?

I honestly don’t have the courage to write out how I would score myself on this revealing test, so let’s just leave it at “There’s clearly room for improvement.” I think it goes without saying that no one should ultimately judge their own spiritual state of being based solely on the results of stepping through these 11 questions. Still, I do think that honest answers to these questions can reveal much about our own hearts, whether we want Christ’s Kingdom or our own – just for starters. It’s also helpful to remember that no one knows the true heart of any man except God (1 Samuel 16:7, Revelation 2:23) and that we are all masters of self-deception (Jeremiah 17:9) such that it’s almost a sure bet that we would all score ourselves better than we probably ought to.

If you would like more information, the 11 Questions link I have provided will take you to a page where you can read the MacArthur pamphlet in its entirety; I have not done a word-for-word analysis to make sure that the listed Web page is entirely faithful to the original manuscript, but you can order one of these pamphlets for free (I think) just by contacting Grace to You and asking them to send you a copy. (The Francis Chan book is available from all major booksellers, as well.)

Christians are most certainly not called to an endless cycle of spiritual navel-gazing and hand-wringing. This self-focused tendency is just another form of pride that effectively prevents us from selflessly ministering to others, as we are so busy trying to decide whether or not we really belong to God. But neither are we to forget our tendency to drift away from God (Psalm 53:3) and pursue our own agendas; comparing our spiritual health to the truths revealed in Scripture and faithfully articulated by good Christian authors – as well as other trusted Christians who know us well – is both proper and necessary. If, for example, one were to run down the Edwards/MacArthur list above and come up with, say, eight or more solid “No” answers, it might be time to reassess, talk to a pastor or other trusted Christian…or better yet, drop to our knees and plead desperately for a true heart of repentance.

Luke 11:9-13 (ESV)
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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