There are many people today who claim to be Christians, but are they? In 1997, 85% of the U.S.A. claimed to be “Christian.” In that survey, people who responded positively included Roman Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and everything else in-between. Can you guess the state with the highest % claiming to be Christian? Utah, with 79.6% claiming to be Christian.
Let’s be very clear – there are some good people who do good things that are part of the Latter Day Saints or the Jehovah’s Witness organizations. But not everyone who claims to be a Christian really is. In Matthew 7 Jesus says:
21″Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
So if it is possible to say you believe in Jesus but not really be a Christian, and if it is possible to do good things and be a good person and not be a Christian, what are the marks of a true Christian? In his first letter, John tells us that there are 3 marks that identify a true Christian:
Truth means believing the right things about God and about Jesus. I had a conversation recently with someone who believes in God but doesn’t believe that God revealed himself as a man named Jesus. There are many people who don’t believe that Jesus is God. But the Bible is clear that Jesus, although a man with flesh and blood, was God. I’ve run across many people who have trouble with the exclusive claims of Christianity, but it is what it is. The Bible makes it clear that all roads DO NOT lead to God. There is only one way and that is by faith in Jesus.
Righteousness is the act or conduct of holiness and purity. It really comes down to a personal commitment to follow what God has set out as His standard for behavior. It is not enough to believe in our heads the right stuff about Jesus – our hearts have to follow. And changed hearts yield changed behavior, where we come to the place that we no longer desire to do things our way but strive to be more and more like Jesus.
Love means acting towards others the way Jesus acts towards people. Love is NOT a sappy feeling. In fact, emotion has little to do with love. Emotion ebbs and flows. Relationships would be short-term indeed if we thought of love purely as emotion. As any couple can tell you – emotions can change in a “loving” relationship. One week it’s all good, the next week things aren’t so good. But biblical love is not about emotion – it’s more about selfless service. Love puts the needs and good of the “other” above oneself.
What marks a true Christian? What you believe, how you obey God, and how you act towards people. These 3 items have been repeated over and over and over again all through this letter. In fact, John uses a spiral pattern all through his letter to keep returning to his main points.
1. Truth – …which we have seen with our eyes and which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life… (1 John 1:1)
2. Righteousness – …The man who says, ‘I know him’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him… (1 John 2:4)
3. Love – …Whoever loves his brother lives in the light… (1 John 2:10)
1. Truth – …Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son. (1 John 2:22)
2. Righteousness – …No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him… (1 John 3:6)
3. Love – …If anyone has material possessions and sees is brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
1. Truth – …Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist. (1 John 4:2-3)
2. Love – …Since God loved so us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:11-12)
At the end of his letter, John writes:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5:1-5)
Truth – Jesus is the Christ.
Righteousness – Obeying God’s commands.
Love – is God’s command!
All three marks must be present in a genuine Christian. What happens if you have one mark but omit the others?
1. Truth – we have a word for people who say they believe one thing but don’t act it out – hypocrite
2. Righteousness – When you take care to follow all of God’s commands but don’t necessarily believe the right things or love other people…you’re a legalistic spiritualist (like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day)
3. Love – When you act right towards others but leave our truth and righteousness you’re a social do-gooder, but not necessarily a Christian.
All three marks must be present in a genuine Christian!
So what can you do? What does this mean for you and me?
1. Check what you believe. This one isn’t up to me to convince you, it’s a matter of faith. The Holy Spirit is the one who convinces and convicts us to faith. You cannot simply wake up one morning and decide, “I think I’m going to believe that Jesus is God in the flesh and that his death on the cross was a way for me to be forgiven for my immoral thoughts and behavior.” But if you feel God tugging at you and you say, “Yes, I believe,” then you are holding on to the truth that John talks about.
2. Make sure you’re living in righteousness – that your behavior matches up to the conduct God asks of us. That means when we know that we’re doing something that isn’t right, something that wouldn’t make God happy, we knock it off. That is the simplest way to define obedience. How does Nike define obedience? “Just do it.”
3. Make sure you’re loving people the way God loves people. That means we go out of our way to help meet people’s needs. We sacrifice ourselves to give good things to others.
No one is perfect, and these marks will never be a perfect trifecta leading to the perfect super-Christian. We should, however, see these three marks permeating and defining our lives, so that we are recognized more by these three qualities than by anything else.
How about you? Which mark do you need to see realized more in your life?