All it takes to become a Christian is to believe the Gospel, the Good News about Christ. A person must trust in who Jesus was and what He did for you: He died in your place to pay for your guilt as your Savior, and was raised from the dead as the Lord who gives the Spirit of life to all who believe in Him. Sound simple?
It is, but there is a warning. So much of early Christian teaching about the Gospel involves repentance. The word in the original Greek language doesn’t refer to cleaning up your life prior to presenting yourself to God, nor even to promising to be better in future than you were in the past. The word literally means, “change your mind” or “turn your thinking around.” About what?
•About who God is––a holy and righteous God, who nonetheless loves His creation and seeks their redemption.
•About who we are––people who have done wrong and gone wrong, and deserve God’s just punishment, people who cannot make things right with God on our own; and
•About Jesus––the Son of God, the promised Christ, the Savior of the World, apart from whom no salvation exists.
Some people attempt to merge Christian truth with their presently held beliefs without forgoing any conflicting convictions. The result is either a lifestyle or behavior at odds with God, or even worse––an inoculation by a weak or compromised form of the truth. The person thinks they’re Christian, but in fact is not.
Whenever I’m attempting to diagnose the spiritual condition of a person, I ask myself two questions:
1) “Is he really a Christian?” Does the person have the genuine disease? Does he really understand and believe in his heart the Gospel? And,
2) “Does he look and act like it?” Is the person’s language, behavior and values consistent with God’s? The New Testament assumes that if the tree of your life is good, fruit is expected. It’s reasonable to ask, “Does this person’s faith result in Christlike character (called, “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23), and in making a constructive, spiritual difference in other people’s lives?
The answers to these two questions can be either simply, “yes” or “no” giving us four possibilities about the person under observation. The first and fourth possibilities are the easiest to discern:
#1: “He is genuinely converted and acts like he is.”
He articulates his need for Christ and understands what Jesus has done. He seems to trust in what Jesus did as enough to make him right with God and rests in it. His behavior, though not perfect, appears to respond to God’s directions in the Scriptures. He is growing and progressing in his obedience to Jesus and his love for God and others. The Apostle, Paul clearly falls into this category, having experienced a life-altering conversion upon seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).
Likewise, the fourth area is also somewhat obvious:
#4: “He is not converted and doesn’t act like he is.”
To put it another way, he also is consistent with his beliefs, yet as an unbeliever in Christ. One would expect this person to deny that Jesus was anyone other than a good religious teacher, and might be convinced that there is no God. Or he might embrace an entirely different religion, advocating a way to please God or live life that is foreign to the Bible. Simply put, he makes no bones about not being a Christian. Further, his behavior, his expressed beliefs, his value judgments do not necessarily fall in line with Christian practice. The Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus, murdered Stephen and opposed Paul are examples from this category, as are the Greek philosophers to whom Paul proclaimed the “unknown God” (Acts 17).
The third box describes a more confused individual:
#3: “He is genuinely converted but doesn’t act like he is.”
At some point in the past, this person has understood and believed the Gospel. He has received and embraced the twin gifts of God, forgiveness and new life through the indwelling Spirit. For whatever reasons, either he has not grown out of his past habits or broken free of his sinful pursuits, or he has fallen into them after the truth has taken root in his life. (The Corinthian believers in the New Testament are good examples of these bad examples––people who genuinely believed in Christ and received the Spirit, but who were notoriously troubled morally and spiritually.) So, he lives a scrambled spiritual life, the promises of God and the promptings of God’s Spirit being muted by the voices of this world and the turning over of his mind and will to the world’s desires. An old adage describes him perfectly: “Too much of Christ to be happy in the world, and too much of the world to be happy in Christ.”
The most troubling of all possibilities involves the second box–the deceiving and self-deceived individual:
#2: “He is not converted but acts like he is.”
Perhaps he has grown up in a religious home where he has adopted a Christian culture, or has felt pressured by friends or family members to make certain professions of faith that he did not deeply believe. It is not enough to attend church, or submit to baptism, or even say the right words at appropriate times; a person must develop certain convictions about God, and Jesus and oneself that open the door to simple belief in Christ. One of the original 12 disciples, Judas, a constant companion of the Savior, and one who in the end betrayed him and committed suicide falls into this category. Simon Magus (Acts 8) also seems to have gone through all the right motions, but without rejecting magic or developing basic Christian convictions.
Though four possibilities exist when considering the condition of a person who professes to be a Christian, only one is what Jesus wants. The other three require different prescriptions that address their specific infections.
So ponder the possibilities. How do you help an individual in each category move to #1?