Pollsters tell us that 75 to 80 percent of Americans will answer “yes” when asked whether or not they consider themselves to be Christians. On that basis, we can reasonably assume that you, the reader of this article probably identify yourself as some kind of Christian. But there is a follow-up question that seems to be missing from most of these polls and it is an incredibly important one for all of us who identify ourselves as believers:
On what basis can you call yourself a Christian?
From what do you derive confidence that you are on your way to heaven? What exactly is the evidence of your faith?
Obviously, for a pollster, that question is too open-ended to lend itself to statistical analysis. But it is a critical question for anyone claiming to be a Christian because Scripture clearly reveals that there are both legitimate and illegitimate evidences of saving faith. The danger is that it is possible for a person to believe themselves on their way to eternal life and yet be completely mistaken. Realizing this, Paul tells the Corinthians to:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. – 2 Corinthians 13:5-8
We must be certain that the evidence of our faith is firmly planted in biblical truth and not in shifting sand. The believer is to make every effort to be sure that the evidences to which we appeal in order to demonstrate genuine faith are truly biblical. Today’s article will look at 10 common answers to the question: On what basis do you believe yourself to be a Christian? These ten statements are common enough answers to that question, but the following answers are in fact, illegitimate for the purpose of demonstrating saving faith. Tragically, the people who use these ideas in order to validate their Christianity are deceived and should not have confidence in their salvation – unless they can add more legitimate proofs. Therefore, in order to avoid false assurance, here are 10 Illegitimate Evidences of True Faith:
1. I was born into a Christian family. Contrary to what some teach and contrary to what many seem to practice, Christianity is not a birthright. Ezekiel 18:1-13 tells us that the son of a righteous man will live or die based on his own walk and not the walk of his father. Verse 3 says, “The soul who sins is the one who shall die.” Despite God’s clear words in Ezekiel, the Jews of Christ’s day had fallen into the error of expecting to be saved on the basis of the fact that they were physical descendants of Abraham. Thus, their statement to Jesus:
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did. – John 8:39
Sometimes error along these lines is a more subtle than blatant appeal to heredity. Many modern Christians assume an understanding of the Gospel on the part of their loved ones because they and their relatives all grew up in a “Christian home.” However, the reality of life is that if the Gospel was not or has not been clearly taught or discussed in that home on a regular basis, those family members might likely have it wrong. The idea that “we all understand the Gospel because we are Christian family” can be a sneaky lie that results in a false gospel.
2. I once repented and obeyed. There are some who look to past spiritual attitudes and actions as evidence of faith. Perhaps they look to the fact that they once prayed the sinner’s prayer and were baptized or perhaps, they were a part of a biblical church. They appeal to this evidence even though, by contrast, their present attitudes and actions do not reflect submission to God. We see this idea vividly illustrated in the Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15) where it is revealed that there are people who initially receive the Word with gladness – they demonstrate a season of repentance, but then fail to bear fruit and the consequence for those who fail to bear fruit is damnation (John 15:5, 6). At the outset of our faith, God is gracious and merciful to honor His promise to accept our repentance, but if we do not continue in righteousness, that temporary season of repentance is no longer a valid evidence of faith. Ezekiel 18:26 tells us that a man might be righteous at the moment, but if he “turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it.”
The true believer will persevere in faithful compliance to all that God requires. All through Scripture, we find examples of people who had seasons of true repentance, but because they did not continue to walk in godliness, they failed to reach the promise of rest (Hebrews 4:1-2).
3. I have participated in spiritual exercises. There are individuals today who look to past religious activities as proof of faith. Baptism, confirmation, church attendance, service in ministry programs, participation in mission trips and even teaching religious education are cited as evidence of true faith. While these activities might in some cases be legitimate practices of a true believer, they are illegitimate as proof of one’s current state before God – especially if these instances occurred in the past. Paul wrote to the Philippians that his confidence did not lie in what he had accomplished in the past, but that he was “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13).
Also, similarly to what was mentioned in point #2, Hebrews 6:18 4-6 tells us that there will be people who go so far as to share “in the Holy Spirit” but who will not persevere to the end. And Jude warns that there will be people who feign Christianity so well that they will participate in “love feasts” – partaking in the Lord’s Table itself – but who are not saved. The fact that you might have practiced acts of religion – even biblically-ordained acts of religion in the past, does not ensure future glorification.
4. I am theologically astute. Genuine faith might still be missing even though one is informed about every doctrinal dispute, can quote obscure theologians and has read the latest Christian best-seller. This person might have a great grasp of the various opinions of men, but likely has not truly understood and appropriated the clear truth of Scripture. The Bible predicted that this scenario would take place in 2 Timothy 3:7 where we read that there will be men who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” This can be a person who knows all about the church, but does not make the church his first priority as Jesus taught. This man is not interested in theology for the purpose of clearly determining God’s will and instruction for life, but because he just enjoys finding out stuff and because the greater the number of varied opinions upon which he can bring into a conversation, the smarter he appears (in his mind).
Beyond participation in and knowledge of all the latest altercations over theology in broader Christianity, it is even possible for a person to be doctrinally orthodox, but not have saving faith. Just because you hold to and can defend every point of TULIP does not necessarily mean that you are walking in submission to God. Christ condemned the Pharisees in Matthew 23, not because of their lack of doctrinal orthodoxy, but because they were hypocrites and lawless. He told them to back up their theological orthodoxy with righteous behavior without hypocrisy (Matthew 23:23-24, 28). The true believer is called to take “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) via Scripture, that means that once the truth of Scripture has been determined, we are then called to obey. We are not called to endless doctrinal dialogue where no conclusion is reached. This kind of theological “astuteness” is an illegitimate evidence of faith.
5. I profess to love God. This is one who claims affection for God and proclaims said affection wherever he can. This is a person who has been told over and over that the key to the gospel is “love” for God and that obedience will passively flow from that “love.” However, this person might not ever take the time to evaluate whether or not he is actively submitting to God, to see if his actions truly demonstrate love. Because true, biblical love is much different than the warm-heartedness which passes for “love” in many circles. We see this illegitimate evidence of faith proposed by even Dr. R.C. Sproul who tells a young woman that she can be confident in her regeneration and election as long as she finds within herself “any affection” for Christ! That is an incredible statement on at least two levels. First, because nowhere does the Bible teach that a person can know for sure whether or not he has been elected – only God knows those that are His and the evidence of our election only comes “if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Hebrews 3:14). Secondly, this affection (some would call it love) for God is a guarantee of nothing. 1 John 4:20 tells us that it is possible for a person to claim to “love God” and yet indeed be a liar on that point. Deuteronomy 29:19 that there are men who boast of a good relationship with God, yet “because that man walks in stubbornness, he will not be forgiven.” This type of evidence is analogous to claiming love for one’s spouse while at the same time being unfaithful. We must understand that love for God is not really love unless we keep His commandments (John 14:15).
6. I have faith in God. Faith is an essential part of the Gospel and faith is necessary for salvation, however if by “faith” a person means simple trust or intellectual assent, this faith is not be genuine. Scripture tells us over and over that legitimate faith will be accompanied by action and that a lack of action (i.e. repentance, obedience, submission) will reveal one’s faith to be false. James makes this extremely clear when he tells his readers to “be doers of the Word and not hearers only” because one who is not a “doer” is deceiving himself. James goes on to state that even demons have an intellectual belief in and a fear of God, but this does not translate into salvation (James 2:19). The Jews of Christ’s day believed and had faith in God, but since this faith did not result in submission, they had no expectation of eternal life. Mere faith, by itself is dead (James 2:17) and a dead faith cannot save (James 2:14).
7. I felt something. So many individuals make reference to a feeling or some other type of subjective personal experience as evidence of genuine faith. Sometimes it is a general feeling of “peace” or sometimes it is a momentary feeling of well-being. But, feelings are not a legitimate evidence of being a true believer. In fact, there are times when God purposefully gives a feeling of security to the unrighteous! (Job 24:23) God also dulls the ears and eyes of the wicked so they cannot understand the truth and are lulled into a false sense of safety (Isaiah 6:10; Matthew 13:15). He even will allow the wicked to prosper for a season (Psalm 73) giving them confidence that they are on the right track, but the reality is just the opposite. In fact, the propensity to follow sensuality (things that can be felt, senses, feelings) is not only an invalid evidence of faith, it is actually more likely to be an evidence of unbelief (2 Peter 2:2).
We cannot trust our feelings and experiences as indicators of true faith even if those experiences include visions or audible voices. This type of subjective phenomena is not a legitimate indication of true faith because this type of special revelation has ceased (1 Corinthians 13:10) and God’s Word holds all that we need for life (2 Peter 1:3).
8. I have sincere intentions. Good intentions? Not good enough. Many people want to serve God on their own terms without taking the time to be absolutely certain that they are walking in complete compliance to all that God has commanded. There are many instances of individuals in Scripture who acted on good intentions yet received the judgment of God. One of the most compelling examples is that of Uzzah, the man who touched the ark of the covenant in order to keep it from falling to the ground and was struck dead on the spot (2 Samuel 6:6). Another is Peter who, as one of the original twelve disciples, made a regular practice of voicing good intentions only to be corrected by Christ – sometimes severely corrected. What purpose could be better intended than Peter’s attempt to protect Christ from being killed? Yet because Peter had not set his “mind on the things of God,” Jesus responded by calling him, “Satan”! (Matthew 16:22-23; Mark 8:32-33) Our intentions are only valid when accompanied by actions that are in submission to the mind of God.
9. I have attempted or accomplished great things for God. Mighty works are not a legitimate evidence of true discipleship primarily because God and man do not have the same standard of what constitutes an important work. Furthermore, it is God who gives the increase anyway, the results of our obedience belong to Him alone. Therefore, great acts of ministry are only great when they conform to God’s standard. Man has the propensity to proclaim efforts made on God’s behalf to be “mighty” or “great” for all sorts of wrong reasons: numbers, longevity, influence, popularity and even wealth, but God evaluates true religion by virtue of conformity to His Word alone. On the Day of Judgment there will be a host of people who cite their “mighty works” as evidence of true faith, yet God will send them to hell because their obedience was selective (Matthew 7:21-23), because their works were motivated by self-promotion (2 Peter 2:3), because they used means other than what God commanded or because they failed to keep the Kingdom as the first priority (Matthew 6:33).
10. I have performed supernatural works. There are people today who cite supernatural events as evidence of true faith. They talk about miraculous protection, healings and other events that contradict the laws of the natural world as proving real Christianity, yet Scripture includes accounts of many who witnessed and even performed miracles but were not saved. For instance, Egyptian magicians were able to mimic the signs and wonders performed by Moses (Exodus 7:11-13) and as one of the disciples, Judas himself performed miracles. Christ foretold that true Christians would have to contend with false (unregenerate) prophets who were able to do evem supernatural works (Mark 13:22; Matthew 24:24). Therefore, even if one possesses the power to heal the sick or to prophesy, those abilities are not evidence of genuine faith.
Have you ever looked to one of these evidences for assurance of your faith? Do you trust in a decision that you made in the past or do you believe your salvation is sure based on what you have accomplished or experienced? Have you heard others mention one or more of the previous ten ideas as proof of their Christianity? If so, you or they might be deceived. It is critical that we remove such false thinking from our minds because the heart of man is deceitful and as men, we can easily be fooled into a false sense of security if we are not careful to thoroughly consult Scripture on these matters. 2 Peter 1:10 instructs believers to “be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure.” And as we examine ourselves “to see whether [we] are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5), we must make every effort to use Scripture to do so. As 1 John 5:13 states, we can know that we have eternal life, but the only way to have that knowledge is to use the true evidence of faith as specified in God’s Word – evidence that will be spelled out in our next article: “So, you call yourself a Christian: Legitimate Evidence of True Faith.”