You Are Not a Christian Just Because You Say That You Are
MY E-MAIL IN-BOX is clogged with opportunities to "become something." Just this month, I have received messages from friends and spambots both offering me the chance to become:
I probably will not take advantage of any of these opportunities. I am already an ESPN.com "insider," and I don't have time to play fantasy football or be a trustee (though come to think of it, maybe I should follow up on the $10 million).
Still, consider what would happen if I were to avail myself of these kinds of offers: my relationship with those groups would become redefined, and I would clearly be a member. Not a lot of ambiguity here. Such group membership is a matter of self-selection: you either opt "in" or you opt "out." Right now, both Netflix and I have a good grasp on the status of our relationship (or nonrelationship) because I have never opted in. But here's the kicker: being a Christian is not exactly like that.
To be sure, there is great clarity on God's side of the equation. He is not confused about who does and does not belong to him. In the Bible, we read that God has a definite record of those who will receive eternal life through Christ. When the seventy-two disciples return to Jesus, giddy from their recent ministry success, Jesus tells them, "Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Luke 10:20). Elsewhere, Jesus tells the disciples, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14). God knows who is truly a Christian and who is not.
That's why the apostle Paul can speak of "Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life" (Phil. 4:3). So, too, the apostle John, in his vision of the final judgment before the great white throne, refers to a "book of life" which contains all the names of those who are truly God's people. Everyone whose name is not listed in this book will be thrown into the lake of fire, while everyone whose name does appear will gain entrance into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 20:15; 21:27). So God knows who belongs to him and who doesn't. He's not short on clarity.
However, the same cannot be said about us. We don't see ourselves that clearly. In fact, our self-awareness is often comically limited.
Have you ever realized that you have been walking around with toilet paper stuck to your shoe? Or with your shirt on backward? Or with a blob of ketchup on your cheek? I've done each of these at one time or another. When someone finally had mercy on me and pointed out the problem ("Hey, moron, your shirt is on backward!") I felt a small-to-moderate sense of embarrassment. I had been walking around assuming certain things about myself (suave, devastatingly handsome, capable of dressing myself properly), but in that moment I discovered that reality was otherwise (not cool at all). Everyone around me could see the truth about me clearly, but I was oblivious.
I remember one occasion in particular that God used to teach me about the sometimes gaping difference between self-perception and reality. I had just become an assistant pastor. I had had the opportunity to lead a Bible study of about two hundred people in our church. I enjoyed leading the discussion and answering questions. By all accounts the Bible study seemed to go pretty well.
The next day I was sitting in the office of a friend of mine named Matt, and I asked him to give me some feedback about the study from the previous night. He told me that he, too, thought that it had gone well, and then he mentioned how surprised he was by the way I led the group. "Mike," he said, "I could not believe how warm and friendly and connected you seemed. You really looked like you were glad to be there and engaged with people well. I was surprised."
Matt meant these words as a compliment, but I didn't take them that way. I pushed back: What did he mean that he was surprised? I am always warm and friendly and engaged! I always look like I am glad to be there! I prided myself on engaging people well. After all, I've always known that I wasn't going to get ahead in life based on overwhelming intelligence; people with my limited wattage need to be warm and friendly.
But Matt didn't see me like this. He explained that, though he liked me personally, he had always perceived me as aloof and a little distant. To make matters worse, he began to give me some very specific examples of times that he had observed me behaving that way.
As you can imagine, I was disturbed by Matt's words. After I left his office, I turned his words over and over in my mind. Finally, I came to the conclusion that he was crazy. Or if he was not crazy, at least he was overly critical. Even though Matt was a trusted friend who had known me for ten years, I was convinced that my perception of myself was right and his perception was wrong.
That afternoon I had a lunch appointment with Steve, who was another member of the church. I didn't know Steve very well at the time, but in the course of his involvement with the church he had had plenty of opportunities to observe me in action. While we ate, I relayed to Steve the details of my earlier conversation with Matt. When I finished, I asked him if he agreed. I wasn't really an aloof and distant person, was I?
Much to my surprise, Steve nodded his head furiously. Through a mouthful of enchiladas he said, "Yup. That's absolutely you. You're totally that way. Aloof... I like that. That's a good word for it." He then shared in detail why he thought I was. By the time my lunch with Steve was over, I was convinced that he and Matt were right about me.
I was also devastated. My perception of myself had been laughably inaccurate. I had been sure that I was Mr. Friendly, but everyone else thought that I was Mr. Distant-and-Intimidating. How could I have been so completely blind to the truth about myself? Have you ever felt that way?
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us about a group of people who come to realize the truth about themselves only after it is too late. He sets the scene for a harrowing account of what the final judgment will be like:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matt. 25:31-32)
The sheep here represent God's people, the true followers of Christ. They are praised by their master and ushered into "the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34). Theirs is the fate that we want!
The goats, on the other hand, do not fare well at all. Listen to what Jesus says to them:
Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?" Then he will answer them, saying, "Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt. 25:41-46)
There are many things that we could say about this passage, which is why we'll return to it in chapter 6. But two things are important for us to see right now. First, everyone gathered before that throne either considered themselves to be Christians or at least expected Christ's approval. When Jesus confronted the goats with their eternal destruction, no one threw up their hands and said, "You are right Jesus! I was wrong. I always said that you did not really exist. I never believed in you. I should never have decided to reject you after all!"
None of them were consciously opposed to Jesus. In fact, when they heard Jesus's verdict, they seemed to think that there must have been some mistake. They all showed up for the big event expecting to receive a reward from Jesus. But they were terribly wrong. They were self-deceived. They did not see their own state clearly, and their blindness cost them everything.
Second, notice that Jesus himself is the judge. He is the one who ushers people into eternal life or eternal punishment. The nations gathered before him do not make that decision. There is nothing they can say or do to change his mind. The only thing that matters on that last day is whether Jesus says that you are one of his.
When you stand before Jesus your judge, any evidence you marshal on your own behalf won't matter. You might point to all the times you prayed "The Sinner's Prayer," or the time you walked down the aisle, or your baptism, or the other time you were baptized in case the first one didn't "take," or the youth retreats you attended, or the missions trips you went on. But if, in that final moment, Jesus does not look at you and say, "She is one of my sheep" or "He belongs to me," none of that will matter. You will not be able to argue with the Judge's verdict. Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount:
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." (Matt. 7:21-23)
Can you see what Jesus is saying? It is possible for you to honestly believe that you are a follower of Christ, but not actually be one. It is possible to say to him, "Lord, Lord," but never enter the kingdom of heaven. Merely checking a box and calling yourself a Christian doesn't mean that you really are a Christian.
Recently, a high-profile website was established where people can sign their names and publicly "declare their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ." I suppose that's fine if that's your cup of tea. But God will not refer to such a website on the day of judgment. It is his evaluation of you that ultimately matters, not yours. As Jesus said, only those who do the will of the Father in heaven are really Christians. Everyone else will hear Jesus say, "Depart from me."
I realize that what I'm saying is different from what many churches teach these days. In their well-intentioned desire to make the good news of Jesus available to everyone, many churches make the decision to follow Jesus a little too easy. They make it about the decision. Just say you want to be a Christian, and you are one. Pray these words. Sign this card. Follow those steps. Presto, you are a Christian. End of story. Case closed. Welcome to heaven!
It is true that we need to make a onetime decision to follow Jesus. But a true onetime decision is followed by the everyday decision to follow Jesus. Jesus did not think that it was enough just to superficially identify yourself with him. There is more to being his follower than just a profession of faith. My fear is that too many churches have encouraged people to expect that Jesus will one day say to them, "Well done, faithful servant." But in fact, they will hear him say, "Depart from me." Such people will discover the truth only after it is too late.
Is it possible that you could be one of those people? Could it be that you are not really a Christian? How can you be sure?
Admittedly, this is a complicated subject, and there are lots of ways our thinking can go wrong. One misunderstanding we must guard against concerns the character of Jesus.
Do you remember the classic 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory? (I'm talking about the old freaky one starring Gene Wilder, not the new freaky one starring Johnny Depp.) After our heroes Charlie and Grandpa Joe have survived an arduous tour of the Wonka Chocolate Factory, they go to collect the grand prize that's been promised to them: a lifetime supply of Wonka chocolate. But there's a surprise at the end. Willy Wonka, the factory owner, denies Charlie the prize based on a technicality. The scene goes like this:
Grandpa Joe: Mr. Wonka?
Willy Wonka: I am extraordinarily busy, sir.
Grandpa Joe: I just wanted to ask about the chocolate. Uh, the lifetime supply of chocolate... for Charlie. When does he get it?
Willy Wonka: He doesn't.
Grandpa Joe: Why not?
Willy Wonka: Because he broke the rules.
Grandpa Joe: What rules? We didn't see any rules, did we, Charlie?
Willy Wonka: Wrong, sir! Wrong! Under section 37B of the contract signed by him, it states quite clearly that all offers shall become null and void if—and you can read it for yourself in this photostatic copy: I, the undersigned, shall forfeit all rights, privileges, and licenses herein and herein contained, et cetera, et cetera... Fax mentis incendium gloria cultum, et cetera, et cetera... Memo bis punitor delicatum! It is all there, black and white, clear as crystal! You stole fizzy lifting drinks! You bumped into the ceiling which now has to be washed and sterilized, so you get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!
Grandpa Joe: You're a crook. You're a cheat and a swindler! That's what you are! How could you do something like this, build up a little boy's hopes and then smash all his dreams to pieces? You're an inhuman monster!
Willy Wonka: I said, "Good day!"
Here is the misunderstanding to guard against: Jesus is not like Willy Wonka. Our God is not a God who delights in keeping people in the dark, only to pull the rug out from under them in the last minute and deny them the rewards he promised. He is not a miser looking to withhold blessings on a technicality.
Instead, God delights in saving his people. Jesus says that he "came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). That is why he came to earth, to save us from our sins. If he didn't want to save us, he would not have come in the first place. Jesus is not a cheat. He is not a swindler. He is not an inhumane monster. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Furthermore, Jesus has graciously given us extremely clear guidance about who truly belongs to him. In the verses leading up to the passage we read a moment ago, in which Jesus says he will tell some to depart, he explains, "You will recognize them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:20). In the verses following this same passage, Jesus gives an illustration of a man who hears Jesus's words and "does them" being like a wise man who builds on solid rock. Meanwhile, the man who hears Jesus's words but "does not do them" is like a foolish man who builds on sand (Matt. 7:24-27). There are no hidden clauses here. Jesus is looking, quite simply, for "the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
The very fact that Jesus tells us about the danger we are in is proof of his love and mercy. He has given us these warnings and he wants us to heed them. His words should ring in our souls like a fire alarm. His cautions are meant to help us reach that last day without being self-deceived.
For the same reasons, the apostle Paul instructs the church in Corinth, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves" (2 Cor. 13:5). Likewise, the apostle Peter instructs, "Be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 1:10-11). Paul and Peter loved the people who would read their letters, and so they warned them to look carefully at their lives before it was too late.
That is what I hope to do throughout this book. I want to look at some of the places in Scripture where Jesus tells us exactly on what basis we can examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith. Ideally, this should be done in the context of a local church. Because we are not always the best judges of our own lives and behavior, it is extremely important to have wise and honest Christians around us who can help us see things in our lives that we cannot see on our own. So find someone in your church (or, maybe find a church!) to ask to come along with you on this journey. But first, we have one more bit of legwork to do.
Does Jesus's warning in Matthew 7:21-23 make you uncomfortable? Why?
Why do you think it is not enough to just say that you are a Christian?
Have you ever examined your life to see whether you are really a Christian? If not, why not? If so, what criteria did you use? What did you conclude?
Ask God to forgive you for any ways that you have been wrongly confident about your spiritual state.
Think of one way you could grow in humility and learn to not always trust your own perception of things.
Think about 2 Corinthians 5:21: "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
You will never be righteous enough to please God. But thankfully, Christ's perfect righteousness becomes ours when we come to him in faith. Praise God for that good news!
Talk to a leader or friend in your church and ask for honest, regular feedback about your spiritual life.