What distinguishes a true Christian from someone who is self-deceived into thinking they are saved when they are still lost? Do such people really exist or is belief in the basic truths of Christianity enough? Can a Christian live in unrepentant sin? What is saving faith? How do works relate to salvation? Is repentance necessary for salvation? What is self-examination? The debate over “lordship salvation” has brought these questions to the forefront of the church’s thinking. The danger and reality of self-deception is seen in Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23:
“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.'”
When I speak of the marks or signs of a true Christian, I am not talking about what a person does to become saved, but the outward evidences or fruits that come from a person who has been saved. As it turns out, you can judge a book by its cover: “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matt 7:16-17). Good works are the outward evidence that we have been saved: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Our suffering for Christ will be evidence on the day of judgment that God is righteous to accept us into his presence and punish those who persecute us: “This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering” (2 Thess 1:5). Good works serve as evidence on the day of judgment to demonstrate the righteousness of God’s judgment. The descriptions of the saints in Matthew 25:31-46 are the evidences that will be brought out on the day of judgment rather than prescriptions for how one is saved. These things are descriptions of being saved, not prescriptions for how to be saved. We are saved in the context of them, but not by them.
It is only those who abide in Christ’s teachings who will be saved: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples'” (John 8:31). The phrase “had believed” is in the perfect tense describing a past action in contrast to the normal present tense of the verb “believe” in John which describes those who having a living faith and are saved (John 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24; 6:35, 40, 47; 7:38; 11:25-26). We see another example of false faith in John 2:23-24: “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people.” The word “believed” is in the aorist tense which describes a one-time action without reference to the present. That is why Jesus did not “believe” in them because their belief was not a true and abiding one. Their faith was not true saving faith which is trusting in Christ alone for salvation. True faith is a living and active faith that results in good works as James 2:14 says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
But what are these evidences and fruits of which Scripture speaks? I will answer that question in my next article.