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In Or Out? (Or Who Is a Real Christian And Who Is Not?)

It matters whether you are in or out. It matters for you and it matters for the rest of us. No one wants to be one of those people who presumed themselves in when in fact they were out. Those people – despite their sincere protestations – will hear from Jesus the scariest words in all the Bible:

‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:23 ESV)

The Bible takes this matter very seriously.

The entire book of 1 John in the New Testament was written to address the confusion and concern that was generated when a large group of “Christians” in a particular region departed from the established churches in order to begin a rival movement. F.F. Bruce comments on the situation in his introduction to the letter:

“What is reasonably certain is that the recipients lived in some district of the province of Asia, and that shortly before the sending of this message some of their most talented brethren had left them in order to form a new community of communities devoted to a specially attractive line of teaching which represented an advance on anything that Christians had been taught thus far. When we say it was specially attractive, we mean that it was specially attractive to people of some intellectual attainment. For the ordinary rank and file of Christians it had less appeal; indeed it was not intended for them, but rather for an elite of spiritual initiates. It deviated from the teaching which had previously been current among the churches in Asia in theory and practice alike.”

Who then were the real Christians?

Should this new movement be treated as just another perspective? Or should they be viewed as heretics and outsiders?

Should these new ideas be admitted as just another legitimate interpretation? Or should they be viewed as anathema to the true and living faith?

Such things mattered in the early church and they are beginning to matter once again within the fractured world of evangelicalism.

Based largely, though not exclusively on the counsel found in John’s First Epistle to the believers in Asia Minor we may confidently assert the following:

To be a real Christian a person must:

1. Believe that Jesus is the Son of God

It is clear that this was a first order issue for the Apostle John. In the first chapter of his Gospel he said:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” (John 1:1–2 ESV)

He went on to identify the “Word” as the “Son of God” in John 1:14:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 ESV)

Obviously John intended this language in a metaphorical sense. He was not claiming that Jesus was the Son of God in the sense that a human father and mother might produce a child. He was saying that Jesus was God and also with God – equal and yet distinct. To call him “Son” also spoke to his being sent by God to accomplish a particular mission; John speaks of that early on in his Gospel:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16–17 ESV)

A real believer affirms that Jesus is God and was sent by God into the world to accomplish the plan of redemption. That is fundamental to being a Christian. John said as much in his first Epistle:

“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” (1 John 4:15 ESV)

2. Believe that Jesus was truly human

A real Christian must also believe that Jesus was truly human. Many of the early Christian heresies were born out of the difficulty that people had in accepting this particular doctrine.  Some of the philosophies current at that time in the Roman world pictured the physical realm as being lower and less dignified than the spiritual realm. It was thus an offense to contemporary sensibilities to believe that Jesus – the Son of God – would have taken on human flesh. That he would have eaten food and processed it and expelled it in the ordinary way. Surely not, they said.

But for the plan of salvation to be effective it was necessary for the Son of God to take on flesh. Since a human being rebelled then a human being must obey – and a human being must die.

This was no point of “mere interpretation” for the Apostle John. He said quite clearly:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (1 John 4:2–3 ESV)

This is an “in or out” issue.

To be a real believer is to confess that the Son of God took on human flesh. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves and he paid for what we had done in his body on the cross. Believing that is fundamental to being a Christian.

3. Believe that Jesus is the Christ

A true Christian must also believe that Jesus is the Christ – the Son of David, the Anointed One, the King of the Jews. In essence, to believe that Jesus is the Christ is to believe that he is the One who has come in accordance with the Scriptures. He is not “Jesus From Out of The Blue”; or “Jesus as I imagine him”; he is “Jesus from the Hebrew Bible”.

Many people treat Jesus as a wax nose. They twist him this way and that. They assign to him this value or that. But the real Jesus is not so easily co-opted. He is bound and defined by an abundance of Biblical anticipations. Jesus himself embraced these anticipations. He said to the Jewish crowd:

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39 ESV)

To be a Christian – to have eternal life – you must come to the Christ of Scripture. The Apostle John made this an “in or out” issue.

“Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:23 ESV)

Or stated more positively:

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” (1 John 5:1 ESV)

Jesus is the Seed of the Woman (Genesis 3:15), he is the Seed of Abraham (Genesis 22:18), he is the Son of David (2 Samuel 7:12). He is the Christ of Scripture. To believe in him – to believe in that – is fundamental to being a Christian.

4. Believe that Jesus died for our sins

To be a Christian you have to believe what the Bible says about the identity of Jesus and also what the Bible says about the mission of Jesus. The Apostle John was very clear about what Jesus had come to accomplish. He said:

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 ESV)

The Father sent the Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

That is a remarkably succinct statement of the mission and purpose for the first coming of Christ. Scholars may debate as to the best translation of the Greek word hilasmos. The ESV translates it as “propitiation”; the NIV translates it as “an atoning sacrifice”. Both translations however communicate quite clearly that in some way the death of Jesus on the cross definitively dealt with the offending issue of human sin. Sin separates people from a holy God, in fact the Bible says that God is of purer eyes than to look upon evil – Habakkuk 1:13 – so if people are in their sins than they are apart from God in a significant way. That is why the earliest proclamations of the Gospel were careful to communicate that at the moment Christ died on the cross:

“the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:38 ESV)

The message is clear: whatever separated us from God has now been satisfactorily dealt with. The way is clear and all may come home.

Believing that the death of Jesus was for our sins and that it makes it possible for us to have peace with God is fundamental to being a Christian.

5. Believe that Jesus rose from the dead

Given that the heretics being addressed in John’s First Epistle appear to have denied the bodily incarnation of Jesus Christ it is not terribly surprising that he does not address the issue of the bodily resurrection. These people didn’t believe that Jesus had a body to begin with.

Thankfully the Apostle Paul was careful to include this in the category of primary doctrines. He wrote to the Corinthians saying:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–5 ESV)

He said similarly to the Romans:

“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9 ESV)

Thus we can say with confidence that believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is fundamental to being an authentic Christian.

6. Believe that Jesus is Lord

In the same passage quoted above the Apostle Paul mentions belief in the Lordship of Jesus as fundamental to being a Christian.

“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9 ESV)

It is likely that what Paul means to communicate by insisting on the Lordship of Jesus is covered and assumed within John’s insistence that people recognize Jesus as the Christ of Scripture. The word “Christ” literally means “anointed one” but it was used in the Bible to refer to the anointed and recognized leaders within the covenant community. The King was anointed. The priests were anointed. To be anointed was to be recognized as the leader.

Thus Paul and John are saying similar things using slightly different terms. To be a Christian is to submit to the leadership and Lordship of the Christ. It is to receive his word as law. As Jesus himself said:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46 ESV)

One cannot be a true believer if one refuses to come under the authority of Jesus Christ. To do so is fundamentally what it means to be a Christian.

7. Demonstrates faith through love, obedience and endurance

The Bible is at great pains to demonstrate that real faith is not a matter of mere intellectual assent to certain truths. James, the brother of Jesus said:

“You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19 ESV)

There is an orthodoxy that is merely the faith of demons and therefore all of the Apostles – and particularly John in his Epistles – are eager to show that real faith always manifests in certain observable behaviours.

John said for example:

“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” (1 John 5:18 ESV)

John understood a commitment to and a progress in Christian obedience as a necessary evidence of authentic faith. To be clear, he did not believe in perfectionism – in fact he was so bold as to say:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8–10 ESV)

So progress, yes, but perfectionism, no. A real Christian is making progress in the area of obedience to Christ’s commands and is taking ready advantage of his mercy wherever there are faults and failures.

A real Christian is also demonstrating a genuine love for other believers:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7 ESV)

“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness.” (1 John 2:9 ESV)

A real believer will also persevere. The fact that these individuals in Asia Minor left the church was evidence enough for John that they were not true believers:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19 ESV)

Real believers stay the course and real believers become strong; eventually overcoming the world:

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4–5 ESV)

Real faith shows up in the life of the believer in predictable and observable ways. It is no mere intellectual assent. If the seed of the Gospel has truly been planted in the heart of an individual he or she will grow in love for God and for fellow believers, he or she will make progress in their obedience to the Word of Christ and he or she will grow, become strong, endure and eventually even triumph over the power and corruption of the world – thanks be to God!

Conversely, though with no need for amplification:

A person cannot legitimately be thought of as a Christian if he or she:

1. Denies that Jesus is the Son of God

2. Denies that Jesus came in human flesh

3. Denies that Jesus is the Christ

4. Denies that Jesus died for our sins

5. Denies that Jesus rose from the dead

6. Denies that Jesus is Lord

7. Does not love, obey, serve or endure

If the first list is true then the second list is a given.

Nevertheless, a word of caution is required. There is a difference between ignorance and denial. The thief on the cross in Luke 23 may not have known everything that constitutes essential Christian faith – but he did not deny anything essential to Christian faith. He knew that Jesus was of God. He knew that he himself was a great sinner and he knew that only the Christ on the cross could save him. What else he knew is not clear. What Jesus said to him however is beyond dispute:

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)

Immaturity is not heresy.

There ought to be patience, grace and mercy toward people who see through a glass darkly and grow and learn more slowly than we were originally created and designed to do. And yet, if certain doctrines are held and taught despite clear admonishment rooted in the teachings of the Apostles – then those teachings and those teachers must be considered heretical. Outside. We cannot believe the Bible and not believe that. The Apostle John said:

“Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:6 ESV)

If a person will not be corrected and corralled by the Apostolic revelation, then he or she is a heretic. Such a person is unsaved and outside.

Lord have mercy!


Pastor Paul Carter

For the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast going verse by verse and chapter by chapter through whole books of the Bible visit the TGC Canada website. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can also find it on iTunes.