3 Ways to Examine Our and Others’ Faith
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
You Probably Know Someone Like This
Bob (not his real name) was the kind of guy who thought he was a Christian, but really wasn’t. Bob had an opinion of who Jesus was and what he expected him to do with his life, but he lived by his own morality, pursued worldly things, and pursued a life in the comfort of his own standards.
Then he met Tina. Tina and Bob started a relationship. It wasn’t long before the two of them began sleeping together. During this time, God was at work in Bob’s life. He got involved with a local church and was convicted to stop sleeping with Tina. He obeyed God and stopped, but later he found out that she had slept with his best friend, Doug.
God used this betrayal to teach him about grace and forgiveness. Bob began to feeling prompted by God to bring this woman to church. Through this experience Bob sensed a clear and strong message from God, “As much as you feel betrayed by Tina, you have done far worse to me.” God revealed to Bob his condition before him and his need for grace and forgiveness.
God changed Bob’s heart, as well as his girlfriend’s. Today, the two of them are happily married with three children and actively involved in the church.
Just as there was for Bob, there’s a danger for us when we assume the gospel and think we’re Christians when really we’re not. Thankfully, we’ve been provided with clear guidance to help combat this danger in our lives. The Apostle John lays out three tests in 1 John that we can use to examine our faith, and even the faith of others.
“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!”
(2 Corinthians 13:5)
1. Belief Test
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 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. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. 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 4:1–6)
“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).
The first line of discernment when we are looking at our own or someone else’s life is how we measure up to orthodox Christianity. The bible itself says that those who hold to sound doctrine (especially when it comes to the person and work of Jesus Christ), and confess to be a Christians, are true believers.
2. Behaviour Test
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” (1 John 3:6–10)
“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).
Once we have established that a person is saved by faith alone in Christ alone, we are encouraged by the bible to look at the actions of a person; what the bible calls the fruit of their faith in God. One of the promises of salvation is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who removes our heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh, giving us new passions and desires. If people have a desire to live a new life in Christ, are genuinely grieved by and repentant of their sin, and there is a change in their behaviour (whether it be immediate or slow and gradual, over many years), they are believers.
3. Belonging Test
“For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1 John 3:11–15)
The third test is one that can be seen in action from the very start of Christianity: the desire to be a part of the sacrificially loving family of God. Those who seek community of regenerate believers for whom Jesus is Lord, who are obedient to scripture, who are led by qualified leaders, who gather regularly for preaching and worship, who are involved in baptism and communion, who are unified by the Holy Spirit, are disciplined for holiness and want to go through their week being a witness for Jesus are most likely to be true believers (Acts 2:42-47)
While there is no perfect system to examine our faith and the faith of others, as only God knows who are really His children, John encourages us to be discerning using these three observations, so that we can gain a better picture of who the children of God or the children of the devil might be. Though our knowledge of someone’s salvation isn’t exhaustive, these three tests serve as a good foundation in helping the church humbly, lovingly, and patiently examine those within her influence to see if someone is or is not a Christian.
It is very important to stress that this process should always be about helping someone know or be reassured of having eternal life (1 John 5:13). These test should not be used simply to publically or privately tearing someone down or win theological arguments. We should take heed to the words of Oswald Chambers when he said:
“God never gives us discernment in order that we may criticize, but that we may intercede.”
If we do conclude that a person is not a believer, it should give us all the more reason and motivation to pray for the person and see them come to actually know Christ and be regenerated by the Holy Spirit.
On the whole, we should give our fellow travellers the benefit of the doubt that they are Christians when they claim Jesus as Lord and live a life like Christ’s with His people. We should assume someone is a Christian based upon their belief, behaviour, and where they belong.