True or False?

Profession, Pretending, and the Christian Life

True or False?
Illustration by axllll on iStock and David McGuire

When it comes to “assurance of salvation,” some people experience too many doubts, and some people experience too few!

In a two-part series on assurance, we’re helping the Faith family evaluate their lives and hearts from two perspectives: positively — “Do I see the evidence and fruit of the new birth and a changed heart?” — and negatively — “Am I sure that what I see is genuine evidence of a changed heart, rather than something that just mimics that fruit on the outside?”

Today, I’m challenging us to be honest about the reality of the fruit we see.

I want to say first that if you have experienced doubts about your salvation, this article is not intended to cause you further doubt or confusion. Jesus quoted an Old Testament passage referencing the fact that when the Messiah came, He would come in gentleness: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench…” (Matthew 12:20a). If a person was experiencing weakness, Jesus’ intention was not to break them and bring further harm.

If your heart feels more like a bruised reed or smoldering wick, the article you should be reading is probably Nathan’s. The principles I’ll discuss apply most to people who have never questioned their salvation. At the small risk of discouraging a few, there is a parallel risk that is also very great—that someone has false assurance or overconfidence about the reality of their salvation when in fact their heart has not been truly transformed.

Some years ago, an old Puritan work by Matthew Mead entitled “The Almost Christian Discovered” was republished. Here are some challenging (and maybe surprising) observations from that work, outlining some things the Bible says are not always definitive evidence of genuine, saving faith.

1. Someone can make a profession of faith and not be a Christian.

Perhaps this first point is the most obvious.

“They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed.” Titus 1:16
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:21.

As with many of these points to follow, a profession of faith is certainly a prerequisite to having received the new birth (John 1:12; Romans 10:9). We would not deny that those promises are true.

However, if the above Titus and Matthew passages are also true, it must be acknowledged that there is a difference between professing faith in Christ and truly receiving and confessing Jesus Christ as the risen Lord in a saving way. A mere profession to know Christ does not necessarily mean you are a Christian.

2. Someone can have a lot of knowledge about God and spiritual things and not be a Christian.

There are many examples in Scripture where knowledge about God and about spiritual things is not a certain indication that someone is a true believer.

“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” James 1:22
There are some who are “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 2 Timothy 3:7

It must be concluded that it is possible to learn very much, and even be a teacher of God’s Word, and yet not truly be a Christian.

3. Someone can be actively involved in ministry and not be a Christian.

Jesus said, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:22-23

This active involvement may encompass more than just ministry. It may involve being part of the bigger religious scene, like the thousands who are zealously involved in political activism and other causes that appear to be righteous and God-honoring causes.

“For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.” Romans 10:2

If those passages are true (and they are), it must be acknowledged that there are many who live so that outwardly they appear to be motivated by truth and the cause of righteousness, but in the end they will be found lacking genuine saving faith.

4. Someone may experience sorrow and conviction over sin and not be a Christian.

“For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10-11

Paul knew there would be those who experience a sorrow for sin that does not lead to salvation. Governor Felix experienced real fear and conviction of sin from Paul’s preaching that did not result in confession and repentance (Acts 24:24-25). This sorrow of the world leads to death, not salvation, no matter how many tears are seen or regrets expressed.

5. Someone can “believe” and not be a Christian.

Some may object to such a bold statement, and it is admittedly a bit confusing. However, the Bible says there is such a thing as a false faith, a temporary belief in what is true that does not sink deep enough into the heart to produce a real salvation. That is certainly the message of the parable of the sower in Luke 8 and Matthew 13.

But there are also other passages that teach this truth.

“Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” John 2:23-25

The epistles also teach that it is possible to have what appears to be faith, but still not be a Christian.

“What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” James 2:14

The answer to this question of James is a resounding no! Although he calls it faith, it is clear James is teaching us that such is not a genuine, saving faith.

Know the real thing

Genuine, saving faith results in newness of life (Romans 6:4). Genuine, saving faith results in being a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Genuine, saving faith results in heartfelt works (James 2:14) and genuine worship.

Of course, a true Christian must also experience these realities: profess faith, have a knowledge of God, serve God, experience conviction of sin, and truly believe. But it is not a shallow or outward version of those realities that proves the genuineness of one’s faith. Rather, they must truly express and experience those things as a fruit of a changed heart and the work of the Holy Spirit. 

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