Throughout the Word, we read about people who look "good" on the outside, but who are "rotten to the core" on the inside. The "false prophet" (or "false teacher"), who was described in 2 Peter, is a good example of this. Jesus described the religious leaders of his day as "whitewashed tombs," because they looked wonderful on the outside, though on the inside they were full of "dead men's bones" (Matthew 23:27). The people considered those leaders to be everything that godly, religious leaders ought to be. Yet those leaders were the very ones who were preventing the people from entering the kingdom of heaven! (23:13) Instead of becoming children of God, the people were becoming "children of hell" (v. 15).
Many people seem to forget that the whole concept of "false prophet" implies the ability of an evil person to look good. If they looked "bad" (on the outside), how many people would follow them? Paul wouldn't have had to describe their master (Satan) as one who "masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).*
Furthermore, the whole idea of "deception" implies the capability of a person to falsely assume he is saved, when he isn't. People have the tendency to focus on "religious qualifications" that do not distinguish between those who are saved and those who are not. (This means that unsaved people can possess these qualities.) This is why warnings against deception occur dozens of times in the Scriptures.
An unsaved person may look "totally saved" for a while. He may have all the "religious criteria" that most people look for. He can experience many of the "temporary" blessings of salvation - though his experience will be only "skin deep" - that is, it does not come from a changed heart. He can "clean up" his lifestyle (what people see) even though the things that God looks for (in the heart) are absent. "Getting religious" can do more good than making "New Year's resolutions"! Even the mere presence of Christians in a unbeliever's "environment" can have a beneficial restraining power in his actions: it can have "positive" influences on him, at least in this present life, whether or not he ever gets saved!
In several of the passages above, people are described as having many of the characteristics of a Christian, yet they are NOT described as being saved. This would probably be very easy to accept, if it were not for the fact that many people assume that "believing," "tasting the heavenly gift," "being cleansed," "knowing the way of righteousness," and all the rest, are another way of saying that the person has salvation. Yet Scripture shows that each of these characteristics can be present in a "genuine Christian" or in a "fake."
This is the reason that Peter tells us to make our calling and election "sure" (2 Peter 1:10). This is why Paul says, "Examine yourselves to see whether or not you are in the faith" (2 Corinthians 13:5), and Jesus says, "Strive to enter the straight gate, for many will try to enter and will not succeed" (Luke 13:24). And this is why many who say "Lord, Lord ..." will be told, "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:21-22; Luke 6:46). In the Old Testament, this is why the whole nation of Israel (with a few exceptions) could "flip-flop" back and forth between worshiping the LORD at one time and worshiping false gods at another (the entire book of Joshua illustrates this). Finally, this is why the people could shout praises to the Son of Man one day, and then shout, "Crucify him!" a few days later.
Simply stated, the first group has a "salvation" that is only "skin-deep" - that is, based on surrounding influences, rather than on changes in the heart. They may think they have eternal life, and may even live "Christianly." In Jesus' day, they may have fully obeyed "the letter of the Law" - though denying its "spirit," or true meaning. (Paul originally did this, Philippians 3:4-6.) They may know lots of theology or have lots of "religious experience." Others may look at them and think that they are wonderful examples of "what Christians are supposed to be like." But eventually, they will be exposed for what they are. For although they looked good in many ways, the "fruit" of a changed life was never present.
In contrast, those in the second group have a change that originates in the heart and radiates outward. God has had an active role in that change. People in this group may temporarily "backslide" (though God would discipline them to bring them back - Heb. 12**), but in the long run their fruit will also be obvious. As Hebrews 6 says, they will have the things which accompany salvation!
*[This whole idea should not be surprising, for the world tends to judge people by their external appearance or by the possessions they own. People flock to the beautiful or rich or famous person, and avoid those who are considered "less than average" or "nobodies." Even childhood books tend to portray people this way! "Good" people tend to look good, and "bad" people tend to look bad.]
**(The other alternative, if the person is truly saved, is that God will "take him home." 1 Corinthians 11:30.)
There are other characteristics mentioned in the Word, which distinguish between those who are and those who aren't genuine disciples of Jesus. But those mentioned above should suffice to show that more than mere claims or appearances is necessary, before a person can truthfully claim to belong to Jesus.
We would encourage you to follow the admonition given by Jesus and the apostles, to examine yourself and to make sure that you truly belong to God. Now is the time to do so; to wait until the Day of Justice to find out whether or not you were mistaken, is to wait too long.
[The characteristics mentioned in the three sections, below, have to do with "lifestyle" - what your life is characterized by. It is possible for a Christian to temporarily act like a non-Christian, just as it is possible for a non-Christian to temporarily act like a Christian.]
You can be "enlightened" to the truth, and can "taste" how good God's Word is ... and still not be a Christian. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
You can experience (at least in part) many of the blessings that a Christian would experience - God's gifts and an awareness of the Spirit's presence ... and still not be a Christian. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
You can be "bought" by the Lord (at least in some sense of the word); you can be influenced by "the way of righteousness," so that you are on the "straight way," escaping the "world's corruption," and "clean" ... and still not be a Christian. (2 Peter 2)
You can listen to the Word of God, be very "religious," and even claim to have "faith" and "wisdom" ... and still not be a Christian. (James 1-3)
You can claim that you know God and that you have fellowship with him, love him, and are in the "light" ... and still not be a Christian. (1 John 1:6, 2:5, 9, 11; 4:20 )
You can claim that Jesus is "Lord," and even perform many spectacular works ... and still not be a Christian. (Matthew 7:21-23)
You can look "righteous" to others ... and still not be a Christian. (Matthew 5:20, 23:28)
You can have love for your friends ... and still not be a Christian. (Matthew 5:43-47)
If your life is characterized by "fruitlessness" ("thorns and thistles") ... you have no basis for claiming you are a Christian. (Hebrews 6:7-8)
If your life is characterized by laziness in following the examples of godly people of the past (contrasted with diligence) - example, Hebrews 11 ... you have no basis for claiming you are a Christian. (Hebrews 6:12)
If your life is characterized by "shrinking back" when you experience trials (so as to avoid them) ... you have no basis for claiming you are a Christian. (Hebrews 10:39 + context)
If your life is characterized by absence of discipline (from God) ... you have no basis for claiming you are a Christian. (Hebrews 12:8 + context)
If your life is characterized by religious activities and rituals, but not by obedience to God, self-sacrifice and love for neighbor (including "neighbors" you don't like) ... you have no basis for claiming you are a Christian. (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 51:16-17; Isaiah 58, etc.)
If your life is characterized by the absence of growth in the Christian character traits (listed in 2 Peter 1:5-7) ... you have no basis for claiming you are a Christian. (2 Peter 1:5-11)
If your life is characterized by "fruit" that pleases God ("a good crop") ... you are a genuine Christian. (Hebrews 6:7; also Luke 8:15, etc.)
If your life is characterized by a type of love toward God that expresses itself in a love toward other Christians (and you are "diligent" in expressing this love) ... you are a genuine Christian. (Hebrews 6:9-11; 1 John 2:10; 5:1-3)
If your life is characterized by genuine love for your enemies ... you are a genuine Christian. (Matthew 5:43-47)
If your life is characterized by faith (trust in God) and patience, especially when you experience trials ... you are a genuine Christian. (Hebrews 6:12; Hebrews 10:39 + context)
If your life is characterized by the presence of discipline (from God) and you interpret "hardship" (when it is present) as one aspect of that discipline ... you are a genuine Christian. (Hebrews 12:7 + context)
If your life is characterized by the desire to obey God [in other words, if his laws have been "imprinted" on your heart and mind] ... you are a genuine Christian. (Hebrews 8:10-12)
If your life is characterized by an increase or growth in the Christian character traits (listed in 2 Peter 1:5-7) ... you are a genuine Christian. (2 Peter 1:5-11)
If your life is characterized by not only hearing the Word, but by obeying it ... you are a genuine Christian. (James 1:22, Luke 11:28)
If your "religion" and your "faith" result in a change in your conduct - an increase in holiness and love toward others - and in obedience to God ... you are a genuine Christian. (James 1 and 2)
If your "wisdom" results in a humble expression of love and goodness to others ... you are a genuine Christian. (James 3:13-18)
If your life is characterized by "light," by obedience to God and by "remaining in the truth" ... you are a genuine Christian. (1 John 1:7, 2:3, 6)
If your life is characterized by doing what is right, by purifying yourself, and by not continuing in a lifestyle of sin ... you are a genuine Christian. (1 John 2:29, 3:3, 7, 9)
If your faith results in obedience, if it is associated with a repentance that expresses itself in godly actions ... you are a genuine Christian. (Romans 1:5; 16:26; Acts 26:20b, etc.)
If your life is characterized by learning to turn away from ungodliness and worldly passions, so that you live in a self-controlled, upright and godly manner, instead ... you are a genuine Christian. (Titus 2:11-12)
If your life is characterized by fighting the impulses of the "flesh" (or "corrupt nature") rather than by giving-in to those impulses ... you are a genuine Christian. (Romans 7 and 8)
Dennis Hinks © 1998
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