Is S/He Really A Christian?

When I was a young lad and not long a Christian, I and my Christian friends would discuss the merits of the preachers we knew and heard in and around Glasgow. At uni there were many of us in the Navigators and the Christian Union so there were plenty preachers we knew of to talk about.

Perhaps it was arrogant of us to think we knew anything about what to look for in preaching and preachers. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, after all. Youth has a habit of not caring too much about such small but important details as experience and wisdom. But, undeterred, we pressed on with our discussions, often late into the night.

Not all the preachers were considered ‘good’. In fact, based on the quality of the preaching, the things said, the views expressed, occasionally someone would say in hushed tones, “I don’t think he is a Christian”. Such conclusions seemed perfectly rational.

Much later, having moved abroad to England, I still maintained that kind of thinking. In any church there are Christians and not-really Christians.

Now, there are two ways that one can deal with this kind of thought. First, there is the recognition that not all of those who are members of a church today will be there at the Last Day. This is a fact which cannot be denied. Hypocrites are in the church and they will be found out by Christ (Mat. 7:21-23). But the second way of dealing with this is to adopt an attitude akin to the Inquisition. “Is that person really a Christian?” I may ask. The person is a member of the church I am a member of. He/she is not an “open and notorious evil liver”. In other words, he/she could be living an ordered life, outwardly impeccable. Yet the Inquisitor in me says, “Is that person really a Christian?” This is the approach I used to take some years ago as I formed a mental list of those in my church who were “real Christians” and those who were not.

The difference between the two views is simple. Who decides? In the first case, Christ decides. He is the infallible judge. He always gets things right. This is a fearful fact that must be treated with some urgency and importance by each individual. He will not make a mistake and therefore there is no room for appeal, no matter how people will try. (Read Matt. 7:21-23 again to check that this is true.)

In the second case, I try to decide. Of course, open sin must be confronted – theft, adultery etc. Here, the process of pastoral discipline must be followed through by the church (Matt. 18:15-17), resulting in expulsion (1 Cor. 5:1-13) as the final step if necessary. But what of those who are not like that? They may be baptised, professors of the faith, but who at the same time don’t seem very lively spiritually speaking, sometimes come out with whacky theological views, and lack an eagerness to serve that others may have. Yes, there is a case for me to encourage them in greater zeal for worship, prayer, meditation on the Word, acts of service. But is it legitimate for me to entertain that secret little thought, “He’s not really a Christian”?

I can’t justify a “yes” to that question. Can you?

ADDENDUM: Of course I should add for the sake of clarity that for anyone to stand in a pulpit and preach unbiblical nonsense is a great sin. Any afflicted church must deal with this cancer and do so crisply. Young men who do not know what they are saying should be counselled and trained. Older men who know exactly what they are saying should be told to “pick a windae” – as they say in Glasgow.

Is S/He Really A Christian?

4 thoughts on “Is S/He Really A Christian?

  1. Chris says:

    I think it’s a legit question to ask about oneself. Secretly or of a spiritual director or soul friend. Any wider circle would distort your perception, because of the nature of friendship in the normal sense. But the best judge may well not be oneself (I’ll go back to the impersonal, as I’m not getting at you!) – we can’t see ourselves as fully as would be needed to answer the question. Only God has that perspective.

    If I then apply the same standards to my opinion of others, I see that I cannot possibly really know the truth. Only God can. So, whatever unhelpful little niggles creep unbidden – or even barge joyfully – into my mind, I should try to deal with them in the full knowledge that I am in no position to judge – and should probably be on my knees dealing with my judgemental tendencies.

    Note that I say “should”!

  2. Dan B. says:

    What you hit on is precisely what more churches should actually be talking about. The Church, even the local body, is a community of believers. Part of accountability is helping one another along in the race that is our lives–we are one “means” of grace that God uses when we point out another’s error (though this must be done in a loving manner).

    My fear, however, is that in the current age of “who are you to judge me?” it seems to go too far. It is truth that God in the end will ultimately judge us all–however, in giving us his Word, He has called us to build one another up, sharpening as iron sharpens iron. If we too quickly abandon this duty to help one another in our striving for holiness, we isolate ourselves and neglect the need for sanctification in such things as attending church (Hebrews 10:24), etc. Many misunderstand James and the relationship of faith and works, saying that he speaks of salvation by works as opposed to Paul’s salvation by grace. However, in my own study and what I have read, James speaks of a man’s works justifying him before other men–thus, as evidence of the saving faith that is already present and naturally spring forth from it.

    So, on one hand, we will not know, for sure, until the end who is saved and who is not, but to neglect a brother that does not seem to be walking with Christ ignores the command for church discipline outlined in Scripture. Oh, if membership in a local body would mean something in most churches (the majority of the SBC in America is quite guilty of this)!

    But these are just my two cents.

  3. John says:

    There’s a difference, though, between the activity you’re talking about (“building one another up in love”) and what Stephen was talking about (judging the salvific state of someone else). We must do all we can to do the former, but must avoid at all costs the latter. We need not know the state of someone’s relationship with Christ in order to help them know Christ more clearly and follow Christ more nearly. And nor do we need to know such things in order to learn from someone else.

    pax et bonum

  4. David says:

    I am still working my way through Jonathon Edwards: A New Biography by Ian H Murray slowly but… er slowly! I’ve just reached the point where at age 19 (n-n-n-nineteen) he has taken up his first charge as a minister to a church in New York. The bit I read last night made me think of this post because Jonathon Edwards notes that outward zeal for God is not always a good indicator of… what is it John called it in his comment above… “salvic state”. Unfortunately I was too tired to read any more, so I don’t know if he has a solution to your question, but clearly he recognises the dangers of judging by outward appearances alone.

    This is not really on topic, but the main thing that has struck me from my reading of this biography so far is that there is nothing new under the sun! Many of the issues and problems the church faced in his time are still problems and issues today.

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