I had no idea I wasn’t a Christian.
And why would I? My mother had me in church from Day One. I’d been in countless Sunday schools, church services, youth groups, teen retreats, had two or three Bibles, prayed (some), and walked the aisle to be baptized. I wasn’t a ‘bad’ guy in my mind; not perfect for sure, but surely not as bad as others.
I was a fake Christian and clueless about that fact.
Unlike me, some people who are born again come from pasts where religion played no part in their life. Others are converted from various faiths that are markedly different from Christianity.
But at age nineteen, I became a Christian even though I thought I already was a Christian. Because of that, I have a special place in my heart (and very healthy fear) for those who get up every day believing they are true believers in Jesus but don’t know they are outside the body of Christ.
The True Faith Exam
While the Bible contains many warnings about having a false faith, there are two direct admonitions in the New Testament that ask us to take a personal exam and ensure our faith is genuine.
Paul says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you — unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5). In similar fashion Peter asks his readers to, “be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Pet. 1:10).
With respect to Paul, it would have been great if he had immediately followed up his statement with explicit, billboard-sized instructions that started with something like, “AND THIS IS HOW YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE REALLY A CHRISTIAN…” But alas, he didn’t.
Fortunately, Peter gives us a little more to work with. Prior to his warning in vs. 10, he provides a list of character traits in vv. 5-7 and tells us that, “if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (vs. 8). He then follows that up with, “as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you” (vv. 10-11).
Peter’s statements provide us with a common theme that runs throughout both the Old and New Testaments when it comes to determining the authentic vs. counterfeit followers of God – a changed life and fruitfulness. God tells us about the production of good grapes vs. worthless offshoots (Is. 5:1-2), the difference in figs vs. thorns (Matt. 7:15-20), soil that yields good produce vs. barrenness (Matt. 13:18-23), branches that deliver fruit vs. ones that do not (John 15:2), wheat vs. tares (Matt. 13:24-30), etc.
The Bible makes it clear that our true faith exam is passed by a demonstration of good fruit vs. bad – something that is referred to many times by both the authors of Scripture and theologians throughout church history. One account in the past particularly stands out where this subject is concerned – the Great Awakening.
The Salvation Equation
The First Great Awakening began in 1725 and lasted to about 1750, with its primary leaders being Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Great numbers of people were claiming conversions, but after six years, critics charged there was nothing real about the Awakening because many people who claimed to have been converted showed no evidence of it.
To respond to the critics of the Awakening, Jonathan Edwards wrote A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, which he used to outline the evidences of true conversion, i.e. who was a real Christian vs. a pretender. Edwards begins his famous work by saying, “There is no question whatsoever, that is of greater importance to mankind, and what is more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards?”
To answer that question, Edwards uses various analogies in the book, but perhaps the most straightforward is where he speaks about the principle evidence of life being motion. In the same way a corpse has no life or movement, the non-Christian will have no spiritual life and therefore no movement (or affections) towards the things of God. When a life is missing godly affections, “it must be understood that the individual concern is not a Christian”, says Edwards.
His (and Scripture’s) contention in this regard can be understood in the following way. In all religions except for Christianity, their salvation equation looks like this: Faith + Works = Salvation. In other words, you have to both believe and do something to earn your salvation.
Since Christianity is not works-based, most Christians believe our equation is: Faith = Salvation. We hold that belief and faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross is the only thing needed for salvation (e.g. Eph. 2:8-9).
However, according to Edwards and Scripture, that formula is incomplete. True salvation is represented as Faith = Salvation + Works (or Affections). Works are not the means of salvation in Christianity, but instead they represent the evidence of true faith and arise from the new affections we have towards the things of God.
Although this truth runs throughout the entire Bible, the most explicit mention of it is found in the book of James. James asks, “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). It’s obvious James expects the answer to be, ‘No’.
James crushes the idea that a general belief in God alone is evidence enough when he says, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (2:19). Belief in the existence of God, James says, gets you to the level of a demon and no further.
Referring to this verse, Edwards states: “The things they know in their minds may make impressions in their hearts; indeed we do see that the demons have very strong feelings about God, so strong, in fact, that they "shudder." But they are not holy feelings because they have nothing to do with the work of the Holy Spirit. If this is true of the experience of demons, it is also true of the experience of men.”
I can say without a doubt that my transition from fake to true Christian represents this to a tee. My life before? Sure, I knew God existed, but I had no fruit or affections for Him in my life.
But after I called out to God for salvation? Big difference. And one interesting thing about that difference was that nothing outside me changed. I was going to the same church, had the same friends, same job, same family, same school, same everything.
But inside I was different. I fell in love with the Bible and actually understood what it was saying; I couldn't get enough of its teaching (and still can’t). My generosity ballooned as did my concern for other people and their salvation, and I became thankful all the time.
It wasn’t only that I did different things; I wanted to do different things. The holy affections Edwards talks about were now present in me and were represented in the things (fruit) that I did and still do.
What about you? Does your life bear fruit and show the evidence of that inward change brought about by the Holy Spirit’s work? Or is it one of mere acknowledgement and indifference where God and His kingdom are concerned?
I used to be the latter and know exactly what it’s like. If that’s you, as gently as I can say this, you must consider that you’ve failed the test of truth faith. But you can change that right now. Call out to God and He’ll change you like He did me (Rom. 10:13).
Afterwards, over time your life will blossom, and you’ll get to the point where you nod in agreement with Edwards when he says, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”
Robin Schumacher is a software executive and Christian apologist who has written many apologetic articles, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at various apologetic events. He holds a Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament.