There’s no real way to know for sure whether someone else is or isn’t a true Christian. We can’t judge their hearts, per se, that’s true…but that doesn’t mean we can’t determine some things to a level of probabilistic certainty. We ourselves can gauge our own hearts and actions, and as long as we’re brutally honest, it can be a helpful (and absolutely crucial) exercise. The Bible tells us to examine ourselves, so let’s see how we can do that.
2 Corinthians 13:5: “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?”
The following are ideas and concepts gleaned from trustworthy sermons and the Bible itself. This is not a comprehensive list, and none of these by themselves are sufficient. Rather, taken as a whole, they paint a pretty clear picture of our salvation.
Do you believe that there was an actual man named Jesus Christ who lived and died 2,000 years ago? That he was a person of the Trinity, God himself, who came down to earth in the flesh? That he was crucified on a cross as payment for our sins and that we cannot save ourselves? That he was raised again on the third day and lives for all eternity? Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven?
If someone believes all of the above in the affirmative, then that’s a good start. But like the Bible says, “the demons also believe, and shudder.” Simply acknowledging that God exists, or that he probably does, isn’t sufficient for salvation.
Did you repent of your sins in the past? Not only that, but do you continue to repent on a continual basis?
Acts 2:38 “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
1 John 1:9-10 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”
When people think of the word “repent,” they usually think of apologies and regret. That’s part of it. But the more important part of repentance, especially in the context of the Bible, is a change of character and a turning away from that sin. It is not enough to slap ourselves on the wrist whenever we go awry, but we need to genuinely seek to be changed from the inside-out.
If a person is not continually repenting, you could say that it was only guilt when they were supposedly saved.
Do you possess the fruit of the Spirit?
The parable of the sower and many other places in the Bible mention that a true believer must show fruit.
John 15:5 says: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
But what are these fruits anyway?
Galatians 5:22-23 gives us some examples of character fruit: “22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
Basically, if you meet a “Christian” who is perpetually mean, grumpy, stressed, quick-tempered, weak-willed…then it’s hard to believe that person is actually born again. Someone who is unabashedly prideful? Considering humility is touted as our character goal in the Bible, it seems pretty incompatible to me.
Of course, we can all slip up, but I’m talking about a general lifestyle, a state of being overall.
Do you carry God’s laws in your heart? Do you feel increasing sensitivity to sin by the Holy Spirit?
John 14:26 “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
Hebrews 10:16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;…”
Born-again Christians have the law of God and the Holy Spirit within their hearts to teach and convict. If someone is continuously living a sinful lifestyle—whether it’s regular partying, sexual promiscuity, or lying—and doesn’t feel the Holy Spirit convicting them strongly, then that’s a good sign He is not within that person to begin with.
Do you love God’s word?
Psalms 119:16 “I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word.”
Psalms 119:103 “How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
As I grow in my faith and I read the Bible more, I realize a lot of the things that I once viewed as an “impossible ideal” are actually coming true. I say that without spiritual pride, it’s just a simple, wonderful reality. The Bible is not supposed to feel boring and overreaching. It’s supposed to be a living, vibrant view into God, and once you see it that way, it’s hard to read it as you would a school textbook or something.
If you are truly born again, the word of God should make sense and appear to you as profound and clearly true. If it rings false or sounds outdated to you, let that be a warning.
1 Corinthians 1:18 says: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Do you carry out good deeds as signs of your sanctified nature?
The book of James gives us one of the clearest pictures of what a Christian should look like. Some people don’t like it, thinking it contradicts what Paul says or that it seems to espouse salvation by works. But when you read it more deeply (and in context with the rest of the Bible), it becomes clear what he’s saying. He’s saying that once you’re a true believer, you should be seeing these things as a result of salvation, not as the cause of it. It’s a great way to test one’s faith.
James 1:22-26 “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.“
I can totally empathize with people like this. I think I used to be one of them (when was I saved, exactly??). You read the Bible, understand it, but once you go back to your regular life, it makes absolutely no difference. The words and their meaning don’t jump out of the pages at you, and they certainly don’t “abide” in you. If it did, it would manifest in your character and subsequently in actions and words. Verse 26 also makes it clear that people’s hearts are very easily deceived, even to themselves. If a person professes to know Christ but shows no external signs, then that “religion is worthless” because he is probably worshiping a figment of his imagination. He is not worshiping the God of the Bible.
James 2:14,18, 20-22: “14What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?”… 18But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works…20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;…”
James is not saying that Abraham became saved by offering Isaac his son on the altar. That would be a works-based salvation. The key word is “justified,” meaning shown to be right, or confirmed (not caused).
The following passage (thank you brother Michael) is as clear as clear can be:
1 John 3:9-10: “9 No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10 By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”
Do I even need to say anything more? Clearly, it’s not talking about sinless perfection, but truly saved people do not walk in sin. They do not continue in sin. People who live a questionable lifestyle and practical immorality are obvious; they are not children of God.
Do you have love and concern for fellow Christian believers?
1 John 1:7 “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
1 Peter 1:22, 23 “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, 23for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.
Hearing “religious talk” can cause some people to bristle or cringe. I totally get that. But when we as believers encounter a fellow brother or sister in Christ, there should be an immediate bond. I get excited when I’m able to talk to anyone about my faith, and when I see that eagerness returned, it is incredibly uplifting. It almost doesn’t matter about the rest of that person (but of course, our sinful natures will always care about some of the superficial aspects…which will get better with maturity).
Are you being refined and maturing in character? Are you growing in righteousness?
1 Peter 2:1 “Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.”
If you’ve gotten a real taste of God, it’s hard to imagine someone being content in being a spiritual newborn. There should be a natural tendency and longing to deepen that walk and relationship.
(Friend tip haha, thanks Dean):
Romans 10:8-10: “But what does it say? “THE WORD IS NEAR YOU, IN YOUR MOUTH AND IN YOUR HEART”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 9that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. 11For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”
This is an example of a passage that many people read on the surface. They think, “See? Confess and believe, and you’re saved!”
Problem is, they miss the parts in bold. Confessing Jesus as Lord is not a simple act of saying, “Jesus, you are Lord.” Making him Lord over your life—if you confess it sincerely with understanding—means you are willing to become his servant. He becomes the master and driver of your life, and no longer can you be a slave to your passions and worldly desires. If you are holding onto control and refusing to give Him the reins, you have not confessed him as Lord.
Also, belief is not head knowledge or a simple weighing of evidence. “That seems to make sense,” is not the kind of belief this passage is talking about. It’s a heart issue, and it results in righteousness, not just some tidbit of knowledge. If someone is not growing more righteous as they walk in Christ, then their belief was shallow and head knowledge only. Only after your heart truly believes it and you confess with your mouth can you be saved. This passage is another example of the ongoing theme of a new heart leading to words and actions.
Do you think of salvation as more than a flu shot? Do you now feel you’re free to do as you please?
1 Peter 2:16-17: “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.”
I remember once reading a magazine article about Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, and being disturbed. Here he was, living the fast life of hedonism, and feeling no remorse for it. He basically said, “Before I turn over to the ministry, I’m going to live it up. Get the best of both worlds.” (I am paraphrasing heavily from memory here, so don’t quote me. Thankfully, he seems to have turned from this path and is now serving faithfully.)
A true Christian could not possibly have this mindset. That’d be like claiming to genuinely love your wife, but then finding out everything you can possibly get away with before she will divorce you, and doing everything short of that. That’s not real love. There should be a desire to please God to the best of our ability, and even when we fall short, we strive to do better next time.
Are your primary desires things of God or this world?
Romans 8:5-8: “5For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
There are countless examples of people who cannot give up the world to serve God (e.g., the rich young ruler). Not everything in the world is bad, per se, but when those things take the position of top priority in our lives, it is evidence that we are trying to serve two masters. The Bible tells us that simply can’t be done, so in effect, we are like the contaminated soil in the parable of the sower: our growth stops because our faith is choked out. This is not true salvation.
Do you welcome rebuke?
Proverbs 9:8 “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”
This might sound weird, but as some people grow in the faith, it’s almost like they enjoy rebuke. Instead of feeling offended or defensive, they feel refreshed when they hear very direct, even harsh sermons—as long as it is preached from the word of God. Politeness and feel-good messages start to become very unappealing.
What are some other practical signs that might show us we’re not really saved?
Lon Solomon believes that while true Christians may falter and “backslide” a bit, there is great reason to be alarmed if you’ve been backsliding for years. It’s hard to ignore the pulling of the Holy Spirit for that long and think He’s actually in there somewhere.
I highly recommend listening to Lon’s sermon here. Now, it’s about being a true disciple (not necessarily born-again), and you could argue that someone could be saved and not be one. But it’s at least questionable whether someone could be a true believer and not desire to be a disciple, so it’s worth considering.
If you’re short on time, here are the big six that he mentions: a true disciple a) has the word of God as the highest authority in life, b) cultivates humility, c) practices spiritual disciplines (the big four are: 1. bible reading/study, 2. scripture memory, 3. prayer, and 4. being in community with believers), d) accepts responsibility for their actions, e) obeys God even when they don’t understand the reason, and f) always chooses the option that honors God the most.
Paul Washer says that if you watch the things of this world (bad movies, pornography), laugh at the things God hates, or dress sensually, there is reason to question yourself. Being born-again not only means you have a new relationship with God, but also a new relationship with sin.
One of the best indicators of true salvation is persistence over time. Anyone can exhibit some of the characteristics mentioned above for a short time. As Washer would say, you cannot have a true encounter with the Holy Spirit and not be permanently changed. (Please see the comment section for a little more discussion.)
For myself, I’ve been convicted to give up watching Family Guy and South Park completely. I don’t know what your views on these shows are, but I’ve found that God is convicting me to give them up. I could rationalize and try to justify some of the inappropriate humor—which I often found amusing—but there were clear breaking points I couldn’t ignore any longer.
In one episode of Family Guy, Jesus is on earth and calls God his father in heaven, who is laying in bed with a blond bimbo, obviously trying to engage in sexual acts with her. Why do this, why? There is absolutely no way to rationalize supporting this kind of portrayal of God. People might say, “oh lighten up, it’s just a joke,” but a line needs to be drawn somewhere. For me, I’m convinced that line was crossed.
In South Park, Jesus is often portrayed as a nice guy and even an action hero. I could kind of cope with this, and I so badly wanted to say the show was OK to watch. Matt Stone and Trey Parker know how to press my funny bone like no other. But then there was an episode that portrayed “Imaginationland,” where all the imaginary creatures that humans conjure up go. There, you find characters from fables, bedtime stories, myths…and guess who else is there? That’s right, Jesus. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and I had to say goodbye to the show.
While giving up some of these things is painful, it’s worth it. It’s more painful now to watch them with a clear conscience. (If you’re curious, shows like Everybody Loves Raymond somehow manage to be hilarious and clever without resorting to crudeness or blasphemies.)
The following two indicators are my ideas only, but I hope they are fairly supported by scripture.
One specific thing that I would point to as a clear indicator of whether a person is truly saved is this: not using the Lord’s name in vain. Granted, there is a lot of law written in the Bible that we all break, but to me personally, this is just the most obvious thing people could avoid. I just don’t see how a believer could use the phrases “God d*** it” or “Jesus Christ!” as expressions of displeasure or frustration. Do you see how big of a victory that is for Satan to have convinced people to say these things that make absolutely no sense in context? When we hear the name of our Lord mentioned, there should be appreciation, wonder, or even fear. I’d prefer that people drop the F-bomb rather than hear someone say the things above in a negative way.
Also, I think born-again believers develop a kind of “Christian radar.” (An analogy from the secular world might be what people call “gaydar,” which is when homosexual people can detect who else around them is gay.) While this may not be entirely precise or accurate, when you know the signs, it becomes more apparent when you come across a fellow believer. This isn’t to say that we can fairly judge other people’s salvation…and we’d be extremely reckless to think we are some kind of authority in this sense. But it just seems that we would be able to recognize others of the same birth with at least some level of confidence, much as we can with our own ethnic groups—which is also not entirely accurate. For the record, I know of two people who have fallen away from the faith, and I was suspicious/puzzled by them both, even when they were “on top” and evangelizing. Maybe it’s just better to tread with caution in this area lest we be tempted to judge others or be filled with spiritual pride…though I think it can be useful when discerning which preachers are of God.
Matthew 7:15-16: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they?”
Keep in mind that being a born-again believer doesn’t mean we’re perfect. We are in a process of sanctification, and we will continue to be until we die and go to heaven. When we sin, it’s important to remember that Jesus paid the price for all of them, for all time, and that our repentance comes from appreciation and a new recognition of how far we fall short…not from fear of being damned any longer.
Micah 7:18-19 “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”
Paul Washer on “Regeneration v. The Idolatry of Decisional ‘Evangelism'”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shxQcczYuAA
Lon Solomon on “What a Real Disciple Looks Like” (audio, 2001): http://mcleanbible.org/media_player.asp?messageID=40306
(Not totally precise, of course, but eye-opening): How good of a “Christian” are you? http://www.changingthefaceofchristianity.com/christianity-quiz/
Before I begin, I’d like to point to the more theologically-minded to this article by John Piper: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/conference-messages/is-jesus-an-egomaniac. What I’m about to write comes more from my own ideas and what helps me as I’ve thought about this issue. I’m sure others have come to similar conclusions.
Atheists and even Christians alike have sometimes wondered why God seems to into himself, or why he’s so concerned about his glory. When a person seeks fame and honor, we might stick up our noses and refer to that person as “full of himself,” arrogant, or even needy for attention. But when God demands our worship and wants us to love him even more than FAMILY, we need to get a good grasp on what’s going on.
First of all, let’s consider why it bothers us when people are like this.
Why does cockiness bother us so much?
Imagine an athlete who has just had a game of career highs, and during the interview, he boasts: “I’m not surprised at my excellence. I am on a different level from all the other players in the league, and everyone knows it.”
Don’t you think he would immediately become every other player’s new favorite target? Public enemy #1 in a sense? If it were basketball, you can bet defensive players guarding him would use every ounce of energy to keep him in check. They might bang bodies with him, knocking him to the floor (even if they pick up technical fouls). Anytime this arrogant athlete had a subpar game, you can bet he’d be hearing an earful from the opposing players all night. The others would rejoice in his failures.
The worldly explanation of why arrogance or self-promotion angers us might go like this: if a human being exalts herself, it goes against our belief that men and women are created equal. That boasting person is now claiming to be a cut above us. We are lowered in status, and equality goes out the window. Our uniqueness and special-ness are undermined. In the words of some wise person, which I’ve adopted on numerous occasions, we think: “Doesn’t that person wipe their butts just like we do?” Didn’t they cry and poop as babies just as we did?
This all points to the issue of pride, which we all intuitively know deep within us is sinful and an abomination. Just think how you feel when someone belittles your intelligence, your beauty, your worth. It feels wrong because God has instilled in us a sense that all human life is valuable. Anyone devaluing others sets off our moral alarms that something is terribly amiss.
Now imagine if that boastful athlete above was Michael Jordan. Would it seem quite as ridiculous or offensive? Public opinion might be torn. Some would defend him saying, “He’s just saying the truth. It’s not cocky if you can back it up.” Others would begrudgingly mutter, “Yea he’s the best, I just don’t like that attitude.”
As Bruce Lee once said, “If I tell you I’m good, you would probably think I’m boasting. If I tell you I’m no good, you know I’m lying.”
I’m sure you see where this is going.
God “isn’t cocky, just confident”
Let’s take it up a few…an infinite number of notches. If God Almighty proclaims his greatness, is it being cocky? Is it being an egomaniac? No, not at all. What he would be stating is pure objective fact. It’s a factual teaching for us to learn, that the creator of the entire universe is out there and worthy of praise.
When humans are boastful to each other, it offends us because we operate with the proper assumption that we are all valuable. We are supposed to be equals. An objectively equal person is claiming subjectively to be superior. But imagine how much God is offended when we boast to him or in spite of him. We aren’t even close to being equal with God. We are his creation, immeasurably inferior objectively, and yet we are still claiming to be equal or even superior.
Instead of feeling grateful for life and his sacrificial love, we elevate ourselves above him with our defiance, lifestyles, or idolatry—which can include love of money, the exaltation of science and human intelligence, or even loving another person more than God. We have guys like Sam Harris stating that any random book in Barnes and Noble would be superior to the very Word of God. Ouch.
Is it so surprising that God needs to teach us and remind us in clear terms what’s REALLY important? He is the one who is actually deserving of being elevated in our thoughts, words, and actions.
It’s easy to see why God needs to demand it so much. Even though he makes it crystal clear what we should be doing, we fail to do it anyway. If even “religious” people fail to honor him properly or sufficiently, how much more would we all fall short if God had never mentioned it? The Bible spells things out clearly sometimes, and we still fail to see it.
So what’s in it for us?
Theoretically, I could say “nothing” here and we would still be compelled to worship and exalt God. Even an earthly dictator could demand adulation from his people, and there’s not much they could do about it. That dictator probably couldn’t care less whether his subjects derive any benefit from it. The all-powerful God of the universe would be all the more entitled to endless praise, and the threat of his power would be enough to make us think twice.
But God happens to be a much bigger person than that, and there are actually positive benefits to praising him. Not only does he promise us rewards in the afterlife, but here on earth, worshiping God can become life’s greatest joy and privilege. This is a fact that is lost on those who scoff at God and his followers, but those on the inside know that there is nothing better. We were designed this way, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s the only thing that truly fulfills us in this world (cue the old “God-shaped hole in our hearts” cliche).
Even nonbelievers can get a glimpse of this. I’ve seen people joyously collect posters and other Michael Jordan memorabilia. They “worship” him and get a taste of what it’s like to praise another and be lifted in spirit themselves. Spouses can honor each other (perhaps after demands for more love) and derive satisfaction from that, despite the hard work and sacrifice it may entail.
But Jordan can disappoint (and retire). Spouses will hurt us and let us down. So will friends and family, even when times are relatively good. These are all fleeting and pale imitations. They are candy, filling us up with a false sense of satisfaction, but our bodies and spirits long for the real thing.
Like a child is entitled to love and nurturing because of his or her inherent value, God is objectively worthy of worship. It’s to the point where we are morally compelled to do it. He doesn’t need an ego boost; he already knows the truth that it is right and good to worship him. There simply is no earthly comparison. Not only that, but when we exalt him, we ourselves are satisfied when we do it. He wants us to experience the joy of knowing him.
So no, He is not an egomaniac. That is a gross anthropomorphic oversimplification.
I always have a number of topics floating around for my next post, but I felt like I had to address this further. This is an extension of my recent “Are very few ‘Christians’ actually saved?” post.
It amazes me that so many of us can fail to see plain spiritual truth, even when we’ve read certain passages countless times before. I’ve probably read this particular parable 10+ times before, but only recently did it become clear (spiritual blindness is a crazy thing). Jesus can give us such an important parable, and even take the time to explain it himself, and yet we never think to learn what it means. God must be facepalming up there in heaven, wondering how much he has to beat us over the head before we’ll finally listen! “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). Indeed!
Let’s take another look at the parable. I’m taking this one from Matthew, though you can find it in two of the other gospels as well.
Matthew 13:3–8: “3 And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; 4 and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7 Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. 8 And others fell on the good soil and *yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”
Then Jesus thought it was important enough to explain it himself. Here’s his explanation (emphasis added by me), this time from Luke:
Luke 8:11–15: “Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God. 12 Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart, so that they will not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rocky soil are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away. 14 The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. 15 But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.”
Let’s break it down one by one, each type of person (“soil”):
1) “Beside the road” (hard): This first type of person is clearly referring to nonbelievers, and they are not saved. They may have heard something about the word of God, but they didn’t believe it and never professed faith. They immediately rejected it.
This includes atheists and people of other religions.
2) “Rocky places” (shallow): This type of person is someone who immediately received the word with joy, and they even believed for a while, but then they fell away. Many people believe this refers to a false conversion, perhaps fueled by emotions or some hasty, shallow acceptance of the gospel. These former believers did not consider the price to be paid, such as repentance (perhaps the “root”) and giving up one’s supreme position in life. People say salvation is “free,” but it’s kind of a yes-and-no situation. It’s supposed to cost us something, and these people in rocky soil did not position themselves to bear the fruit of salvation. The end result is the same as the person who immediately rejected the word…there is no longer any seed, and no fruit or life can sprout from it.
This probably includes former believers or people who no longer live out their faith at all. These people may or may not specify themselves as “Christian” on surveys and such.
3) “Among the thorns” (impure): These people are similar to the “rocky” ones above, though these people most likely consider themselves to currently be believers. The thorns represent the world’s influence. The Bible mentions on multiple occasions that you cannot serve both the world and God, that you cannot have two masters. The thorns in this situation are the world’s way of choking out faith, whether it’s through sexual temptation or other vices. The clearest example of these “thorns”—as mentioned here and in other parts (like the parable of the rich man in Luke 16:19–31)—is greed. Money in itself is not a bad thing, but it’s the love of money and wealth that supersedes God’s rightful place in our hearts. Unfortunately, the people who fall to the allure of this world will “bring no fruit to maturity.” The end result is the same as the nonbeliever and the “rocky” person.
This includes nominal Christians, churchgoers who display little difference from the world, and people who treat Christianity as a kind of accessory in their lives, but mainly live for the world.
4) “Good soil” (fertile): This is the true believer, a fertile soil for the seeds to take root and bear much fruit. This type of person represents the only scenario where the word of God is not wiped away.
This includes Christians who genuinely strive to please God and grow increasingly sensitive to sin.
Now, scenarios #1 and 4 seem extremely clear and obvious. But what about #2 and 3? Are these people really lost, or could they be saved but simply backsliding and not bearing fruit? To answer this question, let’s refer to other verses that clear up the issue.
Matthew 7:15–20: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20So then, you will know them by their fruits.”
It’s clear from these verses that a lack of good fruit is a serious issue. It’s not a minor point. In fact, verse 19 couldn’t make it any clearer. If a person is not bearing good fruit, like the “among the thorns” people above, then I find it hard to believe they are saved.
Another place that shines light on this issue is Hebrews 6:7, 8:
7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
No good fruit means a person is a bad tree (or ground). If a person is a bad tree, they are cut down and thrown into the fire for destruction. It’s simple logic.
What about the “rocky places” person? Well, contrary to the fertile soil that persevered, this type of person has fallen away. And Hebrews 6 teaches us that the true test of a Christian is not how one starts the journey, but how he/she finishes it.
Furthermore, John 15:6 says: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
Simply put, if a person falls away from the faith, that person was never on the “good soil” to begin with.
I’ll let gotquestions summarize for me:
To summarize the point of the Parable of the Sower: “A man’s reception of God’s Word is determined by the condition of his heart.” A secondary lesson would be “Salvation is more than a superficial, albeit joyful, hearing of the gospel. Someone who is truly saved will go on to prove it.” May our faith and our lives exemplify the “good soil” in the Parable of the Sower.
Keep in mind…
Matthew 7:13, 14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
For further reading on this topic, these two places are a good start:
Also, check out this video sermon by Lon Solomon: (2010) http://mcleanbible.org/media_player.asp?type=large&messageID=56902
Choosing a Bible can be a somewhat daunting task, especially to the uninitiated. There are tons of different translations out there, some with commentary, others with devotional purposes. The “right” Bible for people can depend on their own personal situations and needs.
There is a new translation coming out in 2011 that has been enjoying some publicity lately: The Common English Bible (CEB). What it purports to do is to translate the Bible in simpler, more readable terms, even including contractions. The aim is a seventh grade reading level, which sounds dumbed down, but it’s actually on par with mainstream publications like USA Today. Those who want a more natural experience reading scripture might want to take a look at this new version.
What’s my take? Well, I’ve gone through the entire book of Matthew and am curious enough to delve into other books as well. You can download some PDFs for free here: http://www.commonenglishbible.com/Bibles/FreeDownloads/tabid/203/Default.aspx.
For starters, I will say that it was much easier to get through. It was pretty fluid, and as advertised, it felt “fresh” in some ways. Before I knew it, I actually got through the book of Matthew in one sitting, and some parts felt like they were speaking to me in different ways. At times, I’d get suspicious and check out other trusty translations to make sure, and from all appearances, the CEB was pretty faithful. There were some cases where I had read a certain passage or parable many times and felt fairly sure what it meant, but the CEB rendering of that same passage would leave no doubt. It almost felt like the commentary was done ahead of time for the reader—which can be an iffy thing, but generally an inviting feature.
Now, the CEB is not without its faults…but then again, maybe they’re not really faults, but just perceived shortcomings based on my biases. Perhaps there are portions that are trying too hard to be applicable to modern times, when really it should have been kept literal (and left up to the reader to study the historical context). An example of this would be translating the traditional “teachers of religious law” to “legal experts.” The latter (CEB) has a different connotation and might evoke thoughts of lawyers or judges, rather than forcing the reader to understand the role religious leaders played in ancient times.
And of course, there are jarring terminology changes that can take some getting used to. Some will outright find these alterations repulsive, while I think it’s an open, fuzzy issue.
Consider these wording changes (the CEB term will be listed second):
– blessed –> happy
– Son of Man –> The Human One
– persecuted –> harassed
For people who have been reading the Bible for years, seeing these kinds of changes is almost like stripping the Bible of its beauty and … religiousness? There is a kind banality with the CEB’s terms that seems out-of-place in a holy book. But to be fair, on some level, the classic terms have become a kind of religious mumbo-jumbo that can lose meaning over time without caution and proper reverence. We’ve grown so familiar with Christian-isms that sometimes citing scripture or even praying can become less meaningful and more rehearsed…almost auto-pilot. Do we really consider what “Son of Man” means when we read that? I don’t. It becomes almost like an honorific title given to Jesus or a nickname, rather than describing his unique nature of godhood and humanity. I do think “happy” is simplifying “blessed” too much, but it might serve some readers well. I can’t really say for sure from my viewpoint.
Sometimes, as long-time Christians, it can be hard to view the Bible with an outsider’s perspective. It’s almost like we’ve developed a long list of inside jokes or nuances that aren’t accessible to others, and the CEB might help combat this problem. Perhaps some will think it caters too much to modernity, but after reading some of it, I can see its uses. After all, it wasn’t too long ago when I sometimes felt that the Bible was “old and dusty.”
Maybe it’s a good starting point for the new seeker. Even as an “old” seeker, I found some valuable nuggets of wisdom that might have been missed if I had stuck to the old familiar wording. Perhaps more of the meaning has been brought to the surface, rather than forcing the reader to investigate more deeply as often. For those who can’t be expected to do their due diligence (yet, or all the time), the CEB is a nice way to get acquainted with the scriptures. If a reputable place like Fuller Theological Seminary is adopting it as one of their two endorsed translations, it’s probably OK.
My favorites are the New American Standard Bible (NASB), English Standard Version (ESV), and New International Version (NIV). But I would still recommend the CEB to people, with only some reservation. To be honest, I like almost every translation I’ve come across, though I don’t hold the King James version in the same lofty light as some people do. It’s a very holy-sounding, beautiful literary work, but it’s very outdated. Not only was it written in 1611 with an old style of language and style, but older fragments of the Bible in Hebrew and Greek hadn’t been discovered yet. Truer meaning hadn’t been unraveled by archaeologists and scholars, so it’s possible some of the wording isn’t the best.
Anyhow, I encourage people to check out the free PDFs of the CEB. You may like the freshness it brings to the table.
Wait, what? Isn’t proving Christianity to be true by using the Bible completely circular? Not exactly. I’m only trying to show that more than any other religious book (or even secular book of antiquity), we have something special with regard to accuracy, reliability, and inspiration that cannot be adequately explained away.
Proving God exists can be done by other means. Proving the Bible is true necessarily validates Christianity to be true, as well…and for the purposes of knowing the whole truth that will lead to salvation, it’s necessary to take this extra step.
Let’s examine some aspects of the Bible that lend credibility to its divine nature. I cannot possibly delve into every topic in great detail and will even have to skip some, which may come in a later post.
Unlike other “holy” books that were typically written by one man based on supposed visions and enlightenment, the Bible is a collection of books/writings from 40 authors over almost 2,000 years.
A court of law or even common sense will tell you that multiple people agreeing on the truth of certain statements is more reliable than one person asserting something. Agreeing over a huge span of time? Well, there’s not much precedent for that, but I’d imagine it’s something to be impressed about.
Now, let’s put on our cynical caps for a minute here. Imagine you were a creative man with a knack for words and eloquent, high-sounding rhetoric. You also happen to like worldly things like wealth, power, and women. Would you try to write stories and teachings that fall exactly in line with Christian teaching and become author #41? Or would you perhaps try to establish a new religion of your own, becoming very influential, looked up to by followers, and enjoying the company of multiple women?
If you’re thinking that Jesus was essentially one of these people that established a new religion for gain, I’d beg to differ. Comparisons between Jesus and others (like Muhammad and Joseph Smith) fall woefully short. First of all, Jesus claimed to actually be God. He performed many miracles, including his own bodily resurrection as a way to prove this. Second, Jesus never opportunistically said that God’s word (at that time, essentially the Old Testament) had errors in it and that he came to correct it. He came to bring a new spiritual era, true, but only because he was God who can determine these things. Not only that, but he fell in line with dozens of Old Testament prophecies perfectly, but we’ll get to that later. So he clearly wasn’t contradictory at all. Finally, Jesus’ ministry lasted a mere three years. During that time, did he get to enjoy earthly benefits galore? No, not at all. In fact, he knew he was headed to his doom, but he had a mission to fulfill. He traveled tirelessly, faced persecution, lived a celibate life, and served wherever he went. He mingled with the poor and rejects of society, he helped those in need, and even showed us humility by washing his own followers’ feet. He then suffered excruciating physical pain, but more importantly, the intense torture of spiritual separation from God the Father on the cross.
Jesus, if he were a false teacher, had nothing of worldly value to gain. Another significant point to bring up is that Jesus did not author these books himself (at least in the practical sense). Instead, he lived a life worthy to be written about and worshiped. To me, actions speak louder than words, and that’s all those other books are…words of flawed and suspicious men.
Historical Accuracy and Archeology
If the Bible had historical errors in it, or things we can confirm as categorically false, it would admittedly cast a shadow over the entire book. What we have in reality is the opposite. Isn’t it fortunate (although not at all coincidental if you believe that God knows what he’s doing) that in the last 100 years, we have found more to confirm the history of the Bible than ever before? As the skepticism and self-“enlightenment” of people in the modern age casts the Bible in a dubious light, we are given enough to battle back and stand firm.
In the words of Pastor Lon Solomon, “the more they dig out of the ground, the more the Bible proves to be right.” If you want to hear a quick 30-minute sermon that covers a lot of the confirmations of the Bible’s claims, please listen to this: http://mcleanbible.org/media_player.asp?messageID=40403. In addition to seminary degrees and such, Lon Solomon also completed his masters in Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, so this is kind of an area of expertise for him.
Every time skeptics have pointed out some supposed inaccuracy in the Bible, later evidence has validated the Bible’s claims, not those of the scholars. Unfortunately, sometimes we have to “wait and see” before the Bible proves to be right (in one case—a somewhat minor historical detail—it took about 1,800 years!).
Some skeptics in the past have brought up these objections to the Bible’s historical accuracy:
– “King David never existed! He was never even mentioned once outside of the Bible.” Well, I’m no expert in ancient history, but isn’t there a LOT of stuff that’s missing from the past? Does that mean that only the things we find could have been real? Either way, this is moot because archaeologists did eventually find clear evidence of a King David. Somehow, I have a feeling skeptics will find something else to complain about rather than giving any credit to the Bible…
– “How could Moses have written the Bible? There wasn’t even written language during those times (around 1600 BC?) in the Near East, only hieroglyphics!” There is now evidence showing that written language was in existence, even as far back as 3000 BC. Tons of clay tablets and such have since been unearthed, even regarding very mundane details and transactions. Surely, of all people, Moses would have been able to write having been raised in a royal home. (I actually saw this old objection posted recently on some Yahoo! answers page, so unfortunately, some falsehoods never die. Skeptics seem to recycle old, dead arguments over and over after a while.)
– “We don’t even know if Jesus ever existed as a real man, let alone as God. We can’t take the Bible as historically reliable, and secular sources haven’t corroborated Jesus’ existence.” This claim, to me, seems the most far-fetched and ridiculous of the lot. Jesus has got to be one of the most confirmed people of ancient history ever, especially considering the 2000 years that have passed (and it took almost that long for this objection to even be raised without being seen as completely stupid). We have tons of secular historians who have mentioned Jesus’ existence, such as Josephus, and archaeologists have even found the ossuary of James, on which it is written: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” I mean, how much more do we need to spell it out for you? This is also why I don’t even bother addressing the Christ-mythers out there, who talk about Horus, etc. Talk about people hungry for conspiracy theories.
The list could go on and on and on, but at some point, you have to give credit where it’s due. If you’re the overly suspicious type and you constantly try to catch your spouse in the act of cheating…only to come home early to her folding your laundry and lovingly preparing your food, you’re going to feel like a jerk for suspecting anything. Do that 100 times over, and eventually you have to stop questioning her loyalty and truthfulness.
OK, so what? The Bible could have taken real history and fit it in to make it seem more true. (I still find it impressive that even when we analyze some small detail, it checks out…even if it’s a detail the author might not have had knowledge of or access to otherwise.)
But how does that prove the Bible’s theological or supernatural claims are true? Well, some of that does take some faith, but it’s a myth to say that there is no proof whatsoever that the Bible is supernaturally inspired.
Prophecies in the Bible abound, and other than far-fetched conspiracy theorizing, there’s no way to explain them away. “I am God and there is no other. I declare from ancient times things that have not happened yet.” –Isaiah 46:10.
A few examples are as follows:
– Isaiah 13 talks very specifically about the fall of Babylon 200 years before it happens.
– The Book of Daniel (for example, chapter 2 or chapter 11) talks about 500 years of the history of the ancient Near East before it happened. Critics tried to say that the book was a forgery and these details were written in after the fact, but we now know that isn’t true thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls.
– Although many prophecies in the Old Testament were about Jesus, 30 of the most specific ones all came true (one person claims that the chance of a man matching up to these 30 prophecies by accident rather than divine inspiration would be one in 10 with 100 zeroes after it). As a great example, read Isaiah 53 and try to deny that it’s talking about Jesus, who would come centuries later. Chapter 9 of the Book of Daniel actually predicts the exact year of the messiah’s death…and guess who died that year? That’s right, Jesus. Hundreds of years after Daniel foretold it.
Again, critics might cast doubt onto the New Testament, but its books are the closest to the described events that we have ever found in ancient literature, being circulated around during the lifetimes of the people who witnessed the events firsthand. Even the most skeptic historians date the books of the New Testament to mere decades after the events (the next-best works of antiquity, such as Homer, are centuries after). But of course, it’s never enough for some people.
In a way, it’s understandable why the Bible is often faced with such heavy scrutiny. After all, it claims to be divine in nature and inspiration. Is it so surprising, then, that the Bible proves itself vastly more worthy than any other book of its kind (or time period)? It’s no wonder why so many world religions try to piggyback on this undeniably great book.
There comes a point when people can’t keep chalking things up to conspiracies or coincidence. When the obvious truth is so plain to see and we still refuse to see it, that’s clear evidence of our unwillingness to be open to the facts.
But what about all the inconsistencies in the Bible? Doesn’t that undermine its credibility? Well, first of all, on every theological point, there have been solutions offered. Some are easy and downright silly to keep bringing up (which skeptics will do anyway), and some are a bit more difficult, but they have all been addressed. Even when there is something historical or archaeological we can’t reconcile with what we know, we can trust that scholars and historians will catch up eventually. They have many times in the past, and it will probably happen again in the future. Maybe not in our lifetimes, but God has given us enough to work with here so that it doesn’t need to be some giant leap of faith, only a reasonable one. The more you know, the smaller that leap has to be, and not the other way around.
What defines a “bad preacher”? Is there some objective standard by which to judge, or is it all a matter of personal taste? If it’s the latter, then I admit that based on my subjective preferences, most preachers in churches today would qualify as bad preachers.
People who know me might tell you that I am not always the most cuddly and warm person. I don’t think I’m a total jerk either, and I’m certainly working on my heart issues, but I can tend to be critical still. There was a time when I would try out different churches and leave after a few weeks based on irksome things the pastors would do.
Some wouldn’t do their research well enough and would simply commit factual errors. I once went to a church where the pastor was on a roll, shouting out various praises to God, and the congregation gleefully followed. He would shout things like, “God is good! Just like when he helped Christopher Columbus find America in 1592! Just as he helped your car to start this morning!” (It was 1492, sir, and your car probably started because the parts were in working condition.)
Some would have annoying habits, like saying “Amen?” after every statement. It seemed almost like half-neediness for approval and half-nervous tick. “And then Paul went on that road, amen? And suddenly, amen? A great light came upon him, amen?” In addition to being distracting, it made me feel nervous and guilty for not constantly affirming vocally.
Many preachers state things that are way too obvious and simple. I end up walking out feeling like I’ve learned nothing and feeling convicted of nothing. I understand that it’s hard to cater your message to a congregation where everyone is of different spiritual walks, education levels, ages, and so forth…so it’s hard to fault them too heavily.
All of these are subjective (though I still maintain that God deserves better credibility and a higher level of scholarship throughout). Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m the cynical one in the crowd. But there is one litmus test (out of many) I use that helps me discern who is objectively a sound preacher.
It’s how they respond to a simple question: “Is there only one way to be saved?”
As a Bible-believing Christian, the answer to this question seems terribly obvious. It’s like asking whether Jesus really died on the cross and rose again.
Disturbingly, a large number of preachers waffle on this. Instead of a direct “yes,” they start tap-dancing like a politician. Perhaps it stems from a desire to be mainstream and popular. Perhaps it’s the desire not to offend anyone and to be a polite, open-minded fellow. Sometimes, it’s clearly the fact that they are not grounded in scripture, but rather their own ideas and experiences.
To me, if the preacher gives anything but an unambiguous “yes” to this question, he has lost a great deal of my respect. If he cannot have the courage of his convictions on this straightforward matter, how can I trust him as a credible source of spiritual truth and guidance? I realize that sometimes, things are open to interpretation and we shouldn’t be overly dogmatic, but there is no leeway on this particular issue. People are welcome to different religions and beliefs, but if someone calls herself a Christian, she must follow what the Bible says on this issue since it is crystal clear. This is not a gray area, folks.
I can think of two clear examples of men who, by all appearances, are genuine in their desire to reach people for Christ…but they have gotten their theology dangerously off course. Not so surprisingly, both are very popular and mainstream.
Joel Osteen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsdkqd1GcfA
I’ll be upfront and say I’ve never been a fan of Osteen. He focuses almost exclusively on the prosperity gospel and shies away constantly from anything that doesn’t make people feel good. From what I’ve seen, his sermons are shocking devoid of a biblical foundation. He’ll throw in a couple of bible verses here and there to support his claims, but mostly, he sounds like he’s giving a self-help seminar based on his own ideas. A primary reason people should go to church is to hear the word of God, not the lectures of a fallible man.
When Osteen says, “only God knows,” he’s ignoring the simple fact that the Bible explicitly states that Jesus is the only way to life. True, we might not be able to discern who’s a “real” believer and who’s really going to heaven among “Christians” (I can say with certainty, however, that it’s nowhere near the purported 2 billion people). But we can say for sure that if what the Bible says is true, people who don’t believe in Jesus will not be saved. There are no back doors, I’m afraid, and Joel Osteen should know this simple fact by now.
Billy Graham: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axxlXy6bLH0
I must say, this one actually saddens me. Billy Graham is one of the most prolific evangelists of modern times, and no one can doubt his sincerity. However, one telling admission that he makes in this video is that he used to insist that Jesus is the only way when he was younger…but then as he got older, he mellowed out. It seems that as he became gentler, he allowed his feelings to dictate what he believes on certain points, rather than scripture.
I also have a theory that part of the reason why some preachers find it so hard to accept that nonbelievers are going to hell if they don’t accept Christ is because they face situations in their ministry where the idea of eternal torment no longer sits well with them. I wish I could ask them to consider the no-compromise conditionalist view and see if it makes more sense, but I digress.
If you’re curious, my church pastor was indeed asked this important question by a Fox News interviewer. It’s kind of funny to see him on a TV program like this and he was clearly a bit nervous haha…but I love the way he answers. He shows that it’s possible to give a respectful, gentle answer without compromising the truth: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wjj-y7SKR0. Way to represent, brother.
**By the way, I just realized today that he’s written a book about pain and suffering. I always wondered why he didn’t author something, but I guess I just wasn’t informed. Check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Brokenness-How-Redeems-Pain-Suffering/dp/0976377004/ref=pd_sxp_f_pt
Some good reviews:
“This book will prove to be a valuable resource indeed, for anyone who has experienced pain and suffering.” –Dr. Tim LaHaye, co-author Left Behind series, April 2005
“If you need encouragement and strength, Brokenness will help you through the difficult times from someone who has been there.” –Dr. Jerry Falwell, Pastor Thomas Road Baptist Church, April 2005
“When Lon Solomon writes a book on Brokenness, I want to read it. He knows whereof he speaks.” –David Brickner, Jews for Jesus, April 2005