Home > Theology > How do you know if you’re a real, born-again Christian? (Part 1 – Test Yourselves)

How do you know if you’re a real, born-again Christian? (Part 1 – Test Yourselves)

[Updated 7/12/11]

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.

First…

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 useless21Was 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 so8and 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 wolves16You 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.”

Other resources:

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/

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  1. June 28, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Joe, I absolutely LOVED your article. Well done, comprehensive and clear. Here is a question that has been rattling around my brain, regarding those who leave the faith. People say “they were never really saved”. But that seems very presumptuous of an assertion. Maybe so. I like the evidences you present of a saved life. But what if someon exhibits those evidences, and yet still falls away.

  2. June 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

    Hello Brad, thank you for your comment!

    Well, regarding those who leave the faith, it’s not 100% settled. But I am growing increasingly convinced (almost to a certainty) that “they were never really saved” is the right answer. I know the feeling, it seems like a cop-out, and like you said, almost presumptuous for us to say that. There is scriptural support for this, however.

    For instance, the parable of the sower (which I posted about a couple back) mentions rocky soil, which represents people who received the word of God “immediately” and “joyfully.” For a while, they grow and people rejoice thinking that they are saved and passionate…but after a while, they fall away. The Bible makes it clear that these people were never saved to begin with. Only the good soil represents true salvation.

    Also consider the man whom Jesus says he “never knew” in Matthew 7. The man prophesied in his name and did all these works, and believed himself to be saved, even calling Jesus “Lord, Lord.” There are pastors out there who are doing God’s work, but were never truly converted to begin with.

    There are mentions of how people are deceived by their own hearts. Perhaps people are unable to discern the difference between the Holy Spirit and pure emotion (at least until they experience the Holy Spirit for real). Perhaps they liked the idea of being saved and avoiding hell, but they were unable to give up their true worldly masters or their own prideful independence. Some may have just “inherited” their Christian faith from their parents, and were always sympathetic to the faith…but in my opinion, no one comes to true salvation without some wrestling in their minds and hearts beforehand. There is a misconception that only real salvation could bring about those tears at retreats, but how would you explain people of other faiths who are similarly touched? It could easily be our own projections and emotions.

    The Bible also mentions that those who REMAIN in Him are saved. Perseverance until the end is a sign of true salvation, and I should have definitely included that in there. (It is implied by Lon Solomon’s assertion that one probably cannot backslide for years and be a true convert…they are probably just the rocky soil.)

    In Philippians, Paul says:

    “6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

    Granted, he’s speaking to the Philippians, but there’s nothing to suggest that their faith is different substantively than us in the modern world. It seems that true salvation lasts. The Holy Spirit completes his work once he starts it.

  3. Michael
    June 29, 2011 at 11:24 am

    Good post man.

    I don’t know if I mentioned this is any of my last comments, but there is a battle between moralism and Christianity. From the world’s viewpoint, there really isn’t much different except in our view one leads to salvation whereas the other does not.

    Scripture compels me to believe that those who were of the faith and left it were never really saved in the first place. John Piper talks more about this in his books and sermons.

    Anyway going back to the whole moralism vs christianity. The difference is with moralism, morals are taught and we try to live by those morals. There a lot of churches that seem to this more so than actually preach/teach the gospel, to live by it. A typical moral couple would say, “we believe in the bible, we don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t do bad things cause that’s what christians do.” It’ becomes more of a man effort of modeling after Christ; behavior modification. No matter how we can dress up and prop up a dead person, it’s still dead. Christianity is that Christ lives in us and thus we become more like Christ. Once we truly become saved, we become a new creature and we have a new relationship with God AND Sin. Since Christ lives in us and we are in the light, sin is exposed and overcome through Christ-centered Repentance.

    “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?
    – 2 Corinthians 13:5

    We got a lot of goats dressed up as sheep in churches.

    Here’s a good article: http://www.christinyou.net/pages/Xnotmor.html

  4. June 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Very true. Trying to live this system of morality rather than being a new person in Christ is like trying to fix the problem and patch things up with scotch tape. We need to throw the old nature out completely. No amount of salvaging is going to be good enough. (Not a great analogy, sorry.)

    Once we get our new nature, we will bear fruit naturally. Of course, there is effort on our part still. We can become trees that bear fruit 30-fold or 100-fold. Not all Christians bear the same amount.

    The “goats” in the church are probably the reason why so many are turned off. Also, that’s why surveys will show that so-called Christians live exactly as the world does…because they are still of the world, after all.

    I can see how some people wouldn’t be rationally able to logically piece this together. As a result, they might become legalistic. But the real truth is so much better, and I just wish more people could see it.

    BTW, thanks for the verse! Crucial…

  5. Michael
    June 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Man… Lovin’ the updates..
    This may be a post that’ll have something continually added on as time goes on.

    I like Lon’s analogy for illustrating the concept of persistence over time.
    He uses the Sin Wave. It goes up and down, but it’s ALWAYS moving forward. This was used in his sermon of the Parable of the Sower.

    Keep it up. This site, through reading and dialoguing, edifies me while at work!

  6. Rachel
    November 21, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    What should you do if you become aware that thing aren’t right in yourself and you are questioning whether you are really born again? Is there anything that a person can do?

    • November 21, 2011 at 5:00 pm

      Hi Rachel,

      The Bible tells us to test ourselves to see if we are in the faith, which is what it sounds like you’re doing. I don’t think it’s there to scare us or to make us feel bad, but just to remind us to keep striving toward God. Practically speaking, it probably means prayer, reading the Bible, and really trying to reflect honestly about ourselves. For many people, I think they’re holding onto something of this world that they’re not willing to let go, whether it’s their pride, desire for wealth, sexuality, etc. Recognizing the problem is a great start.

      If a person earnestly seeks after God with a humble heart (and does not cling to some of those things mentioned)…we are assured that God will honor that attitude and effort. Jeremiah 29:13 is a great OT verse on that, as well as the famous verse, Matthew 7:7. It happens differently for everybody.

      God bless!

  7. March 28, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    Lon Solomon actually believes in decisional regeneration and decisional “Evangelism”.

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