A real Christian?
How do you know if someone's a real Christian? Is it the fish sticker on the car, or Bible on the desk? Is it that they don't use bad words, or that they go to church a lot? The problem is, lots of people don't swear, and lots of people go to church. Are they all Christians? Jesus said that people will know we're disciples by our love. But again, lots of people love. We could say that a real Christian is someone who has accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. That sounds pretty definitive, but is that all it takes—praying a prayer and raising your hand in church? I heard about a t-shirt you can buy that says, "And they'll know we are Christians by our t-shirts." Three out of four Americans describe themselves as Christians. How do you know if someone really is one? How do you know if you are?
This fall we're studying the New Testament book of 1 John, learning what it means to go deeper in our faith. Each week we are imagining what a contemporary person might write back to the apostle John if they got his letter in the mail that day. Neil is a Bible-reading, church-going, clean-talking Christian, but he's wondering if that's all there is to it. Shouldn't there be something more distinctive about a real Christian? Something deeper?
That's exactly the question that John is addressing in this letter. Remember that he is writing 50-some years after Jesus lived and died and left the earth. His readers are two or three generations removed from the historical Jesus, and many of them are beginning to question their faith. They're not experiencing the fullness of life John talks about. So they're wondering, like Neil and the rest of us: How do you know if someone is a real Christian? How do you know if you are a real Christian?
In his letter, John proposes three tests that reveal whether or not a person truly is a Christian. There's the doctrinal test (What do you believe?), the ethical test (How do you live?), and the relational test (Who do you love?).
The entire letter is organized around these three tests. Remember how we said this is a very simple letter? While Paul usually covers a broad range of topics, John chooses to focus on just three. And he takes a very interesting approach. Instead of taking them one at a time, one after the other, he takes a cyclical approach. He says something about each one then comes back later and says something more about each one, then comes back later again and says something more about each one, as if he is literally drilling down into these topics. Let me show you how it works.
God is light.
The first topic, or test, he introduces is the ethical test: How do you live? Let's follow John's reasoning as he takes us deeper in our understanding of what it means to be a real Christian.
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light, in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 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 John 1:5-7).
It's been interesting how much enthusiasm there is for this series and for the emphasis this year on going deeper. I heard from quite a few of you this week in the lobby and by email about how eager you are to go deeper in your faith, and how important that is for our church. But everybody has a slightly different idea of what it means to go deeper. To some people it means deeper knowledge of the Bible, so they're looking for meaty sermons, with lots of Greek words and cross references. They're hoping the next series will take us verse-by-verse through Leviticus, or unlock the mysteries of Revelation. To others it means deeper experiences with Christ. They're looking for greater intimacy with God and fullness of the Holy Spirit. They're hoping for chills to run up and down their spine in worship. And to others it means going deeper in our practice of the spiritual disciplines—more prayer, more reflection, more fasting. They want more spiritual experiences and soul care. Deeper knowledge. Deeper intimacy. Deeper practice. Real Christians are serious about this kind of stuff.
But John doesn't start with any of these, does he? The first thing John says is, "You wanna' go deeper? Then stop sinning." That's not exactly what we were hoping to hear, is it? At least not right away. There's nothing new and exciting about "not sinning." But that's where he begins. If you call yourself a Christian, John says, then start living like one.
He begins with a declaration in verse 5: "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." There was nothing new about that statement. It would have been very familiar to his Jewish readers. Light was used throughout the Scriptures to speak of the holiness of God. But it would also have been a familiar expression to his Greek readers. Philosophers of the day used light as a metaphor for higher truth and spiritual discovery. Apparently there were some false teachers around who were blending those two thoughts and offering people spiritual enlightenment through secret knowledge and mystical experiences.
Eventually this teaching would lead to a heresy known as Gnosticism, from the Greek word that means "to know." Gnosticism became a real problem in the early church as believers went off in search of these deeper truths and experiences. Many came to believe that spirituality was the only thing that mattered. Material things weren't important; they were passing away. Only the spirit was eternal. Therefore, they reasoned, it didn't matter what they did with their physical bodies—promiscuity, drunkenness, gluttony. These things didn't affect a person's soul, they thought, so there was no harm in indulging in them. You don't often hear the word Gnosticism today, but this kind of thinking—this splitting off of our spiritual selves from our physical selves—still finds its way into the church.
The recent issue of Christianity Today has an intriguing cover story. It's called "Hipster Faith: What Happens when Cool meets Christ?" The article explores a movement among younger evangelicals who want to shed some of the trappings of mainstream, baby-boomer Christianity—bumper stickers, mega-churches, right-wing politics. They want a more gritty, relevant, justice-oriented faith. They meet in night clubs, cuss in the pulpit, and cancel services once a month to serve the poor. On the one hand, there's something appealing about it. These 'hipster" churches are exposing the shallowness and hypocrisy of their parent's generation, who built bigger houses and better churches, all the while neglecting the poor, trashing the environment, and turning the gospel into a commodity. At the same time, there's something disturbing about it. This new breed of Christians seem to think that as long as they're doing social justice and unplugged, authentic worship, things like drinking, swearing, and sexual experimentation aren't really a big deal.
I think John would have problems with both boomer Christians and hipster faith. We can't separate the spiritual from the material or belief from behavior. Living in the light is as much about sexual purity as it is about social justice. It's about what we do with our bodies, not just what we do for our souls.
So John takes this word, "light," that means so much to his readers, and turns it back on them. He reminds them that light isn't just about knowledge; it's about conduct. God isn't light because he's spiritual. He's light because he's holy, and his people should be, too, if they want to go deeper.
Look at verse 6: "If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth." That phrase, "do not live by the truth," could literally be translated, "do not do the truth." The translators decided it sounded awkward to talk about "doing" truth, but that's exactly John's point! We think of truth as something we know. John tells us that truth is something we do.
For example, if it's true that wearing seat belts save lives, it's not enough simply to know that truth; you have to do truth—you have to buckle your seat belt. In the same way, if it's true that every person is created in the image of God, then we'll treat every person with dignity and respect, regardless of race, religion, class, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. If it's true that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, then we'll keep them healthy and pure so he can be at home there. If it's true that everything we have belongs to God, we'll be good stewards of it—we'll give generously and spend wisely. According to John, real Christians don't just believe their faith, they do their faith.
Walk as Jesus walked.
So John introduces this ethical test early in the letter, then moves on to some other topics. But in chapter 2 he comes back to it again and drills a little deeper. Let's read 2:3-6:
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The one who says, 'I know him,' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's live is truly made complete in him. This is how we k now we are in him: whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
Notice how John uses words like "know" and "truth"—words that we associate with going deeper—and turns them into behaviors. If you want to know if somebody's a real Christian, John says, don't just ask them what they believe, look at how they live. In fact, John says, if someone claims to be a Christian, but they don't do what Christ says, then they're a liar. Liar? That's pretty harsh! We didn't let our kids use that word! Calling someone a liar is serious business, but that's how serious John is about obeying God's commands.
Unfortunately, a lot of contemporary Christians are not making that connection. You've probably heard about the disturbing Barna poll that was taken back in 2007, comparing the behavior of so-called "born-again Christians" with the rest of the population. These were people who said they had accepted Christ as their Savior and believed the Bible was God's Word. That survey found that in a 30-day period, these self-identified Christians were nearly as likely as anyone else to gamble, to visit a pornographic website, to take something that didn't belong to them, to physically fight or abuse someone, to drink too much, to use an illegal drug, to have said something that wasn't true, to have gotten back at someone for something they did, and to have said mean things behind someone's back. Personally, I don't think the reality of the situation is as bad as that particular survey might suggest, but clearly there is a gap between the belief and behavior of many people who call themselves "Christians."
John would have a problem with that. In fact, down in verse 6 he says, "Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus walked." That word "walk" in the original language was sometimes used to describe a person's daily living. John seems to be saying that a person's walk should match their talk. If they talk about Jesus on Sunday, they should live like Jesus the rest of the week.
But what does that mean, exactly? How does a 21st century American Christian "walk as Jesus walked?" It brings to mind the WWJD bracelets people used to wear, reminding us to ask, What would Jesus do? It's not a bad question; it's just not very practical. Is John saying we must leave our homes, get rid of our possessions, and wander the countryside preaching sermons and casting out demons? The better question to ask, says Dallas Willard, is, What would Jesus do … if he were me? That's too long to fit on a bracelet, but it's much more helpful.
Let's say you're a truck driver. Ask yourself, If Jesus were a truck driver, what kind of truck driver would he be? Would he obey the rules of the road? Would he keep his rig in safe operating condition? Would he stop to help other drivers? Would he toot his horn when little kids asked him to?
If Jesus were in middle-management, what kind of middle manager would he be? Would he talk behind his boss's back? Would he make unreasonable demands of people in his department? Would he do the bare minimum, or pad his expense account?
if Jesus were a parent, what kind of parent would he be? Which TV shows and video games would he allow? How attentive would he be to the kids' health and homework and friends? How often would he read with them and pray for them? And would he ever threaten to throw them out of the car if they didn't stop fighting in the back seat?!
If Jesus were in high school, what kind of high-schooler would he be? How would he treat kids, especially the left-out kids? How hard would he study? How hard would he practice? Which parties would he go to, and which conversations would he walk away from?
You get the idea. Think through your daily life. How would Jesus live it, if he were you? Being a Christian isn't just a matter of believing what Jesus said; it's a matter of living like Jesus lived.
Now, it's certainly true that knowing and doing go together. You can't know how Jesus would live your life if you don't know how he lived his life. So you'll want to study the Scripture, and you'll want to spend time in prayer. But if that studying and praying never makes a difference in your living, you really haven't gone any deeper at all.
Do what's right.
Once again John leaves the subject of lifestyle, and then comes back to it again later with a vengeance! Let's follow John as he drills down a third time and then try to pull it all together. 1 John 3:7-10:
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning …. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
John is drawing some pretty stark lines in this letter, isn't he? You're either in the light, or you're in the dark. You're either living the truth or living a lie. You're either a child of God or a child of Satan. And at least one of the tests, John says, is ethical; it's how you live—not just on Sunday, but every day.
Notice John isn't saying that a real Christian never sins. He says, "He cannot go on sinning." He's talking about habitual behavior, not occasional lapses. We'll look next week at what happens when we do sin. John's not expecting perfection. But he is expecting progress. As we go on with God, as we go deeper in our faith, it will show up not only in our belief, but in our behavior. We won't just take notes on Sunday; we'll live differently on Monday. We won't just bask in his presence in morning devotions; we'll do the right thing at work that afternoon.
At this point I'd like to try a simple drawing—something I found in a commentary and then teased out a little bit. When we try to diagram a person's spiritual journey, we usually draw a horizontal line across the page. On one end we might write, "No God." A person on this end has no faith at all. On the other end we might write, "Know God." This person has a fully-formed faith and a personal relationship with God. We imagine a person making progress along this line, moving from one end to the other. At a certain point they come to believe in God, maybe, but they're still not sure about Jesus. Eventually they come to a decision point, here in the center, and they accept Christ as their Savior and Lord. We sometimes call that "crossing the line." At that point, we generally consider that person a Christian. But they still have a long way to go, don't they? They have a lot to learn about God and his ways. So they continue to grow in their faith—studying the Bible, worshiping every Sunday, etc. It's primarily a doctrinal journey. When we talk about "going deeper," we're usually thinking of moving along this continuum, toward knowing God.
But according to John, we have to draw another line, this one going up and down. If the horizontal line is the Doctrinal axis, then this vertical one is the Ethical axis. At the bottom we can put the word "Sinful," and at the top we might put the word "Holy." A person at the bottom of the line continuously breaks God's laws and does whatever he or she chooses. A person at the top of the line is fully conformed to the image of Christ. In the same way a person needs to travel across the doctrinal axis—growing in her knowledge of God and his Word—she also need to be traveling up the ethical axis—becoming more like Christ in her character and conduct.
Let's consider one example. Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount that God's law says, "Do not commit adultery." So we could put "Adultery" down here on the ethical line. It may be easy to believe that a habitual adulterer isn't likely to be a real Christian. But then Jesus says, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." So if this line represents sexual ethics, then there are a variety of sins along this line. If you're unfaithful to your spouse, it probably goes down here at the bottom. If you're sexually intimate before marriage, it might fall here, a little higher up. If you're looking at pornography, a little above that, maybe. And then up to a lustful look or fantasy. It's hard to say when a person crosses the line from non-Christian behavior to Christian behavior, but it certainly requires movement upward toward holiness.
Now, according to John's way of thinking, where on that grid would you find a real Christian? Here, in the upper right quadrant, right? They've come to believe in Christ as Savior and Lord, and they have begun to resemble Christ in their character and conduct. Where would you certainly find a non-Christian on this grid? Down here, in the lower left quadrant, right? Neither their belief nor their behavior gives any indication they are Christians. But now what would you say about people in these other two quadrants? Is a person a real Christian if they live like a Christian is supposed to live, but haven't accepted Christ as Savior? We would probably say no, or at least put a question mark. How about a person who claims to believe in Christ, but his behavior gives no indication that he is actually following Christ? If we're going to be consistent, we probably need to put a question mark in that case, too.
According to John, a real Christian is located somewhere in this quadrant. It doesn't matter where in the quadrant, exactly. What's more important than where they are is the direction they are moving in. Real Christians are moving up and to the right. Going deeper doesn't just mean knowing more about Christ; it's becoming more like Christ.
I don't know about you, but I found that diagram very helpful. It clarifies the connection between belief and behavior. It reminds me as a Christian to pursue growth in both directions. And it reminds me as a pastor that taking people deeper isn't just about information, it's about transformation. We're going to pursue both this year.
Before you get too comfortable with this little diagram, I should warn you that John is going to add a third axis. He's already mentioned it the texts we looked at today—the axis if love. We'll call this one the Relational axis. It comes right out of the page toward us, making it a three-dimensional grid. I'm not going to attempt to draw or explain that one! But we will explore it in a couple of weeks.
Now, I have a couple of cautions here about this diagram. First, only God knows where a person is on this grid. You cannot capture the mystery of salvation on a flip chart. Only God knows when a person crosses the line of belief or behavior. It may not always be evident to us. Second, this test is meant to be used to evaluate yourself, not others. John didn't write this letter so his readers could point fingers and pass judgment on others. He wrote it so they would know whether or not they were really a Christian, and how they could experience a deeper walk with Christ. And that's John's big idea for this week: You know you're living deep when your belief and your behavior are taking you closer to Christ.
As we finish up this morning, I'd like you to consider where you might put yourself on that grid. Have you crossed the line and come to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? Are you moving upward on this ethical axis, becoming more like Christ every day? What steps might the Lord want you to take that will get you moving up and to the right, toward the deep walk and abundant life God has in mind for you? Think about that for a minute, and then talk to God about it. He desires to show you your heart and then to change it.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.