How Can You Tell Someone Is A Christian?
Adrian’s answer was that a Christian is someone “who believes in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, and lives in light of the implications of that event.” Several commenters pointed out that this could well include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and so on, and as such was probably inadequate, and I agree. Water baptism is insufficient, since so many baptised people do not persevere. Expressions of repentance frequently do not result in changed lives either. Professions of faith in Jesus have all-too-often been accompanied by thoroughly unChristian lives, especially within Christendom. Fruitfulness is obviously a test, but given the wide range of ways in which genuine fruit can be manifest in our lives, and false fruit feigned, how can we be certain what that looks like? Perseverance in faith, though theologically accurate, is all-but-useless as a test in practice, since we can only be sure someone is a disciple of Jesus when they die (and we can never be sure that we are). So how do we know whether someone is a Christian or not?
I think Paul’s answer would be fairly straightforward: a Christian is someone who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ”, he writes in Romans 8:9. Then, two verses later: “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” So if someone has the Spirit, they will be raised, and if someone does not have the Spirit, then they don’t belong to Christ. That sounds about as close to a definition of what makes a Christian as we’re likely to find. And for what it’s worth, I think the story of Cornelius indicates that Peter and the other Jerusalem apostles would agree (Acts 10:47; 11:17-18).
Not only is this how we can tell whether other people are Christians, it is also how we can be certain that we are. A few verses further on, Paul explains, “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” My former pastor Don Smith made it a habit, for years, to get in people’s faces and ask them how they knew they were saved - and the only answer that ever pacified him, to my knowledge, was a quotation of Romans 8:14-17. (2 Corinthians 1:22 and Ephesians 1:13-14 might have worked too, but I never saw anyone try them.) For Paul, it is the indwelling Holy Spirit, nothing more and nothing less, that guarantees we are children of God.
Admittedly, this doesn’t give us a cut-and-dried test we can apply to others. It is, after all, not always easy to be sure who has the Spirit and who doesn’t. (Did the Judaizers in Galatia? Demas? The immoral brother at Corinth? Constantine? Arius? Pelagius? John Tetzel? Zwingli? Charles Parham? Barack Obama?) But that may not be such a bad thing. If God had wanted us to know for certain whether a particular church leader, or presidential candidate, was a Christian, he’d have given us a shibboleth which only true believers could say. But he didn’t. (1 Corinthians 12:3 and Romans 10:9 look like they might provide us with one, but then we have to reckon with Matthew 7:21 and co.) So maybe we’re supposed to have assurance of our own salvation, but leave the final answers about the salvation of others with God.
Anyone think I’ve missed an obvious test? How would you tell whether someone was a Christian or not?