Church,  Culture

Not All Christians are True Christians

photo of a wolf, representing false Christians

According to World Atlas, there are an estimated 2.2 billion Christians in the world. The United States makes up the most significant percentage of Christians by country, with an estimated 230 million Christians. However, are all of these statistical Christians genuine Christians? How does one determine whether one is a genuine Christian or not?

The Troubling Beliefs of General Christianity

In 2020, the Ligonier State of Theology survey revealed some troubling findings concerning Christian beliefs in America. In response to the statement, “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation,” 40% of those surveyed disagreed. In other words, many of those who are supposed to be Christian denied the exclusivity of Christ (a core teaching of Christianity)!

Responses to the statement, “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

This trend is not limited to lay Christians. A recent survey conducted by Arizona Christian University found troubling trends in the beliefs of Christian pastors. One of the most troubling beliefs revealed is that at least a third of senior pastors in the United States believe one can earn a place in heaven by being a good person. So, at both lay level and pastoral level (which is supposed to be the educated leadership of the church) there are significant concerns.

It has always been a core tenant of Christian belief that we are dead to sin, incapable of achieving eternal life through any good works we can do. We can only be granted eternal life through putting our faith in the gracious gift offered in Christ Jesus (cf. Eph 2:8-9). Titus 3:5 speaks strongly against the idea that good works contribute to our salvation. Paul writes, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, Christianity has always taught the exclusivity of the gospel. Jesus himself said, “no man comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

What are we to make of Christians who deny key components of the Christian faith?

Warnings from Scripture

One of the most sobering realities in Scripture is that many non-Christians will join themselves to the church under the guise of being Christian. Paul warned the church in Acts 20:29-30 that, “fierce wolves will come in among you.” This warning was not primarily about external pressures. Rather, Paul made sure the church knew, “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” In other words, the danger arises from within! Christians are always to be on guard because there will regularly be fierce wolves who pretend they are Christians. These pseudo-Christians will lead many astray (cf. Matt 7:15; 2 Cor 11:3; Gal 2:13; 2 Tim 3:6).

Scripture does not just warn us that there will be many false teachers within the church who lead Christians astray. Scripture says many will deceive themselves into thinking they are Christians when they are not. Jesus himself warned that many will think they are Christians when they actually are not. In one of the most sobering admonitions, Jesus says,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23

Unambiguously, Jesus makes it clear that there will be many on the final day of judgment who had associated with Jesus and did good deeds in His name. Yet, these individuals will be cast out because they were not genuine believers. They are identified as workers of lawlessness.

The reality of false followers of Christ has been present ever since Jesus set foot on the earth. Jesus regularly discouraged people from following Him who were only following superficially (cf. Matt 8:19-22; Matt 19:16-22; John 6:66). In order to drive away the superficial follower, Jesus regularly talked about the high cost of being a Christian.

Similarly, Paul did not assume that everyone who went to church was a genuine follower of Christ. He admonished the Corinthian church, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor 13:5). Paul and the other apostles recognized the same reality that Jesus did—there will be false teachers and false believers.

Jesus had taught his followers to expect that genuine followers of Christ would be few. He called people to, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14). With these words, Jesus made clear that there are few who truly follow him. In other parables, Jesus also taught that there would be individuals who look like believers until the trials of life come, then they fall away (cf. Matt 13:20-22).

The sobering reality is that Scripture is filled with the idea that not everyone who identifies as a Christian is a genuine Christian.

Who is a Genuine Christian?

With such sobering warnings, how is one to know whether or not his or her faith is genuine? How is one to know whether a teacher is a gift from God and not a deceptive wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Just as Scripture warns us, it also helps us. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). These words are spoken by Jesus and represent what it means to be a Christian. A true Christian loves Jesus and will obey what He has commanded. That doesn’t mean Christians are perfect people. Paul described a daily struggle with the flesh that Christians experience (Rom 7:21-25; Gal 5:16-21). However, a genuine believer will obey the Word of Christ because of what it is and who it is from. A genuine believer will not reject what God has revealed in Scripture.

An example of this is the current intra-Christian discussion on LGBT issues. The mark between genuine Christians and false Christians is made quite evident. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God. That is a clear statement of exclusion. Yet, many in the Christian community attempt to work around those statements. However, Paul speaks unambiguously for Christ as His representative. A telltale sign of a false teacher or a false Christian is one who, understanding what Scripture says, rejects it.

“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). John wrote the book of 1 John so that one might know he has eternal life. John gives a variety of tests so that one might know he is a genuine believer.

  • No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23)
  • No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him (1 John 3:6)
  • No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s see abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God (1 John 3:9)

One of John’s tests is the correct identification of the Son, Jesus Christ. Of those surveyed by The State of Theology in 2020, 51% agreed with the statement, “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God.” Even among Evangelicals, 30% agreed with that statement. This is appalling among those who claim to be Christians! Such a basic understanding of who Jesus is, according to the Christian faith includes His deity. In the matter of orthodox belief, we are living in a dry time. A significant percentage of so-called Christians actually deny core tenants of the faith.

But it is not just doctrinal issues. John states that Christians will live lives that are drastically different than the culture around them. A true believer—one who has been born of God—cannot continue in sin. Yet, unfortunately, many so-called Christians are marked by sinful lives which lack differentiation from the world around them. Believers who are content and happy in their sin give evidence they are not genuine Christians.

Living in an Artificial Christendom

This has not been a happy article per se, but it is a necessary one. It is an article of warning.

I regularly talk with people about churches that I would consider led by false teachers and populated by false Christians. Unfortunately, in the time and world in which we live, there are many places it is easy to claim to be a Christian. As such, there are many so-called Christians who are deceiving and being deceived. We must be aware of this and find solid, biblical churches where we can thrive with the fellowship of genuine believers. We must be a part of genuine Christianity where we hear the Word of God taught unapologetically and faithfully.

Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

7 Comments

  • Rodney Scott-Young

    So basic but sadly so true. Where is one to find a brother or sister. It is like trying to find a Unicorn, and walking the walk alone is double the difficulty. Thankfully there are sites like yours for encouragement. Please keep on keeping on. Peace be with you.

  • WAYNE FORTE

    Thank you for this great article. It is a sober reminder of the warnings our Lord has for us in the bible. As a deacon reading your article is a reminder be watchful and on-guard against such false christians and false profits that they don’t infiltrate our church. We are to defend our faith, and our church of the false Christians you describe. Unfortunately I have known a few. God bless!!!

  • Bill Mann

    Thanks for this article. I’ve always thought that the Ligonier State of Theology survey should be used as a type of litmus test for those that proclaim to be a Christian.

    • Peter Goeman

      Thanks for reading, Bill. They do ask some excellent questions! I recently just released a podcast on the recent 2022 State of Theology results as well if you are interested.

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