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How Can We Know Whether We're Authentically Christian? — An Excerpt from "Real Christian"
In his new book, Real Christian, pastor Todd Wilson suggests “Many of us lack clarity about what it means to be real. As a result, we struggle to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.” (20)
How, then, can we help those God has entrusted to us know whether they’re authentically Christian?
This is why Wilson has written this book.
Last week we explored the six marks of a real Christian that Wilson outlines. These six marks provide “a biblical standard for whether we are real” and unpack “the substance of what mature faith looks like.” (25)
In the excerpt below, Wilson answers our question by pointing us to the words of Christ, who both warned about genuine faith and taught what how that genuine faith looks.
If you’re a ministry leader, pass this excerpt along to your people and then consider using this book to get your people asking the only question that matters this year:
Am I real?
The Heart is a Flattery Factory
Many of us lack clarity about what it means to be real. As a result, we struggle to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not. We are easily deceived. Jesus understands this struggle, which is why he warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). He knows we’re easily confused and will mistake wolves for sheep. I have seven children, and we’ve visited the zoo countless times. But I’ve never seen one of them make such a simple mistake!
This struggle isn’t just in discerning if others are real, though; we also struggle to know whether we ourselves are real. Even mature Christians find it hard to distinguish authentic spiritual experience from the imitations and counterfeits. What is the difference between that exciting rush you get when you sense God has spoken to you and the stimulating effect of a double espresso from Starbucks? It’s surprisingly difficult to know.
And to complicate things further, we can think we’re real — so can others as well — when in fact we’re not. This is why Jesus must warn, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Professing Jesus as Lord doesn’t mean you know Jesus as Lord.
We also confuse participating in churchy activities with genuine faith. This is why Jesus also cautions, “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 7:22 – 23). Evidently, on the last day Jesus will exclude from the kingdom even some pastors and missionaries, miracle workers and Sunday school teachers, because, despite appearances, they’re not real.
Here’s the problem we all face: We can convince ourselves that we’re something we’re not. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Our depraved heart is a flattery factory, which mass-produces agreeable thoughts about ourselves at a furious pace. We lose sight of who we are and convince ourselves we’re someone more attractive or cleverer or kinder than the evidence in our lives supports. Our untrustworthy hearts keep pumping self-aggrandizing compliments into our minds — leaving us comfortably reassured, yet spectacularly self-deceived.
Known By Their Fruit
While Christians are confused about what it means to be real, Jesus is not. “Thus you will recognize them by their fruits,” he says (Matthew 7:20). You know you’re real if you bear fruit, he tells us. Fruit is the telltale sign of authentic faith because fruit doesn’t lie. “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (Luke 6:43 – 44).
Jesus underscores this point in his famous parable about the sower (Matthew 13:1 – 23). The parable itself is straightforward. A farmer sows seed in a field, and the seed represents the good news of the kingdom. It is sown on four different kinds of soil, each representing a different response to the message of the kingdom. Simple enough, right? But here’s the punch line: Only one type of soil bears fruit.
The seed sown on the first soil hardly gets started. Satan comes and snatches it away. But what’s even more troubling is the outcome of the seed sown on the second and third soils. Why? Because both respond positively to the message, at least initially. These seeds appear to take root and begin growing into something real. Yet as the story continues, we learn that neither seed bears fruit. Neither lasts to the end, and thus neither seed is real.
Some of the seeds fail to develop roots, and they don’t persevere when life gets hard and their faith is tested. All we see from this seed is a burst of enthusiasm, but no staying power. Perhaps this is someone who got excited about fellowship or forgiveness, but lacked love for Christ. They
only have the appearance of being real. Over time, their faith proved counterfeit.
We assume the third seed had a similarly joyful response to the message. Yet this soon dissipates because of revived interest in the things of the world — a career promotion, a new vacation home, saving toward their 401(k) plan. These concerns choke any fledgling faith, and the person falls away.
Why does Jesus tell his disciples this sobering parable? Why such a blunt story about the distinction between authentic and inauthentic responses to his message? Evidently, Jesus doesn’t equate professing faith with possessing faith, as we so often do. Instead, he warns his disciples that only one thing matters — bearing fruit.
So if we are to take Jesus’ challenge seriously, what should we look for in our lives?
By Todd Wilson
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