Many people today call themselves Christians. For example, an atheistic evolutionist named Anders Breivik hailed himself online as a Christian before he murdered 77 people in Norway. He viewed Europe as culturally Christian as opposed to culturally Islamic, but his view of Christianity had nothing to do with Christ or God.1 Leading atheist Richard Dawkins also identifies himself as a cultural Christian, and even more particularly as a cultural Anglican!2 President Obama repeatedly calls himself a Christian, but then he also supports homosexuality, the murder of the unborn, and other sinful behaviors forbidden by Christ in His Word.

Many people call themselves Christians, but their words and actions are grossly unchristian. Such contradictions stain the name Christian as people look and say, “That’s a Christian? Well then, I don’t want to be a Christian.” Obviously such behaviors reveal that these people—who claim to be Christians and yet promote open sin—deny the Bible as the authority in their lives (Titus 1:16).

Many want to associate themselves with Christians due to the good name Christianity has or due to the large Christian populace (especially during elections). It can be beneficial to be called a Christian, at least in the more Christianized nations. Sadly, people take advantage of that. They try to call themselves Christians for selfish, financial gain by getting votes, donations, or business from the Christian crowd! In other cases, they simply call themselves Christian to appease their family, but meanwhile their hearts are far from God.

At what point should a Christian say, “Enough is enough,” and start judging a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:20)? Christians are to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24) and are commanded to judge those who are within the church (1 Corinthians 5:12). We are commanded to put away the evil person who tries to infiltrate the church (1 Corinthians 5:13).

How to Recognize a Christian—According to the Bible

By definition a Christian is a repentant believer in Jesus Christ—the Son of God who came in the flesh, died, and was resurrected. The Bible speaks extensively about the subsequent lifestyle of believers—what it calls fruit. For example, we read about “the fruit of the Spirit”:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22–24, emphasis mine)

This wholesome fruit stands in contrast to “the unfruitful works of darkness”:

Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. (Ephesians 5:1–12, emphasis mine)

Walking in the fruit of the Spirit is often a telltale sign that people are living out their Christian lives as a tribute to the Lord who redeemed them from sin and death. But even so, identifying godly believers can be difficult. The book of 1 John speaks extensively about how to identify those unbelievers. Essentially, it is those who continue to live evil lives even though they claim to follow Christ. Some of the identifying marks of false believers are tabulated below:

 

Identifiers Of An Unbeliever

1 John Reference

1

Walks in darkness (sin), practices lawlessness

1 John 1:6–7; 3:3–4

2

Does not obey Christ’s commands (to love God and love other Christians)

1 John 2:4–6; 3:23–24; 5:1–3

3

Hates brothers (fellow Christians)

1 John 2:8–11; 3:14–17; 4:20–21

4

Loves the “world and the things of the world” (e.g., worldly pleasures and ideas as opposed to those of God)

1 John 2:15–16; 4:4–5; 5:4–5

5

Does not do the will of God

1 John 2:17; 5:14

6

Walks away from the faith, does not continue with Christ

1 John 2:18–19; 5:13

7

Does not confess Christ

1 John 2:21–24; 4:14–15

8

Does not abide in Christ

1 John 2:24–25; 4:13, 16

9

Does not practice righteousness

1 John 2:29; 3:7–10

10

Does not believe the testimony of God (i.e., His Word)

1 John 5:1, 10–12

Reasons People Might Not Display the Fruit of the Spirit

So why is it that many people today, who claim to be Christians, often still have some identifiers of false belief? I suggest three reasons:

  1. They are unregenerate: they have a misplaced faith. Without the Holy Spirit they cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit.
  2. They are ignorant: they simply don’t know enough on the subject. Some new or immature Christians may continue in a sin that they didn’t know was a sin. This is where being taught and studying the Word of God really helps (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Keep in mind that no one is perfect and Christians will still sin, but becoming aware of that sin, they need to repent and strive to live godly lives.
  3. They are deceivers: they are simply false teachers calling themselves Christians for their own selfish desires—in some instances to subtly attack and undermine God’s people from within. The Bible warns of false teachers who infiltrate the church and teach false doctrines that contradict the Bible (Acts 20:29–30; 2 Corinthians 11:13). Should it be a surprise?

Final Remarks

Though much more could be said on this subject, I do want to leave us with some final thoughts. Only God is the ultimate judge of someone’s heart. But when those who claim to be Christians do things that are not Christ-like and hence oppose the Bible, then we need to point out that error and correct the brother or sister. Or, after seeing their fruits and checking for identifying marks of unbelief, we might need to point out that they are no brother or sister at all.

As we carry out our responsibility of correcting or challenging anyone, it should be done with gentleness and respect (Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 4:2; 1 Corinthians 4:21; 1 Peter 3:15). Our desire should be to call people to repentance in Christ if at all possible (2 Corinthians 7:9–10).

There are times when false believers should be removed or avoided so they are no longer stumbling blocks to Christians (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:1–5; 1 Corinthians 5:1–13; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14; Matthew 18:15–20; Romans 16:17; 2 John 9–10; Titus 3:9–10).

These principles apply when, for example, the Bible is used to judge false teaching and warn Christians of false teachers who compromise God’s Word with humanistic philosophies like evolution and millions of years and do not repent. To do this is actually obeying the Word of God—and it is better to obey God (Acts 5:29) than those Christians who say we should not judge.3

The old phrases “actions speak louder than words” and “you can tell a tree by its fruit” are not without warrant. This biblical principle comes from Christ Himself:

For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. (Luke 6:43–44)

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Footnotes

  1. “A Christian Terrorist,” Answers in Genesis, http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v7/n1/terrorist. Back
  2. Stoyan Zaimov, “Richard Dawkins: I Guess I’m a Cultural Christian,” CP World, http://www.christianpost.com/news/richard-dawkins-i-guess-im-a-cultural-christian-91312/. Back
  3. Usually these Christians will quote Matthew 7:1 out of context. In Matthew 7, Jesus is saying to judge yourself first, “then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). It is definitely an act of judgment to help your brother with a fault or error. The point is to judge yourself first before you judge your brother and not to judge your brother unfairly or by a different standard. Back