They were reclining at the table when they were hit with the shocking news. On the last night with his disciples, Jesus revealed the terrible truth: “One of you will betray me, one who is eating with me” (Mark 14:18). With raised brows and shrugged shoulders, the disciples looked around at each other confused. Who could it be? They were among their closest friends; surely it wasn’t one of them. They began to question themselves. “Is it I?” They had no idea who it was until Jesus made it clear. Judas, one of the twelve, would betray him.
How could the disciples not know? Judas had been with them three years. Did they not know he was helping himself to the moneybag? Could they not see a dark desire for money that eventually led him to betray his Master for thirty pieces of silver? One would think at least one of the other disciples could discern a devil among them (John 6:70), but none of them did.
It should terrify us that someone so close to Christ might not be a true follower. This false believer might also go unrecognized among us. They can serve in the church and attend Bible studies but not really know Christ. We’re told that there will be tares among the wheat, yet we often don’t believe it. We conclude that wolves hide among the sheep in other churches, certainly not ours.
More shocking is the thought that it could be us. Can you imagine being one of those who Jesus describes in Matthew 7:21-24? Can you imagine finally getting to kneel in the presence of the Lord thinking that now you will enter into eternal life? Kneeling before him looking for the words “well done, good and faithful servant,” you instead hear “depart from me.” Shocked and dismayed, you desperately plead your case, “Lord, lord, did I not walk an aisle and say a prayer? Did I not have an impeccable church attendance and giving record? Didn’t I speak out against the immorality of the nation and vote properly?” The only response being the final words of judgment, “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”
How can we know if that’s us? How can we distinguish the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares, the true believer from the moral deist? How can we evaluate ourselves to see if we truly know him? While it can be difficult to distinguish and work through the deception in our own heart, perhaps there are some distinctive marks to look for in our lives. While this list is far from exhaustive, here are a few marks that describe a true believer:
Confession of the Christ
This is such a ‘given,’ I almost didn’t list it: we are not believers if we do not confess Christ and believe the gospel. After Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). This, Jesus replies, was not revealed by flesh and blood, but by God himself. When God does a work in our heart, we confess Jesus is Lord with our mouths.
Many intellectually agree with the facts of the gospel but are not born again. There are other signs needed that go beyond our words.
Delight in God
In Philippians 3:8, Paul declares, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In other words, everything is rubbish compared to knowing Christ. David sings to the Lord, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Ps. 4:7). We should ask ourselves if that is true of us. Do you have deep joy, not just in your blessings, but in God himself? Does your heart cry out to God, “In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11)?
If we’re not delighting in God, perhaps we don’t truly know him. God is so great and wonderful that to know him is to delight in him. What does it say when we spend very little time in the Word and prayer? Does that mirror Paul and David’s joy and delight in God? Has the modern day church become bored with God? Perhaps the problem is deeper than we want to admit.
Perhaps part of the problem is that what often poses as Christianity is nothing more than a spiritualized materialism. Instead of an intimate relationship with the Lord, we just want to please him so he’ll give us what we want. We’ll feign morality to bribe God for the life we want. We don’t mourn sin because it grieves God, but because it might hinder us from getting some material blessing. We don’t encourage others to obey God so he might be glorified, but we encourage them to obey God so they don’t lose their job or family. We don’t go to church to worship God and fellowship with believers, it’s simply a duty to check off our list, and it better not go past noon!
Do we delight in God, or do we use him to get what we truly want? Is he the object of our desire or simply the means? One describes a child of God, the other describes a user.
Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness
As we delight in God, we’ll delight more in what he values. We will hate what he hates. The Bible refers to this as hungering for righteousness: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).
I wish this were true of my life every waking moment, but the truth is we will all continue to battle against our sinful desires. However, if we are truly born again, our desire to live like Jesus should grow. Over time, we should see the continued work of the Holy Spirit working on our thoughts, desires, motives, and affections. If you don’t see this type of hungering for righteous growing, cry out to the Lord for wisdom and seek the counsel of a trusted, mature believer.
Most of us understand that we are not perfect. Scripture testifies to it and we see the struggle in our life. Even after conversion, we still wage war against the desires of our flesh. Until we are perfected in our resurrection body, we will continue to battle against our sinful nature.
Doesn’t that imply, then, that we’ll be people who continually repent? If our response to sin should be confession and repentance, and we continue to sin, then a true believer’s life will be one of repentance. The Holy Spirit of God dwells in the believer and one of his jobs is to bring conviction– when he does so, we are to respond with repentance.
Why is it so hard to repent? If we know we’re sinners and Christ has taken the punishment for our sin, why would we be afraid to confess? In my life, when I find it difficult to repent before God and others, it’s a sure sign of pride and self-righteousness taking root in my heart. The gospel frees me from my pride and self-righteousness because it tells me I’ll never be good enough on my own. If my acceptance is based on my works, then I’ll want to hide my sin. Instead, I must trust in the finished work of Christ to be my righteousness. Because my acceptance is based on Christ, I’m free to repent.
Too often we think of repenting only at the moment of salvation. It certainly happens then, but continues to be a part of a true believer’s life. The closer we grow to the Lord, the more our sin will be exposed. God is continuing to sanctify us and repentance is part of that process.
If we see that we haven’t repented lately, perhaps it’s because we haven’t recognized our sin. If we aren’t recognizing our sin, then we are not growing and we are not walking daily in the good news of the gospel. Where that work is lacking for extended periods of time may be a sign of the absence of the Holy Spirit.
Love for Neighbor
Jesus sums up the law in two commands: Love God and love your neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40). First John 4:20 says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
One who has been born again and given a new heart will show love to his brother. Do we simply love in word or talk but not in deed and truth (1 John 3:18)? Words aren’t enough, there should be action. Where that love is lacking, John makes it clear that person is lying about their relationship with the Lord.
Good Works Flowing from a Changed Heart
Throughout the book of James, we are reminded that if we have saving faith works will follow. Religion that is true is “to visit the orphans and widows” (1:27). Believing in God is good, but even demons do that. A saving faith will show works because a ‘faith’ without works is dead (2:26).
Be careful not to mistake works as the basis of your salvation, for adding a work to the gospel cuts us off from Christ (Gal. 5:4). We are not saved by works, but a heart that’s truly been changed will produce works. Where we don’t see the works, we should be concerned about the state of our heart.
Fruits of the Spirit
Scripture teaches a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Healthy roots produce visible fruit. Likewise, if the Spirit of God dwells in us, the evidence will spring forth in our lives. Galatians tells us “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). So when I don’t have patience, I’m testifying against the Spirit. If I’m not loving, I’m arguing God isn’t real. Where there’s no joy, I’m saying God isn’t good. If I don’t have self-control, I’m painting a picture of a god who is weak.
Let us examine our fruit. None of us will exemplify them perfectly all the time, but if you see a pattern where they are lacking, then there needs to be some deep evaluation, seeking God’s face, and the counsel of fellow Christians and your pastor.
The legalist in us sees a list like this and will try to accomplish these things out of sheer discipline. Doing so will only lead to more disappointment when failure comes or self-righteousness when there’s apparent victory. Instead, we should plead with God to continue his work in our hearts through the Word and Spirit. Only he can change us from within. If we have been deceived about our salvation, he can reveal that to us.
We can’t force delight in God, but God can give us a glimpse of who he is that leaves us longing for more. We can’t make ourselves hunger for righteousness, but when we truly behold God, we will want to be like him. As we behold God’s holiness, we’ll walk in repentance. As we experience God’s love for us in Christ, then we’ll extend that same love to our neighbor. As we bask in the glory of God, then we’ll long to display works that are honoring and pleasing to him. If we’re walking after the Spirit, then we’ll produce the fruits of the Spirit.
Do you see these marks in your life? May none of us be like Judas who was so close to Christ yet ended in destruction. God forbid we spend our lives going to church only to hear on that day, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” No matter where you find yourself today, there is grace and mercy available at the cross.