In Matthew 7:21, Jesus said that there will be people who stand before Him one day who will think that they are saved, only to find out that they never genuinely were. These will no doubt include pastors and church staff members, small group leaders, and members from every denomination imaginable. I can’t think of anything more tragic than to be a member of the local church on paper, yet not be a member of Christ’s body! Healthy churches are those made up of authentic disciples of Jesus Christ. Thabiti Anyabwile writes, “Surely one of the reasons for the vast number of nominal Christians–those who hold to the faith in name only–in the history of the Christian church is that churches have failed to embrace and teach a biblical understanding of conversion.” The gospel has been reduced to therapy that spruces up a person’s life rather than being the transformational message that brings a person life. The gospel brings life because a person is dead in sin, not simply sick. You ask, “Can a person really be a church member, hold a position of leadership, and still not be a follower of Jesus?” Consider the story of John Wesley.
John Wesley grew up in the home of an Anglican priest. He studied theology at Oxford. He even went to the newly discovered America on a mission trip to serve as a missionary in the colony of Georgia. Yet in spite of all his service, Wesley acknowledged that had never truly bowed his life to Christ. Though he had preached and been a religious man, he knew that something was still missing. He wrote of his conversion experience in his journal, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
The sad reality is that our churches are full of men and women who have never been genuinely converted to faith in Christ. True conversion involves a change of one’s life, not merely a decision. It is not behavioral modification or the turning over of a new leaf. Conversion is the work of God’s Spirit who brings conviction of sin and leads a person to repent of that sin and confess faith in Christ. Because the danger exists for a person to think they are saved when in reality they are not saved, we must examine our hearts closely. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” How can we know if we are authentic disciples? Anyabwile mentions five litmus tests from passages in 1 John that we can ask ourselves:
- Do we walk in the light or in the darkness? 1 John 1:6-7, “If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
- Do we love God the Father? 1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”
- Do we love other Christians? 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father also loves whoever has been born of Him.”
- Do we have the testimony of the Spirit that we are children of God? 1 John 3:24, “And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.”
- Do we persevere in the faith? 1 John 5:4-5, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
Anyabwile, Thabiti M. What Is a Healthy Church Member? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.