In a letter dated Dec. 25, 1834, James Boyle, an associate of an evangelist named Charles Finney, asked these questions of Finney regarding some of their previous evangelistic campaigns: "Let us look over the fields where you and others and myself have labored as revival ministers and what is now their moral state? What was their state within three months after we left them? I have visited and revisited many of these fields and groaned in spirit to see the sad frigid carnal contentious state into which the churches had fallen and fallen very soon after we first departed from among them.”
What happened at those particular churches that Finney and Boyle visited? Was the enemy at work among true believers, was it a case of simple human friction, or was it instead a sad example of people not being truly saved to begin with?
In Parts One and Two of this article, we discussed what the primary evidence is for understanding a true saving faith from one that’s counterfeit, and saw how the fruit in a person’s life along with their true affections speaks volumes as to the legitimacy of their claim to be known by Christ. Let’s now turn our attention to a few other questions that always come up when this topic is discussed and see what other practical ways the Bible instructs us to ensure we are truly in the faith.
If I’ve heard the story once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “I have a friend who went forward in a church service, was baptized, and really became involved in the church, Bible studies, and more. But now they’ve left the church, are living in a way that is clearly against God’s standards, and want nothing to do with anything related to Christ. I guess they must have lost their salvation.”
Is that really the case? I don’t believe so.
In numerous places, Scripture describes those who abandon the faith as having never possessed it from the start. John says, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Notice two important things about what John says. First, he clearly indicates that those who leave the body of Christ “were not really of us” and never, ever belonged to the Church. Second, when a person leaves the body, it is clear evidence “that they all are not of us”. In other words, not everyone sitting in a pew is a true believer in the same way that Paul says that not every Jew is a true descendant of Abraham (Rom. 9:6-7).
The fact that a person departs from Christ in a finalizing way is a clear signal that they never possessed real saving faith, as is the bad fruit that their life bears. Paul says, “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him” (Titus 1:16).
In like fashion, Peter describes the U-Turn false believers make when he says: “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,’ and, ‘A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire’” (2 Pet. 2:20-22).
Both Peter and Paul show that a profession someone makes, which is not accompanied by true repentance and change of life is one that demonstrates itself to be counterfeit; it serves as evidence of one who actually denies God. The affections of the person and what they love never change and so they naturally return to their previous loves and behavior, if they indeed they actually ever left them to begin with.
The Shallow and Thorny Soil
Jesus’ familiar parable of the sower, found in Matthew 13, gives us the answers as to how these U-Turn false believers come to be. Jesus says that as the sower sowed, “Seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And they withered away. Other seeds fell among the thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them” (Matt. 13:5-6).
When Jesus provides the interpretation of the parable to His disciples, he tells us what the rocky and thorny ground represent: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears and the Word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among the thorns, this is the one who hears the Word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the Word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt. 13: 20-22).
The gospel reaches these types of people and it sounds good at first. It appears to be accepted. But the seed goes down only so far; it hits a bedrock of unrepentance that denies the plant from really taking root. No change of heart from God actually occurred. Then, pressure from the world along with competing affections from the old nature easily overcome the shallow, surface-level commitment to the things of God and the person simply and naturally falls away, and remains in the unsaved state they were in to begin with.
Jonathan Edwards describes these people and their unaffected desires this way: “They often hear these things [the truth of the gospel] and yet remain as they were before, with no sensible alternation in them, either in heart or practice, because they are not affected with what they hear; and ever will be so till they are affected. I am bold to assert, that there never was any considerable change wrought in the mind or conversation of any person, by anything of a religious nature, that ever he read, heard or saw, that had not his affections moved.”
Some Final Thoughts
What are some other practical “self-exams” that a person can give themselves that draw from the truths we’ve pulled out from Scripture regarding a true vs. counterfeit faith? Professor Wayne Grudem offers these simple questions a person should ask themselves to help determine their spiritual state:
- Do I have a present trust in Christ for salvation?
- Is there evidence of a regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in my heart? (fruit of the Spirit, acceptance of sound doctrine, obeying Christ’s commands)
- Do I see a long term pattern of growth in my Christian life?
What about looking at the issue from the opposite perspective – what might the signs of a counterfeit Christian be? Although certainly not exhaustive, the following may serve as a guide:
- Seeks feelings, blessings, experiences, etc. More interested in the by-products of faith than God Himself
- More committed to their denomination than the Church and the Word of God. Describes themselves by their denomination
- Overindulgent in the name of grace. Lacks the penitence of a true, contrite heart
- Says “I believe in God”, but nothing follows in their lives. There is no history of repentance from sin
- No real sensitivity to sin (e.g. lies with ease, attempts to justify actions that run contrary to God’s Word)
- No real desire to read, study, or learn about God’s Word. Most times does not grasp the truths of the Bible if they read it
- Desires the “food” of the world, whether it’s the world’s music, entertainment, lifestyle, or comedy. Has no changed affections toward the things of God; retains affections for the world
- Sides with the world on ethical issues that conflict with Scripture (e.g. homosexuality, abortion)
- Little to no meaningful prayer life
- No desire to witness to others about God
- Describes their salvation experience in dry terms that have little or no real meaning to them (e.g. “I was baptized when I was 12”)
- Has a fixation on works and/or plays the comparison game with others in hopes of elevating their worth in the eyes of God vs. demonstrating an understanding that salvation is only by faith
Make no mistake, the goal of providing such a list above, and this series of articles in general, is not to get a true Christian to doubt their salvation. In fact, I oftentimes tell genuine Christians who are fearful of being unsaved the same thing Jonathan Edwards relays to his readers: “The devil does not assault the hope of the hypocrite, as he does the hope of a true saint.”
In other words, counterfeit believers – like the Pharisees – have a false assurance and prideful spirit that never causes them to actually examine their own lives to see if they’re in the faith, whereas real believers care deeply about the matter and can be a target of the enemy where the assurance of their salvation is involved.
Instead, I hope to give pause to those like the ones who populated the unaffected churches that were the targets of Charles Finney’s revivals, and have them follow through with the Biblical mandate of examining oneself to ensure the faith they claim is authentic.
For bona fide Christians, it’s my hope and prayer that this series brings assurance to you that you truly belong to Christ, with these words hopefully having the same impact as John’s when he wrote, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).