In recent months my wife and I have watched a number of professing Christians we know leave their Christian walk, engage in a completely worldly lifestyle, and even go so far as to state they aren’t interested in the Church anymore and/or doubt the existence of God. These aren’t simply moderately active believers, either, but rather people who were seemingly very engaged in their faith, families, and various Christian activities at one time. Such drastic contrast between who they were before and what they’ve become now has brought us great sadness and caused us to wonder if they were truly saved to begin with.
Is it really possible for someone to appear as a true Christian for some time, but really not be born again? Making the question more personal: How can you tell if you’re a counterfeit Christian vs. the real thing?
Commanded to Be Sure
Some argue there’s really no way for someone to have full assurance that they’re truly saved. However, if that’s true, why does Scripture command believers to make such an examination and ensure they’re in the faith?
Paul says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5). Following Paul, Peter says: “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Pet. 1:10).
It would seem strange for a believer to not have any means of ensuring their salvation, but be commanded to perform just such a test. This being the case, Scripture should contain the criteria that believers can use to validate that their faith is real.
Our task, then, is to determine what Biblical framework should be used to make such a determination. The great theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards begins his famous work on this topic by asking for the exact same thing: “There is no question whatsoever, that is of greater importance to mankind, and what is more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards?”
Say ‘The Prayer’ and You’re Done?
As I delivered a four-part series of messages I created on this subject at a particular church, one person said the only thing needed to ensure a person was saved was that they had complied with Romans 10:9 and confessed with their mouth that Jesus was Lord. If they had done that, no other test should be used. When I questioned the individual about the need for a changed life and other certain evidences that the Bible speaks of, the man strongly argued against such things and said I was espousing a works-based salvation.
While I appreciate his desire to guard against salvation by works, I believe he was confusing two different things: (1) The basis of a person’s salvation; (2) the evidences that accompany that same salvation.
The Bible makes it clear we are saved by faith alone and not by works (cf. Eph. 2:8-9 and many other verses). But, Scripture also speaks about people who call Jesus Lord, appear to have the right credentials, but are told by Jesus, “I never knew you” and banished from His presence forever (cf. Matt. 7:21-23). In his epistle, James also mentions those who have a dead faith that is unable to save (cf. James 2:14).
Did these people that Jesus and James speak of just not articulate the right prayer? Clearly, there seems to be more to the story.
A Recurring Theme
Throughout the New Testament, there is a recurring pattern that Jesus and the apostles lay down for differentiating a true believer from a counterfeit: examine the quality and consistency of fruit that a life displays. To see what I mean, watch the back-and-forth contrasts made in these three example passages that speak to the evidences of who are true believers and who will not experience eternal life with God:
“Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance . . . Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8–9).
“You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16–20).
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. . . . As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. . . .If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (John 15:1–6).
You’ll find the same things stated many more times in the gospels. Jesus talks of four soils, only one of which produces fruit (Matt. 13:23); Jesus tells the religious leaders that the kingdom would be taken from them and given to a people producing fruit (Matt. 21:43); Christ relays the parable of a fig tree that would be cut down if it didn’t produce fruit (Luke 13:6-9); Jesus tells His disciples that He specifically chose them to bear fruit (John 15:16).
The rest of the New Testament contains similar statements. For example, Paul says we were saved in order to bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:4), the writer of Hebrews tells us that good ground that brings forth a useful harvest “receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned” (Hebrews 6:7–8), and Jude speaks about fake believers who are “autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted” (Jude 12).
Time and again, the Bible describes the primary difference between genuine and counterfeit believers being the ‘fruit’ seen in the life of the person. But what exactly is that ‘fruit’ and what does it look like? We’ll tackle that question and a few others in Part Two of this article.
Are you a Counterfeit Christian (Part 2)?
In Part One of this article, I provided an introductory look at the question of how a person can Biblically ascertain whether they are a genuine believer or a counterfeit Christian. As we saw, the Bible speaks with one voice regarding what the primary differentiator is between the two: a life that consistently bears ‘fruit’ for God distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian.
But what exactly is that fruit, what causes it, and are there other characteristics of which the Bible speaks that sets apart believers from non-believers? Let’s look at these questions now to get a better understanding of how a person can reach the place of assurance that they truly belong to Christ.
How the Bible Describes the Non-Christian
The Bible says that every human being is born a sinner and a rebel where seeking God is concerned (cf. Ps. 51:5, Rom. 3:11-18). That being true, each of us is born with a nature (called “the flesh” by the Bible in various places) that has ungodly affections and a mind darkened to the standards of God.
The fleshly affections are chronicled by Paul in Galatians 5:19-21, and result in both things that the unbeliever both loves and hates. The unbeliever loves the things of the world and rejects the things of God.
The unbeliever’s mind is summed up by Paul in the following way: “For the mind set on the flesh is death . . . The mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Rom. 8:6-7). This equates to the rejection of spiritual truth and a mind that is self and world-centered rather than God-centered.
The ‘fruit’ that is born from such a life is reflected in what a person does and who they truly are down deep. Left unchecked, there is continuous growth process and movement away from God and toward the self and sinful behavior.
All of this can be represented in the following way:
How the Bible Describes the Christian
When God saves a person, they are spiritually born again and given a new spiritual nature that disrupts the sinful maturation process described above:
Note that the new believer is not someone who never sins (cf. Rom. 7), but they are now freed from sin and able to accept, embrace, and love the things of God.
The new Christian is given the gift of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:22) who “testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16), which is the first indicator, and indeed a continuously occurring piece of internal evidence that a person is truly saved. Paul tells the Thessalonians that one way he knew they were saved was because “our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).
The believer’s new affections include a love for God and His Word/laws and a hatred for the things that oppose God (cf. Ps. 119:97-113). The mind of the new Christian is now one that understands spiritual truth and is focused on the things of God, as Paul says: “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5).
The fruit that springs from the new life is radically different from the old nature and may best be summed up by John who says, “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10).
These truths may be pictorially represented as follows:
The Chief Difference
In his magisterial work, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards sums up the primary difference between those who have been truly saved and those who are not this way: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”
In other words, the object(s) of a person’s desires and affections vividly display either the presence or absence of God’s Spirit in someone. Edwards says, “As from true divine love flow all Christian affections, so from a counterfeit love in like manner naturally flow other false affections. In both cases, love is the fountain, and the other affections are the streams.”
Edwards argues that the principal evidence of life is ‘motion’ (a living person breathes, moves, etc.), and in like fashion, the primary evidence of a holy life is ‘holy motion’. Put another way, it is not about perfection, but a person’s continuous direction that matters.
In Part Three of this article, I’ll tackle some final questions on the topic of how you can ensure you possess true saving faith and discuss some practical methods everyone can utilize to confirm that one is not merely deluding him/herself into believing they are a Christian when in fact they are not.
 Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Kindle Edition, pg. 145.
 Ibid, 59.