“How do I know if I am a true Christian?”
Have you ever asked yourself that question? God says you should. Paul writes to the Corinthian church, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor 13:5). So those who desire to be true followers of Jesus Christ are expected to assess whether Jesus truly lives within. How is this done?
This question was anticipated and answered by the Lord Jesus Himself. He told a group of recent Jewish believers, “If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”(John 8:31b-32). So, according to Jesus, the criterion for knowing who truly belongs to Him is fidelity to His Word, which brings knowledge of truth, which brings everlasting freedom from sin—its penalty, its power and (one day) its presence altogether.
Well, how hard could that be—staying true to Jesus’ Word? One look at the modern evangelical church would indicate harder than you might think. In fact, one of the most astounding and appalling realities of our present day is how many would-be faithful followers of Christ regularly imbibe teaching that is not only not what Christ taught, but is in fact the exact opposite! And of all the topics where what the Bible teaches and what is commonly taught as true are most at odds, at or near the top, is the anticipated response of the world to the Christ-led life.
An Irresistible Faith?
Take, for example, the latest book from the pastor of one of America’s largest churches. In it, he claims that if Christ-followers were to live out the faith as was originally taught and modeled by Christ, the appeal of that faith would be irresistible to a watching world. Similarly, another American megachurch pastor and popular author this past year exposited Matthew 5:20 for his congregation as follows:
To understand Jesus, we might actually translate Matthew 5: 20—a really core statement in the Sermon on the Mount—“Unless your ‘likeability’ surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” We think of righteousness as this kind of cliché, pious thing, but really it’s very much … to be a likable, caring, loving person.
Is this true? Is the authentically-lived, Christ-led life “irresistible” to a watching world? And is “likeability” an anticipated assessment we should expect those outside the Church to attach to the genuine Christ-follower? What is the biblical testimony in this regard?
Answer: it would be hard to parody what the Bible has to say more outrageously than the above quote. The modern evangelical notion that authentic Christianity and its eminently “likeable” Christ-followers should be “irresistible” to the surrounding world could not be further from what the Bible actually says. This would even qualify as outrageous lampoon—such as from the Babylon Bee—were it not for the fact that these teachers are completely serious. As it is, the only way such evangelical charlatans can get away with this scandalous deception is that their listeners must rarely bother to open and read the Bible.
Here is how irresistible Christianity was at its outset. Nearly two years into Christ’s ministry, the question on the mind of one witness was: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Luke 13:23). And Jesus does not contradict this assessment but informs His followers that the path to salvation is agonizing! (Agonizing paths, it should be obvious, are not “irresistible”). Then, by the end of Christ’s earthly tenure, after thousands upon thousands had heard His message while eating divinely-prepared food and being miraculously healed of every condition imaginable, the sum total of believers was not many more than 120 in an upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15), with 500 more up in Galilee (1 Cor 15:6). Even given generous approximations, the “conversion rate” of Christianity while the Son of God walked the earth seems to have been in the neighborhood of 0.1%—hardly an “irresistible” number.
As for the “likeability” of true believers, Jesus says to those He sent out during His ministry,“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake”(Matt 10:22). (Likeability, it should be obvious, does not induce hatred). He says of the future destiny of His followers in His Olivet Discourse, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matt 24:9). And in John 15:19, He declares to His Apostles, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, therefore the world hates you.” So, according to Jesus, the faithful life of believers engenders hatred from the world, a far cry from “likeability.”
Well, maybe these were ominous predictions of Christ simply because He knew that His fallible followers would fall so far short of His example. But Christ was “likeable” while here in earthly form, wasn’t He? After all, if we as Christians are to be His “likeable” followers, our Mentor must have epitomized this quality, right? The answer is found in John 7:7, where Jesus says to His brothers (who, at this point, were not yet believers in Him), “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.” And in John 15:18 and 20, Jesus provides clarification to His above warning (John 15:19) to His Apostles: “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you… Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his Master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you.”
Wow! Jesus says He wasn’t likeable because of His message, and His apostles were given the same unpopular message, guaranteed to make them pariahs. So, Jesus was hated, as were His apostles. But maybe that all changes by the time the church gets off the ground. Doesn’t God want His church to be popular? Isn’t that how it grows—through pragmatic, “seeker-friendly” methods designed to optimize the appeal of Jesus? What is the expectation of the New Testament writers on this topic?
To this, we find that Peter’s expectation of odium and mistreatment for faithfulness to Christ is no different from Jesus’ day. He informs his readers:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.1 Peter 4:12-14
Paul, too, anticipates the unpopular nature of Christianity and its converts when he preaches in Lystra that entrance into the kingdom of God is fraught with many tribulations (Acts 14:22). In Second Corinthians 11:23-28, Paul itemizes exactly how “resistible” his message was as he details the litany of imprisonments, beatings, and near-death experiences that it brought. And toward the end of his ministry, he writes to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
So, the anticipation of Jesus and His Apostles is animosity and persecution for the faithful, just as Christ Himself received. They anticipate that most will reject the far-from-irresistible message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and will turn on those who devotedly proclaim this gospel. In fact, the interpretation of “righteousness” as “likeability” in Matthew 5:20 is especially egregious, because not only did Jesus teach the exact opposite, but He did so only moments earlier in the same talk! He declares in Matthew 5:10-12:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5:20
Clearly, Jesus is not on board with the idea that His message is “irresistible,” and that His followers would be known for their “likeability.” These specious musings are so opposite from what Jesus actually had to say that, again, the natural impulse is to assume it is all meant as satire, except for the dead-serious nature of its exponents.
So, if in reality, the biblically-expected response to gospel presentation is mostly rejection of its message and revilement of its adherents, how then are those adherents to stay faithful? After all, no one in his right mind would choose a life of rejection and persecution without some compelling incentive. Without a gripping motivation to remain true, the tendency to defect would be overwhelming. In fact, even during the earthly ministry of Jesus, many of His followers deserted Him as the cost of discipleship began to hit home (cf. John 6:60, 66). As Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).
Hope for the Life to Come
But it is not in this life that the believer has hope. Rather, followers of Christ are those who have relinquished all earthly attachments, including their own lives, in hope of the eternal blessing to come (Luke 14:26). They are those who have denied themselves and daily take up the cross of shame and reproach originally intended for Jesus (Luke 9:23). As Paul explains to the Galatians, “But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” True followers of Christ are those who have already been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and now consider it a small thing to forsake everything for His cause.
Referring back to Matthew 5:12, Jesus actually exhorts the maligned believer to both “rejoice” and “be glad” for such mistreatment. Why? Jesus goes on to link suffering on account of Him with one’s eternal reward. His undeniable implication is that one’s experience of persecution is a barometer for how faithfully one is proclaiming the gospel, which in turn brings greater blessing in heaven. In fact, if one is not experiencing any persecution from the world, one must wonder if he or she is really living a life faithful to the Savior.
Finally, Jesus connects the suffering of His present faithful people with the treatment received by His former Old Testament prophets. These “spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb 12:24) now enjoy the incomparable bliss of holy communion and perfect fellowship with God as they await their promised resurrection (Dan 12:2; 1 Thess 4:14-16). Today’s faithful are to look to these heroes of the past; those “… who died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb 11:13). These prophets of old—“of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb 11:38)—desired something beyond this world, “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), the same heavenly dwelling Christ has prepared for all who repent and believe in Him (John 14:3).
So, to review:
- Christ’s true followers abide in His Word, a considerable challenge given the abundance of anti-biblical notions in today’s modern evangelical morass;
- Christ’s Word promises widespread rejection—not “irresistibility”—of the Christian faith, and widespread persecution—not “likeability”—for Christ’s faithful followers;
- One’s experience of persecution is a barometer for how faithfully one is sharing the gospel message of “repentance and the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47);
- In like manner, one’s eternal reward will directly depend upon one’s faithfulness in the face of persecution;
Christ’s faithful followers are to endure persecution like the prophets of old by anticipating the glorious reward that awaits them in the coming age.
 Righteousness does not mean “likeability,” but rather holiness, or moral perfection. Jesus is saying in Matt. 5:20 what the Bible says throughout (Lev. 11:44-45; Deut. 27:26; Ps. 15:2; 24:3; Ez. 18:4; Mt. 5:48): only the righteous, only the morally perfect, will enter heaven. Any sinful infraction, any behavior short of perfection, brings with it eternal condemnation. And Jesus knows what He is implying—no one will enter heaven on his or her own merits, for no one is righteous. That is why penitent sinners must plead for mercy and have faith that God will apply the righteousness of Christ to their account and apply their sins to His account, Christ having suffered as He shed His blood for these sins at the cross. This double imputation—the repentant sinner’s sins to Christ, His righteousness to the sinner—credits the sinner with the holiness (i.e. moral purity) necessary to be with God and have eternal life. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.