Identifying as a Christian
By Stanley D. Gale
Many people identify as a Christian. Perhaps they are faced with a medical intake form that lists various religious options and they select Christian by default because of family tradition. In some cases, people will consider themselves Christian because they prayed a prayer at some point in their lives or made a decision. At the time they may have been assured they were now a Christian.
But is it up to us to self-identify as a Christian? Does saying we are a Christian make us a Christian? Do the blessings that belong to one united with Christ actually accrue to one who simply aligns with Christ?
God’s Word gives us pause. Paul urges the Corinthian church to examine themselves to see whether they are of the household of faith (2 Cor. 13:5). Peter calls for diligence in making one’s calling and election sure (2 Pet. 1:10). Jesus spoke of wheat and weeds inhabiting the same field, virtually indistinguishable to the human eye (Matt. 13:24-30). He even goes so far as to suggest self-deception when He says:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matt. 7:21–23)
All this suggests that simply identifying as a Christian neither makes us Christian nor means we actually are Christian in the sense that the forgiveness of sin and inheritance of eternal life found in Christ are ours.
Jesus’ parable of the soils in Mark 4 touches on identification as a Christian. Two of the four soils indicate success of the gospel seed sown in that something starts to grow. There appears to be life. But how often have we witnessed emotional response to the gospel preached (vv. 16-17) or intellectual agreement (vv. 18-19) that withered once threatened by tribulation or beset with worries? These two soils yielded the same outcome as the seed sown on path—no fruit (v. 15). Only the good soil yielded abiding, abundant fruit (v. 20). In pointing us to the soil, Jesus points us to the heart-changing, life-giving work of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, identification as a Christian rests on the reality of God’s workmanship of grace. That divine handiwork is evidenced by its fruit, the fruit of lips that confess Christ’s name and lives that express His grace.
In his first epistle, John addresses the issue of legitimacy. He states his purpose for writing: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13). He records things that reveal the authenticity of the belief called for in his gospel account: “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
What does John write in his first epistle? What authenticating evidences does he lay out to give the assurance that one is in fact a Christian and so in possession of the realities and promises bound up in Jesus Christ? He speaks of acknowledgement that Jesus is God incarnate and the Christ, of faith in Him for sin’s atonement and propitiation, of new obedience, of godly characteristics of love and compassion, of profound awareness of sin and perpetual need for Christ, of fellowship with the Father and the Son.
Counting oneself a Christian comes not by identifying as a Christian but by identifying the hallmarks of the new birth wrought by the Holy Spirit in uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling. The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16).
In the Scriptures assurance is not extended on the basis of a profession alone but on the evidence of a profession and the assurances given by the Spirit Himself. The PCA admits to the Lord’s Table not only on the basis of self-identifying as a Christian but by having one’s profession validated by examination of the visible church to whom Christ has entrusted the keys of the kingdom to declare in accord with God’s Word or out of accord with that Word.
It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than on the precipice of eternity hearing from the lips of Christ: “Depart from Me; I never knew you.”
Stanley D. Gale is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the author of The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith (Reformation Heritage, 2018).