Would the Real Christians Please Stand Up? Back to all sermons

Date: November 10, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Scripture: 1 John 1:1–5:21

Synopsis: Lots of people call themselves Christians for a whole variety of reasons. But who are the “real Christians” according to the Bible? Lots of people “hope” they have eternal life. But the Bible clearly says that we can “know that you have eternal life.” How is that possible? Find out in this message from First John entitled: Would the Real Christians Please Stand Up?

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There was TV show in America that I used to watch occasionally. It was called, “To Tell the Truth.” Each week the show would feature a person with an unusual occupation. Only there were always three people on the show. One of them was the real person, but the other two were imposters. The idea behind the show was for the celebrity panel to try to guess who the “real” person was by asking them questions about their life and occupation. At the climax of each show, the MC would announce: Would the real Bill Whatever please stand up. There would be a dramatic pause, and then the real person would stand.

My message this evening is entitled: Would the Real Christians Please Stand Up? The word “Christian” has fallen on hard times over the years. It is used in such a wide variety of ways in so many different contexts that it has become almost meaningless.

Statisticians tell us that Christianity is the largest religion in the world. But what does that mean? Many people say they are Christians. If they are asked to fill out a form and list their religion, they write “Christian.” They might define themselves as Christians for a wide variety of reasons. It may simply mean that they come from a country in which Christianity is the majority religion. They may call themselves Christians to distinguish themselves as not belonging to one of the other major world religions. People might refer to themselves as Christians because they belong to a church, or because they were baptized, or because their parents were Christians, or because they are “good people” (at least no worse than anyone else). The list can go on and on. But what is a real Christian?

The question of what makes a real Christian is an old one. People wrestled with it in the first century A.D. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, more and more people claimed the title “Christian” or claimed to belong to Christ. It became harder and harder to tell the real Christians from those who were just claiming the title.

This is not just an academic question. There is a passage of Scripture which has always troubled me. It is found in Matthew 7:21-23, where Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord…’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Clearly, then, it is possible to claim to be a Christian and even call Christ “Lord” without being a real Christian. So who are the real Christians? Are you a real Christian? It is a vital question. Our eternal destiny is hanging on the answer.

The Apostle John wrote a letter to help us answer that question. He states the purpose for his letter in I John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

The first thing we learn from this verse is that it is possible to know for sure whether we have eternal life or not. Many people think it is not possible to be certain. “We’ll just have to wait and see.” The Bible says otherwise. “I write these things…so that you may know.”

How can we know? To help us answer the question, John gives us three tests and a tutor. Let's look at the tests first. As you read John's letter, you will find that he uses a rather unique writing style. He does not use linear logic. He does not develop one test exhaustively and then go on to the second. Rather, he will talk about one test for a verse or two, then go on to another, then come back to the first, then mention the third, and so on. It is like a tapestry with several colors of thread interwoven throughout the pattern. But, I must confess, that for the sake of this message, I have done a very “linear logic” kind of thing. I hope John will forgive me. I have pulled apart the tapestry and isolated the different threads that make up the different tests.

TEST #1: THE BELIEF TEST

Real Christians, people who have eternal life are defined by what they believe. Very specifically, they are defined by what they believe about Jesus. And according to John, to be a real Christian we must believe three things.

We must believe that Jesus is the Christ. Look at I John 5:1a: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God..." Does that have strong links with John’s Gospel? Jesus is the Christ. He is the Messiah, the anointed one, the promised Deliverer.

We must believe that Jesus is the Son of God. This is clearly stated in I John 4:15: "If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God."

Both of these verses together take us immediately back to John 20:31: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…”

But John adds one more in his epistle. We must believe that Jesus has come in the flesh. I John 4:2b: "Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God."

Why is this important? There was a heresy that was spreading among the churches late in the first century. It was called Docetism. It taught that Jesus was not really human. He only appeared to have a body. John is correcting that error. Once again the roots to his Gospel are strong. In John 1:14, John told us: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The Father sent the Son into the world. The Word became flesh. This is the vital truth of the incarnation. You cannot deny this truth and be a real Christian, one who has eternal life.

The first test of the real Christian, then, is the belief test. It is the same, fundamental question raised in the Gospel of John. Do you believe? Believe what? That Jesus is the Christ. That Jesus is the Son of God. That Jesus came in the flesh.

Do you pass the Belief Test?

But we are not done. There are still two tests left.

TEST # 2: THE OBEDIENCE TEST

The second test John gives us is the Obedience Test. Let me read these Scriptures.

I John 2:3: "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.

I John 2:29: "If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him."

I John 3:9: "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

Now, what is John saying and why is it important? There was a spreading cult in John’s time that was teaching that becoming a Christian was a purely spiritual exercise, and that you could become a believer in Christ on the spiritual plane, and it didn’t need to have any effect on the way you live. That what you do in the body is divorced from what you believe, profess and experience spiritually.

John’s epistle absolutely contradicts that. He tells us that when we believe in Christ and we are born of God, something very real happens. We are changed. We are given a new heart, a new motivation to do what is right and to live in a way that pleases God. Such a person simply cannot continue living as he did before. And the person who does not demonstrate that new heart with new behavior simply has not been born of God and is not a real Christian.

We can see strong links between John’s epistle and his Gospel. John 14:15: “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” And again in John 14:23-24: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching…He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.”

Now, if you are like me, you may be feeling just a little uncomfortable right now. Because I still sin. Does that mean I am not a true Christian? Well, here we must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. As a writer, John likes to use very black and white terms to make the strongest possible point. There are no shades of gray in these particular verses. But we must balance what these Scriptures say with I John chapter 1 and 2:

Let’s take a moment to look at those Scriptures in 1 John 1:8-2:2:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. Bit if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense �" Jesus Christ the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

Here John makes it clear that as Christians we do still sin, and there is a remedy for our sin. But if we are not sinless, what do these passages on the Obedience Test teach us? They teach us that real faith produces real change in life and behavior. The one must impact the other. There will be growth in obedience, in practical righteousness in the real Christian. There is a change in our direction of travel. We cannot claim to believe in Jesus and to follow him and continue to live as we have always lived.

Has your life changed since you started following Christ? Is it still changing? Do you pass the Obedience Test?

Well, there is still one test yet to come.

TEST # 3: THE LOVE TEST

Let me read the Scriptures from the handout.

I John 3:14: "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.

I John 4:7-8: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

I John 4:16: "God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him."

John’s epistle is full of more, similar verses. It is the reason that John has been labeled “the apostle of love.” Once again we see the link with John’s Gospel and Jesus’ words in John 13:35. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Now what does this mean in “real time” and real life? Does it mean that an introvert will become an extrovert, and a shy person will automatically become a gregarious “people person”? Does it mean that we will be filled with all good feelings toward all other Christians? Does it mean that we will never again feel anger and irritation toward another believer?

No. Once again, we must interpret Scripture with Scripture and see these passages through the lens of other Scriptures that clearly show that we will continue to battle against the very human tendencies toward irritation and anger and selfishness. What it does mean, however, is that at some deep, fundamental level of our being, we have changed, and that change will result in different choices. We will begin to reach out to others in different and unselfish ways. We will desire to meet others’ needs and to respond in ways that are unnatural to us; ways that require acts of kindness, of generosity of giving and forgiving. And above all, there will come a deep awareness of the brotherhood of believers, that we are one in Christ, and there will be a commitment to express that oneness in our actions toward one another.

Surface emotions will still come and go. Under stress, old habits will rear their ugly heads. We will often fail. Anger may flare and harsh words may erupt from our lips. But such actions and words should become the exception, not the norm, and there should be a different direction of travel. At a very deep and very practical level, we will experience the growth of love toward our fellow believers.

Do you pass the Love Test?

Now, at the beginning of the message, I promised you Three Tests and a Tutor. Before you take a test, wouldn’t it be nice to have a tutor to prepare you and actually help you take the test? In John’s epistle, he promises us just such a tutor. He is the Holy Spirit.

Let me read these verses from the handout:

I John 3:24b: "And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us."

I John 4:13: "We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit."

The Apostle Paul also makes this same point in Romans 8:15-16: "For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children."

According to the New Testament, one of the things that happens when we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and are "born of God" is that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, comes to live inside us. The Holy Spirit works in our hearts in a number of ways, but one of the most important things he does is to communicate to our spirits directly, Spirit to spirit, that we are truly God's children and that we have been adopted into God's family. This is something we cannot see, or diagram or explain. It is a mystery in many ways, but it is very real. Deep within our spirits comes an assurance that we belong to God and we have eternal life.

How do the Spirit of God and the three tests work together? The tests give the objective data to work with. We can ask specific questions, and look for specific evidence of changes in our lives. The Holy Spirit gives the subjective, emotional confirmation deep within our spirits. These two must work together and confirm one another.

Here is what I would challenge you to do. There isn’t time to do it thoroughly now, at the end of this worship service. What I would encourage you to do, before you go to bed tonight, is to find a quiet place where you can be alone. Then pray and tell the Holy Spirit that you want to know clearly and without question whether you truly have eternal life. Ask him to help you apply the three tests to your own life. Then, still in an attitude of prayer, read these verses from I John and let the Holy Spirit speak to you.

If you do that, I believe one of two things will happen. You will sense a great calm and peace and a deep assurance that you are God’s child and that you have eternal life. Or, great doubt and uncertainty will sweep over you, even fear that you are not truly a child of God and that if you were to die today, you would be one of those to whom Jesus would say: “Depart from me…I never knew you.” If you do experience this sense of doubt, then I would urge you to get on your knees, and pray: express your belief in Jesus, ask him to be your Savior, and ask him to change your heart and make you a true child of God; a real Christian.

“I write these things to you…so that you may know that you have eternal life.”