Now that the Alarm has Sounded
In “What is a Christian? (Part 1 of 2)” I attempted to sound the alarm to wake nominal Christians from their slumber, that they may arise from their grave and hear the voice of the Savior who sovereignly calls his elect to himself. Subsequently, I hoped that God would be pleased to use it to arouse the watchmen in the church, because by all visible appearances it seems that Isaiah 56:10 is true of most shepherds of the American Evangelical flock,
“His watchmen are blind;
they are all without knowledge;
they are all silent dogs;
they cannot bark,
dreaming, lying down,
loving to slumber.”
The underlying premise of that article was that the church is in such a sad state of confusion and spiritual decline largely because we have been trying “to regroup such professing Christianity as remains” through focusing on the organization of the church and church partnership, rather than asking “whether the spiritual decline is not due to a fundamental failure to understand and practice what Christianity really is.” (Iain Murray) Therefore, the real question we need to be asking in such times as these is: What is a Christian?
A New Creature in Christ
So, in the simplest possible terms, what is a Christian? A Christian is: One who has been made a new creature in Christ. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17,
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
We need to be made new because of who we are by nature. Ephesians 2:1-3 says,
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
We were all dead in Adam, (Romans 5:12-21) so we must all be made alive in Christ. To be “in Christ” means to have union with him, so that all of your sin and guilt is imputed to him, and all of his righteousness and favor is imputed to you. In him there is no sin, no guilt, and no shame. He canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:14) And so we read of being justified in Christ throughout the New Testament. For example,
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30)
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
To be “in Christ,” oh what grace! It is being in Christ by this free grace, supplied by an all-sufficient Savior, that we are made new, with our sins having been forgiven and our natures fundamentally changed. As new creatures in Christ we are indwelt by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9) so that he who began a good work in you will carry it out unto completion. (Philippians 1:6) It is in Christ that every one of these spiritual blessing flows. (Ephesians 1:3) So, to be a Christian most fundamentally means to be a new creation who is justified in Christ, that is, to be one who is born again through their union with Christ who is their life. (John 11:25)
So how do you get unified with Christ? Ephesians 2:4-10 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Salvation is a sovereign work of God. God unites you to Christ by making you alive with Christ. When this sovereign grace effectually brings you from death to life, faith is the only means through which this salvation comes. Faith alone is what unites us to Christ, and even this faith is the gift of God’s through the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration.
Faith is said to be the “alone” means through which we are united to Christ and therefore justified, not because there is any merit or virtue in our faith that God sees as righteousness in us, but because faith receives Christ who is our “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30) Therefore, it is not a matter of how much faith you need in order to be saved. It is a matter of what kind of faith you have. James 2:19 says, “Even the demons believe—and shudder!” Obviously this kind of “belief” does not save.
Saving faith is wrought by the Holy Spirit as he recreates our nature so that we may truly be said to be “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and so “walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4) This saving faith is no dead faith, (James 2:17) but a living faith that unites us to a living Christ through the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead. Christians have the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwelling within us, and “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11) So the whole man is transformed in the twinkling of the eye and empowered by the Spirit of the living God so that the “old has passed away;” and “behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) That is what it means to be a Christian.
The New Covenant Promises
Now we come to the real underlying question: How do you know if you’re a Christian? How do you know if this miracle of regeneration has happened to you, and that you are united to Christ through faith? To that question, we must simply look at the New Covenant promises which were bought by the blood of Christ for every single one of his elect people.
Let’s briefly look at three Old Testament texts. These texts are so perfectly clear that they require little exposition for the question at hand. The only real confusion comes when people don’t take the words of these texts seriously and apply them to the question: What is a Christian?
The New Covenant in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
First, let’s look at Jeremiah 31:31-34. It says,
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
What does this text mean practically as far as knowing if you are a Christian? We may see at least four evidences in this text of a genuine Christian. Let’s look at them briefly in order:
First, this new covenant is “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers…my covenant that they broke.” (v32) There are no “dropouts” in this covenant. Jesus said in John 10:27-30, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” No one who is an heir of the New Covenant can break that covenant. It’s part of the covenant promise that the triune God will cause them to persevere in that covenant. For those who have made a profession of faith and then have fallen away, Hebrews gives us this terrifying warning: “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” (Hebrews 6:4-6) Are you persevering in the faith or are you falling away? If you have fallen utterly, there is very little hope that you were ever in Christ because Christ will not loose any of his own to either the world, the flesh, or the devil.
Second, verse 33 says, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The New Covenant people is a holy people who live in humble obedience to their God. This is why John can write things like, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 John 2:3-4) And, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) His commandments are not burdensome to his people because God has put his law within them, and has written it on their hearts. So the Psalmist can say, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” (Psalms 119:97) I confess that this is alarming and should cause the great majority of American Evangelicals to stop dead in their tracts. If this is an irrevocable promise of God which he himself effectually carries out in us, what shall we say about the vast multitudes of professing Christians who spend more effort explaining why “they are not under the law,” than they spend trying to conform themselves to the image of Christ who is the perfect embodiment of the whole law? Could it be that they actually hate the holiness of the God they claim to love? It would seem to be so, for if there is not a sincere desire out of a heart of faith to be holy according to the express commandments of God, than there is no tangible evidence that saving grace has done a work in a person’s heart.
Third, verse 34 says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD.” All under the New Covenant have fellowship with God, they shall all know him. This is a bit more subjective, and so some sense of that communion with God may rise and fall in various seasons of life. However, what is clear is that you don’t have to make a member of the New Covenant pray or read their Bibles. Because they know God they will cry out to him in prayer and call upon the name of the Lord. Also, Peter writes, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-3) If you know him, if you have tasted that the Lord is good, you will long for the pure spiritual milk of the Word. A professing Christian who does not want to wake up to pray and read the Bible simply to know and enjoy God has great reason to fear for their souls.
Fourth, verse 34 says, “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Psalms 34:1-2 says, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” No one who is a part of this New Covenant will have their sins imputed to them, and therefore we have perfect peace with God based solely on the finished work of Christ. Amen! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! We have had “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22)
The New Covenant in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 32:38-41)
Now let us briefly look at another Old Testament passage in Jeremiah. Jeremiah 32:38-41 says,
“And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”
There are some similarities with the previous text, so there is no need to look at this passage in as much detail. However, notice again that this is an everlasting covenant. It will not be broken. Yet, here is the amazing thing as the New Covenant from Jeremiah 31 is expounded on here: He describes more fully why it is that this covenant will not be broken.
The doctrine of regeneration is again stated here. These are “new creatures in Christ.” He says, “I will give them one heart and one way,” (v39) meaning that because every individual has this new heart, together as a covenant community they will reflect this new nature which is theirs in Christ. One of the primary characteristics of this new heart is “that they may fear me forever.” (v39) He says, “I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” (v40) In other words, once opposed parties are now reconciled. We were at enmity with God, (Romans 8:7) and God’s wrath burned against us. (Romans 1:18) But now, in Christ, both parties are reconciled so that God will not turn away from us, and we will not turn away from God. This is all a reflection of the goodness of God. Verse 41 says, “I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” None of God’s acts toward his people are done half-heartedly or begrudgingly. All of God is for you all of the time if you are in Christ. In Romans 8:28 we read of the same precious reality, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is the glory of the new covenant, that enemies have been reconciled and sinners have been restored to a right relationship with their God.
So, you must simply ask yourself, whenever your heart is prone to wander (as all of us are at times), is there some inward principal within your heart that brings you back to God, or do others always have to drag you back to God or to church? Is there any fear of God (not a slavish fear, but the fear of a son) evidenced in you so that you desire to walk in “the obedience of faith?” (Romans 1:5) Does God deal with you in the secret places of your heart, does he deal with your hidden sins, or do you only obey so far as others see and are pleased well enough? To put it simply: On a daily basis is your heart inclined toward God in accordance with Scripture? If it is not inclined toward God, or if it is not in accordance with Scripture, that is evidence that your heart is far from God. (Matthew 15:7-9)
The New Covenant in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:22-32)
Finally, let’s briefly look at one more Old Testament text, namely Ezekiel 36:22-32. It says,
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.”
This is perhaps my favorite of the New Covenant passages in the Old Testament because in it we have this repeated refrain, “It is not for your sake…but for the sake of my holy name.” And “ I will vindicate the holiness of my great name.” And finally, “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD.” This repeated refrain raises the stakes. God is not playing with his name, lest he break his own holy law and take the name of the Lord in vain. (Exodus 20:7) We read in Hebrews 6:13, “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself.” God swears by his own name. “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD.” (Genesis 22:16) When God swears by himself it is “to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose” (Hebrews 6:17) In other words, “it is impossible for God to lie.” (Hebrews 6:18) So whatever promises we have here in Ezekiel 36 are serious and irrevocable. God will surely do it.
Let’s look at three things from this text:
First, we see the doctrine of regeneration. Verse 26 says, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” God removes that principal of enmity and hostility that by nature we have toward him. (Romans 8:7) He replaces that hardened heart with a fleshy heart that is now responsive toward God and his Word. The stony heart was an inanimate object, totally dead and completely lifeless with regard to faith and obedience toward God. The fleshy heart is alive toward God, and now acts favorably toward God by this inward principal of new life in Christ. This is an important way to examine yourself. How do you respond to the Word of God? Are you lifeless or disinterested? That is a bad sign. Do you not like certain doctrinal truths about God such as his sovereignty in salvation, original sin, or penal substitutionary atonement? This is an ominous sign that your heart is still a heart of stone that does not love the things of God. I truly fear for the souls of men and women who buck at the whole notion of sound doctrine, for they may be giving evidence that they hate God as he actually is, and sometimes going to a church with less doctrine may be a vain attempt of creating a false god in their own image to soothe their religious conscience. God gives his elect a heart that loves God for who he truly is. Jesus said, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)
Second, we see a life of holiness and godliness being the result of this covenant. Verse 25 says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” And also in verse 27 it says, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Again, God swears by himself that he will do these things, and it is impossible for God to lie. His people will be holy. This is one of the accomplishments of the cross of Christ. Titus 2:14 says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” Sanctification is part of the saving work of God. Do you desire to be holy? Are you zealous for good works? Are you being cleansed from idols?
Third, we see a life of humility. Verse 31 says, “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) There is a certain kind of brokenness about authentic Christianity. The one who is born again is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” (2 Corinthians 6:10) When grace comes, we see our faults, failings, inconsistencies, sins, transgressions, and iniquities against God and we mourn. Subsequently, while we may be grieved at the sins of others, there is a certain humility that comes knowing that “we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” (Titus 3:3) A person who is characterized by pride has little reasons to think that they are recipients of grace. A forgiven person is a humble person.
The New Birth is When the Battle Begins
In conclusion, one might read the words above and falsely conclude that once someone becomes a true Christian that their battle with sin is over. However, on the contrary, that is when the real battle begins. The old man was a willing slave of sin, a friend of this fallen world, and at peace with “the prince of the power of the air.” (Ephesians 2:2) The new creature in Christ is at war with the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Christian lives as a pilgrim in a foreign land. Better still, he lives as a soldier who is behind enemy lines. The new man lives in hostile territory, and his own worst enemy lies within. Galatians 5:17 puts the Christian struggle most succinctly,
“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
This is the summary statement of Paul’s own struggles in Romans 7:14-25, where Paul is perplexed because he does not do what he wants, but does the very thing he hates due to “this body of death” (Romans 7:24) which still awaits the final resurrection. In other words, the new creature in Christ is justified and counted as righteous in Christ. He sincerely loves God and earnestly desires to walk humbly before him in the obedience of faith, having all of his thoughts and affections conformed to the image of Christ. Yet, there is this other remaining element of “sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:20) which causes the Christian to have this tension within himself. While God promises victory over sin and perseverance, all of which is bought by the blood of Christ, that does not at all mean that perseverance is easy. It is hard.
That is Christianity. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is the difference between the true and the false, between the nominal and the real. The person who is “in Christ” is justified, forgiven, made alive, and now lives a life which is characterized by a pursuit of holiness, godliness, and an earnest desire to follow hard after God. The nominal Christian and the false convert do not fight. In truth, they don’t really care. They are indifferent to sound doctrine because they do not care about God’s truth, and they are indifferent about holiness because they do not delight in the holy nature and character of God. They may attend to some outward religious activities which seem comfortable and agreeable to their own pride and fleshly desires, but they will lack this inward life and vitality which comes only through union with Christ.
How about you? Are you a Christian? Having now examined yourself in the light of Scripture, is it well with your soul? Are you in Christ? Religion cannot save you. Church membership cannot save you. Owning a Bible cannot save you. Christ alone saves. Look to Christ!
Pastors, are you presenting these truths to your people that they may properly examine themselves in light of Scripture? The stakes are high. Heaven and hell hang in the balance, even for your own soul according to Hebrews 13:17. The fact of the matter is, the church is in such a sad state of confusion and spiritual decline largely because we have “a fundamental failure to understand and practice what Christianity really is.” (Iain Murray) I can assure you of this, if churches were filled with men and women who were actually members of this New Covenant, the church in America would look entirely different. How do I know that? Because God is not a liar and Christ did not die in vain. God swore by his own holy name that his blood-bought church would be a holy people. Clearly the fault lies with us. We have a fundamental failure to understand and practice what Christianity really is. May God have mercy on us all and grant us repentance to proclaim his truth rightly to the glory of Christ’s name! Amen.