I think one of the toughest questions to address in Christianity is the actual determination of one’s genuine faith.   Typically we draw conclusions based on external behavior.  We may listen for verbiage that evidences alignment with Christ.  We examine associations and lifestyles and draw conclusions accordingly.   We consider that genuine belief will bear the fruit of a heart that has been impacted with the gospel of Jesus Christ and a changed lifestyle, accordingly.

The problem with that is that we gauge a person’s spiritual condition based on a set of criteria that meets with divergent opinion.   Because the truth is we make assessments on genuine faith based on that criteria that will be contingent upon 1) our hermeneutic; 2) our tradition and 3) our theological presuppositions.   That criteria will take into consideration the extent of sin that is allowed in a believer’s life until they can be determined to be one of the unregenerate.   If one lives a lifestyle of disobedience, are they really a Christian?

This is a question I have often asked of my rebellious years out of fellowship with the Father.   How can one who professes faith in Christ return to the life they have been freed from to the extent that they live as unbeliever?  Yet that is my story.  So I will expose myself and my rather unpretty story for the sake of addressing this question and to demonstrate how our criteria can cause us to quickly place a label on exterior behavior but yet involves complexities that a surface assessment may not consider.

Here is my story

I spent part of my childhood Roman Catholic until my mother’s death when I was 9 years old.   My parents had divorced when I was 6, so when I went to live with my dad and I was grafted into his missionary baptist church.  But I did not hear the gospel until my first year in college, fall 1982.  There I met a  couple of Christians who began to share the good news with me and invited me to a campus bible study.  Immediately I struck by the fact that these folks seemed to have something I didn’t.  I came again the next week, being more impressed with what I heard and what I saw.  I may not have known all the correct verbiage, but I did know that I was a lost person and that Jesus Christ was the solution.  He died for my sins and I needed Him.  So in the quietness of my dorm room one night shortly after that 2nd visit to the campus bible study, I told Jesus that I wanted Him.  Now, for my theologically astute friends please know that this is what I knew at that time.  I could not recite the 4 spiritual laws or Romans road or give you a break-down of vicarious substitutionary atonement.  But who can when they first come to Christ? My life changed.  I begin to see the ugliness of sin.  The things that I associated with fulfillment lost their appeal to me.  I read my Bible and loved to learn about Christ.  I witnessed to friends, families and even strangers.  In fact, I recall this one instance when I was deep in prayer on one of my visits home.  I felt a nudge to go outside and did so.  Sure enough, one of my neighbors, a young man not too much older than me, was leaning against a car.  I began to share the good news of Jesus Christ with him and he accepted Christ.  I don’t know what happened to that young man but I had a strange sense that he was in trouble and would not be around much longer.  The bottom line is that I had a heart and passion for Christ.

But, some things began to creep in through cracks of unresolved issues due to loss, brokenness and some harmful events in my formidable years.  I was also under some unsound teaching and harsh legalism that did not provide the proper foundation for spiritual maturity and growth, only a rigid reliance on external behavior.  Eventually, I began to make compromises, that turned into bigger compromises.  My self-esteem issues due to events in my life began playing themselves out through unhealthy alliances with men, godly ones at first but eventually – ungodly ones.  The sin that crept in slowly was now full steam ahead and making many demands. By the time I married in 1986 to a non-believer as a result of the trajectory I was on, I had discontinued fellowship, discontinued prayer and Bible reading and discontinued sharing the good news of Christ.  The turn in my life in fall of 1982 had now turned back around by 1986.

It did not stop there.  I essentially lived as one who did not believe and had never believed.  I divorced four years after marriage, and after a few more unsavory relationships ended up with who would become my second husband.  I followed him from California to Boston and we lived together.  We got married in April 1997 and my son was born in September.  You do the math.

But I was miserable, aligned with a man with selfish tendencies and not great care for me.  In fact, there were times he was quite unkind.  Ironically, he came out of a Christian home and most of his family members were devoted followers of Christ and very active in ministry.  I began to develop a friendship with one of my sister-in-law, who unbeknownst of my history, would interject comments here and there about Jesus and God and how he loved me.  The same was true of my mother-in-law.  Neither had any idea of the path I had been on.  My misery and their witness began to converge to a pivotal point by the end of 1998.  After one of the most loneliest and miserable weeks of my life in which my husband stayed in bed for most of the time,  the life of these 2 dear ladies reminded me of the joy that I had once known as a follower of Christ.  Shortly after that, just after new year, my husband collapsed due to end stage renal failure, which was only exposed after this collapse.  He spent the first two weeks in ICU with a life-threatening blood infection.

By then the Lord had my full attention.  I was deeply confronted with my rebellion and my desperate need for Christ.  Again, in the quietness of my home, I knelt with a heart-felt desire to return to the love I had once known.  I immediately picked up my Bible and began to read again.  One passage that still resonates with me til this day is John 6:66-69  and Peter’s response – “Lord to whom shall we go, for we know that you have the words of eternal life”.  How could I have turned away?

That was almost 13 years ago.  I was back in fellowship – with God and His people. Since that time, the sanctification process has been on a steady incline with some dips here and there.  My husband passed away in 2004 and a theological paradigm shift in 2006 followed by some intense study would serve as the catalyst for my steps to seminary.

But that same trajectory has given me more information regarding the criteria for genuine belief and has made me reflect on that 13 year rebellious period and question if I was really a Christian.  Because that is typically what having more information does.  Yet, there are valid reasons for believing that I was never a believer and some valid reasons for believing that I was, but one that hit a long dip in the sanctification process.  So what do you think?  Here are some points to consider

Yes, I was a Christian

  • There was a change in lifestyle after confession
  • What non-believer has an interest in sharing the gospel and being led to do so?
  • It shows that sin can master a believer and the Spirit is grieved
  • The Holy Spirit was still active in bringing about repentance even though the time period seemed very long to get there

No, I was not a Christian

  • A genuine believer cannot live in a sinful lifestyle for that long
  • A genuine believer cannot abandon fellowship with the Lord and have no interest in serving Him

NB: I don’t believe that salvation can be lost.  The Holy Spirit permanently indwells and seals the believer (Ephesians 1:13; 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5), baptizing them into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27).  Either one has the Holy Spirit or they don’t (Romans 8:9).  But one can grieve the Holy Spirit by following after the flesh (Galatians 5:17) and become subject to sin (Romans 6:16) and disobedient to Christ.

So to answer the question of whether I was a Christian, the genuine answer is that I don’t know.  Update edit: But I have a stronger conviction that I was a genuine believer who feel into a prolonged period of disobedience.  And what I do know is this:

1)  Determining genuine faith based of others can involve some complexities that we may not have considered

2)  Whether my return was actually a return or a genuine conversion is irrelevant to the fact that 13 years ago God drew me to Himself and I have walked with Him ever since.

3)  Sin is a serious task master and slave driver.  James warns that there are buttons in each of us and the propensity to have them pushed that could lead to disasterous endings (James 1:14-15).  By doing so, the sin we give into lassos us into doing its bidding, which is why Paul admonishes the believer to not give ourselves to it (Romans 6:12-16).  Christ paid the sacrifice for sin once for sin of all times (Hebrews 10:10-14) but engaging in sin is like opening his wounds afresh and insults the grace of God (vs 29).  The heart can become hardened as sin wrecks havoc and the affront to the Savior can diminish to barely a whisper.  Impaired judgments will ensue as will God’s corrective hand of judgment (Hebrews 10:27; 12:5-11).   Keeping a soft, teachable and repentant heart, a reverent fear of the holiness of God;  continued affections towards Christ and accountable, godly relationships can avoid such calamities.

I would be interested to know of those who can relate to my story.  I suspect there are many.  I also caution those who draw harsh and rigid lines with rash conclusions regarding a person’s faith.  We don’t know all the details or the work that God may be doing in their life.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    71 replies to "Was I Really a Christian?"

    • John From Down Under

      I think thinking about being “really elect” can drive one crazy…

      Ruben, I couldn’t agree more! But on Calvinist blogs it always somehow ends up back to this point. If I was to de-Calvinize this discussion, I would have said “only God knows if you were or if you weren’t, but thanks to His grace, mercy and patience look at you now!”

      As appealing as it is to our intellect to pigeonhole every event and experience and define it with airtight conclusions, the truth is that Christians often do things for all sorts of reasons that they may later regret (spiritual immaturity, poor understanding of the Scriptures, despair, insecurity, outright stupidity, and the list goes on)

      Lisa’s story and others like it, are a testimony to the unfathomable grace of a loving God who preserves us for His glory. Yours truly was a ‘backslider extraordinaire’ with more appetite for sin than a sumo wrestler has for sushi. The thought that I could be hit by a bus during ‘those years’ is spine-chilling to me, and honesty compels me to admit I would have probably ended up on the left side with the goats, not the sheep! Yet I’ve been redeemed, restored and preserved like the others who confessed similar experiences.

      I say thank God for the ‘Lisas’ in the church!

    • Steve Cornell

      Just posted and preached on this. Check it out:
      How can I tell if someone is a true believer?

    • A.R. Massie

      Great post!

      This question, at one time or another, comes to mind in every true believer as we battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. My experience has been similar to Lisa’s and the many others in this post thread. I find comfort in John’s words in I John 1:8-9 “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us….”

      It really is the struggle against sin that reveals the presence of the truth within us, i.e., in our thinking (mind, heart and soul). When the struggle is abandonded there is justifiable cause to be concerned about one’s standing in the truth. The Scriptures do seem to say a great deal about the necessity of Believers to “abide” (remain) in the truth and not “be moved away from the hope of the Gospel”.

      As far as I can tell the only requirement God has ever placed upon anyone for inclusion into His “house” is to believe the truth He has revealed in His son Jesus Christ. If one “is believing” there is a struggle against sin and mourning over our fallings. In my youth I went to my Pastor concerned about the “unpardonable sin”. He told me, “you know what I do? I just hang around the foot of the cross.” I took that to mean that if God is working in you then you long for Him and mourn your sin.

      A past experience of conversion and genuinely entering into a relationship with the Lord through a knowledge of the truth of the Gospel is a great mile-post of when and where we began our walk with God through His intervention. But, “… he that endures to the end will be saved.” It’s intersting that when Peter was “sifted as wheat”, Jesus said, “but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not.” Peter sinned in denying he knew the Lord but he mourned his sin and “wept bitterly”. It was his continuing to “believe” that marked him as God’s own.

      I still ponder over this question whether I would have been allowed into God’s presence if I had died during my years of…

    • Cody

      I can relate to your story a lot. Basically I had a conversion experience when I was 7. I didn’t know a lot of the Bible outside of memorizing John 3:16, but I felt convicted. I wasn’t grossly aware of my sinfulness, but I knew I was lost and Christ was the answer so I prayed. I didn’t use the sinner’s prayer as I didn’t know it, but as a 7 year old boy I poured my heart out to God and felt a great burden lifted.

      As I went on through puberty I really struggled. I hung out with people in middle school I shouldn’t have and felt less sensitive to spiritual things and my mom could tell something was wrong so she confronted me about it, but my sanctification was a roller coaster ride for me with peaks and valleys up until my senior year of high school.

      My senior year I really stepped it up in my walk with God, but I really struggled with assurance. Through watching Way of the Master my view of eternal security went from OSAS to perseverance of the saints (though I knew nothing of Calvinism and grew up Arminian unaware). Because of my new found awareness of sin I constantly was convicted, prayed to be saved, felt better, sinned again and on and on it went.

      College was the same for the first few years and then in 2006 I left church. I didn’t stop believing. I didn’t consider it all foolishness. I even still prayed and sometimes read the Bible, but I was out of fellowship with other believers and for about 3.5 years this continued. I got into things I never thought about. I began to drink and gamble and other vile things, but I never stopped praying. There was ALWAYS a tug at my heart to come back. I would kneel, tearfully confess my sins to God, and recommit myself to Him, but I slowly got sucked back in.

      Then came the big moment. In January of this year, by the grace of God, I was struck with pretty bad anxiety and depression. I had some DARK thoughts. I have always been one who looks down on those with such ailments and I think God…

    • jim

      re Hodge: I agree with Cheryl

      If it requires one to test their faith daily to be elect, then how is it one born elect is saved without having no “coming to the lord” conversion, one that would lead to service to the Lord. Yet later after conversion one can topple if their service to the Lord is not up to snuf.

      Isn’t the mark of being a Christian that of the Holy Spirit despite our selfish, unloving attitudes we display often. When can we say we are completely on target with God and therefore Elect under this type of works based salvation. We can never be perfect, but thankfully he is and that is our justification.

      Thanks Lisa, for this post,

    • Brie

      I have a friend who years ago became a Christian and instantly became “on-fire” for God. About five years ago this friend became an atheist and admitted he had never truly believed, and pretty much went off the deep-end in relation to his behaviors. I had to basically cut-off contact with this man because he would constantly hurl insults, profanities and even abhorrent sexual slurs at this “God” I worshipped. I was beyond bewildered. How could I have not picked up on the fact this man was never really saved? No saved person could ever speak of God in this way! I was certain that my friend had never been saved, and devastated as to why I had not seen it, how maybe I could have helped prevent this if only I had been more aware. Needless to say this friend contacted me a few weeks ago. He had turned back to the Lord! In his words he had been angry at God and just wanted to run away from Him, but what this man never had told me before was that God was hounding him the whole way!! LOL – God would not let him go and my friend finally had to give in!! My friend didn’t have another salvation experience, but praised God for not giving up on him, and he is now trying to start up a ministry within his community to minister to atheists. I have never been one who thinks I can judge when someone is saved or not based on their actions, but I did judge in this situation because of what the person said being “I never believed” and how he was living,…

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