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.