January 21, 2021

The Problem With Real Christians

In the first place the situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name; some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it….Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth many have been in this position. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking of real people whom we know at all, but only two vague ideas which we have got reading novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.

• C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Ch 10, “Nice People or New Men.”

This paragraph of Mere Christianity brought into sharp focus something that had been hiding away in my mind for some time: Christians have entirely too much to say about the subject of who is and who isn’t a Christian. One of the largest barriers to the communication of the Gospel to our culture may very well turn out to be our obsessive need to be all-knowing on who is and who is not a Christian.

An important question for me as a Bible teacher and communicator is “How does the Bible address us?” Does the Bible speak to all people or only to God’s people? Or does it speak to all of us as both being in and outside of a right relationship with God?

If God speaks to us both as sinners and as members of God’s family/the church, what happens when we communicate as those who are “in” directing those who are “out” how to become like us?

Lewis isn’t buying into some kind of Kierkegaardian refusal to use the term “Christian” about one’s self or others. What he is suggesting is that some kinds of certainty about where a person is in terms of personal faith may be very difficult to attain or apply. There are simply so many qualifiers and factors to be taken into consideration, simple objectivity can be anything but simple.

Of course, I can hear pages furiously turning now. Aren’t the marks of a true believer everywhere in the Bible? Shouldn’t any good preacher or teacher able to cover those passages with confidence? Aren’t there many books to be written on the “Marks of a True Believer?”

It is true that scripture gives us many descriptions of true believers and these descriptions are useful and practical. The problem isn’t the description. It’s how much of our human fallenness and imperfection co-exists alongside those definitions. And make no mistake about it: our imperfection, sinfulness and humanness is an implication and a factor in every statement the Bible makes to us about the “true” believer.

I don’t despair of the truth of any statement the Bible makes about real Christians, but when I hear the confident announcement by any group of self-proclaimed Christians telling the rest of us what we must do to be “the real deal” like they are, I always feel like I’m in the presence of a monumental failure of honestly.

  • Is the law written in my heart?
  • Do I love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?
  • Do I love my neighbor as myself?
  • Do I live by the Spirit?
  • Do I love the brothers?
  • Do I kill sin?
  • Do I repent?
  • Do I believe?
  • Do I die to self?
  • Do I follow Jesus?
  • Do I love Jesus more than the world? More than family and loved ones? More than life itself?
  • Is Jesus my treasure?
  • Do I delight in him above all else?
  • Do I obey his commandments?
  • Do I treat suffering people as if they were Christ himself?
  • Do I believe, and not doubt?
  • Is my faith working through love?
  • Do I forgive others as God forgives me?
  • Am I holy?

I’ve always found that discussions of these subjects tends to make many Christians — especially many evangelicals with major league theologies of conversion in tow — into a bunch of prevaricating spouters of the most embarrassing doubletalk. I can’t think of another group of people who, in such large numbers, would defend the idea that they are really, actually doing the things that the Bible says PERFECTLY, IDEALLY define what it means to be a Christian. By the time the average Bible study finishes with these qualifiers, you understand why Bill Clinton thought “it all depends on what “is” is” made sense.

For example, take a baseball team. As the coach says, it’s a simple game. You throw the ball. You catch the ball. You hit the ball. Now on any team I’ve ever known (and this in a sport that lives by percentages and numbers) the players universally view themselves in the role of learners, improvers and followers after a perfection that they have not attained. They know that in a given game, they may play perfect, but in a given season, the averages will prevail. Baseball players are human, after all. The perfect game is imaginable, but itâ’s never played for more than a few short moments. The players are real, but the game they play is not the perfect game that it’s possible to play.

Of course, the life of faith isn’t sports. (Forgive the metaphor.) But we are not perfect believers. We’re imperfect disciples. And every time scripture says “Love your wife as Christ loved the church,” I’m aware of three things: I haven’t; I have enough to know it’s the best way; I want to more than I do; always if possible.

So it is with being a Christian. I am one. I want to be one. I’m deeply aware of how often Iâ’m not one. Simul justus et peccator and several other things.

Lewis suggests that we not put so much emphasis on the kind of certainty that has everyone labeled and located. I’d love to know what he’d have to say about those who constantly scour the scriptures to find more conditions that describe the true believer, and then use those same scriptures to separate themselves — the obvious people getting it right — in contrast to the rest of the hoi polloi. It’s as of we’ve out-Phariseed the Pharisees in our ability to mark out the real believer from the “sinner.” (Leave it to Paul to say that a real Jew is one inwardly, not outwardly.)

The life of grace recognizes there is an ideal in Jesus Christ. Jesus perfectly conveys God’s character, God’s law and God’s plan for human beings. None of those sharp edges are dulled in the Gospel, but the word of the Gospel is grace. The word of transformation is grace. The word of discipleship is grace.

This business of defining large numbers of people out of the faith by our favorite qualifiers is a nasty piece of hypocrisy we need to give up. When scripture says we must be born again, our response isn’t “Obviously, I have.” When scripture says obey his commandments, our response isn’t “That’s me.” When scripture says Love as he loved, we say “Christ have mercy.”

The problem for many people is their desire to create a church of certainty more than a church of Jesus. On the other side of baptism and the Lord’s Table they want something that is never found in the pages of the New Testament. The churches of the New Testament, like Jesus’ parable, are a mixture of wheat and tares. Church discipline does not happen out at the perimeter, but near the center, where Paul understands the power of inclusion and exclusion will do the most good in making us like Jesus. Where the sharp edges of distinction need to be understood is by those who openly claim to be following Jesus in a relationship of community and accountability.

Disciples desire the integrity of accountability because it keeps us real and destroys our phoniness. But an excessive, isolating interest in distinctions doesn’t have the approval of Jesus.”He who is not against me is for me.” Our resemblance to Christ — and the ideal picture of the Christian — is inconsistent and incomplete.

I am a Christian, but I understand my Christian faith as a process of finding my life in Jesus. It is a process for the imperfect, the failing and the broken. It is not an invitation to say (or endlessly sing) “Look at me, look at what I am and look at what I am doing.” It is, instead, a life where graces allows us to say “Look at the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Look at him and what he has done, is doing and will do.”


  1. Aren’t the marks of a true believer everywhere in the Bible? Shouldn’t any good preacher or teacher able to cover those passages with confidence? Aren’t there many books to be written on the “Marks of a True Believer?”

    There are a lot who define it as:

    1) Marks of a True Believer: Whatever I Do That You Don’t.

    2) And its flip side, The Unpardonable Sin: Whatever You Do That I Don’t.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of both of those in my time. Once is one time too many.

  2. good points on the endless desire to want to label those as “in the group” and those as “not in the group.”

    If someone says they are a follower of Jesus, I grant them that and not try to question them or judge their motives. It is not my place.

    The problem is that we each have a picture of what a Christian should “look like” and then we fit people into that picture. My personal experience is “that picture” changes too frequently to be trusted.


  3. Cowboy Diva says

    All I can think of is the words to that old song, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

  4. Good thread. Jesus said not to fret about the tares, but to focus on sowing seed. It makes think of the “Christian No More” clips on youtube, which compare a “Christ Follower” to a strawman Christian – suit and all. The clips backfire, because the “Christ Follower” comes across as full of himself as the other character. When we make ourselves “Christian” and craft the rulers by which we measure how truly Christian we are, then we are delusional fools. On the other hand, if it is God who makes us Christian, through His Son’s death and resurrection, through His Holy Spirit by means of rebirth and His Word, then He rightfully has a say in who is and who isn’t the genuine article. That’s a little more sobering (and comforting) than worrying about what the Christian in-crowd thinks (am I holy enough, am I happy enough, am I cool enough…give me a break).

  5. Once upon a time, I was in the occult. I wasn’t looking for Jesus but He found me. Ever since then, he has been with me.


  6. Jack Repenning says

    The thing about these definitions of “true believers” is, we don’t see our role models using them on other people — or when they do, it tends to back fire!

    You don’t get the sense that Jesus was grading everyone he met on whether they were already “in,” but only on whether they might be interested in _coming_ in. You don’t see Paul bring his score-card to Mars Hill or the river bank, just his willingness to talk. And you sure *do* see Peter carry his little bag of rules and judgements with him to Cornelius’ house, but what he learns is that he was all wrong: not about the rules, but about how to use ’em. And then not long after, he had to be yanked up short again, on the very same subject, by Paul! (Yeowch!)

  7. Hi Michael,

    The points you make about the difficulties involved in determining who is in and who is not with regard to being Christian may, in themselves, be valid or not: I do not wish to comment on these for now. I am not so sure if this question is C.S. Lweis’ concern in the particular paragraph you quoted. Is his concern not more with the problems presented to our Christian witness by the reality that there is often a greater measure of God’s grace visible in some nice people who are not “new” (i.e. “in”)than is visible in some “new” (i.e. “in”) people who are not so nice? His concern, so it seems to me, is not at all with how to determine who is “in” and who is “out”. On the contrary, he seems to be quite clear as to how to determine who is “in” (“new” but not necessarily “nice” yet)and who is out (“nice” but not “new”), does he not? Am I missing something?

    Sincere regards,


  8. THANKS Michael!!

  9. All I can think of is the words to that old song, “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

    Note that’s “By our love”.

    NOT “‘Cause we’re smug”. (Now that’s an idea for a filk. Does Steve Taylor still do lyrics?)

  10. Way back on August 18 Michael asked us to pray for him because of the work load this year. So let’s remember to do that today.

  11. The quote from CS Lewis sounds very orthodox to me. Sometimes I wonder if he has plainly bypassed Luther.

    The “gift” of knowing peoples eternal destination is a Lutheran invention after all, isn’t it?


  12. Memphis Aggie says

    Nice post. I especially like the phrase a “church of certainty” rather than that of Christ. I was taught that conversion is ongoing and perpetual and that certainty was presumptious. Not what I wanted to hear, of course, but I believe it.

  13. “Of course, the life of faith isn’t sports. (Forgive the metaphor.)”

    Forgive? No need… You are certainly in good company with Paul regarding sports analogies!

    Also, your long list of questions ending with “Am I holy?” immediately made me think of a license plate in my town which reads “RUHOLY”. This seems emminently smug somehow, particularly given that it is affixed to a squeaky clean Mercedes SUV. Somehow, it would come across as poignant and thought-provoking (to my eyes anyway) if it was a 1982 Chevy Chevette instead.

  14. My cousin who came to faith a bit later in life is fond of saying, so and so is “saved.” This guy’s “saved,” that guy’s not “saved.” Drives me crazy. I used to think that way back in the early days of my faith. But I think to myself now when I hear someone say this, “How the hell do you know!”

    One of the reasons I became a Christian was because of the parable where Jesus compares a pharisee and a tax collector or “sinner” before the altar. The former claims he does all this religious stuff, and that he’s not like those sinners. The latter won’t even look up, but beats his breast and says, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As we know, Jesus said that man was the one who went away justified. His mercy is my only hope.

    I don’t feel real qualified to judge anybody else. Plus I’m kind of pulling for as many to get in as possible. It almost seems like some of these folks, like my cousin, enjoy the thought of people experiencing eternal damnation. The Nicene Creed and love and you’re good in my book. I’ll leave God to deal with his own book.

  15. It almost seems like some of these folks, like my cousin, enjoy the thought of people experiencing eternal damnation. — Mike D’Virgillio

    There’s actually a name for that: “The Abominable Fancy”.

    Some famous theologians of the past have speculated on it, but it always struck me as Cosmic Schadenfreude: “SEE! I’M RIGHT! YOU’RE WRONG! SEE! SEE! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!”

    And it’s always left a bad taste in my mouth.

  16. Willem Bronkhorst said it all in his post – please be careful not to use a Lewis quote to make a point that C.S. Lewis himself may not have been trying to make!

    That said, I do appreciate your thoughts. . .

  17. Joel Joslin says

    It seems to me that in the New Testament, Paul has a pretty broad view of who’s a Christian. He writes a lot about big errors in various churches and rebukes them for it, but at the same time it seems that he views the Galatians and Corinthians (for example) as brothers and sisters in Christ.

  18. This same quotation also exposes the great weakness in the kind of polling that has kept Barna in business for the past many years. It doesn’t make sense to do data analysis on a population that ultimately can’t be defined in a meaningful way.

  19. Let’s look at the post. I mention Lewis three times.

    1) I say the Lewis quote focused my own thoughts.

    2) I say Lewis wasn’t doing a Kierkegaardian abandonment of the term Christian.

    3) I say Lewis suggests we not think we can label and locate all true Christians.

    In none of these instances am I claiming Lewis’s position as identical to my own. I don’t believe I was trying to make my point via sponsorship by the Lewis quote. I was saying the Lewis quote touched on some of the issues of my post.

  20. Such a topic! Kudos to ALL the honest blogging souls!

    In this day of “chirsitan celebrety-ism” the lines between “claims” of being a Christian and the “claim nots” reminds of of Dr. Seuss”-“StarBelly Sneetches”…the only one keeping the “Sneetches” in confusion and “non-functional” is one “Sylvester McMonkey McBean”…

    We too have one “enemy”…of our souls-NOT each other!

    The Gospel of Christ is to “Whosoever will” and “His mercies are new every morning” to those of us who do our best to follow His will.

    The only lines that should be drawn are betwixt Heaven and Hell!

  21. caplight asked me to address a couple of questions.

    1) I did ask for prayer on August the 18th and I appreciate all of you who have prayed for me since then. It’s been a good year so far- only half through the school year. Five classes is very demanding, but they have been good and relatively easy from the standpoint of discipline.

    We’ve had some unusual stresses because of church and marriage issues, but God has seen us through these things. I am preaching more than I am really physically able to do without being exhausted, but God is sustaining me. I look forward to my sabbatical starting May 17.

    As I said, I appreciate your prayers for my ministry. They are a vital part of my ongoing strength.

    2) caplight also asked me to address how I can read and write so much. The answer isn’t mysterious. I love to read. I read something all the time. I write quickly and revise quickly. I keep several books going at once, and I read some in a more thorough way than others. I feel that reading, writing, speaking and teaching are all tied up together in my own gifts and personality. It helps to not have children at home. Our life is fairly simple.

    Thanks caplight.

  22. In addition to all the good points Michael and CS Lewis raised, framing the issue as “Who is a Christian” also acts as a barrier to people accepting the gospel, because they feel personally judged. We’re not just saying “we disagree with your ideas” but that “your very identity is not OK”. That leads to the whole relativist attitude where you can’t criticize a person’s beliefs because you are invalidating the person herself. Better to ask not “Is Jane a Christian” but “Are Jane’s actions in line with Christian ethics” or “Is Jane’s viewpoint on this topic in line with Christian belief?” We have no right to tell Jane she is not a Christian, but we should be able to say that her opinion about the Trinity, for instance, is not Christian as historically understood.

  23. Thanks for this post. I’ve just left insular, reformed, patriarchy and the Christ-centered sanity and humanity of your words are much appreciated. I wish you a wonderful Christmas.

  24. This post needs to be more specific. Of course we shouldn’t shred each other over adiaphora (as certain radio programs are wont to do), but criticising certain individuals (such as Spong, Borg, Pinnock or Romney) who go around claiming to be Christian isn’t necessarily caused by a Pharisaical OCD whose aim is to classify and pigeon hole people just for the sake of it.

    You can err in both directions, you know. And when you wander far enough off the ranch (there’s and Episcopal priest who’s a druid who’s publishing a fantasy about Jesus having visited England or some such nonsense), it’s a fair call to say that they are not Christian, however committed they are to using the label to get people to buy into their product.

  25. Michael – I just wanted to stop by and say this is a terrific post, absolutely terrific. Wish I could add something to it, but I can’t. You have given words to an uneasiness I have felt for years with Christians who continually seek to discern/judge who is a Christian and who is not. I’ve met too many people who play the “well you must not be a Christian card” when confronted with a difficult situation. Thanks again.

  26. Michael,

    Thank you for your work. I never would have guessed that you have a lack of energy. I appreciate your willingness to share with the world.

    For as long as I can remember, I have felt there is something deeply wrong with the question, “Are you a Christian?” or, “Is he a Christian?” As if we know what people are by what they call themselves! The titles people give themselves is virtually meaningless. It seems to me that it does not matter what you call yourself, it matters what you are. What is your state of being? All can benefit from consciously following the loving ways of Christ, but what a person calls himself is merely a label and often a distraction. And as you suggest, we are often NOT following the way of Christ, which to me means, at each of those times, we are not Christian (a follower of Christ).

    We cannot judge and love at the same instant. We must learn to transcend judgment in order to be Christ-like. That is a struggle for me as one who is quite good at judging the judgers. I am growing, however, and realizing that they know not what they do.

    Peace and Thanks,

  27. thank you so much for your blog.

  28. CAndiron, the thing about Jesus having been to Britain has actually been rumored for hundreds of years; William Blake even wrote a poem about it. It’s an interesting legend and actually a quite beautiful one – like Mormonism, but with pagans. Most people never really believed those old stories (even when they were “news”), but they’re worth reading. There’s a Jesus legendarium waiting to be written: you should totally do it.

  29. This distinction between perimeter and center is also shown in Luke 9:50 versus Luke 11:23; we often get things backwards.

  30. Good post Michael.

    As someone who has spent and inordinate amount of time questioning his own salvation, I can say it really is a fools errand to do it along the lines that many of us do.

    Depending upon your bent you will see more of the flaws or more of the fruit. Could it not be that we are to be affirmed or denied in the context of intimate community. It seems that that is what 1 John points to (which apparently is where you find the 10 marks of a true christian).

    Maybe if things were framed more in along the lines of right and wrong, rather than in and out we would be on less shaky ground. I can and must denounce certain behavior or teaching, but it is only in the extreme cases that I could even imagine being able to tell the difference between a fool who is a believer and a genuine imposter, which seems to be them only real concern of scripture.

    Practically speaking though, it doesn’t really matter much. If we point people to the truth the out will get in or go away and the in will grow.

  31. Dave Jaspersen says

    {Willem Bronkhorst Is his concern not more with the problems presented to our Christian witness by the reality that there is often a greater measure of God’s grace visible in some nice people who are not “new” (i.e. “in”)than is visible in some “new” (i.e. “in”) people who are not so nice? His concern, so it seems to me, is not at all with how to determine who is “in” and who is “out”. On the contrary, he seems to be quite clear as to how to determine who is “in” (”new” but not necessarily “nice” yet)and who is out (”nice” but not “new”), does he not? Am I missing something?}

    He does!

  32. I am troubled. To often I see Christians trying to find their identity in the law. We all have the law on our hearts, Christian and nonChristian alike. What defines the Christian is faith in Jesus, a gift of the Holy Spirit. For us Lutherans this faith is passive, that is it is more important that God knows you, than that you know God. So we have no trouble baptizing even the youngest of infants, and the most afflicted by downs syndrome etc. Christ is for them too. In baptism they are given the identity of Christ, Christ is put on them.
    But trying to define yourself as a Christian by comparing yourself to your neighbor is a recipe for disaster anyway you cut the cake. It will bring you to hypocrisy or despair. It can do nothing else.
    Forgive a Luther quote please. I happen to have read this the other day and it struck me hard, I think it applies. It is from his commentary on Galatians, in Chapter 4 commenting on vers 6 “Galatians 4:6 (ESV)
    And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

    Luther writes:”There is no great difference externally between a Christian and a decent honest person, for what a Christian does outwardly is only lowly and simple. We do our duty according to our vocation, we guide our family, we till the soil, we give advice, we help our neighbor. These things are not much esteemed but are thought to be common to everyone, even the heathen. The world does not understand the things of the Spirit of God and therefore judges our works perversely. The actions of believers may seem to be worthless on the surface, but they are truly good works and are accepted by God because they are done in faith, with a cheerful heart, and with obedience and thankfulness toward God.”
    The difference between Christians and nonChristians will not be found in the externals. The difference is Christ.

  33. Oh my goodness. Yes. Thank you for this post. Somehow, inevitably, I always have a little bit of an idea itching in my brain and when I come to your site I see it all spelled out for me. I’ve been trying to come to grips lately with the problem you describe here. A friend and I got into a discussion last week that left us at odds: She says no one can know if they are truly saved because they might do something really bad later in life and “die in their sins,” whereas I believe the blood of Christ covers all sins and walks us through all eras of our lives, continually shaping us, continually teaching us about His grace. I don’t know how this all spells out for eternity, but I certainly don’t see Jesus in the Gospels teaching us to think the way my friend thinks. Her views seem to stem from this obsessive tendency to know when/if a person is “saved.” Then, when she sees someone do something terrible she assumes they are no longer saved or never were saved in the first place. This understanding just doesn’t work for me. It’s too definite. I really believe in Christ’s redemptive grace, and yet I still sin, not “as badly” as I used to, but sin is sin. I also don’t see the use in defining everybody and packing us all into categories. It seems to breed pride–at least I’ve seen it do that in my own life.
    I’m also usually inclined to agree with C.S. Lewis. He just make so much sense.

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