There are of course many answers that can be given to the question asked here. Catholics would differ from Protestants on this issue to some extent, and even some Protestants would differ with other Protestants on this. But hopefully all true Christians will agree to some basics here.
Those would be: mankind has a big problem – we are sinners separated from God. Jesus Christ came to deal with that problem, and those who place their faith and trust in Jesus can find their sins forgiven and their relationship with God restored.
But that is more about how a person becomes a Christian. While this book deals with such issues, the real point of this book is this: how do I in fact know that I am a Christian? It is always possible that a person can be deceiving himself on this issue. There can be many people who think they are followers of Jesus when they in fact are not.
In this very easy to read and popularly-written book of just 150 pages McKinley, an American Baptist pastor, seeks to clarify this issue. He begins by noting how any normal person will want an accurate reading of their physical health, and will regularly visit a doctor to see if anything is amiss.
A clean bill of health is what is hoped for, but no one would want their doctor to lie to them and tell them everything is fine if a very real problem exists. Such problems can be deadly, so it is vital that we get the truth about our physical condition from our doctor.
In the same way it is vital that we get the truth about ourselves concerning our spiritual condition. We all want to know we have a clean bill of spiritual health. We long to hear those words of Jesus one day: “Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of the Lord” (Matt 25:23).
But sadly some will hear these words from Jesus instead: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:23). There are perhaps no more terrifying words in all of Scripture. No wonder Paul insisted that we be very careful about this: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” (2 Cor 13:5).
That is what this book is all about. It is a bit of self-diagnostics, to help each of us know where we really are at with the Lord. It is something every single believer must regularly be involved in. Most of the book is made up of nine things which can determine if one is really a Christian – a true disciple of Jesus.
For example, just because you say you are a Christian, or have made a one-time profession of faith, does not in fact guarantee you are a real child of God. Says McKinley, “It is true that we need to make a onetime decision to follow Jesus. But a true onetime decision is followed by the everyday decision to follow Jesus. Jesus did not think that it was enough just to superficially identify yourself with him. There is more to being his followers than just a profession of faith.”
The sad truth is, too many churches make it far too easy for people to become followers of Christ. They tell people that if they sign a card or lift their hand at a meeting, that is all that’s needed. It is really just cheap grace, where we think one decision made years ago is all that it takes to be in right relationship with God.
And you are not a Christian just because you happen to like Jesus. Millions of people, including atheists, may have a soft spot in their hearts for Jesus. Jesus was after all very likeable in many ways. But that too is just not sufficient. Liking Jesus is just not enough:
“You must believe in Jesus, as John 3:16 put it. It’s not enough to simply believe things about Jesus. You must believe that you need a Savior, and that he is that Savior. You must believe that you need a Lord, and that he is that Lord. Our confidence must not be merely in things that once happened, but in the person who accomplished them.”
And a true Christian is one who endures to the end; who does not give up and walk away when the going gets tough. What matters “is not whether we once acted and spoke like believers, but whether we’re following Christ today and whether we continue doing so until the end.”
Of course this issue, like many things touched on here, can be quite contentious, with differing points of view promoted. Here we deal with issues like eternal security, the perseverance of the saints, and so on. Neither I nor McKinley wish to get into major theological debates here, but this is how he briefly addresses the matter of people falling away:
We are not saying, “These people were once Christians but no longer are”. Rather, we are saying “they were never Christians in the first place. They were never really ‘of us’ [1 John 2:19]. Otherwise they would still be in the church. The fact that they abandoned the faith demonstrates that they were never genuine believers.”
Another important test to see if we are really Christians is if “you love your stuff”. Now material passions are necessary in many ways. They are even good gifts of God, if kept in perspective. But it is far too easy for Western Christians to make their stuff their God – to turn things into idols.
Jesus was crystal clear about these dangers, yet his words have become so familiar to us that they have lost their punch. In Luke 18:18-25 we have the story of the rich young ruler. He said he kept all the commandments, but when Jesus told him he lacked one thing, and must sell his possessions and give to the poor, the ruler became very sad for he had great riches.
His wealth was more important to him than God, so he missed out. How many Western Christians today are really in the same boat? Sure, we say we will give it all up if asked to, but very few actually would I suspect. Of course Jesus is not teaching that money and possessions are evil, but that they can be extremely dangerous if made into an idol.
Jesus said being wealthy can easily block one from entering the kingdom (Luke 12:15-21) and even said that we cannot both serve God and money (Luke 16:13). It is that serious. Yet in a money-mad and possession-addicted culture we simply have closed our ears to what Jesus so clearly teaches.
McKinley offers other tests which will show we are not really his followers: if we love sin; if we don’t love others; if we have not been born again; etc. But he closes his book with important biblical material to keep things in balance. Christians can of course have assurance of their salvation. They will not be perfect, they will at times sin, but they can know that they are right with God and part of his family.
Our confidence of course is based on the finished work of Christ, not on our own merit, good works, or our own efforts. Jesus is the basis of our salvation, but when we are really changed by an encounter with the living Christ, we are given the Holy Spirit to help us now live lives pleasing to him.
We do not seek to please him in order to earn his salvation, but to express the salvation he has already freely bestowed upon us. “Christians are not saved or justified by this new obedience, but their salvation will manifest itself in concrete ways – in this new obedience.”
We must take seriously the many warnings found in Scripture. But we can also have assurance of salvation, with various tests helping to indicate this: we must have faith in Christ today; we must have the presence of God’s Spirit; we must obey God’s word; and we must demonstrate a pattern of growth in spiritual maturity over time.
And of course we need each other. We need to be held accountable to other believers in a close fellowship. Thus a closing chapter in this book looks at the importance of being part of a local body of believers – a local church.
In the West today we are living in a most spiritually lacklustre, self-indulgent, and me-first culture. And that culture permeates so many of our churches today. There may be millions of people who think they are Christians who are not at all.
Given that our relationship with God is the most important issue any one of us can ever deal with, it is vital that we are not mislead or deceived in this area. We must know that we are just not kidding ourselves and playing games. We must test ourselves, to see if we really are in the faith.
This volume is a helpful tool for doing that very thing.