What does it mean to be a true Christian?
A true Christian is nothing other than a real, authentic, actual Christian. The reason some people, including myself, will say or write “true Christian” or “true believer” is because there are people who pretend to be Christians but are not (Judas, for example; Matthew 26:25). There are also people who appear to be Christians and may believe themselves to be Christians but are deceived (Matthew 7:22–23). Many people have mistaken notions or ideas about what it means to be a Christian. The bottom line is that not all who profess to have faith in Christ possess faith in Christ. This is a surprising statement to many, and it should be a sober reminder to us who profess ourselves to be Christians to make our calling and election certain (2 Peter 1:10). So, what distinguishes a true Christian from a pretender? What separates sincere followers of Christ from hypocritical imposters?
A true Christian is a person who has been born again (John 3:3–8). Only those who have been regenerated by the Spirit of God are actual Christians (Titus 3:4-7). Of course, this begs the question, “What does it mean to be born again?” The Apostle John answers this question in great detail in his first epistle. The following four marks will be present in all those who have been born again. Not all four marks will be present to the same degree, but they will all be present in some measure in all true Christians.
1) Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah) has been born of God, and is therefore a true Christian (1 John 5:1). Faith in Jesus Christ, who is both Lord and Savior, is the instrument through which we receive salvation. First John 5:4–5, says, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” Ephesians 2:8–10 says, “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.”
2) Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of God (1 John 2:29). This is not self-righteousness or mere external civic righteousness, but righteousness that is a result of having been born again. Our good works do not save us, but they are the inevitable consequence of having been saved. True Christians are new creations and have new hearts and desires which cause them to pursue holiness and do good deeds out of love for God (2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:12). As a good tree bears good fruit, a true Christian will bear good works to the glory of God (Matthew 7:15–20).
3) Everyone who has been born of God will love God and love the brothers (1 John 3:14). By brothers, John means the church (i.e. fellow believers in Christ). Although a Christian is commanded to love all people, they will have a special affection for those who are believers (Galatians 6:10). Those who love God will love those who love God. There is a bond between true believers that runs deeper than blood (Mark 10:29–30).
4) “Everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). This does not mean that Christians do not sin. They do. In fact, we are told that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8–9). What John is saying is that sin is not the dominant controlling influence in the life of a Christian. A true Christian cannot continue long in a pattern of sin without conviction from the Holy Spirit and/or God’s loving discipline (Hebrews 12:5–11). No Christian is content and at peace with the remaining sin in their lives. Instead, it is seen as a great burden to them and the Spirit of God, who dwells within them, wages continuous war against the remaining sin nature (Galatians 5:16–25).
In conclusion, a true Christian is someone who has been born again by the Spirit of God. They believe that Jesus is the Messiah, God in the flesh, come to earth to save those who believe in Him. As a result of being born again and given new hearts, a true Christian loves God and the church. A true Christian is not dominated and controlled by the sin nature, but wages war against sin with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit and pursues righteousness and holiness for the love and glory of God.