Author Greg Koukl
Published on 03/20/2023

What Are the Marks of a True Christian?

Greg and Amy make an important distinction between new believers who do not yet understand the doctrines of Christianity and those who call themselves Christians while knowingly rejecting key tenets of the faith.


Question: If one believes Jesus is the Son of God who takes away the sin of the world, crucified, buried, and raised on the third day, a free gift of grace to those who repent and believe, but not anything else Christianity believes, what are they?

Greg: In other words, they believe those basic things, but they don’t believe anything else about Christianity. Do they believe the resurrection? Do they believe Jesus is God? It depends on what the individual person means by the phrase. If they mean the same thing Jesus meant—that he, in fact, had a divine nature—because that’s what the concept meant when Jesus used the phrase “Son of God.” He was accused of claiming to be equal with God. So, it was a claim to divinity. “Son of God,” now, in common parlance, doesn’t mean that. There’s all kinds of sons of God. We’re all sons of God. Mormons teach that Jesus was the son of God in the way we could all be sons of God, for example. But you don’t have to be religious to be able to say, yes, we’re all children of God. Well, they don’t understand the point he is making in the context of his culture. So, when you raise this issue, I’m not entirely sure how inclusive his own doctrines are.

It’s kind of hard for me to believe that someone can be actually regenerated by the Holy Spirit in virtue of faith—biblical faith in the things that were just mentioned—without having other things be part of it, given the fact that a genuine Christian is a follower of Christ who then believes about the Word—the Scripture—the same thing Jesus believes about the Scripture—that it was God speaking. They don’t apply these things in a common sense way to other aspects of important aspects of their life. I don’t know if it has to do with their sexual behavior or maybe the issue of abortion or whatever.

I think that there are genuinely regenerate people who are pro-abortion who have not thought carefully about this and not considered the passages that are most relevant to the question—and that would be, in my view, Luke 1. They can have other things that just seem to be profoundly non-Christian perspectives, meaning that they are holding views that have political ramifications, maybe, or cultural ramifications, that are not consistent with a robust Christian worldview. I think people can get it wrong because they’re influenced by the wrong things.

They aren’t attending to God’s Word very carefully, or they’re just confused, but if they get a whole bunch of things wrong, I begin to wonder whether they have the Holy Spirit or not, even if they’re saying the right things about Jesus. Now, I’m not the judge of that. God’s the judge of that. I can’t see whether a person’s regenerate or not. All we can do is look on the externals, and this is James’s point in James 2. All we can do is assess by the externals. And, you know, we could be mistaken. However, I think it’s fair for us to assess. In fact, we are encouraged to do that under some circumstances, and especially if it’s in a charitable way.

When you say you’re Christian, I don’t even know what that means, because look at these things that you pursue or do or say are true that seem to be completely inconsistent with being a biblical Christian. So, help me understand that. What does that actually mean when you say you’re a Christian? Matthew Vines, the homosexual who champions homosexuality as a Christian, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing because he says all the right things about Jesus, but he is encouraging iniquity in the body of Christ, and Jesus addressed that directly in the Sermon on the Mount, and he talked about wolves in sheep’s clothing—that you will know them by their fruits, and their fruits are lawlessness. You’ve got to read the whole passage to see this. “Depart from me, you who work iniquity or lawlessness.”

So, it certainly is possible to make all the right kind of claims as a Christian but then promote a morality that is grotesquely non-Christian and is evidence—the real evidence—of your spiritual condition.

Amy: I think that brings up an important distinction here. There’s a difference between not knowing other Christian doctrine—so, you hear the basics of Christianity, and you put your faith in Jesus without knowing all these other things yet—and actually rejecting Christian teaching and rejecting what the Bible has to say, and then, perhaps, redefining all the words that he wrote in this question here, because as you pointed out, Greg, there are a whole bunch of things entailed in these claims. What does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God? Why do we need our sin taken away? That entails all sorts of things about who God is and what he requires of us—the history of redemption. What does being crucified mean? What did that do? What does it mean that Jesus was raised?

So, if you’re just saying the words, that’s one thing, but you have to understand, do they actually mean what the Bible means when it says that? Or does the person saying them have kind of a rudimentary understanding, and they just haven’t learned what all those things mean yet? All they know is that they’re guilty, and they need forgiveness. Certainly, many people must start out that way.

Greg: A characteristic of being a babe in Christ is that you’re just imbibing with milk. You don’t know all these other things, but that comes later, and ought to come later, and this is the writer of Hebrews’ comment there in the beginning of chapter six. You need milk. You got to go back to the milk. So, there is this progression of a Christian in growth in understanding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. People can be naïve at the beginning, but if this is not naïveté, but rather, understanding and rejection of other foundational principles, that’s a problem.