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Are you a Christian? One simple (sort of) test from the apostle Paul

• Daniel Baker

Posted in Saving Faith

Some sentences in the Bible are absolutely packed with content. Last week's sermon showed us that 1 Corinthians 16:22 is one of these:

If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!

Paul has a poetic wordplay here lost in the English. Behind the word “accursed” is the Greek word anathema, and behind the prayer, “Our Lord, come!”, is the Aramaic Marana tha. Put together they are "anathema. Marana tha." But more than wordplay, Paul is presenting us with two powerful ideas.

The first sentence is meant to provoke a profound self-examination. We’ll come back to this one.

The second sentence is a profound cry of expectation for all God’s people. More than anything else, we long for Christ’s return. When we consider the depravity that surrounds us and the depravity that plagues our own hearts, how much we long for Christ to return and bring the new heavens and new earth. When he returns, the glorious facts of the resurrection Paul rehearsed in 1 Corinthians 15 will come true. And all sickness, suffering, sadness, and sin in God’s people will be forever left behind (Rev 21:1–4). Forever we will be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17). So, yes: Marana tha!

A Simple (Sort Of) Test of My Faith

But let’s look again at his first sentence, which takes up a different issue. It places our gaze not on the future to come, but on our very hearts. It connects the sobering reality of being “accursed” with something that is either present or absent in my heart, my “love for the Lord.” God is telling us here that “love for the Lord” is what marks me as one who will not be “accursed.” Because of such a consequence, it matters a great deal whether I possess this love or not.

What is being given to us here is a simple but effectual test of my Christian faith. The presence of love for the Lord means I have saving faith and am justified. The absence of such a love means I lack such a saving faith and am not justified. Love for the Lord is a fruit of faith inseparable from faith and necessarily present if my faith is saving faith. Paul hints at this relationship in Galatians 5:6 when he speaks of “faith working through love.”

But we need to clarify something here. Paul isn’t talking about an issue of progressive sanctification, which has to do with my growth as a Christian. He’s not asking if I have enough love for Christ, as if a little love condemns me and a mature love saves me.

One way to see what he’s getting at is with the apostle Peter in John 21. Remember the conversation Peter had with Jesus in this chapter. Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” (John 21:15–17). The third time stung. It stung because Peter had just denied Jesus three times. He had just denied Jesus even after Jesus prophesied it would happen and Peter emphatically said he would never do such a thing (John 13:37–38).

Jesus is really asking, “Peter, you just denied me three times, so let me ask you again, do you love me?” Peter knew why Jesus asked him this question three times and not just once. But still Peter said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:17). He was “grieved” as he said it, but he said it (John 21:17). And Jesus did not correct Peter's answer. He affirmed it by what he said next, “Feed my sheep” (21:17). He commissioned Peter into ministry. 

Peter’s love for the Lord is like our love for the Lord—imperfect and needing to grow but present and real. Such a love is evidence I’m a Christian.

A Warning!

Whenever you look at your own life to determine whether you’re saved, you’re into dangerous territory. The reason is obvious: you’re a sinner still tempted to sin. Conversion doesn’t magically take away temptation. Seeing Jesus face to face does (1 John 3:2) but not conversion. John is honest with us about sin in this life: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That means you might look at yourself and be acutely aware of many terrible sins you are still committing (remember, all sin is terrible). 

And then you add to this the fact that becoming a Christian makes your conscience more sensitive than it was before. Part of God’s work in us is progressively to sanctify even our conscience. So, even if your obedience improves, you feel worse about the disobedience still present. This can lead to conviction and even self-condemnation. You might actually love the Lord more but feel like you love him less. You love him but feel terrible about how much more you should love him. But these are indicators of a changed heart, not a dead heart.

There's more: our Christian growth is not a straight line of improvement. It's more like a roller-coaster, lots of ups and downs and then you seem to find yourself back where you started. At least, that's how it can appear to us. 

For all these reasons, looking at evidence of conversion in a changed life can be tricky. Yet, the Bible holds up tests like 1 Corinthians 16:22, so it's clear our changed life has some place in assessing our salvation.

Aspects of Saving Faith

The key is to put any examination of your own obedience and godliness in the right place. It has some place in assessing our conversion, just not a primary place. To stand on firmer ground we need to look at faith and think about what saving faith is. 

Establish first whether you believe the basic facts about Jesus as presented in the Bible? Do you believe that he lived, died, rose, and ascended as the New Testament presents? Do you believe he is God and that God is one but also three persons who are Father, Son, and Spirit? We’re not asking if you can explain it! But do you believe these things are true? There’s a basic knowledge component to saving faith that can’t be side-stepped. Theologians call this notitia.

Then there’s assensus, the idea that these factual truths you believe are more than mere facts like the capital of Ohio (Columbus!) or the slope of a line. With saving faith there’s a conviction that these facts are deeply important and meet a profound need in our lives and in the lives of all sinners.

Finally, there’s what is called fiducia, which Louis Berkhof calls “the crowning element of faith.” This is where our understanding of the truth of Jesus and a conviction of its truth is matched with a firm commitment on our part. He describes it this way:

Faith is not merely a matter of the intellect, nor of the intellect and the emotions combined; it is also a matter of the will, determining the direction of the soul, an act of the soul going out towards its object and appropriating this.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology

To illustrate these three aspects of faith, the progression looks something like this:

  • Notitia (Knowledge): I believe Jesus lived and is exactly who the Bible says he is.
  • Assensus (Conviction): This is profoundly important and meets my need as a sinner.
  • Fiducia (Trust): I declare him to be my Lord and Savior and the Ruler and Delight of my life.

In such a faith there's assurance, because such a faith is also a confidence in God's love and goodness being given to us in Christ. 

This kind of saving faith produces fruit in our lives, unavoidably so. James tells us that anything we might call “faith” which doesn’t produce fruit is “dead” (James 2:17) and can’t save us. So, where Paul emphasizes that faith and not works saves us (Gal 2:16), James emphasizes that a faith which doesn’t lead to works does not save us (James 2:17–20). In other words, where Paul answers the question, “What saves us?” (faith), James answers the question, “What kind of faith saves us?” (faith that works).

Back to 1 Corinthians 16:22

Now we can go back to 1 Corinthians 16:22. If we take James’ concern, “What kind of faith saves us?” Paul’s answer from our verse is, “The kind of faith that leads to love for the Lord.” A faith that doesn't lead to such "love for the Lord" is a dead faith that will mean we’re “accursed.” And if we’re “accursed,” then we’re right now awaiting God’s judgment when we’ll be separated from God and punished by him forever.

But if you have a love for the Lord—imperfect, in need of growth, but real nonetheless—then the task for us is to grow in our love for Christ. And our prayer is Paul’s prayer at the end of this verse: “Our Lord, come!”

Those Really Struggling

But you might be someone really struggling with assurance. If that's you, don't look at your works or your obedience. Don't even look at your faith and parse it out. Just look to Christ and never turn away. He's "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Fix your gaze on Christ "the Founder and Perfector of our faith" (Heb 12:2). Let the glory of his person, the beauty of the cross, the power of the resurrection, and the full kingly glory of his being ascended to the right hand of God bring rest to your soul. The only real peace for us is in Christ, not ourselves. Our faith is never in our faith. The reason faith and not works saves us, is because faith connects us to Christ. It's being connected to him that brings eternal life. It is Christ’s hold on me that is my security, not my hold on Christ. Our salvation stands firm because it stands firm on a Savior who has defeated all the enemies that stand against me—my own sin, the devil who opposes me, and this world that hates God.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)


For more on assurance you can check out Greg Gilbert's Assuredtwo sermons we did recently on assurance, and also know that next summer we're preaching through 1 John, where we'll hit this topic several times. 


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