Presuming to write about what makes a Christian recognizable to the watching world is fraught with peril. The author might be tempted to simply go with the old adage, “Less is more”: You’re a Christian if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Rom. 10:9). Saying too much runs the risk of elevating “the commandments of men” to what must be believed and practiced (Matt. 15:1–9; see also Prov. 30:6). Ironically, such exaltation of man’s opinion (which doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a generation or two for opinions to become taken for granted, or assumed law) kills the abundant life, most certainly an unintended consequence. Saying anything about the marks of a Christian necessarily involves a discussion revolving around beliefs and practices, but, of course, the big questions are which beliefs? and what practices?
In an article this length, any attempt to discuss exhaustively the marks of a Christian would be an automatic fail. We do, however, have a New Testament letter that provides a good discussion of certain marks all in one place. First John was written, in a nutshell, to bolster the faith of the community that received it, since their assurance in Christ had been undermined by the splinter-group elitists among them. In so doing, the author, an overseer of his home church as well as an authority among other churches in a particular geographical locale, lays out three “tests” that are meant to show that the divisive ones, those antichrists, have missed the mark and that those left behind are the ones in communion with Christ and His church.
The letter doesn’t take long to warm up. In fact, the gate flies open and the author throws down a trump card: apostolic eyewitness. He and his friends were there when it all happened, and, unsurprisingly, they had the full experience — taking in Jesus with their eyes, ears, and hands (1:1–4). “Listen up,” he’s saying, “I was there.” His express purpose involves proclaiming the central message of and about the Messiah so that his readers will have fellowship with him (and thus Christ), and that therefore both his and their joy will be full (vv. 3–4).
As we begin to discuss the content of these authenticating “tests,” keep in mind that they are all interrelated and dependent on each other: to fail one is to fail them all.
Test One: Belief
“One person with a belief,” wrote John Stuart Mill over 150 years ago, “is equal to a force of ninety-nine who have only interests.” So it is with Christ’s church: along with the rise of tepid interest in doctrinal matters comes the rise of nominal faith and practice. This mere interest, as opposed to grace-infused belief, might also manifest itself in the championing of a few particular doctrines at the expense of the whole counsel of God. Such was the case that spurred the writing of this letter. The secessionists were not simply engaged in impure actions, they were about the business of denying fundamental beliefs about the Christ, and so were undermining the faith of the faithful. We have to put ourselves in their shoes, if possible: the church’s hierarchical structure was only just forming. Apostolic writings were not ubiquitous. It behooved the bishops, who had a much more dynamic relationship to the churches under their care then (as opposed to the more authoritarian relationship seen today), to contend for the faith once delivered — and to expect opposition.
On this score, the letter responds in no uncertain terms: Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Son, and believing this means one is born of God and overcomes the world (1 John 5:1, 4–5). Possibly most important as it relates to the occasion of this epistle was the clear defense of and belief in the incarnation — that God’s Messiah and Son had come in the flesh (4:2). To deny this makes one a liar and an antichrist, and thus renders fellowship with the Father and the Son, as well as His body, impossible (2:22–23; 2 John 7–9).
The separatists had no problem affirming that a human being named Jesus lived during the first quarter of the first century; their problem was with His identity. Sure, He might have become identified with God at His baptism (or whenever), but literally God in the flesh? No doubt the transcendent Creator is above all that. To the contrary, the orthodox respond, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” He didn’t become anyone different than He always has been, before the foundation of the world, just as the Nicene Creed affirms (“. . . eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father . . .”).
But confessing the facts — is it enough? As mentioned earlier, is affirming Romans 10:9 enough? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s enough. No, it’s not the only “test,” or mark, of a Christian. We can, and should, talk about others.
Test Two: Obedience
Those, like the antichrists, who would dare claim fellowship with God through some kind of secret salvation, bypassing the apostolic witness about the good news of God’s saving action through the cross of Christ, should guess again. Obedience is essential to claiming fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:6–7). Disobedience, walking “in darkness,” simply betrays a lie. Walking “in the light,” on the other hand, gives evidence to the profession, and the perpetual cleansing blood of Jesus therefore provides assurance. What’s more, in the face of the denials of the separatists about the necessity of Christ’s atoning sacrifice (1:8–10), the letter belabors the fact that this means of forgiveness is absolutely necessary to create fellowship with God (2:1–2). The sacrifice of the One who pleads with the Father on our behalf is the same means for everyone — “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
That name above all names must also be obeyed if a claim to know Him is made (1 John 2:3–4); indeed, obeying Him, walking in the same way in which He walked, is as equally essential to loving Him as it is to living in, or being in union with, the triune God (vv. 5–6; 5:3a). In short, we know we are Christians if certain things are true, including living just as Jesus did. (In the ways that we can, of course. I wouldn’t suggest trying to walk on water anytime soon.) In being obedient to God’s commands, we’ll show that we’re His children and that we love His children (3:10; 5:2). Also, our requests to Him, the ones that are aligned with His desires, will be granted (3:22).
Obedience, however, doesn’t revolve solely around actions. Our thoughts, our doctrines, are other forms of obedience, and thus right belief (as we have seen) is also a mark of what it means to be a Christian, to be unified with God and His people. Additionally, in discussing the necessity of obeying God’s commands, the epistle often focuses on loving God and His children, which brings us to the third and final “test.”
Test Three: Love
In leaving the discussion of the “Love Test” for last, two points arise: (1) Actively showing love is, arguably, the centerpiece of this epistle; and (2) this ought not be surprising, since love is, after all, “the greatest” (1 Cor. 13:13), and showing it to one another reveals that the crucified Christ is resurrected (John 13:35). As the ancient chant Ubi caritas puts it, “Where true charity and love dwell, God Himself is there.” Love is the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, heard “from the beginning” (1 John 3:11). And yet, we often hear folks say otherwise — maybe we think it ourselves — that practicing love (usually manifested through kindness) isn’t a requirement so long as we have passed these other “tests.” Of course, love can be exhibited in a whole host of ways (not least discipline), but kindness strikes me as central in many respects. What, if not kindness, has the Lord shown to us, the repentant — indeed, even before we repented (Rom. 2:4; 5:10; see also Ps. 145:17; Luke 6:34–36; Eph. 2:7; Titus 3:4)? It’s no mistake that we who profess to follow Christ are also called to show kindness (Lev. 25:35; Job 6:14; Prov. 31:26; Mic. 6:8; Zech. 7:9; Rom. 11:22; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:24; Titus 2:5).
In 1 John we see what the author thinks of the antichrist secessionists: they love not God nor His children. Their beliefs and practices have divided God’s people — the ultimate unkind action — and so they betray who their father is (3:10). When acting out of love for Christ and each other, we evidence a life of light (2:10); of being born of God through His Spirit (3:10; 4:7); and of knowing God, for there can be no real knowledge of God that is not expressed in love for fellow believers (4:8).
In fact, loving the bride of Christ shows that we have passed from death into life (3:14). Indeed, the author goes so far as to suggest that loving the church is a necessary corollary to loving God (5:1) — if we say we love the One who bears many children, then we must love those children. It will not do to leave it to the more “sensitive” among us, as if practicing love is not commanded from everyone who dares claim fellowship with God, as if loving-kindness isn’t a virtue.
The antichrists would have had others believe this nonsense. Such people, however well intentioned, end up strangling kindness for the sake of what they deem righteous, precisely because the kind of radiant love 1 John describes is an affront to their lifeless world. But to be Christian, to pass these tests by the power of the Spirit, is to be more fully human, according to God’s design, thereby placing one foot firmly in the vibrant world to come.
God is love, just as God is light, and proof of this personality is seen most clearly in His Son, who came in the flesh and embodied both of these. He wants you to believe and to embody the same.