Who is a “real Christian?”

Who is a “real Christian?” September 18, 2012

Who Is a “Real Christian?”

Several times recently I’ve mentioned “real Christians” here. A few visitors and commenters have objected to the concept. How is it possible to discriminate between “real Christians” and, well, false Christians?

If we start at the other end, so to speak, and talk about “false Christians,” it’s easier to understand why it’s necessary to speak about real Christians. Who can doubt there have been and are false Christians?

I confess that this habit of distinguishing between true and false Christians is something I grew up with and it was often abused by the Pentecostals and conservative evangelicals that surrounded me in my family, church and wider religious community.

But just because a concept or category is abused doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable or necessary. Somewhere I heard that “the cure for abuse isn’t disuse but proper use” (referring to good or necessary ideas, terms, categories).

The distinction between real Christians and false Christians is rooted in the New Testament itself. 1 John 2:19 speaks of “antichrists” who went out from the church but never belonged to it in the first place. Obviously, the writer is speaking of people who pretended to be Christians, may have even thought they were Christians, were among the people of God, but were not true Christians.

Luther talked much about the “false brethren.” I may not agree that the people he so identified were truly false, but I agree with the category. I would just populate it differently (in some cases).

Kierkegaard staked much on the distinction between true and false Christians. He wrote that in a country (such as his) where everyone is a “Christian” by birth, true Christianity does not exist.

Who can seriously say there are no false brethren today? It may sound ungenerous to talk about true versus false Christians, but just to mention white supremacy churches is to make the distinction unavoidable.

Anyone who has lived in a culture where everyone thinks they are Christians simply because they were baptized at birth or walked the aisle at some time (to join a church) is to know the reality of false Christianity.

Another term for false Christianity is “nominal Christianity”—Christianity in name only. There’s truth in the old saying, however cheesy it may be, that just because you’re in a garage doesn’t make you a car. Just being a member of a Christian church doesn’t make you a true Christian. It makes you at best a nominal Christian.

So what is true Christianity? That’s harder to define than false Christianity (when extremes are mentioned as examples).

First, let me once again emphasize that “saved” and “Christian” are not necessarily the same thing. I would say that all true Christians are saved but not all false Christians are necessarily unsaved. Only God knows who is saved with certainty. I am reluctant to make such judgments; that’s God’s business, not any human’s.

The term “Christian” originally meant a Christ follower. It was synonymous with being a “person of the Way”—the Way of Jesus Christ. A true Christian, then, is a disciple of Jesus Christ. The World Council of Churches, the broadest and most inclusive ecumenical body in the world, requires member churches (denominations) to affirm that “Jesus Christ is God and Savior.” Churches that will not affirm that in an exclusive sense (i.e., he is the only God and Savior) cannot join. When the WCC passed that test for membership, theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann scoffed at it and refused to join. Unitarian churches are not members of the WCC, nor are churches that elevate some modern person to ultimate status.

I agree with the WCC on this—at minimum, confession of Jesus Christ as God and Savior is necessary for authentic, true Christianity (insofar as a person is capable of such understanding and confession).

But, as an evangelical, I would go further and say that true Christianity requires more than mere confession; it requires personal commitment (on the parts of those capable of it) to the way of Jesus as defined by the New Testament and at least a heartfelt desire and attempt to live in submission to his lordship.

Again, a distinction must be made between “saved” and “Christian.” Surely there are people in the world who are true Christians who are not yet or no longer (or were never) capable of understanding things like “Jesus Christ is God and Savior” and have never had opportunity to confess that. I do not exclude them from being Christian.

“True Christianity” is a centered set and not a bounded set. Neither I nor any other mere human has the authority to decide who is and who is not a true Christian—other than as a matter of personal opinion.

There are times, however, when churches (denominations) find it necessary to decide who is not a true Christian. Some years ago the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now the World Communion of Reformed Churches) declared apartheid apostasy. That is to say that persons who supported it are apostate—at best false Christians, at worst, possibly unsaved.

I cannot survey the world or my own country and culture and avoid the distinction between true and false Christians.

The clincher should be Matthew 7:21-23. Many will say “Lord, Lord” to whom Jesus will say “I never knew you.”

"Democratic socialism does not depend on a powerful head of state or government. Look at ..."

Where Is America Going?
"It is certainly a warning to everyone who claims to follow Jesus Christ. But nowhere ..."

Is A “Carnal Christian” Saved? (Part ..."
"I plead ignorance about Dembski or his arguments. I don’t know what “adding theodicy to ..."

9.5 Theses about Evangelical Christianity
"Without affirming what you say here about Paige Patterson (because I don’t know any of ..."

Where Is America Going?

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Sam

    I have perosnally found it easier and less judgmental to focus on what a faithful Christian looks like and people who claim to be Christians.

  • Jesse Reese

    Definitely understand and respect what you’re saying here. Especially being at an extremely progressive institution, my circle of friends and I are virtually forced to distinguish between people who are coming from the place of a “believer” and people who are not.

    Though generally (especially when speaking of my evangelical commitments), I prefer to speak of “fully authentic” Christianity. I tend to favor speaking in terms of gradation than dichotomy, “more” or “less” rather than “true” or “false.” But the distinction is definitely needed.

  • I think this conversation is particularly important when I read just today that more people today believe President Obama to not be a Christian than did in October 2008. Dangerous business – judging another man’s servant.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Why do you suppose they do that? What evidence do they provide?

  • Tim Reisdorf


    Your distinctions make sense, but these distinctions do not address the difficulty I was sensing in previous posts.

    When you deal with Calvinists, you are very generous in extending them what you do not extend for those with whom you disagree on various social/political issues. Why is that?

    • rogereolson

      Perhaps it would help to distinguish various kinds of Calvinism (some I consider only inconsistent and some I think demean God and border on heresy) and various social/political opinions (some I disagree with but respect as legitimate Christian options and some I think are just outright evil). If you gave me specific examples I could respond more helpfully. I try to be generous even when I strongly disagree, but I admit I may fail at times as I tend to come across as strongly opinionated and some people interpret argument as condemnation (even when I don’t mean it as that).

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Hi Roger,

        In all your arguments and disagreements with Calvinists, you still say that they are within the People of God – even though you say of some that they construe God to be as a monster and bringer of evil.

        On the other hand, you are less generous with those who, for example, sided with the Contras against the elected Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Agree with them or not, there were good motives behind that stance – as they stated them. But you seem not to give them the benefit of the doubt, but rather summarily chalk this up as among the worst things that the US has ever done. This isn’t the time nor the place to debate the merits of this, but I’m just asking for an understanding and generosity for a different point of view.

        Another example, and you wrote a whole post about it previously, concerns a state law that was passed the prohibited giving aid to a person in the country illegally. It really was beyond the pale and overdone, but those behind the law were trying to do something good. It was misguided, but not evil. There are approximate laws about being accessories to crimes when aiding criminals – these are widely accepted and enforced, without protest (except for Dr. Mudd).

        Maybe its just that you’re not evenhanded in dealing with policy/politics that’s getting under my skin. You satirize the storm aimed at the GOP Convention, yet you fail to mention the straightforward godlessness (and God-rejecting as expressed in their platform and the infamous vote) at the Dem Convention. And surely you are aware how much time they devoted to enshrining the on-demand abortion laws! You are unwilling to show the considerable warts of one side while denying the benefit of the doubt to those in other camps. Just a word from the other camps, they really are trying to do the right thing.

        • rogereolson

          I guess we all have our strong opinions and mine are showing. It’s impossible to hold and express strong opinions and be fair in the way you’re describing. Who has strong opinions about politics and is truly “fair and balanced?” But I don’t think I am unfair in the sense of intentionally distorting the facts (e.g., taking quotes out of context, etc.). As for my satirical post about the hurricane and the Republican convention. You missed the point. It wasn’t about the Republicans; it was aimed at those self-appointed spokesmen for God and the Religious Right who have frequently attributed natural calamities to God when they seemed to harm cities, organizations, institutions they oppose but not when they harm (or come close to harming) cities, organizations, institutions they favor.

  • John I.

    “just because you’re in a garage doesn’t make you a car”
    never heard it
    love it
    adding it my rhetorical repetoire (to be used infrequently and judiciously)

    • Timothy

      An earlier version of this is the rather “messianic” response of the Duke of Wellington to the claim that he was Irish because he was born in Dublin: “Not everything born in a stable is a horse”.

  • John Metz

    Paul was strong in Galatians 2 to speak of some collectively as “false brothers,” ones who perverted the gospel in favor of the law. Matthew 13 has the parable of the tares, a poisonous plant that grows with the wheat and in not distinguishable from the wheat until the harvest. The categories are there, but how to discern between the tares & the wheat! For this reason the servants of the owner of the field were instructed by the owner not to try to root out the tares because they could damage the roots of the wheat. Sometimes efforts to eliminate the false does more damage to the genuine.

    I appreciate the caution you exercised in this post to not overstate the case and to try to arrive at a minimum confession yet hope for more in the way of discipleship. It is a delicate subject.

  • Dr. Olson, you wrote the following: “Again, a distinction must be made between “saved” and “Christian.” Surely there are people in the world who are true Christians who are not yet or no longer (or were never) capable of understanding things like “Jesus Christ is God and Savior” and have never had opportunity to confess that. I do not exclude them from being Christian.”
    I have read the Bible over 50 times, and continue to do so daily. But I have never read the distinction you made between being saved and being a Christian. Upon what Biblical basis do you make such a distinction?

    • rogereolson

      I’ve discussed that here a lot, but it has been a while. Logically, if you can think of even one example of someone who was saved but not Christian (when Christianity existed), the distinction has to be made. When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead there were no doubt people in the world who had a right relationship with God through what some call “Abrahamic faith”–faithful Jewish people of God and God-fearing gentiles. Some of them died before any Christian apostle or other emissary reached them with the good news of Jesus Christ. If they went to hell just because they never heard of Jesus, then Jesus’ death on the cross unsaved them. That’s absurd. For that reason (it would be enough) I am an inclusivist of a sort. I believe there are people in the world today who have something like Abrahamic faith–faith in the God of Jesus Christ. I believe such people, like those covenant people of God and God-fearing gentiles who lived in the ancient world and died before any Christian missionary reached them, are saved. I don’t know who they are or claim to have any litmus test to detect them. That there were such people then proves to me that it is possible to be saved without being Christian. And then there are all those people who claim to be “Christian” who know nothing about Jesus Christ except intellectually and have no personal commitment to or relationship with him. I doubt their salvation, but I leave them in God’s hands.

      • B Brown

        I agree with your position Roger. I like to add when this issue comes up that any and all who end up in eternity will in that day realize that the ONLY reason they ended up there is because God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. No doubt, there will be many many of the redeemed who will learn for the first time that Christ is their Savior. Those first moments in eternity will truly be exciting and wonderful as many will bow for the first time before Jesus, the only Savior.

  • Dr. Olson:

    I give you credit for trying to decipher the answer to: Who is a “real Christian”? Nice try! But may I suggest that the answer to that question is not in our purview. And, if we think about it, thank God it isn’t! If it were up to us ‘sanctified saints’ to decide who is in and who is out, sadly, most of humanity wouldn’t have a prayer (pun intended). But, glory be to God, there is only one Decider; he alone is worthy to make the ultimate judgment. He alone has been charged with the final determination. Thus it is written: “For you [Father] granted [me] authority over ALL people (Gk: sarx = “all flesh”) that [I] might give eternal life to ALL those you have given [me]” – John 17:2 emphasis added. The question was answered 2000 years ago when he vicariously took the sins (past, present and future) of fallen humanity to his cross and, then, resurrected with a re-created new born humanity that is now seated with him in the highest heavenly realms.

    According to the above scripture, the Savior’s grant of authority over ALL PEOPLE is conditioned upon him, in turn, giving eternal life to ALL PEOPLE. In time (whether in this life or the next), ALL will submit to him and ALL will discover their sins have long-since been forgiven; only waiting to be recognized and appreciated (see Ps 65:2-3 with Jn 6:37-40).

    • rogereolson

      So you don’t ever say to yourself about a cult “That’s not really Christian”? I can’t imagine it. So comes to your city a new religious movement that worships a contemporary “messiah” or that equates God with nature or…whatever that falls entirely outside orthodox Christianity and Scripture. You never say to yourself “That’s not authentically Christian?” Have you digested my distinction between “saved” and “Christian?” I explained it in a previous post and in response to comments here. When I say a person or group is not “really Christian” I am NOT commenting on their salvation or lack of it. That’s a separate issue. So let me ask you and please answer: Suppose a white supremacist “church” that promotes hatred of African-Americans and Jews moves into your neighborhood and someone comes to you, as an elder statesman of the church, and asks “Is that really a Christian church?” What will you say?

      • Roger said, “When I say a person or group is not “really Christian” I am NOT commenting on their salvation or lack of it. That’s a separate issue. ”

        That answer satisfies me with respect the individual. As you know, I personally believe that all humanity has been redeemed by the Cross which qualifies all people to be recognized as “real Christians”; at least in the sight of God. That does NOT mean that all redeemed Christians know they have been redeemed or that they always act like it. Thus the cults, non-Christian religions and (gasp!) all of us who, at times, fail to live up to what might be called The Christian Ethic. I now understand more clearly what you were trying to say. Since we have corresponded so often, I hope you know what I’m trying to say.

        • rogereolson

          I hope so. But mostly whenever I see you here I think back to the wonderful times we shared when I was a child and you were my dad’s friend and we spent time in your home and I played with your boys and…that’s all such a precious memory to me. And I remember with gratitude how you lovingly preached my dad’s funeral message. Our differences of opinion pale in comparison with our life history together. And, of course, you were the man who dedicated me to the Lord when I was a baby only weeks old. You knew my mother who I never got to know. What a privilege it is to have you here even when we argue. 🙂

  • gingoro

    Sometimes I find that a more helpful distinction is to talk about who is a Christian that I am willing to work alongside of. One guideline that I use is “Is this person/group willing to accept the Apostles Creed in a straight forward way without mental reservations or word games?”.

  • B Brown

    Jesus said it. ‘Only those who ‘know’ Him are the true Christians. This doesn’t mean knowing ‘about’ Jesus but being in a personal relationship with Him and God as our Father in Heaven. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto HIMSELF.” A real Christian has heard the good news that he has been reconciled to God through Christ and responds by receiving Christ as Lord and Savior and entering into fellowship and communion with Him on a daily basis. The real Christian makes time every day to fellowship and commune and be refreshed in His real love, His real peace and real joy through the Gift of the real Holy Spirit.
    John said it well, 1John 1:3 “that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4 And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”
    Jesus said, “Abide in Me, and I will abide in you….that you might bear fruit.” Without this union with Jesus and the Father there is no real Christianity.
    This is what I look for in a professing Christian regardless of their denomination, tradition or profession.

  • Roger,
    I am grateful for the patience and generosity you show in these posts. See you. Chicago, I hope. Thanks for your teaching.

  • Susan Houg

    A centered set versus a bounded set: that is a very helpful concept.