How can you tell if someone’s a Christian?

Last evening, through a confluence of events (my wife is out of town and our soccer schedule got messed up), my daughter and I had dinner out together, just the two of us.  It was a good-time with a lot of animated discussion (which her and I are known for).  In the course of our conversation, we stumbled upon the question: How can you tell if someone’s a Christian?

I said, “There is only one way to tell if someone is a Christian:  Ask them.”

Short of that, every other method leads you into judgements based upon what you can see from the outside.  That is dangerous business.

Jesus did say that you will know a tree by the fruit that it bears.  If you profess to be a follower of Jesus there should be some evidence that you are indeed following him.  More to Jesus’ point, those who hold themselves up as “folks who speak for God”, spiritual leaders, religious teachers and so on should have values and goals consistent with the kingdom of God that Jesus’ proclaimed.  There should be a connection between what they teach and how they live.  Is that a green light for judging the faith of others based upon what you can see from the outside?  Perhaps another teaching of Jesus will help.

Quite famously, Jesus also said;

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

– Matthew 7:1 – 5 (NRSV)

In American cultural life, this passage is often misused by folks that don’t want to have their  moral choices critiqued by others.  That’s not what Jesus was talking about.  If it were, then he contradicts himself because much of the sermon on the mount is about judging some thoughts and actions as wrong and others as right.

Then what is Jesus talking about?  He’s talking about the act of deciding for yourself if another person is “in” our “out” with God.  That’s something we shouldn’t do for two very good reasons.  One, we can’t see that clearly so our judgements are off.  Many times people will even become hyper-critical of the sinfulness of others as a way of avoiding the reality of their own sin.  If we major on the speck in someone else’s eye – that we can’t even see that well – then we don’t have to attend to the log in our own.  That’s dangerous, self-delusional and leads to pride.  Two, according to Jesus, the standard by which we judge others becomes the standard by which we are judged.  For some, that idea doesn’t sit too well with their notions of salvation, but it is a consistent point of Jesus teaching (say, in the Lord’s prayer and other places).  One BIG sign that you understand God’s mercy and grace towards you is that you extend mercy and grace towards others (see Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, Matt 18:23 – 35).

If grace is unmerited favor, then it comes to us apart from anything we do.  That means the whole basis for judging who is “in” and who is “out” based upon outward behaviors is not anchored in grace.  It is anchored in the legalistic adherence to rules.  If you want to be judged on that basis, that is your choice.  According to Jesus, the way you signal your wish to be judged that way is by judging others that way.

If you want grace, extend grace.  If you want law, judge others by the law.

That’s why I say that if you want to know if someone is a Christian, ask them.  Don’t assume they are.  Don’t assume they aren’t.  Ask them.  Don’t judge them.


5 thoughts on “How can you tell if someone’s a Christian?

  1. Actually, in addition to saying you could tell if someone was saved by their fruit, Jesus decreed another way everyone in the world could tell if someone was following him or not. See John 13:34, and it’s not ambiguous at all. By our deep love for other disciples of Jesus, everyone sees that we too are followers of him. If that love’s not there – if we slander them, don’t extend a helping hand, don’t have the courage to correct them, act maliciously toward them, and so on – then the person in question is not a follower of Jesus and if he or she says they are, they are fooling themselves. Don’t let them fool you too.

    1. Yes, Jesus said you can tell a tree by the fruit that it bears and that people will know we are disciples by our love, one for another. Yet, that has to be tempered by the reality that what we see on the outside is not always a great indicator of the spiritual condition of the heart. Is anyone who acts unloving towards a brother or sister at any point not a Christian? What about people who are very loving and, through all outward appearance, produce good fruit and yet are not followers of Jesus? Are they Christian? How does the reality of sin and brokeness skew our perception of others and ourselves? At the same time, when we become Christians we do not automatically become perfect. There is a process of growth (sanctification, if you will) and people at the beginning of that process can still look pretty rough. People well along in the process can still have rough moments. Of course, what Jesus says is absolutely true. What I am pushing against is the notion that I can tell, just by what I see on the outside, that a person is for certain a Christian or not. I’m not questioning Jesus’ teaching, just our limited vision.

  2. Asking someone if they are a Christian is a not a very solid method I prefer to use Gods entire word as a guideline rather my own opinion. Let me just highlight some flaws in this method… confessing to be one does not make you a Christian any more than confessing to be a police officer makes you a legitimate law enforcer in other words there is all ways going to be some observable evidence… Jesus himself says there will be those who say lord lord and yet he will say depart from me I never knew you! The word Christian itself literally means to be Christ like so if a person is not living a life that models itself of the example of Jesus I would say that it would be safe to say they are not a Christian. E.g. A man is committing fornication and yet attends church and say he is a Christian… His words and his actions do not line up the bible says no fornicator shall inherit the kingdom… The good news is he can repent and get it right, the word repent is translated as to turn away from sin again evidence that if a person does not turn away from sin they have not repented. Also examine 1 John 3: 6-10 6 Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. 8 He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. 9 Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. The Imperative of Love 10 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.

    Pretty clear!

    But having said that please don’t muss understand me ultimately God is the judge I thank him for his Grace for by it we are saved although we not deserve as we are all sinners.

    A persons actions should align with there words if there words are to be judged as true! And the evidence that Gods spirit is dwelling in someone is not that they are perfect in action as no one is and all make mistakes but rather that we recognise wrong and turn away from it or that the best guideline to see a salvation in action is lasting change in a persons life for the glorification of Christ.

    1. Nathan, good points. Here are my points in a nutshell. (1) You can’t always judge a book by its cover. (2) This is especially true when talking about the Christian faith. Why? (3) Because we all have elements of our lives that are inconsistent with the high calling of being shaped into the image and likeness of Jesus. (4) We are also told not to do judge other people in this way. (5) Rather, we are told to keep a very close eye on our own sin.

      That said, there is also a place for discerning wheat from chaff, false teaching from orthodox, and so on. This entails a certain kind of judgment. It is not subjective, it is objective based upon the Scriptures. So if someone says “I am a Christian, because that is my last name.” I would say, “Oh, I think we are talking about two different things.” Or, as in the case with Matthew McConaughey’s comments last night, someone gives thanks to God but it is clear that what the word “God” signifies for them is different than the God revealed in Scripture, one needs to be wary. Still, we are not Christian because we have orthodox and well articulated theology, so there are a lot of true Christians that sound like a hot mess when talking about God. It’s hard to judge folks. Period. That’s why I suggest engaging people, listening, sharing your faith, and letting the Spirit sort it out, convict of sin, draw people to God, and so on.

      Good stuff. Thanks!!!

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