Are You Really Born Again?
Signs of the Converted
We receive salvation by coming to Jesus for the forgiveness of our sin. We do this by God’s mercy and grace and by the working of his Holy Spirit. Following conversion we are to do good works (Eph. 2:10), and the Holy Spirit operates in our lives so that we will do good works. As Colossians 1:29 puts it, Paul struggled, or strove “with all his energy,” yet it was God powerfully working in him that produced the kind of life and ministry that God had called him to. We do not begin by faith and end up working for God’s continued favor and mercy (Gal. 3:3). These good works are considered to be evidence that we are truly born again; we can call them “signs of the converted.” Since the Scripture does not give a succinct and complete list of the signs, and since they may be almost limitless, I will focus only on the most obvious ones.
There is no predictable sequence in which these signs appear in the life of a new convert. The Christian experience is not that simple. During the course of my ministry I have seen many variations. Some became zealous for evangelism from the start. Others could not get enough of the Bible. Still others loved to praise and worship the Lord above all else. Some spent long hours in prayer. Some new converts struggled with everything.
Signs from my own experience
The model I will use to describe the signs of the converted is derived from my personal experience as a Christian, which may not be standard, but it is accessible.
A sense of peace and relief
A believer in Jesus may have the experience of an inner peace and sense of relief. For instance, I knew that I was lost and in danger of rejecting Jesus altogether. The moment after I came to Jesus I experienced a sense of being forgiven. Although it sounds like a cliché, it was as though a heavy burden had been lifted from me. At that time, I never told anyone how I felt—it was a private, inner experience. Probably “joy” comes closest to describing what I felt. Never before had I thought about being thankful to God, but now I felt grateful to Jesus.
A normative and important part of the Christian’s life is baptism. Baptism is extremely important, because it is the most natural step to take following conversion. Jesus instructed his apostles to baptize new converts and, as a result, the early Christians were baptized following their conversion. Baptism is an act of obedience, and a way to confess our faith in Jesus as Savior in front of others. Over the years, I have found the conversion testimonies of so many to be faulty when they declared faith in Christ but refused baptism.
Identifying with Jesus
Jesus made it clear that his followers will confess, or acknowledge, their faith in him. He said, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32). And, in the very next verse, Jesus says that the exact opposite would also hold true. Identifying with Jesus comes quite easily, as a new believer will have a new attitude towards him. Before conversion Jesus may be ignored, feared, dismissed, undervalued, and so on, but after conversion Jesus assumes a far different place in their thinking. He is now seen as their beloved Savior, the one who died on a cross and shed his blood, all because of his love for sinners. A person who was once troubled by the mere mention of Jesus now finds he is attracted to that very name.
Developing a relationship with God
The essence of a Christian’s life is his relationship with God. Communication is the heart of any human relationship, and so it is with our relationship with God. The inspired Word of God is the chief way God communicates with us. A Christian does not hear the voice of God speaking to him, giving him direct personal messages, but the Holy Spirit applies to the believer’s life, in ways largely unknown to us, truths from the Scripture. Prayer is the primary way we communicate back to God. A relationship emerges—slowly, steadily, not easily; and it develops throughout the Christian’s lifetime. It is never perfect, and sometimes the quality of the relationship suffers, but it is never broken completely, despite our rebelliousness.
Bible reading may come easily for some Christians. For instance, early on I developed the daily discipline of reading two chapters from both the Old and New Testaments each day. Prayer, however, was more difficult. Some days I could pray for long periods at a time; on other days I could not settle down for even a minute or two. In the best of times my Bible reading inspires my praying, and I cannot get enough of either. At other times, I may go for days, or even weeks, feeling dry and lifeless. Nevertheless, I have learned not to berate myself, or give up, in the “dry seasons” but to press on with the relationship I have with God until he brings “times of refreshing.”
Sin becomes really sinful
Our relationship with God is a purifying experience, “because the Lord disciplines those he love…” (Heb. 12:6; also see Rev. 3:19). When we are struggling with sinful behavior in our lives our relationship with God will be affected. My sinful ways came to my attention as never before. I began to recognize that the coping mechanisms of rebellion that I had relied on to see me through stressful times were actually sinful. I was amazed; I was confused; I was humiliated; at times I was scandalized. When we try to stop sinning on our own, we usually fail and may think that the Christian life is not for us. Nevertheless, we slowly learn that sin is only overcome by relying on the finished work of Jesus and his righteousness.
There is a great paradox when it comes to the converted sinner and his sin. I refer to it as the “perfect/sinner” paradox. We are supposed to be “perfect.” Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Perfection is the highest possible standard. It is not possible for a Christian to be perfect through his own effort; therefore, God has made us perfect in Christ. The Christian is “in Christ” and is whole and perfect before God, yet the Christian sins. The Apostle John wrote:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth in not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives (1 John 1:8-10).
The “perfect” sinner confesses his sin and is forgiven. The paradox stands: “perfect/sinner.”
John went on to say, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1). John holds up the standard and at the same time knows that his “dear children” will sin. The Greek phrase could easily be translated, “if anybody does sin, and he will.” John’s solution to the sin problem is not to try harder, have more faith, or pray harder. Nor does John use expressions that would shame his “dear children,” such as “What’s the matter with you?” or “You are an embarrassment to the faith!” or “You are no good!” John points the sinning Christian to Jesus, the only One who is righteous.
Experiencing rejection for standing up for Jesus
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matt. 5:11; see 1 Peter 4:12-17). Jesus expected his followers to suffer rejection because of him. These two things go together. When my old friends learned that I had “got religion” I lost half of immediately. They were angry that I would no longer participate in and tolerate the “good old times.” They felt I was being accusatory and judgmental.
Signs of the Converted from 1 John
The Apostle John gave first-century Christians a description of the nature of the Christian life in the letter we call 1 John. A brief summary of John’s teaching will serve as a useful conclusion to this chapter.
First, John says that we know God (that is, we have been born again), if we obey his commands: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 2:3). The same truth is expressed a few verses later when the Apostle tells us, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6).
To obey Jesus’ commands and walk as he did is described in terms of love, agape love. Agape is a word that comes directly from the Greek language of the New Testament. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is. It is not emotion or feeling-centered love; it is not desire or lust; it is not even a friendship king of love. Agape love is acting toward another for his or her best interest. I think Jesus described it best when he said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
The Christian is to love his brother (1 John 2:10-11; 3:11; 4:7) and, conversely, he is not to “love the world or anything in the world” (1 John 2:15). The Christian is not to continue in sin: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6).
John actually states the exact commands that the Christian is to obey: “And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:32). Perhaps the key wording is found in the last part of verse 24: “We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
The signs of conversion from 1 John may be summarized like this: trusting in Jesus for salvation, loving our brothers and sisters, and turning away from sin. The unconverted will have no interest in these things; rather, such things will be despised. We know that we have been born again and that Jesus truly lives in us when these things are true in our lives—yet it is confirmed only by the Holy Spirit who indwells the believer. It is much as Paul stated in Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” A converted person will trust in Jesus for salvation, have a new attitude of love for others, and desire to turn away from sin.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the signs that believers will display. Some of the more obvious signs were mentioned. If these signs are not evident after some period of time, then it would be good to examine whether, in fact, there has been a true conversion. This is not to say that all the signs must be present in the life of a Christian at any one time, or that they must all be functioning smoothly. From time to time I still struggle in my Christian life, and there has been a time or two when the warfare has been fierce, even to the point of losing a battle.
I do not want to intimate that the Christian life is just full of duty and work. It is the greatest privilege and pleasure to serve Jesus. There is nothing to compare with it—nothing at all! All else pales in comparison with serving and loving and worshiping the God of all creation.
The signs or characteristics of genuine conversion occur supernaturally. Jesus’ use of the term “born again” in John 3 was no accident. Human growth and maturation has its counterpart, to some measure, in the believer’s growing up into the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). As a pastor I have spent many anxious times waiting for people in my congregation to begin to “grow up.” They would mature but at their own rate, despite my efforts with various discipleship programs. My observation is that ` however stubborn they might be. God begins a good work and he completes it: we are his workmanship.