Raising the bar on what it means to be a Christian

I’m surprised the internet didn’t break after a well known pastor tweeted Monday his suspicion that President Obama didn’t know God. You gotta love social media. Or not.

At least it provoked me to go back and read how the Bible defines Christian faith and subsequently the articles I could find on President Obama’s claims of Christianity.

“I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 

Obama doesn’t proclaim his belief with the precision of a Chick tract, but he reaches the bar of Romans 10:9 at least.

Romans 10: 9 … if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

After reading Obama’s claims of Christianity, I thought back to my experience growing up in Christian fundamentalism. Keywords in that experience: apostasy, heresy, and separation. We separated from those who denied Christ (or didn’t speak of Christ with the precision we did). We also separated from those who didn’t separate from those who didn’t speak of Christ with precision. And we questioned the salvation of a lot of people who claimed similar belief in Christ because they didn’t show “fruit” as fundamentalists defined it.

In that world, John Piper was questionable because of his associations with perceived apostates. John MacArthur was out because of a book he wrote about the blood of Jesus. Michael W. Smith and Steve Green were considered Christians (most likely), but we shouldn’t listen to them or fellowship with them because of the beat of their music. The list could go on, but you get the picture.

As I navigated that upbringing while studying the Bible on my own, I noted some straightforward passages, particularly Romans 10:9-10 which became a mantra in my head to help me navigate the squirrelly way the gospel was presented by those fundamentalists claiming a superior understanding of it. Romans 10:9 is straightforward, but it’s not the only verse that is. See also John 3:18, 20:31, I John 5:1, among others.

But Jesus gives us another interesting principle in Matthew 7:20-21 that seems to open a wide door to questioning others’ salvation regardless of what they claim to believe about Christ.

“Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

This presents a conundrum. The Bible says if you believe in Jesus you are saved, but not everyone who calls Him Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven. Thankfully, if you read the whole of Matthew 7 and see the discussion in context, things become a bit clearer.

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

The context involves false prophets (people who claim an authority to speak God’s truth) that come to you in sheep’s clothing but are actually ravenous wolves. These are ones who may claim to cast out demons and give prophecies in Jesus’ name according to this passage. While they may call Jesus Lord, there is no evidence that they call Him Christ. That is likely an important distinction. Nevertheless, they are recognized by their fruits. Jesus doesn’t describe these fruits in detail here, but the Bible is the best commentary on itself, and Paul does discuss the fruit of the Spirit in clear terms.

Gal. 5:22 … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,

If you put these passages together and let each reflect on the other, we see that the absence of love, joy, peace, and so forth in prophets who claim to cast out demons and give prophecies in Jesus’ name is a red flag. I’m not sure the end result is that we can question their salvation per se, but Jesus’ instructions definitely raise a red flag.

On the flip side, I do not see how this warning reflects on President Obama, and I personally am uncomfortable raising the bar of faith beyond what Scripture gives. When someone says they believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection, I’m concerned that we deny the simplicity of the gospel if we cast doubt upon it.

If you go back to the heart of Matthew 7, we see Jesus fundamentally teaching on the need of self-examination over other-examination (Judge not that you not be judged …). In the case of the social media statement that started this discussion, raising questions of judgement on another, as Jesus accurately predicted, then raised questions of judgement upon the one making the original statement. There is wisdom for us all to take away from this.

27 Responses to Raising the bar on what it means to be a Christian

  1. Anonymous January 24, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing this. I enjoy reading your perspectives on things. I agree with you that we need to first examine ourselves and maybe even just stick to that,unless like you said it is someone speaking/teaching as authority of scripture and Christian living and they are truly spending false doctrines and we want to warn as you have mentioned about some in your blogs. I have been truly blessed by the things you share and your honest humility of your weakness and not claiming to be an authority but one on a journey with us as we each seek understanding from God and learn from each other even when we disagree.
    God's grace and peace be multiplied to you.

  2. Jess January 24, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

    I appreciate your perspective as well as the fact that you did not specifically mention the name of the famous pastor to whom you were referring. I am grieved by the flock of “christian” bloggers who seem to spend more time increasing their own audiences by picking apart/poking fun at (and name-dropping at the same time) more famous believers with whom they disagree than they do about promoting actual scriptural truths. You bring truth for the sake of truth and not for the sake of deriding a controversial figure in a public and divisive way, and in the process your message is not muddied. That's refreshing, and hopefully it will be influential to many. This was the right way to handle this. Thanks.

  3. Rachael Starke January 24, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    Oh my goodness – you went there. 🙂 Short response, or I'll be late to get my kids from school:

    The early church fathers used a 3-pronged definition to at least define the nature of saving faith – notitia (knowledge), assensus (assent/agreement) and fidcuia (demonstrable trust). James 2 would be the main passage I'd go to that not only supports this 3-pronged definition, but also fleshes out how we can and should use it to apply, yes, to ourselves, but also to others, for the sake of their souls.

    I hear you totally on the separatist upbringing. Heck, I was called out as an American infidel by my own family at one point, so I know how that can hurt.

    But I would lovingly and respectfully suggest that President Obama's words, and especially actions place him firmly in the “knowledge and assent without trust” category. His profession actually lowers the bar to a potentially damning level.

    Do I agree with Lore Ferguson that these questions are not best asked or answered on the Internet? For sure. But the problem with many churches, and families, is that they do not get asked at all.

    Feel free to push back – we were bound to disagree about something at some point. 🙂

  4. Lore Ferguson January 24, 2013 at 10:30 pm #


    Thank you. I knew I could count on you =)

  5. Mary Bernard January 24, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    Really excellent and thoughtful post. Thank you!

  6. Anonymous January 24, 2013 at 11:12 pm #

    “The context involves false prophets (people who claim an authority to speak God's truth) that come to you in sheep's clothing but are actually ravenous wolves. These are ones who may claim to cast out demons and give prophecies…”

    You mean like those who stand up before their congregations and say, “Sometimes, I see things” and give details about his pornographic visions regarding couples who come to them for marriage counseling?

  7. Wendy January 24, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    I understand what you are saying. James 2 is about faith with/without works. The first question is “What works?” I think works in James 2 is probably closely related to fruit from Galatians 5.

    But the bigger issue is whether WE can issue judgements for OTHERS. James 2 seems to give us tools for examining ourselves, and if you've read my first book, you know I fully support self examination for faith that doesn't work. But can we then make that judgement of OTHERS? I think this is where the warning of Matthew 7 increases in relevance.

  8. Wendy January 24, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    Yeah, like them, though I still think Matthew 7 doesn't give us permission to question their salvation. It does give us tools for judging ourselves.

  9. Wendy January 25, 2013 at 12:46 am #

    P. S. I'm not surprised that our first disagreement somehow revolved around politics. 😉

  10. Anonymous January 25, 2013 at 4:00 am #

    You are right – it does not give us permission to question their salvation, but it certainly implies that they can be regarded as false prophets and wolves.

  11. Anonymous January 25, 2013 at 4:01 am #

    Does it not?

  12. Anonymous January 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    well…though…reasoning a bit…his claim is a brother and God’s kingdom is righteousness (Rom 14:17). It is loving to rebuke a brother who is, at least, condoning,perhaps advancing,the cause of murder. What an affront to our God, for in His image, He formed our inward parts, weaving us in our mother’s womb.(Gen 9:6; Ps 139:13). It seems reasonable to say that anyone confused about this does not know God and His word as He’d like. It would be better for one if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than cause one to stumble. If a brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.(Luke 17:2-3). Maybe there could be a better forum – if only there was truly such body unity that brothers could sit down with him face-to-face; though those (even all brother leaders?) who continue in sin, ought be rebuked in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.(1 Tim 5:20).

    Have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh. (Jude 1:22-23). Who will the Lord ask if brother Obama was personally warned.

  13. Anonymous January 25, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    Fantastic food for thought after hearing these words about Obama on Sunday in church. Your post caused me to sit with my husband and research together your rebuttal and we both agreed with you

  14. Wendy January 25, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

    Many believers need rebuke. But questioning someone's salvation after they profess a Romans 10:9 kind of belief goes in a different realm altogether. Rather than questioning their salvation, it goes to questioning the efficacy of the Scripture's description of belief.

  15. Wendy January 25, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    Wow. That has to be one of the best comments I've ever received. Not that you ended up agreeing with me, but that you were prompted to research it together and come to your own conclusions through the Word and the Spirit.

  16. Jenn January 25, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    To all let us keep these words from God in mind.
    Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” 2 Tim. 2:19
    Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? 2 Cor 13:5
    For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. 1Pet.2:13-17
    I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. 1 Tim 2:1-4

  17. Sara January 25, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    A persons political views on abortion or homosexual marriage should not be confused with ones knowing or not knowing Jesus.

    I believe it is possible to be a Christian who believes that abortion is morally wrong but at the same time to oppose making it illegal. There are countries elsewhere in the world where abortion is illegal – but the abortion rate is higher than in the United States. Based on this, you could make an ethical argument as a faithful Christian that making abortion illegal would not acutally save lives – or that being pro-choice is not akin to murder.

    Or look at the issue of homosexuality. You can be a Christian and believe that homosexual sex is a sin, but at the same time believe that if the law does not discriminate against other sinners it's not right to discriminate against homosexuals – even when it comes to marriage. The law doesn't prevent men and women who have been living in sexual sin before marriage from getting married. It doesn't prevent people who struggle with other sin – greed, lust, idolatry, you name it – from getting married. I do believe marriage in a Church is a sacrament and that churches should have the freedom to decide whom they do and don't marry.

    These two issues are not the litmus test for faith in Christ.

  18. the three wise menn January 25, 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    amen, and amen.

  19. Jenn January 25, 2013 at 8:03 pm #

    Thank you. I really like how you said this. I agree. We do need to have laws for protection and taking care of each other, living peacefully and helping those in need. How we do that is the question. We each have to decide on our convictions and how we personally are going to live that out, how we are going to be salt for change and at what cost to us and others and how we reflect Christ in the process. Paul and the disciples did not go about trying to change laws and control how people lived but let God do that work in peoples heart to bring change.

  20. Anonymous January 25, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    Wendy and readers,

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts about the candid interview of President Obama regarding his faith, beliefs about heaven, sin, ways to God, and who Jesus is: http://cathleenfalsani.com/obama-on-faith-the-exclusive-interview/

    Much of what he believes does not align with the Word of God in the version you often cite, Wendy. ??

  21. Wendy January 25, 2013 at 9:59 pm #

    It's curious. Some of what he said points to pluralism. Some points to authentic faith in Jesus. This is consistent with a survey of his broader statements over the years.

    And I think that is about as much judgement as we can make if we want to stay consistent with Matthew 7.

  22. Jenn January 25, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    The following is part of what Obama said in the interview. We have NO RIGHT to judge him and decide whether he is Christian or not. That is between him and God for all the rest of the specifics of his beliefs, how he lives them out according to his convictions and how they may differ with our own personal beliefs. If he says he is a Christian then leave it at that, if you need to confront him on something about his life and sin then you will have to find a way to be a part of his life to do so. Otherwise he is our President and we are to submit to him and show him respect not tear him down and PRAY for him. We are to stop pointing fingers and look more at our own lives and how we are living out our faith. Are we doing all the things Jesus tells us we should be doing to shine the light of his loving, grace and mercy and showing and helping others to know him God and Savior? I really like Sara's way at looking at political issues. But only God judges our hearts and knows them fully and we will each give an account when we see him face to face.

    “…I joined that church and committed myself to Christ in that church.
    Did you actually go up for an altar call?
    Yes. Absolutely.
    It was a daytime service, during a daytime service. And it was a powerful moment. Because, ti was powerful for me because it not only confirmed my faith, it not only gave shape to my faith, but I think, also, allowed me to connect the work I had been pursuing with my faith.
    How long ago?
    16, 17 years ago
    1987 or 88
    So you got yourself born again?
    Yeah, although I don’t, I retain from my childhood and my experiences growing up a suspicion of dogma. And I’m not somebody who is always comfortable with language that implies I’ve got a monopoly on the truth, or that my faith is automatically transferable to others.

  23. Anonymous January 25, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

    it just seems that if 80+% of Americans claim to be Christians, in the spirit of this blog to assume that true, the kingdom of the US should be looking more and more like the kingdom of our Lord even now (Rev 11:15),shouldn’t it.

  24. Wendy January 25, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

    According to wikipedia, the latest surveys have it dropping to 70% or so.

    I think you may have a view of the kingdom of God that is not consistent with mine. I don't think God's plan is for the U. S. government to become a theocracy. We are best off when the govt. does not intrude in religion or morality unless it becomes a safety issue. This is core to things Jesus tries to teach His disciples at His arrest and crucifixion. His kingdom is different.

  25. Wendy January 26, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    In general, I find that Christians who do not know Christians with “liberal” views on abortion, gay marriage, welfare, immigrant rights, or other perceived democratic positions can't comprehend how someone could hold that position. People who live in more liberal cities (like Seattle) are more likely to go to church with conservative Christians (who trust the perspicuity of Scripture) who lean liberal politically. I personally go to church with other authentic believers who have different views from me on abortion. They believe their Bible. They trust in the true Jesus Christ.

    Tim Keller and Mark Dever have both written on this topic. Both live in cities and work with congregations consisting of sincere republicans and democrats.

    Here's a link to something Dever preached on the subject. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2010/09/22/pay-your-taxes-but-trust-in-christ/

    I have found Keller's Generous Justice helpful too.

  26. Blythe Owen Hunt January 27, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    Wow. I appreciate your boldness and humility in tackling this controversial topic! Your approach is God-focused and full of Grace, as well as courageous and Scripture-centered.
    I grew up with a similar upbringing (us vs. them) and live in a very polarized city with many Christians who believe it's their job to judge others' salvation/maturity in Christ. This post was a welcome refreshment for me and my husband, and I am encouraged and challenged by your desire to focus on God's Word and your own heart, rather than sitting back and trying to determine the heart conditions of others.
    Thank you again for your humble but passionate pursuit of godliness. 🙂

  27. geekgirlsc January 28, 2013 at 3:34 am #

    So true. We are all products not only of our upbringing but also of the environment in which we have lived as adults. One of my dearest friends, mentors, and “fathers in the faith” is my former boss, Charles. He is a Christian businessman and an ordained Baptist pastor. We would occasionally have long conversations about our political views regarding issues of the day, and we were both proud that, though we often disagreed, the conversation always ended with a smile and a friendly parting.

    During the 2008 election season, we were discussing the Democratic vs. Republican stance on government-funded social programs. At one point in the conversation, Charles said, “I guess I'm really effected by the fact that most Christians I know are Democrats.” This statement has stuck with me every since. I laughed and responded, “Wow, and most of the Christians in my life are Republicans”. We both smiled and agreed how refreshing it was that we were Christian brothers and sisters regardless of political affiliation.

    Let's remember that political party affiliation is merely one factor in the complex web of intricacies that makes up each human. To mandate that any particular person's faith should be questioned because of political leanings – even voting record – is downright damnable!

    P.S. I consider myself an Independent. That's the best party, right? 😉