We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.
First John 2:3-6
As with all things that have intrinsic value, Christianity has its share of fakes and counterfeits. What is more interesting than the fact is the motive. I know why someone would go to the trouble of making a real-looking hundred-dollar note, but why would anyone want to pose as a Christian? Well, there are a few well-known suspects. Some people as old as I am might remember the Oscar-winning performance of Burt Lancaster in a movie called “Elmer Gantry.“ It was the story of a slick car salesman falling for a lady revival preacher and discovering that there is money to be made as well as a girl’s heart to be won in small town revival meetings. It was Hollywood’s sad comment on the many revival preachers who combed small towns, especially in the southern states of the US.
It is evident from the words written by the apostle John (above) that fakes were not a late inclusion in Christian history. In the Roman world of the later first century, there must have been people who showed up among Christians whose commitment to Jesus Christ was false. What is notable is the only test he puts forward to tell the fake believers from the real ones was the degree to which they were Jesus-looking. If you have a closer look at what he says, it is obvious that a Jesus-looking process doesn’t happen just because someone wakes up and breathes. Becoming more like Jesus depends on two things: loving Him and therefore obeying his commands. Many will have had some exposure to books that talk about different “love languages” (The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman). He lists the following: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch. Jesus also has a love language. It is obedience. Three times within the one discourse he says, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14-16). It’s not just obedience, it is love and therefore obedience. I think the reason for this is because there are many things that we need that don’t come naturally, but are necessary for our hearts to be transformed. Obedience gets us from the place of no experience to some experience. When we obey it is not just a dutiful act, it is an action that gives expression to faith. Based on that faith we are supernaturally changed by God.
Getting back to fakes and phonies, if John is telling the truth, then being a Christian is not just about a momentary commitment any more than marriage is just about what you say in a ceremony. When we see people who may well belong to churches, speak Christian language and even be involved as leaders but who are not lovingly obedient to Jesus, we can only assume that they are not Christians at all. We have no authority to be judges (i.e. draw final conclusions), but we are entitled to be fruit inspectors. I think we need to be very clear that not everyone who claims to be a Christian IS a Christian. Genuine believers will be those who, when observed by others, demonstrate their faith in Christ by the fact that they are lovingly committed to obeying what Jesus has commanded (e.g. in the Sermon on the Mount) and who are therefore actively and deliberately becoming more and more like Jesus. We must expect that there are people who want to tell us that they are Christians, but their lifestyle will simply declare that they are not. We are not talking about a state of perfection; we are talking about a journey and a direction. Most of the people who want to claim Christianity but don’t have the lifestyle aggressively avoid any form of accountability. Those whose commitment to love Jesus is genuine are glad to know about things that need to be transformed and will foster their own ways of being accountable.
Churches in western culture places like Canberra, where I live, not only foster disobedience but encourage it by the pathetic way they produce never ending programs that are devoid of moral standards and geared to satisfy self-gratuitous consumers. When we encounter false disciples, it is not our job to judge them, but to lovingly expose and challenge them – as Jesus did with the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law during his three years of ministry. This confrontation was entirely motivated by redemption, as ours should also be.