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What Does a True Follower of Jesus Look Like?

How can you identify a real Christian? What are the marks of a genuine Christian?

Mark Dever is famous for his list of “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” Others, including the Protestant reformers, produced lists of marks of the “true church.” (A church can be unhealthy but still true, so the latter lists are shorter.)

But I am asking primarily about the individual, not the group: How can you identify who truly belongs to Jesus?

There are many good, biblical ways to ask and answer this question. What does Christian mean, anyway? The term was first used in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch, and it appears that unbelievers were the ones who coined it. According to commentator Ben Witherington III, the term Christians (Χριστιανοι) in its original historical context meant “those belonging to, identified with, or adherents or followers of Christ.” (Pardon his poor grammar!) So in this post I’ll frame it this way: What does a true follower of Jesus look like?

I was motivated to ask this question because our little church gathering here in West Lake, Atlanta goes by the name of Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta (FJCA). Since we chose to bear that name, I decided I should examine the New Testament more closely to see whom we are supposed to be!

I shared my findings with our church and we discussed them together. Now I’ll share them with you.

First, some clarifications.

What follows is not a summary of the gospel. If it was, I’d need to be clearer on the work of Jesus.

Nor is it a description of the church. If it was, I’d need to discuss things like leadership and decision-making.

Some might fault this list because it focuses strongly on behavior. But this is a natural result of simply reading how the Bible, Jesus in particular, describes followers of Jesus. They are certainly people who believe certain things—and my list begins with belief, even if it doesn’t use the traditional language of faith. But they are also people who act, or at least ought to act, in certain ways. Again, this focus on behavior is because I am aiming to describe not the gospel itself, but a primary fruit of the gospel—people who are changed to follow Jesus.

This list is not intended to be comprehensive. It began with a simple concordance search for “follow.” Immediately several central themes (suffering for Jesus, selfless love, etc.) became clear. Though I expanded my search, there are too many related concepts to have found all the relevant biblical data. I did try to throw a wide net—sometimes perhaps too wide—but I realize now that even some basic concepts like repentance and faith could be strengthened. I expect I’ll update this list from time to time.

Lastly, perhaps this list would be better titled “marks of healthy followers of Jesus,” since no one follower exhibits all these qualities perfectly.

Read my summary paragraphs after each heading. Compare my summary statements with the Scriptures that follow. Perhaps you’ll find Jesus’ call to follow as challenging as I did!


Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Suffering witness: Jesus’s followers bear confident witness to his true identity as fully God and fully man—the Son of God, the promised Messiah-Christ-King, the Lamb of God who saves us from our sin, and the risen, ruling Son of Man. These followers are so devoted to Jesus that they willingly suffer for his sake, leaving all—possessions, family, and honor—for the sake of Jesus and the eternal rewards of his kingdom.

They bear witness of Jesus and his kingdom to each other, to the watching world, and to all of creation. They bear witness by word and action, by their gathered worship and their daily lives, and ultimately by their deaths.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his greatest commandment—to love God with all our being.

Matt. 4:19; 16:15-17; 28:18-20; John 1:35-49; 6:66-69; 10:4-5, 27; 15:26-27;  1 Cor. 11:23-26; Col. 3:16-17; Rev 14:1-5; Matt 4:18-22; 8:19-22; 9:9; 10:37-39; 16:24-26; 19:21-23; Mark 8:34-37; 10:28-30; Luke 5:11, 28; 9:23-24, 57-62; John 12:23-26.

Loving service: Jesus’ followers imitate his way of loving others. They gladly suffer injustices without retaliating. They offer generous forgiveness to all who offend them, without holding grudges. They pray for their enemies and look for ways to creatively bless them, refusing to take up the sword. They are faithful in their marriages and all other relationship commitments.

Their whole lives are characterized by selfless service, for they imitate the One who came not to be served but to serve—who gave up his divine rights, washed his disciples’ feet, and laid down his life for the world.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his second great commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Mark 15:41; John 12:26; Matt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 6:27-36; 22:25-27;  1 Pet. 2:20-24; 3:9-18; 5:1-3; Eph. 4:32; 5:1-2, 25; Col 3:13; John 13:14-16; Phil 2:4-7; Rom 15:1-3, 7.

Christian unity: Jesus’ followers know there is one Flock and one Shepherd. They affirm that all who belong to Christ, the Head, also belong to the Church, his Body. They rejoice that people of every culture, color, and class find oneness in Christ alone. They know Jesus has promised to build his own Church which he purchased with his own blood.

They don’t divide over human leaders, but they do honor the teaching and imitate the example of Jesus’ apostles, whom he appointed as a foundation for his true Church. They welcome all whom Christ has welcomed while disciplining those who falsely claim to belong to him.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor his final recorded prayer for them—that we may all be one in him.

Matt. 12:30; 16:18-19; 18:15-20; Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50; John 10:16; 17:20-23; Acts 2:42-47; 20:28;  1 Cor. 1:10-13; 3:3-9; 11:1; 12:12-13; Eph. 4:4-6; Rom. 15:5-7;  2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-17; Rev. 7:9-10, 17.

Spirit-powered obedience: Jesus’ followers honor his words by doing them. They do this by the Holy Spirit, their Helper sent by Jesus. They know they—like Jesus during his earthly life—will bear good fruit only by the power of the Spirit within them.

They expect the Spirit will bear witness to Jesus by miraculous signs and special graces given as he wishes. They also expect the Spirit will empower them to live clearly counter-cultural lives of moral purity, relational integrity, and neighbor- and enemy-love—lives of humility, contentment, and trust in their heavenly Father.

In this way Jesus’ followers honor the great commission he gave them—to make disciples who are taught to do all that he commanded.

Matt. 28:18-20; Luke 6:46-49; John 14:15, 21-24;  1 John 2:4-6; Matt. 5-7; 22:37-40; Acts 10:38; Luke 3:21-22; 4:1-2, 14-15, 18; Luke 3:16; 11:13; 12:11-12; 24:49; John 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4, 32-33, 38-39; Gal. 5:16-25.


Here is a PDF version of the same list:

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Marks of True Followers of Jesus

Where are North American Christians most falling short of these marks? How would you summarize the biblical picture of a true Christian? Share your insights in the comments below.


Endnote: As I did my research, I ended up with about seven main points. I wanted to be more concise, in case we end up using some version of this list as a church values statement someday. So I combined points until I had only four somewhat memorable headings. Many other combinations could have been equally possible, however. For example, combining “suffering” with “love” rather than with “witness” would also have expressed something that is clearly biblical: “Suffering love.” “Spirit-powered unity” also sounds good! The richness of Scripture cannot be summarized in any four, seven, or nine marks.


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Should the Church Bear Witness to the State?

There is a certain strand of Anabaptist two-kingdom theology that says church and state should be so entirely separate that the church has nothing to say to the state. The church, according to this view, has no call to “bear witness” to the state. While I don’t think a church that nags the state is helpful, neither do I think Christ’s call is for his followers to have nothing at all to say to those in government.

One confusing factor, it seems to me, is that when we hear “the government,” we tend to forget that this mysterious “other” is made up of persons. And the gospel of Christ has something to say to every person under heaven, if they will only listen–and if we will only speak.

This way of seeing “the government” as a faceless institution is oddly akin, it seems to me, to Luther’s version of two-kingdom theology, whereby a Christian who serves in government suddenly is no longer subject to Christ’s commands to his individual followers, but may do things that Christian “persons” must never do. Neither Luther nor “the quiet in the land” have quite the right version of two-kingdom theology, I suggest.

At any rate, New Testament believers have clear precedent for speaking truth to power, even if we may rightly be uncomfortable with some connotations of that phrase. When Jesus called Paul as his messenger, he said, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings…” (Acts 9:15). How did Paul respond? “I was not disobedient… I stand here testifying both to small and great…” (Acts 27:22). There may be only a few who are “great” in the world’s eyes, and perhaps only a few Christians are called as Paul was to speak to them.  But speak the church must, for the gospel speaks to all.

So, the church must speak to the state–or, to say the same thing another way, to state officials. But what must we say? Our witness must be, as Paul’s was, a declaration of the gospel of Christ. And make no mistake: the gospel is a message which affects all of life. It calls state officials to personal faith, and it also calls them to account for the public policies they have promoted.

Again, we have Paul for an example. Perhaps his witness before the Roman governor Felix is most revealing. We read that Felix “sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24). More specifically, we are told that what convicted Felix was when Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v. 25).

How might these topics have impacted governor Felix’s life, both public and private? In reverse order: “The coming judgment” would have been a reminder to a governor that he, one used to dishing out judgment, would someday face his own judgment–an after-death judgment that “was probably not a significant part of his belief system,”1. “Self-control” may have reminded Felix of the immorality of his personal life, including how “he had lusted after [his wife Drusilla] while she was still the teenage bride of Azizus the king of Emesa.”2 Talk of “righteousness,” which could equally rightly be translated “justice,” would have stung Felix, who was seeking a bribe from Paul (Acts 24:26) and about to unjustly leave him in prison as a favor to the Jews (v. 27).

Notice how Paul’s witness did not shy away from how the gospel impacted Felix’s public life as a state official. Indeed, “‘justice’ and ‘self-control’ may be mentioned to indicate qualities particularly required of Felix and other rulers when they are measured in judgment.”3

More from commentator David G. Peterson:

Genuine faith in Christ involves a change of allegiance and therefore a change in behavior and priorities. Paul presented this challenge in terms that were particularly applicable to Felix and Drusilla… The gospel presentation to Felix and Drusilla involved… a rather vigorous appeal to their consciences to recognize their guilt before God, and their consequent need to respond with faith in Christ Jesus. With a few brief phrases, Luke has illustrated how the gospel was presented and applied to the specific situation of a Gentile ruler…4

Do I hear echoes of a pastor today in, say, the Oval Office? Reminding a president that he, too, will face judgment, that his adultery is a stain before God, and that he will be held accountable for the injustices he has promoted through his public office?

No, let us not nag the government officials whom God has “placed in order” (Rom. 13) over us. (That sentence deserves its own blog post, I am sure.) But neither let us imagine that the church has nothing to say to the state. For the church has the gospel and–if we will only live the gospel first to make it credible–it must witness of this gospel to every person under heaven.

So if God gives you the ear of some state official, high or low, pluck up your courage like Paul, and speak!

This post is only a glance at a big topic. Other biblical examples besides Paul before Felix deserve consideration, and many practical questions face us from our own experience. Do you have thoughts that can help the church bear a more gospel-shaped witness to those in power? Share them below.

  1. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 715
  2. Ibid.
  3. David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar Commentary), 641.
  4. Ibid.

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