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: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.
4 thoughts on “What Does a True Follower of Jesus Look Like?”
One thought: your opening questions, “How can you identify a real Christian? What are the marks of a genuine Christian?”, differ slightly from the question “who is a real Christian?” I know you “get” this difference, and even discuss it to some extent in this article. One article that’s been deeply influential for me on the topic is in Paul Hiebert’s Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. (The book is a collection of various of Hiebert’s writings, and this was one of several transformative articles in the collection.) I can’t remember the specific title of the article at the moment, but it should be apparent as you review the collection. Essentially, he looks at a “test case” that some systems would find difficult to resolve, and brings to bear an analogy that seems to map well to the data of the Scriptural narrative. This article gives a preview of the idea.
Thanks, J. I actually own that Hiebert book, thanks to my wife’s former career as a Bible school student. 🙂 But I have not read it. That said, I think I’ve read some excerpts somewhere, or at any rate I definitely am familiar with the concepts of centered versus bounded sets.
My preliminary assessment is that the church (the group of people belonging to Christ) is properly understood as both a bounded and a centered set. The centered aspect is indisputable; Christ is the center. I see the necessity for a boundedness in certain absolute statements in Scripture about who does not belong to Christ’s kingdom.
For example, consider these two lists by Paul:
“Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10); “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).
If we combine such “boundary marker lists” with the New Testament teachings about removing unrepentant sinners from the midst (1 Corinthians 5, etc.), then it seems to me that we have a picture of the church as a bounded set. The boundaries, of course, are integrally tied to the nature of the center of the set; certain ways of thinking and acting have been prohibited by the Center and are sharply inconsistent with his nature.
It is often not immediately clear when a person is on the wrong side of even the boundaries presented in such lists. But that is where the biblical descriptions of the processes of church discipling and disciplining come in; time usually tells, and when it does, we are responsible to help clarify on which side of a boundary a person is.
Preliminary assessment aside, thanks for the reminder of a book that awaits my reading! And thanks much for engaging here.
Hi, Dwight, Your condensing of what is found in the Gospels is interesting and concise. One point, I pondered, wondered, is in following Jesus, where do the Apostolic teaching fit in? For the most part Apostolic teaching are very consistent and one with Jesus. We do have dynamics taught, such as Romans-Galatians- etc that expand on the “simplicity” of the Gospels. Men and women’s roles in the church, home and society, not as directly taught in the Gospels as in the Epistles. The Apostles claimed to be giving the church the commandments of Christ. In following Jesus can we affirm the place of Old Covenant Principles coming from and through the Word made flesh, interpreted by Him, which I think could be included in the moral -purity, integrity etc. Not one jot or tittle shall fail until all is fulfilled. Maybe some of this falls into the belief rather then following. I am always challenged by the thought you bring in this way. Keeping it concise helps to keep our focus sharp to what is important.
Hi James. Thanks for taking time to read and comment!
I fully agree with what you wrote. I attempted to address the need to follow the apostles as Jesus’ designated leaders of the church by this line under “Christian Unity”: “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.” For the same reason I also included these Scriptures: 1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:14-17. The final reference also addresses the place of OT Scriptures in the life of a Jesus-follower.
Of course, for more of all of this, anyone may read my Red Letter Reductionism essay. 🙂
Blessings on your week!