Making the decision to follow Jesus Christ is the most important step in a long journey with God. Notice I did not say it was the first step nor did I say the last step but the most important step. The reality is that long before your decision to officially follow Christ, God has been at work in your life in visible and invisible ways. Similarly, significant decisions and life changing experiences do not stop after one has become a Christian-in fact if anything, they accelerate! Following Jesus Christ is the most important decision a person can make but often, after the decision is made a number of questions begin to emerge. Amongst the most significant of these is the question, “How do I know for sure if am truly a Christian? If I am a Christian, what changes should I feel or see?”
The Facts about the Process
II Corinthians 5:17 seems to make it clear, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” At first glance, this sounds all good, like great and exciting news! Just like a new parent’s birth announcement, we are declared by our Heavenly Father to be a new creation with great joy and excitement! We are new, set free, given a fresh start, born all over again! Being “in Christ” is synonymous with being a Christian and that begins with the decision to recognize what Christ has done for you on the cross, paying the penalty for your sin, and by receiving the new life He offers through His resurrection power and leadership. By embracing this message, referred to as “the Gospel,” we are made into “new creatures.” This can be both a wonderful realization and a painful one.
The guilt and shame associated with past mistakes is wiped away by God when we come to Christ but not the memories or perhaps addictive behaviors that gave rise to sinful decisions prior to becoming a Christian. The process of becoming a new creation is complex. On the one hand, God declares us a new creation, announcing our new reality like a parent would announce the birth of a child. On the other hand, new birth is a painful, messy, and long process that sets into motion a long journey of struggle toward adulthood. Coming to Jesus is just like this. We are declared a “new creation” but what this entails includes a journey mixed with both pain, struggle, and difficulty as well as joy, freedom, and anticipation. There are “markers for growth” along the way that help us recognize the transformation process we are engaged in. If we have become Christians, change will impact our whole person. The concept of personhood is extremely important in understanding what God is ultimately after. God wants all of us, not just a part of us. He will not stop until He has our whole “person.” A “person” conceptually is defined as an entity with a distinct capacity for intellectual, emotional, and volitional expression. Persons think, feel, and will or choose. God is after a whole-person transformation and this begins when we become Christians.
There is no single order in how we see God transforming our person. For some, change comes first to the way we think and this then changes how we feel and then subsequently in what we do. For others, making decisions to act can over time change one’s feelings which in turn can change one’s believing. There is no right or wrong order and often change comes on multiple fronts simultaneously. The transformational process however begins when we become Christians and change, if real, demonstrates itself by manifesting in these three areas. This helps us know if the decision we’ve made to follow Jesus was authentic or not. Real Christians begin to experience life change in all areas of their inner and outer world, we cannot help but change. Also, for many who have become Christians, radical, dramatic change occurs quite quickly, bringing with it new and often confusing desires, passions, and expressions. For many others, change is less dramatic, perhaps so incremental that one may wonder if anything is happening at all. This is just like a new born infant who can demonstrate radical, overnight, change in key areas of physical development while also remaining quite dependent and incrementally reaching other developmental goals over a long period of time. For the new Christian, nothing is more encouraging than realizing God is with them and doing His work to bring transformation, particularly when growth seems slow or non-existent.
Signs of Transformation
Evidence of change in our way of thinking, feeling, and willing shows up over time, again faster in some areas and slower in some. Though not meant to be an exhaustive list, Galatians 5:22-23 gives us signs of transformation, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” In the original language of the Bible, the word for “fruit” here is singular and that is important. Read correctly, this teaching says that there is one demonstrative fruit or evidence of the God’s work in our lives and that is love. Love is the over-arching way we can know we are involved in God’s transformation process. Love looks like joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If you want to know whether or not you’ve become a Christian, check your love life.
We demonstrate God’s transformation process over time by living a life of love, a life that impacts not only our relationship with God, but also our relationship with others and with ourselves. There is no greater evidence of one being a Christian than that of love. We can know that we are living the life of love characteristic of a new creation when we are experiencing and expressing joy; when we are at peace in our inner world and at peace with those around us; when we are kind to others, including those we don’t particularly like or don’t like us; when our motives are good; when we do what we say we are going to do even when it is costly; when we are gentle, even to those who deserve our harshness, and; when we are practicing self-discipline in areas of eating, finances, sexuality, thought life, and other areas previously undisciplined. Knowing you are a Christian can be seen in the way in which you are growing in love.
By way of contrast, just before this reference we also read of the evidence, or deeds, of a life that is not in process with God. Galatians 5:19-21 says, “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This describes a person who has yet to become a “new creation.” Though it is true that even after becoming a Christian, there may still linger strong desires and occasional relapses into these described behaviors, the difference is that Christians are walking away from this kind of life and into the life of love through God’s transformation process. Do Christians ever struggle with hatred, jealousy, sexual sin or drunkenness? Yes. The operative word here, however, is struggle. Christians aren’t head-long throwing themselves into a life of sin but rather working with God to walk in a life of love. For new Christians, this can be a frustrating and discouraging process as the temptation to rely on old habits and comforts is still fresh. Remember, Christians are in process, moving away from this picture of spiritual death and toward the picture in Gal. 5:22-23 which describes the life of spiritual health or of new creation.
God’s Gifts to Us in Process
Finally, to empower the new Christian to live the life of love, God has given each of us several powerful gifts. First, God gives us Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes and lives in us to enact God’s promise of transformation. From the inside out, the Holy Spirit changes our feelings, our thought life, and gives us power to change our behavior. The Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to live the life of love and, over time, brings the change we long for. In Galatians 5:16-17, we read that it is only through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that we are able to live the life of love and resist the life of spiritual death, “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.”
Second, God gives us His recorded word, the Bible. The Bible has come to us through a unique and powerful process over thousands of years as God has “superintended” the inspiration of His once-for-all word to humanity. By reading the Bible, we can know the truth of God for sure and avoid many pitfalls that come from beliefs that may feel right but actually keep us from the life of love God has for us. By reading the Bible every day, our attitudes and perspective on the world around us and the world within us begin to be re-aligned. Through regular Bible reading, the life of love becomes clearer and we see more and more evidence of God’s transformation process. A good compliment to Galatians 5 in terms of life-patterns and fruit is Psalm 1. As we see from Psalm 1, meditating on God’s word every day is part of what contrasts a life of spiritual death, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Third, God has given us other Christians in His world-wide Church! Remember, other Christians are also involved in the same messy, painful, wonderful process you are and may often be dealing with remnants of their past that seem contrary to new life in Christ. Developing relationships with other Christians is a large part of God’s plan to bring about change not only in you but also in the world around you. Without Christian relationship, many of the deep transformational work of God will not happen nor will the world around us be changed in meaningful, sustainable ways without these relationships. As a Christian, you are related through God to every other Christian in the world and relationships with many different types of Christians will be a healthy part of spiritual development. Having said this, however, it is paramount that each Christian joins and regularly contributes to a local group of Christians in a church. Church membership and involvement is essential not only for Christian growth but also for Christians in reaching their local communities with the life-change God wants to bring to all!
- Beloved Disciple: The Life and Ministry of John, Beth Moore, Lifeway Christian Resources, Nashville, 2002.
- I Believe: Exploring the Apostle’s Creed, Alister McGrath, IVP, Downers Grove, 1991.
- Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, Revised and Expanded, Henry Blackaby, Lifeway Christian Resources, Nashville, 2007.
- “How Do I Know I’m Saved?” By Adrian Rogers http://www.christianity.com/Christian%20Foundations/Becoming%20a%20Christian/11531785/
- “Hour of Decision” by Erik Thoennes