The marks of a true Christian

I’ve been reading about spirituality, the spiritual gifts, and all things Holy Spirit a lot lately, and here’s something I realized last night. Take it for what it’s worth, and with a grain of salt.

1 Corinthians 12-14 is about the pneumatikos according to Paul (12:1), i.e., “the spirituals”, people who are spiritual. I’ve been reading D.A. Carson’s exposition of this section in his book Showing the Spirit, and he helpfully points out that the chapters is bracketed by an inclusio (a literary device), with the same concept being mentioned at the beginning and end. 12:3 brings it up first: Paul essentially says that the most foundational mark of those who have the Spirit are those who confess Jesus is Lord. At the end of the section, 14:37-38, Paul says that a person with the Spirit will recognize that the apostles speak with the Lord’s authority, so that obedience to the apostles is another mark of obedience to the Lord, which is a mark of possessing the Holy Spirit.

So the first mark of the Spirit is someone who confesses and practices obedience to Jesus, i.e., God. This, to me, seems awfully close to what Jesus called “the greatest commandment”.

Now, in the middle of this section on the “spirituals” is Paul’s famous chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do, and probably memorize it. But the most obvious point in that chapter is that love for other people, love defined by how Christ and God love, is the “better way”, the most important characteristic of those who have the Holy Spirit.

This of course relates to the “second greatest commandment” that Jesus mentioned.

And so here is my brief thesis: the true marks of a Christian, of those who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, are those who have a fervent and practicing love for the Lord, and those who show Christlike, self-sacrificial love for other people, in that order.

The more I think about my faith, the more important I think the expression of love is to all of it. I’m growing more suspicious with thinking that ultimately what God cares about on judgment day is passing a doctrinal test of some kind. I think doctrine is eternally significant, but I think that because I think Balthasar was right when he said that doctrine should be seen as expressions of God’s eternal love. God doesn’t care about religious (or ethical) debates for debates’ sake. God will ask us if we affirmed “Jesus is Lord” because if we really didn’t, it means we hated him, hated him not just intellectually but in our hearts. God will ask us if we acted with sexual purity not because he wanted to set up an arbitrary rule that contradicted our fulfillment to see if we would obey it anyway, but because not being sexually pure is a lack of love for God, for the other people involved (if any), and for oneself. If we can’t always see why these two commands are expressions of love, this does not mean they aren’t, as often our perceptions of what love is are skewed by pain and sin. However, the harder it gets to see a doctrine or practice as promoting love, the more we might want to question whether we have rightly understood what God requires of us.

The most dangerous threat Jesus uttered against the Pharisees–that they should beware of committing the unpardonable sin–was uttered because they were blinding themselves to the pure love that Jesus and the Spirit were expressing through acts of power. They were calling love evil. For all their intellectual knowledge of the Scriptures, they refused to acknowledge Love when it was staring them in the face. They even used the Scriptures to argue that love was evil; but Jesus is not impressed.

I think Dostoevsky got Jesus’ point speaking through Zosima in the Brothers Karamazov:

God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think.

Those “other mysterious worlds” is the infinite expanse of God’s love, and insofar as we allow our recognition of God’s love to be destroyed in us, all hope is lost; we will become ignorant, brutish, or worse, demonic.

On the other hand, insofar as we become more deeply aware of the love that “we live and move and have our being” in, we will become more visibly different from the rest of the world. Remember: what did Jesus say would inform the world that we are his disciples?

“By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

And what did he pray for regarding the future church?

“That they may all be one, even as You Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe You sent Me. The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:21-23).

It is the love we have for God and for each other that sets us apart and brings true glory to God in Christ, and it is the lack of love for God and each other that makes us just like everyone else and provokes blasphemy against God on the part of the world (cf. Romans 2:23-24).

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:1-12)