It seems that one of the cultural phenomenon of our day is the "selfie." In fact, it's amazing the internet doesn't simply collapse under the weight of billions of selfies added to it on a daily basis.
But what about your "spiritual selfie"? Does your "spiritual selfie" look like that of a true Christian? To really answer that you need to know what a true Christian looks like and then place it next to your avatar (just to keep the analogy going). John's first epistle speaks to many issues, but one thread that runs throughout the letter is being specific about what a true Christian believes and does.
This is an important issue. You might think the measure of a Christian is how much they know about the Bible or how active they are in church or how devoted they are to helping the poor. If I ask you to imagine what a strong and true Christian looks like, you likely have some image in your head. But is it the right one?
Let's take different verses from 1 John and assemble them together into a jigsaw puzzle image of what a true Christian is like. Don't worry, this puzzle only has five pieces.
1. A true Christian walks in the light.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:9)
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments (1 John 5:2)
John opens the main content of his letter by saying, "God is light." In some ways almost this whole letter flows out of this truth. The relevance for our discussion is this: A true Christian will reflect the character of the God who saved them. That means we will "walk in the light" (1:7). It means, we don't "make a practice of sinning"—another way of saying, 'give ourselves fully over to sin.' We aren't talking about a Christian's ongoing battle against temptation and sin, a battle that won't end till we die. Here we mean a headlong race into sin without feeling too badly about it. 5:2 tells us that a true Christian will "obey his commandments." Our obedience might be small and growing slowly, but if we are a Christian then there will be some evidence of obedience in our lives. But this must be held with our next point:
2. A true Christian is a sinner.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
"A true Christian is a sinner"? That sounds odd, doesn't it? And yet only the deceived (v. 8) and liars (v. 10) refuse to acknowledge that they have sin and have sinned. No matter how mature we get as Christians in this life, we will never outlive our sin. This doesn't mean we are forced to sin in a given situation, just that temptations and giving in to many of these temptations will be a part of our lives until we see Jesus (1 John 3:2). This is a key point. If we miss this, then the rest of 1 John will always feel impossibly out of reach.
3. A true Christian loves other Christians.
Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. (1 John 2:9-10)
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. (1 John 3:14)
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:7-8)
Just as God's holiness must have some reflection in our holiness, so our God who "is love" must have some reflection in our love for others, especially other Christians. True Christians have a sincere and growing love for other Christians. The language of "brothers" or "brothers and sisters" in the New Testament doesn't refer to the guy or girl I live with who shares my last name. It refers to people who have been adopted by our heavenly Father. We're all brothers and sisters with the same Father. And God says—often!—that my faith will be demonstrated by my love for other Christians. My love in this life won't ever be perfect, but it must be present. And if it's present, it will also be growing. Looking for growth in love can be helpful, especially when we realize how un-loving we can be. Signs of growth in love are good indicators that God is alive in us. Already you can see why it's critical that we understand true Christians are still sinners.
4. A true Christian does not love the world.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
The fourth piece of our puzzle is our attitude toward the world. This is not "the world" as in the mission field that we give our lives for and which the Father loved to the extent that he gave Jesus (John 3:16). When we say "the world" here we mean the lusts and cravings and idols and vain pursuits and fleeting pleasures and glossy nothingness of the fallen world around us. Someone who "loves the world" is someone who is giving himself to the pleasures and pursuits of fallen humanity. We may always be enticed by the world, but we must not give ourselves fully over to the world.
5. A true Christian professes faith in Jesus Christ.
No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:23)
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. (1 John 4:2)
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:15)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. (1 John 5:1)
Now we have a different kind of indicator. Here it's not my behavior that is in view but the content of my faith. I might tell people that "I believe," but what precisely do I believe in? It cannot be a vague faith without any real definition to it, but it must be a specific faith that believes specific things about true things. John spells it out well for us.
A true faith hears the record of the words and deeds of Jesus Christ and says that he is indeed the Son of God who died to save all who believe in him (2:23). That's what it means to "confess the Son."
A true faith also believes that Jesus truly came "in the flesh" (4:2-3). Our world is actually more comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a man than that he was God. This was not true in the early centuries of the church. They were actually more comfortable that Jesus appeared to be a man but remained a spirit-being. But this is false and heretical. True faith acknowledges that Jesus not only appeared to be a man, but that he appeared to be a man because he was truly a man. As a true man he experienced human weakness, temptation, and finally death. Only a true man could actually experience these things.
A true faith also believes that "Jesus is the Christ" (5:1). "Christ" is the Greek word to translate the Hebrew "Messiah," which means "Anointed One." Jesus is the Messiah or Anointed One promised in the Old Testament. God gave Israel promises about a coming King who would reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12-14), a coming priest even greater than the high priests of Israel (Ps. 110:4; cf. Gen. 14:18), and a coming Messiah who would be anointed with the Spirit of God (Isa. 61:1). Kings and priests were anointed with oil, but this Messiah would be anointed with the Spirit! To believe that Jesus is the Christ is to believe that he is the fulfillment of all these promises from the Old Testament.
That you may know
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)
John tells us he's writing to people who already "believe" in order that they "may know" they have the eternal life promised of Christians. We can be a true Christian and not know this—not be confident or assured of this. Or worse, we can be confident and assured and not be a true Christian. That's why we want to have a clear picture in our mind of what an actual Christian is. To sum up John's teaching above, a true Christian is one who believes in the true Lord Jesus Christ and one who obeys God and loves other Christians. There's a lot more we could add to our snapshot of a Christian, but this gives us some helpful definition in case our impression is way off.