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May 12, 2014

The Distinguishing Marks of a Christian


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Think with me for a moment about bird spotting (or bird watching).

Imagine yourself picking up a pair of binoculars, and then you set out looking to spot a few feathered friends. You look towards the trees and you see an American Goldfinch. How do you know it’s an American Goldfinch? You know by its distinctive yellow color. Then you walk along a river and you see a Spotted Sandpiper. How do you know it’s a Spotted Sandpiper? By its distinctive spots.

The point here is a very simple one: Birds are known by their distinguishing marks. That is how you can tell one breed from another.

The Question

What are the distinguishing marks of a Christian? How would you know a Christian if you actually spotted one? Or to put it more personally, “How can I know that I am a real Christian? Am I displaying marks of a person who is blessed?”

Someone might say, “I would know a true Christian by what they believe.” That’s a good answer. God has revealed certain truths in the Scripture, and a person who does not believe them cannot be a Christian.

Jesus says, “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He said that “the work of God is to believe in the Father who sent His Son into the world” (John 6:29). There are certain beliefs without which a person cannot be a Christian.

All of us have heard stories about people who professed Christian faith while quietly indulging their sins of choice. Such a person is not a Christian but a hypocrite. What a person believes is a necessary mark, but it is not sufficient to identify a genuine Christian.

So how do you know if a person is a real Christian?

Someone will say “I know if a person is a Christian by what they do. It’s not words but deeds that count. The real Christian puts their faith into practice.” This is a good answer, because you cannot be a Christian apart from that. Jesus said, “The one who hears my words and puts them into practice is like the man who builds his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24).

Yet Jesus himself tells us that there will be people to whom He will say on the last day, “Depart from me; I never knew you” (Matthew 7:21). This is one of the most sobering verses in all of the Bible. The reason they will be so surprised is that they were active in ministry, and it never occurred to them that they might not be true Christians.

Here’s what that means for me: On the last day, there will be no value whatsoever in me saying to Jesus, “I was the senior pastor of a large church in Chicago.” Why? That’s not what He is looking for! Blessing is not found through having a position in ministry. Where does blessing lie? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

Jesus does not begin with a class on all the great doctrines of the Bible. He does not begin by saying, “Let’s get you all involved in a ministry.” He begins by saying “Let me tell you what a person who lives under the blessing of God looks like.”

The Distinguishing Marks

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) provide us with distinguishing marks of the Christian life. They cause us to ask, “Are these the things I am pursuing?” I invite you to open yourself up with me to the searching gaze of Jesus:

Blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Am I a person who brings peace? Does peace follow me because it lives in me? Or do other people in the home or in the workplace experience tension from me because of the turmoil that is in me?

Blessed are the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8). What is the condition of my heart? To what extent is it marked by purity? To what extent is it marked by impurity?

Blessed are the merciful (Matthew 5:7). How am I doing when it comes to this business of forgiving others? Do I forgive quickly? Am I merciful towards the weaknesses and failings of other people?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). Does that describe you today? If I go one day without food, by the end of the day, I would do anything for a beef sandwich—really, really hungry. Is that how I feel about living a life that is marked by righteousness? Am I person who says, “I want to do what is right…at any cost!”

When Jesus describes the person who is blessed, is He describing you? Would someone spot these marks in you?

The Invitation

Before we go further, I need to pause and make one thing very clear: The Beatitudes are not telling you how to become a Christian. The Beatitudes tell us what a true Christian looks like. The message is not: “If you humble yourself, mourn over your sins, submit yourself meekly to God, and get an appetite for righteousness—this will get you into heaven.” That would be salvation by works. This is not the teaching of the Bible, nor is it the teaching of Jesus here.

Here’s the message: “Many people profess to be Christians. It’s easy to say it. The church, at its best, is a mixed bag of genuine Christians and people who have deceived themselves. We need to examine ourselves to see if we’re truly Christians.”

Will you examine yourself today in the light of Christ, and in dependence on his mercy and grace? Don’t wait another moment. Look at Jesus, lean into him, and be blessed!


Go deeper in the Beatitudes of Jesus in the book Momentum: Pursuing God’s Blessings through the Beatitudes.

Colin Smith

Founder & Teaching Pastor

Colin Smith is the Senior Pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He has authored a number of books, including Heaven, How I Got Here and Heaven, So Near - So Far. Colin is the Founder and Teaching Pastor for Open the Bible. Follow him on Twitter.
Colin Smith is the Senior Pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. He has authored a number of books, including Heaven, How I Got Here and Heaven, So Near - So Far. Colin is the Founder and Teaching Pastor for Open the Bible. Follow him on Twitter.