We all know that not everyone who claims to be a born-again Christian is a genuine follower of Christ. A 2017 study by LifeWay Research discovered that 24% of Americans profess to be evangelical. A higher percent claim to be born again. But when pressed, only about 15% of Americans can affirm the most basic evangelical beliefs.
This is not a new problem. Anyone who has been a Christian for long knows someone who professes Christianity but fails to believe what Christians should believe, or believes right doctrine but exhibits little or no fruit. A gap always exists between the number of people who profess to be born again and those who possess the reality. This is true of every congregation. That is one reason why the constant preaching of the gospel matters. The more the gospel is preached, the smaller that gap becomes.
So, acknowledging that the gap exists, how can we know that someone who professes new birth actually possesses it? Those legitimately born again are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5). What does it mean to have the Holy Spirit living within us? Fundamentally, it means that the Holy Spirit is communicating a conviction about Christ’s moral beauty to the eyes and ears of our hearts. This communication has four important distinctives.
- First, the medium of God’s communication is a conviction of faith.
- Second, the place where it occurs is the heart.
- Third, the knowledge communicated is the moral beauty of Christ — a growing grasp of his moral and spiritual goodness.
- Fourth, the effect is changed behavior motivated by a growing desire to be holy as God is holy.
Have You Experienced Real Conviction?
First, the medium of communion with God is a growing conviction of faith. Remember, “Faith is . . . the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). True faith empowers us to increasingly see truth through God’s eyes — from a divine perspective. We “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). New birth equips us to increasingly taste spiritual truth. The primary way we taste is through conviction.
For example, I recently read Paul’s description of man’s sinfulness in Romans 3:9–20. As I read “their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive,” God opened my heart to see that this was often me. Then the thought that God had loved me, even in this condition, overwhelmed me. The result was a new conviction about the depth of God’s love and mercy. My soul soared in gratitude, and I felt a heightened desire to serve and live for God.
This is what takes place when the Holy Spirit speaks to us. We see spiritual truth with God’s eyes, and conviction is always a byproduct.
Many reading these words have experienced similar encounters with God. It can take place while reading Scripture, while listening to a sermon, while busy jogging, driving, or vacuuming the living room. To the degree that this communication happens, everything changes.
Has Something Happened in Your Heart?
Second, the location of this interaction with God is the heart, not simply the mind. In the work of sanctification, God never bypasses the mind. The intellect is crucial. Although the conviction that points to new birth passes through the mind, however, it occurs in the heart. “With the heart one believes and is justified” (Romans 10:10). “Faith is the candlestick,” noted Charles Spurgeon, “which holds the candle by which the chamber of the heart is enlightened.”
We use the expression “from the heart” to describe something done with enthusiasm and joy — something done because we want to. By contrast, we say “my heart wasn’t in it” to describe behavior done strictly from a sense of duty. Although some duty always characterizes Christianity, fundamentally it is a heart religion.
Before conversion, our hearts might be into material wealth, popularity, entertainment, or career success. After conversion, we are increasingly into God himself (not just his gifts). Increasingly, he becomes our heart’s delight. John Bunyan described the Holy Spirit’s heart conviction as God branding our hearts with a hot iron.
Is Christ More and More Beautiful?
Third, the subject of this communication is ultimately the moral beauty and goodness of Christ. I am not talking about eschatology or the best form of church government. These subjects matter, but you can have convictions about them and not be born again. But you cannot have a conviction about the moral beauty, the utter glory and trustworthiness of Christ, without the inward presence of the Holy Spirit.
That is why Paul described new birth as the shining forth of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” in our hearts (2 Corinthians 4:6). It is a growing heart conviction that God is good, that he can be trusted, that I can spend my life in his service and will not be disappointed. This conviction about God’s goodness frees me to take the risks that always accompany obedience. It is a down payment on our eternal inheritance (Ephesians 1:13–14).
The more we gaze at the light of Christ, the brighter it gets. For example, at conversion my knowledge of God’s glory was basic. I trusted that God forgave my sin and loved me. Over the years, however, God has increasingly turned that light up. It now includes the excellence of his justice, the depth of his righteousness, and the majesty of his sovereignty. With each communication, the capacity to delight in his goodness has grown, and joyful obedience has increasingly followed.
Has Believing in Christ Changed You?
Fourth, this communication has one consistent effect: it motivates us to be like Christ in holiness and righteousness. New birth and spiritual fruit cannot be separated.
Our hearts cannot feel a growing conviction about “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” and not long to imitate what we see. This is what Paul meant when he also wrote, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). We will always imitate the object of our worship. That is why John inexorably connects new birth with a changed way of life. “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14).
Am I Truly Changed?
Tragically, some legitimately born again will read this and doubt their salvation. That is not my intention. It is possible for us to experience assurance that we have been born again. Do you love and trust Christ more today than ten years ago? Yes, I know you have doubts. All Christians do at one time or another. But has your view of Christ changed? Do you increasingly want to imitate him? Has he become the treasure in the field for which you would sell everything (Matthew 13:44)?
Second, are you changing? I’m not asking if you are perfect, but are you changing? “You may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29). Do you handle your money, your time, and your gifts differently? Is your speech becoming more godly? Are you more willing to forgive, to love an enemy, to push yourself out of your comfort zone? Are you changing how you relate to your spouse? Your roommate? Your parents? “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).
Third, there will be a spiritual oxymoron. People born of God feel increasingly (and joyfully) unworthy. They feel their sin more acutely, and therefore are more dependent upon Christ and his grace. That is because their knowledge of Christ’s perfections grows much faster than their ability to change. Even though they are forgiven and growing in Christ, the contrast makes them feel increasingly unworthy.
Born Again for Good Works
From the data gathered from his many surveys, George Barna concludes that when “evaluating fifteen moral behaviors, [those who profess to be] born-again Christians are statistically indistinguishable from non-born-again adults.”
This will not be true of those who possess the reality of new birth. Just the opposite — they will increasingly enjoy communion with God. And a believer enjoying this communion will begin to change. “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4). That is because God saves purposefully. “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
When the Holy Spirit indwells us, he communicates a growing conviction about Christ’s moral goodness to the eyes and ears of our heart, and it slowly changes everything. “The core of conversion,” writes John Hannah in To God Be the Glory, “is the gift from God of a new indwelling principle in the heart of mankind. That principle is the very life of God; it is the love of God. This alone is the ground of true virtue and morality and is the exclusive means for glorifying God.”