True and Deceived Followers of Jesus

Written by Prof Johan Malan.

Scripture quotations are from the NKJV unless otherwise stated.

There are many views about Jesus among the millions of His followers. These diverging opinions form the basis of a wide range of relationships with Him. Included among those who regard themselves as Christians, is a large group of deceived ‘believers’ who are convinced that they follow and serve Jesus.  He, however, does not recognise or accept them as His own (Matt. 15:8-9). Among His true followers all is not well either, as many of them only have a limited knowledge of Jesus and will one day be ashamed before Him because of their unfaithfulness and half-hearted dedication – they will “scarcely” be saved (1 Pet. 4:18). It is of the utmost importance to know exactly where each of us stands with the Son of God since there will be no opportunity to correct poor or non-existing relationships after the time of grace has ended.

From a spiritual perspective the following groups of people who all regard themselves as Christians may be distinguished:

Evangelical Christians who pursue holiness

An evangelical Christian is someone who fully subscribes to the biblical gospel of salvation. He accepts the deity of the Lord Jesus, His virgin birth, the spiritual significance of His death on the cross as an atonement for our sins, His resurrection from the dead, His ascension and promised second coming. Such a Christian also recognises the sinfulness of all humans and their need for repentance and rebirth (John 3:3). He can testify of such an experience in his own life which marks the beginning of his spiritual life. This person is an evangelical Christian because he does not only mentally believe in the Bible but through faith also surrendered himself to accept the Lord Jesus as His personal Saviour (Eph. 2:8). This act is accompanied by a confession of sins and a changed lifestyle (2 Cor. 5:17), which are the characteristics of a true believer (2 Cor. 13:5). His life is built upon the firm rock of fundamental biblical truths.

Sanctification is inherently part of the biblical doctrine of salvation. The Lord does not only want to save us but also to fill us with His Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 4:3, 7; Eph. 5:18). There are clear indications of two works of grace, i.e. the initial purging of our sins (2 Pet. 1:9) and the subsequent experience of complete sanctification (1 Thess. 5:23-24). The second experience involves the denial and crucifixion of our old, sinful nature (Luke 9:23; Gal. 6:14), thereby laying aside all its evil inclinations and works. When we comply with this condition the Lord will fill us with His Holy Spirit, who will increasingly endue us with the nature of Christ (Eph. 4:22-24). To such a Christian the Lord is not only his righteousness and redemption but also his sanctification (1 Cor. 1:3). The indwelling Spirit of God exercises full control over this person’s life, enables him to live victorious, overcoming temptations, and also to serve the Lord by doing works that befit repentance – that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical Christians who are still carnal (fleshly)

There are many Christians who are truly saved but not yet filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul calls them carnal believers who are like babes in Christ. They can, spiritually speaking, only be fed with milk as they cannot yet understand the deeper things of God’s Word, which are the solid food (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Such people continuously stumble in their spiritual lives because they still live under the domination of the flesh. They cannot walk in the Spirit because they are under the control of the flesh with its worldly desires, thus depriving them of a Spirit-controlled life (Gal. 5:16-17).

Nobody grows up naturally from a carnal condition to become a spiritual Christian since the flesh (the old nature) cannot be dethroned without a full surrender. Such Christians toil along for the rest of their lives without becoming spiritually mature (cf. Eph. 4:13-14). The mere passage of time after a person’s salvation cannot change the situation in any way unless sanctification is purposely pursued. Paul was dissatisfied by the neglect of young believers to make a full commitment towards spiritual growth: “You have been Christians a long time now, and you ought to be teaching others, but instead you have dropped back to the place where you need someone to teach you all over again the very first principles in God’s Word. You are like babies who can drink only milk, not old enough for solid food. And when a person is still living on milk it shows he isn’t very far along in the Christian life, and doesn’t know much about the difference between right and wrong. He is still a baby-Christian! You will never be able to eat solid spiritual food and understand the deeper things of God’s Word until you become better Christians and learn right from wrong by practising doing right … Let us become mature in our understanding, as strong Christians ought to be” (Heb. 5:12-14; 6:1 Living Bible). The obstacle of a carnal disposition should first be removed.

The characteristics of carnal believers are that they love themselves and the world, they maintain a very low standard on sin and repentance, and they only confess the Lord Jesus as Saviour without committing themselves to walking daily in His footsteps. They have very little spiritual discernment and consequently can be easily deceived. They only follow the Lord Jesus from a distance, they do not know Him well and fail to increase in knowledge and grace (2 Pet. 3:18).

What will happen to carnal Christians? Their fleshly works will be consumed like wood, hay and straw while they themselves will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Cor. 3:15). They will appear empty-handed before the judgement seat of Christ because they have only lived for the perishable things of the world and, from God’s point of view, led worthless and unfruitful lives.

Evangelical Christians who expect the second coming

A vital expectation of Christ’s second coming, by also identifying with Him as the heavenly Bridegroom, fosters a deeper dimension in a believer’s relationship with Christ. It promotes greater intimacy with Him because one prepares oneself spiritually as a member of His bridal congregation to be united with Him forever and to share in His glory. Holiness is pursued more vigorously since we are called to be blameless in holiness on the day when Jesus comes, when we will see Him (1 Thess. 3:13 and 5:23).

Paul reminds the Ephesians that the Lord Jesus gave Himself to be crucified in order to cleanse us from sin, and also for the second work of grace in which He sanctifies us so He can have a perfect bride on the day of His coming: “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it … that He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).

The expectation of Christ’s coming helps us to be liberated from worldly desires, to be filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit, and to live like people who expect their King and Bridegroom at any moment. It helps us to have pure hearts, to set our minds on heavenly thoughts (Col. 3:1-2), and to do things that have value for eternity. It also gives us an interest in the signs of the times as we discern the approaching footsteps of the Bridegroom in these events.

The joyful expectation of the rapture is a blessed hope through which we reach forward to a life of indescribable glory with the Lord Jesus (1 Thess. 4:16-17; Titus 2:13). That is the good news in an otherwise dark scenario of apostasy, tribulation and great distress that have been predicted for the last days. The promise of escape encourages us as we know for sure that we are not destined for God’s judgements upon the wicked (Luke 21:36; 1 Thess. 1:10 & 5:9). It ensures great stability in our spiritual lives since our expectation is strongly focused on the coming of Christ – regardless of whether He comes either sooner or later.

This expectation also gives us greater evangelistic zeal since we fully realise that we have limited time to get the good news of salvation out to others – particularly our loved ones and others close to us. It helps us to correctly determine our priorities and laying up treasures in heaven, rather than seeking earthly riches and fame. We are actively preparing to appear before the judgement seat of Christ where we will have to give account of our earthly lives (Rom. 14:10-12).

Evangelical Christians without a strong expectation for the second coming

There are many Christians who are serious about their spiritual lives, but nevertheless lack the adventure of a relationship with the Lord Jesus, which serves as motivation to remain absolutely loyal to Him with whom we will be united at the marriage of the Lamb. Without this motivation it can easily happen that a Christian may start losing his zeal for the Lord as he does not fully realise his heavenly destination and high calling in Christ.

The absence of a clear focus on Christ’s coming usually coincides with an unclear grasp of the different dispensations in the Bible – particularly those that lie still ahead. Christians should know that the Lord Jesus will come for His bridal congregation at the end of the church dispensation, after which the dispensation of the Antichrist’s seven-year reign will follow. His reign will be terminated by the public appearance of Jesus Christ and His saints on the Mount of Olives (2 Thess. 2:6-8; Zech. 14:4-5), when the dispensation of Christ’s thousand-year reign of peace will commence (Acts 15:16-17; Rev. 20:6). The kingdom in which we will be co-rulers with Christ (Rev. 5:9-10) is still future and will only be instituted after His second coming. At present we are sojourners and pilgrims in a world which lies in the sway of the Evil One (1 Pet. 2:11; 1 John 5:19).

Christians who do not consider these dispensational facts easily fall prey to the deception of dominionism (kingdom-now theology). They wrongly assume that they have been commissioned to establish a Christian kingdom on earth now, before the second coming of Christ. This assumption places them on the way of endless compromise in their efforts to promote a united Christian kingdom which can take charge of the world and rule it. The following erroneous acts emerge from this deceptive approach:

  • Ecumenical ties are forged to promote collaboration between Protestantism, Independent Churches and Roman Catholics. Because of dogmatic differences among churches, the definition for being a Christian is watered down to a dangerously low level so as to make it acceptable for all.  This approach has provided room for nominal Christianity in which, so as not to offend anybody, the salvation or sanctification of no one is questioned.
  • In ecumenical groups the emphasis is not on personal holiness but on kingdom reforms in society. Human relations take precedence over people’s relationship with God. According to them all obstacles against unity and prosperity should be removed from human societies, e.g. poor relations, intolerance, disease, poverty, unemployment, discrimination and political deprivation.
  • No biblical eschatology is proclaimed in these circles since the rapture, the revelation of the Antichrist, the great tribulation, and the battle of Armageddon during the return of Christ cannot be reconciled with their kingdom vision. In consequence, they do not promote an intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus, nor do they really prepare for His second coming – only for happy and harmonious earthly societies.

Backslidden Christians

There are many Christians who weaken or even sever their relationship with the Lord Jesus through doctrinal errors or moral sins (1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3:12). We have a definite obligation to abide in Christ when we claim to have a relationship with Him. He is faithful, but there is always a possibility of us becoming unfaithful and moving away from Him. Jesus warned His disciples against this possibility: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me … If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned” (John 15:4,6). We enjoy conditional eternal security in Christ. If we should stop complying with these conditions we will cause our own downfall.

There are unfortunately many former Christians whose relationship with the Lord Jesus was terminated by their apostasy. Initially they grow cold in their love and gradually drift away from Him (Matt. 24:21). They become carnal believers who love the world more than they love the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 3:1-3; Gal. 3:3). If this process is not halted they are in danger of completely losing their first love (Rev. 2:4-5). Those who fell from grace are no longer in Christ and will be rejected by Him when He comes.

An oral testimony will be of no avail if the people concerned do not abide in Him and daily follow Him. John warns believers not to backslide from Christ: “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28). We should guard against apostatising as it can have disastrous consequences in our spiritual lives: “You therefore, beloved, since you know these things beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked” (2 Pet. 3:17).

If you have already strayed on the path of sin, repent and follow the example of the prodigal son who was in the same situation. He said: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to Him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you” (Luke 15:18). He was heartily forgiven and fully restored in his father’s house. Broken relationships can be restored. Peter was also spiritually restored after he had denied the Lord Jesus three times. All that is needed is sorrow and repentance.

Those with only a form of godliness

There are also many nominal Christians who only have a form of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5). They are members of churches and pretend to be Christians but in truth the Holy Spirit does not dwell in their hearts. Their association with Christ is often tied to church rituals such as baptism or Holy Communion, or experiences such as speaking in tongues, physical healing, holy laughter or slaying in the spirit. But all these things cannot change their unregenerate hearts and spiritual standing before the Lord. They cannot maintain any true relationship with the Lord Jesus in this spiritual state; nevertheless they declare themselves to be believers, and their deceived pastors do the same. Because of their self-imposed righteousness they try to live decent lives and also actively support the church – particularly financially.

Not all who pretend to be religious are indeed faithful followers of Jesus Christ. But when they appear before the Lord Jesus to be judged by Him they will nevertheless claim that they have known and served Him. Although they may have succeeded in deceiving others with their hypocrisy they will never get past Christ. He says the following about these people, among whom there will definitely also be pastors: “At the Judgment many will tell Me, Lord, Lord, we told others about You and used Your name to cast out demons and to do many other great miracles. But I will reply, You have never been Mine. Go away, for your deeds are evil” (Matt. 7:22-23; Living Bible).

Unsaved, nominal Christians are an open target to Satan, and he thoroughly uses the opportunity to deceive large groups of Christians through his distorted “angels of light,” leading them astray in the name of Jesus (2 Cor. 11:13-15). He enables pastors by means of occult powers to perform miracles (Matt. 24:11, 24). In most cases their members and followers are highly impressed by these signs and regard their swaggering leaders as anointed men of God. They resist any suggestion that these preachers may be deceived. The Bible often warns us that the false prophets will have many followers (Matt. 24:5, 24; 2 Pet. 2:1-2).

All these deceived ‘believers’ will remain behind when the Lord takes away His bridal congregation. During the tribulation period they will be subjected to further deception by the Antichrist and the false prophet who will act “with all power, signs, and lying wonders” (2 Thess. 2:8-12; Rev. 13:1-18).

The challenge

Make very sure that you are born again and have a real relationship with the Lord Jesus. Commit yourself to knowing Him not only as your Saviour, but also as your sanctification, Leader, King and heavenly Bridegroom. Strengthen this relationship by growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Pet. 3:18). Hide His words in your heart that you might not sin against Him, always observing His commands. Walk in the light and experience the continued cleansing of all sin by the precious blood of Christ (1 John 1:7).

If you pursue the knowledge of the Lord you will increasingly be like Him. He says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). That can only be realised through dying and resurrection into a new life. Paul described the great aim of his life as follows: “That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10). The knowledge of Christ confronts us with the demand of becoming conformed to His death and resurrection. Our new life begins at the cross, after which we should trust the Lord to endue us with the resurrection life of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

This experience is followed by a lifelong process of growth in grace and knowledge. Jesus said to His followers: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life … If you abide in My word, you are my disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free … If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:12, 31, 32, 36). The Holy Spirit is our Teacher who reminds us of all the words of the Lord Jesus (John 16:13-14).

Do you experience the saving power of Christ’s Word in your life? That alone will ensure stability in your life to protect you against the deception of the devil and all his false prophets. Paul says that “we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). The Word of Christ must dwell richly in us (Col. 3:16).

Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures leads to greater knowledge and a better relationship with the Lord Jesus, who is the Word that became flesh (John 1:14). The Holy Spirit instils an increasing consciousness of Him in our lives when we do Bible study. This knowledge makes us, as people of God, complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Acknowledge Him in all your ways and He shall direct your paths.