Several years ago while we lived and attended church in a small town, a new family came in. They professed faith in Christ and were generous with their giving and hospitality. The wife invited many of the ladies to their home. One day, it was my turn. When I arrived, she introduced me to another woman and they proceeded to tell me what I was thinking. It was unnerving, but I said nothing.
Perhaps it was my silence that made them feel as if they could go on. They told me their odd and unique interpretation of spiritual gifts from the Old Testament. Then that said their purpose from the Lord was to split up churches. I was polite, but left as soon as possible.
Later I told this to a person with far more experience in this sort of thing than I had. He pointed me to a story from Acts 16 about Paul on his way to a place of prayer in the city of Philippi. He was “met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling.”
She followed these Paul and his company, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”
She kept doing this for many days and it sounds good, is even biblical and truthful. However, “Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.” (Acts 16:16–18)
The woman was demon-possessed. The man who related this story to my experience said that even those who proclaim what sounds like truth can be motivated by evil forces. The woman who had been attending our church seemed to fit into that category, for only evil can be behind the desire to ruin a church.
Since then, I understand the need to be cautious and discerning. Jesus said that true faith will show itself in a person’s life while those who are false will also bear the fruit of their unbelief. It may take time for these things to come to light, but they will. So how then can a true Christian be identified? What should be in place?
Certainly a profession of faith is important. In this same story, Paul and Silas were put in jail, but an earthquake opened the doors. The jailer, fearing death because of escaped prisoners, was about to kill himself, but these Christian men stopped him. Then he said to them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (Acts 16:30–31)
However, after salvation comes life-change. This is a given. When a person genuinely believes in Jesus, the Lord comes to live in that person. With God the Son in our lives, we cannot stay the same.
This is why the psalmist answers the questions, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” with a statement about a life-change. A person who can do this is one who “has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3–6)
Christians can do this because Jesus removes the impurities. This does not happen all at once, but the changes begin. These changes are not salvation though. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, not works. When the Bible speaks of doing right, the whole of Scripture points to “doing right” is about faith, trusting God’s way, not my own.
Peter put it this way: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34–43)
After my experience with those women, I recognize that “there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:5–6)
The Word of God says that the devil disguises himself as an angel of light. Those evil spirits who serve him are not going to wear an ID badge. They will try to look normal, even harmless, even like Christians.