You don’t become a Christian because you start going to church and doing Christian activities. Let me warn you. Doing these things has benefits that can be dangerously confused with life transformation through salvation. What are those possible benefits? Community and relationships, positive emotional experiences, a good set of moral standards to follow, volunteer opportunities that lead to a sense of accomplishment, sometimes financial benefits. These things aren’t bad, unless you believe this is what it means to be a Christian. In this case, these things are detrimental. There is actually such thing as religious addiction. Why? Because religion can provide positive experiences and can be A good coping mechanism.
So what is a Christian really? The answer has nothing to do with a list of religious activities. John 1:12 says “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Ephesians 1:13 tells us “ In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” A Christian is a child of God, who received and believed in Jesus, who is sealed with the Holy Spirit. So what does it really look like to be a Christian and to have the Holy Spirit with you and in you? For starters it is a constant. Sometimes we choose to ignore him, but he is always there. If you forget about God when you leave your church, or you have no desire to pray and just be with God in his presence, or you don’t feel any different than you did before unless you are in a church building, or you have no intrest in being more like Jesus and understanding scripture on a deeper level, or you have never known the Holy Spirit, or you have no desire to please God and give him control, could it be that you go to church but you aren’t actually a part of God’s church?
What happens to a kid who grows up going to church and knows how to do all of the churchy things but never actually became a Christian through acceptance and belief in Christ, never receiving the Holy Spirit? Could that child grow up doing Christian things and eventually, because there is no true root and doubts about the Bible set in, walk away? This person is walking away from religion, not true Christianity. What about the boyfriend who got invited to church by his girlfriend (who said she wouldn’t marry him unless he was a Christian) and chose to adopt Christian practices because of the benefits, but never actually became a Christian? What if this man decided to go to seminary and became a pastor because he knew how to act like a Christian and enjoyed studying (not to mention, nowadays becoming a pastor can be a good career choice). You can learn biblical things and have knowledge without salvation in Christ and the Holy Spirit of God living in you. However, knowledge without the Holy Spirit does not lead to wisdom or understanding of spiritual things. (The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 1 Corinthians 2:14) There are atheists who teach Bible courses at universities. How can that be? It’s very easy for this to happen. It is very easy to go to a church building every week, to listen to sermons, to volunteer, to get a seminary degree, and not be a Christian. The bottom line is, a Christian is a member of the body of Christ every single day. When you have the Holy Spirit in you there is no way not to desire the things of God. If you do not desire to please God you do not have his spirit living in you. Does this mean we always please him? Of course not. Sometimes we choose to operate in our flesh instead of the Spirit. Christians absolutely cannot be in the flesh at all times because the Spirit is living in them. When you are at your worst, you will still know the Spirit is in you, even if for a time it is simply the conviction of sin or the urging to walk in the spirit instead of your flesh.
“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
Romans 8:8-9 ESV
I’ve recently heard stories of Christians who were in popular bands or writing music for Christian bands walking away from God. This is sad but were they ever truly with God? You can think you are and not be. Judas was with Jesus all the time and was involved in ministry, but he never actually believed. He acted like a disciple, but he never was one. (“But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)” John 6:64
Have you ever met someone who was such a “faithful Christian” never missed a church service , there every time the doors were opened, volunteering every weekend, and then Just like that, walks away from God? Why does this happen? Perhaps we have a misunderstanding of what it means to be with God? Perhaps many Christians have a very flawed idea of what a Christian even is? Of what the church is? Could it be that some of those people who walk away from Christianity are not actually walking away from God, but are actually walking away from a belief system centered on a set of religious practices? These things are empty and do not take the place of a real life with God.
Jon Steaingard of Hawk Nelson, in his post about walking away from his faith, talked about how he and his wife did not enjoy going to church or worship. He said “Now I don’t believe anything was wrong with us. We simply didn’t believe – and we were too afraid to admit that to ourselves.” Listen, you do not become a Christian and receive the Holy Spirit of God if you do not believe. Belief does not equal attending church services religiously, singing in worship bands, going on missions trips, giving money, attending church events or workshops, going to seminary, or engaging in other religious activities. When you believe, truly believe, you will be sealed with the Holy Spirit. He will be with you and in you. According to scripture, if you don’t have the Holy Spirit, and you would know if you do, you are not a Christian. How can I say this? Because it is Gods spirit entering you through belief, acceptance, and repentance through Jesus Christ and his resurrection that you are sealed by the Holy Spirit. This is what happens when you become a Christian. There is no mistaking the presence of the Holy Spirit in you and with you. Based on what this man said, he did not walk away from his faith in God, he walked away from religion. In order to even be with God you must have his spirit dwelling in you. Doubts about the Bible will not cause you to leave your faith when you literally have Gods spirit in you. Doubts about the Bible when you do not have Gods spirit in you will. My hope for this man is that now that he has removed himself from the bondage of religion, he can truly seek God and find true belief in Christ.
John 14:15-17 says “ If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
Here Jesus tells us that we know the Spirit because he dwells with us and is in us. He doesn’t say we can know him, he says we do know him. If you don’t know the Holy Spirit through personal experience, he isn’t with you. You are not a Christian. Only you can know that, I will never look at someone and decide whether or not they truly are a Christian. That is between that person and God. I’m just relaying the truth of scripture. Truth that has often been lost in the chaos of activities, programs, and false beliefs about Christianity.
Acts 2:36-38: Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This verse shows us that when we repent and receive Christ we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is not something we have to work extra hard for. We have to be careful not to ignore the Holy Spirit or quench him through despising his power, as we are warned in Thessalonians. But, even when we do this, we will still know the Holy Spirit. We just won’t experience him as we would when we engage and fellowship with him. The way we were always meant to.
If you are going to church and practicing religion without salvation, without being sealed by the Holy Spirit through your belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ, I urge you to stop. Acting like a Christian without belief will not transform you. It will potentially harden you toward God. Why? Because you will not understand spiritual things and you will likely be deceived. You will also deceive others. It is 100% possible to go to church multiple times a week, to passionately sing worship songs, to listen to sermons and take notes, to give, to volunteer and serve, yet not be a Christian. If you lost all of the extra benefits of going to church that I mentioned before (community, emotional experiences, financial gain, a moral standard to live up to, activities that lead to a sense of accomplishment, etc.) and all that was left was God, would you still be a Christian? If you have the Holy Spirit living in you through salvation then the answer should be yes. Just really stop and imagine that for a minute. Abraham and the early prophets didn’t have church services. They didn’t have exciting worship services with bands and lights. They didn’t have talented preachers with a mix of humor and depth. They didn’t have Sunday school. They didn’t even have the New Testament. They had Communion with God Almighty, and that was enough. The early believers didn’t have grand church buildings and Hillsong worship, or entertaining programs, or coffee shops to hit up before Sunday service. They had the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit dwelling with them and living in them. And that was enough. We have to get back to the heart of what it truly is to be a Christian. What it truly is to be the church. We have to strip it all back and ask ourselves if God is truly enough. We have to start there. If that is not the foundation everything else is worthless. We have to truly understand what is necessary and required in our Christian life and realize that if that is missing, “Christian activities” are pointless.
This post isn’t about what we do as Christians (which is highly important), it’s about who we are as Christians. You can do Christian things and not be one. You cannot be a true Christian without action. You must become a Christian before you try to act like one. Fake it til you make it doesn’t work here. Not only that, a lot of things focused on in American churches are either extrabiblical, or mentioned hardly at all in scripture, yet are the focus of “Christianity”. If you start there, rather than with God, there is a danger of getting a very flawed Christian belief system that is not based on truth. According to scripture, a believer, someone who accepts and receives Jesus and becomes a child of God, receives the Holy Spirit of God and is radically transformed. This person then needs to be discipled by another person. This is not the same thing as listening to sermons or attending church services. The Holy Spirit is now with you and will guide you as you study scripture, gather with other Christians, and get discipled. This then leads to a life in God’s presence, loving him deeply, and a life poured out in love and service to others (here is where the action comes into play). This is what Jesus taught and this is what the early church was all about, and what the church today needs to be about.
I could share many stories of my life with the Holy Spirit and how this has strengthened my faith in God and helped me through doubts. Is the Holy Spirit with you and in you? If you call yourself a Christian but you can’t answer yes to this question that’s a problem. Maybe you are ignoring him because you don’t really know that he is always with you and living in you. Or maybe you simply do Christian things but you aren’t one. Get alone with God in prayer, ask him to change your heart and to teach you through the power of the Holy Spirit and scripture what it really is to be a Christian.
The Holy Spirit confirms the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? Well because when you believe in and receive Jesus, God puts his Spirit in you and you change. This wouldn’t happen if the gospel weren’t true. You might always struggle with doubt over the Bible, but through the Holy Spirit you can have total assurance and confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Saved a powerful quote for last. Taken from an interview with Jon Steingard and Sean McDowell.
“The only good reason someone should be a Christian is if it is true. And we can know it’s true by direct testimony of the Holy Spirit and by examining the historical evidence for the resurrection.” Sean McDowell
3 thoughts on “Going to Church doesn’t make you a Christian. Why are “Christians” leaving their faith?”
Your story about the man who died despite the fervent prayers of believers reminds me of a sister in Christ who told our fellowship about a Christian child she knew who had died of cancer. She was understandably upset and wondering why the Lord didn’t heal that child. I think it all comes down to trusting the Lord even when He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we think is best.
By the way, James 5:14-16 is similar to Mark 16:18. Also, I love the first sentence, especially, of Sean McDowell’s quote; when I have talked to people about the Lord, I have focused on believing because the Bible is true! It’s also confirmed by the Holy Spirit, as you point out, as well as by other things.
Hi Keith, thanks so much for reading and for your response! Thank you for bringing up James 5: 14-16. I think the biggest thing for me is that we can sometimes misunderstand scripture because of the vast versions of the Bible. It’s easy to lose site of the original text and what it really meant. I think most of us, as you mentioned, trust God even when he doesn’t answer how we would like. It’s tough when you read James 5:15 in niv and it says “ And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” This makes it seem that if we have enough faith our prayer will heal, or make us well. The truth? God chooses who he will heal from physical illness, it’s not about our faith. The original Greek here is the word σώσει, which means will save, not make well. Based on this I conclude that our prayer of faith saves our souls, rather than makes us well from all physical ailments. The fact that forgiveness from sin is mentioned confirms this for me as well. Any thoughts on this?
It’s interesting that the ESV says will “save,” just as you said; even though it seems like it’s the prayer of the elders that is being talked about, it makes more sense that the prayer of the sick person, in agreement with the elders, saves the person. I agree that the context of forgiveness of sins supports this. And I agree 100% that God chooses who He will heal; it’s not about our faith.