“Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves.
Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?”
(2 Cor 13:5)

Perhaps, the singular, most important question that every professing Christian must ask himself is whether he is “in the faith.” For if he is not “in the faith,” then he is still heading towards damnation whatever his outward estate may be. But what does it mean to know if we are “in the faith”? Quite obviously, it does not,—at least not directly,—mean knowing if we are the elect of Christ or justified in Christ. Election is part of the secret will of God. Justification is a legal declaration of God, which, by itself, leaves no detectable imprints on us. Yes, a Christian is “in the faith” only if he is justified by grace through faith, but to know if one is justified, we must look at ourselves from another angle. We must look at a work of God, which leaves some marks in the souls of every true believer. What is this work but regeneration?

In the night when Nicodemus came to the Lord Jesus to ask Him about His ministry, the first thing that the Lord said to him was: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3). He could not have stated it clearer. If you are not born again or regenerate, you cannot see the kingdom of God, not to mention enter it. The blind man cannot see where he is going, how can he find the door to enter in?

There is no question then, that regeneration distinguishes a true believer from a mere professor. But how can we know we are regenerate since it is a work of God in our inner man? The Lord gave Nicodemus an answer: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).

That is to say that we can know if we are regenerate by the effects of it in the lives of those born again. The Apostle John, who alone recorded the encounter of the Lord with Nicodemus, must have had a most profound impression on the implication of the Lord’s doctrine, for he wrote an entire epistle to work out personal implications of what the Lord said. This epistle, the first letter of John, is sometimes known today as the “Epistle of Love.” But actually, its older name, “the Epistle of Life,” is a more accurate description of what the letter is about. John himself tells us the purpose of the letter: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn 5:13).

That is to say: This letter is written that you,—who profess the name of Christ,—may know for certain if you are born again and spiritually alive. Or, in other words, this letter is written that you may either be assured of your salvation, or brought to conviction of your sin that you may truly trust in the Son of God for your salvation.

To accomplish his purpose, John gives us at least five different principal tests in his letter. These tests provide an excellent way of examining ourselves and proving if we are in the faith. Therefore every child of God ought to diligently and honestly consider them. We shall list them in a didactic order rather than in the order it appears in the letter.

Faith Test

The Apostle John says: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” (1 Jn 5:1).

In the days when John wrote his letter, there were the incipient Gnostics or Docetists, who did not believe that the Messiah (i.e., Christ) is God who “is come in the flesh” (1 Jn 4:2). Well, since it is undeniable that the Lord Jesus lived, they had to deny that Jesus is the Christ in order to sustain their heresy. John points out that all who are born again will truly believe that Jesus is the Christ, and by implication believe that He is fully man and fully God. Note, however, that we must not take this test in isolation so that we are ready to say that so long as a person claims to believe that Jesus is the Christ, he is born again. The demons also believe that He is the Christ and they tremble at that thought (cf. Mt 8:29; Jas 2:19).

The Apostle, rather, must be viewed as referring to true saving faith, or faith that has all three elements of knowing (notitia), agreeing (assensus) and trusting (fiducia). It is this last element that the devils do not possess and men by nature cannot have (cf. Jn 1:13; 1 Cor 2:12, 14). Matthew Henry puts it well:

He that believeth that Jesus is the Christ—that He is Messiah the prince, that He is the Son of God by nature and office, that He is the chief of all the anointed world, chief of all the priests, prophets, or kings, who were ever anointed by God or for Him, that He is perfectly prepared and furnished for the whole work of the eternal salvation, [and] accordingly yields himself up to His care and direction;…—is born of God (comm. in loc.).

By this test, we would have the assurance that we are born again if we are fully convicted of the doctrine of Christ and we love Him (1 Jn 5:2b) and can say with the Apostle Paul: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). On the other hand, we can have no certainty that we are born again if either we do not wholeheartedly believe the doctrines of Christ or we find ourselves not trusting in Christ for our salvation. No, we are not saying that all who are born again will have great faith. But we are saying that a born again person will trust the Lord and seek his faith even if his faith is small and at times wavering (cf. Mk 9:24).

Discipleship Test

John says, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 Jn 2:3).

This test complements the first test very well. Everyone can claim to know the Lord Jesus Christ, or even to love Him and trust Him. But how many are truly obedient to Him? How many are truly His disciples? The born again child of God has a new heart and the Spirit of Christ indwells him (Ezk 36:26–27; Jer 31:33). He, therefore, finds it in his heart a constraining love of Christ which compels him to obey Christ and to live according to His commandments. And he does not find Christ’s commandments, which are the same as the commandments of God, grievous (1 Jn 5:3). Conversely, one who truly loves the Lord will keep His commandments (cf. Jn 14:15), for as John says: “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:4).

It is sad that many modern Christians have imbibe the dispensational idea that all Christ commanded is to “have love one to another” (Jn 13:35). And so they think they are Christians just because they have some loving affections towards their fellow men. We need not at this place enter into the debate but to point out that “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Heb 13:8), and that Jesus Christ was “God… manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim 3:16). The commandments of Christ are the commandments of God. Let not those who know not the commandments of God,—especially the perpetual, moral, universal law as expressed in the Ten Commandments,—claim to love or know Christ, for the Lord will at the last day say unto them: “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt 7:23).

A born again believer ought to be able to say with the Psalmist: “Oh how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps 119:97). And he says so with equivocation, and if he does not keep any of the Old Testament laws, it must be only if he is persuaded that they are fulfilled in Christ (e.g., the Ceremonial Laws), or there is a indisputable abrogation of it in the New Testament (e.g., the Civil Laws).

When we find in our hearts such a desire to obey God, and that it is not a legal obedience but a loving obedience, we can have the assurance that God has begun a good work in us (Phil 1:6). On the other hand, if you find it burdensome to obey God’s commandments or are constantly finding excuses to avoid obedience, you must suspect that you may not be born again.

Moral Test

John puts it this way: “Every one that doeth righteousness is born of him” (1 Jn 2:29b); “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him” (1 Jn 3:6); and “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 Jn 3:9). Quite obviously, this does not mean that a true Christian will not sin at all. John had already made it clear: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). If it is true that Christians have no sin, then even the Apostle Paul was not a Christian, for he spoke about his struggles against sin in Romans 7, and he called himself the chief of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:15.

What John must mean, then, is that a true Christian must hate sin, especially personal sin, and will not habitually practise sin or lawlessness. A regenerate believer, indwelt with the Holy Spirit, mourns for his sin (Mt 5:4), and is much grieved that he has sinned against God. He trembles at the thought that he has a corrupt nature ready to break forth into all sorts of wickedness (cf. Ps 19:12–13). And if he does fall into sin, his attitude will be like that of David when he is confronted or made aware of his transgression, and so he will cry out like David:

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest (Ps 51:1–4).

What about you, dear reader, how do you react to the knowledge of your own sins? Do you feel a sense of grief even when the sin is not known to any person but yourself? When confronted with known or proven sin, is your immediate reaction that of humble repentance rather than justifying yourself? Do you grieve when you sin, knowing that God is displeased with you, rather than feeling sorry,—like Esau and Judas,—only when there are dire consequences and implications for you in this present life? Furthermore, do you genuinely repent of your sin and resolve not to repeat the same sin? Does your conscience prick you when you are tempted to commit the same sin? If you can answer positively to these questions, you have good reasons to be assured that you truly belong to Christ, otherwise, you ought to re-examine your foundations rather than being complacent about your spiritual state.

Holiness Test

To be holy is not only to be pure, but to be set apart unto God. As such to be holy is not only to live righteously, though without righteousness there is no holiness. To be holy requires that we do not fashion ourselves according to the lusts of the world (cf. 1 Pet 1:14–16). Thus, John is essentially speaking of holiness as a mark of the regenerate soul when he says: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world…” (1 Jn 5:4a); and exhorts us:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever (1 Jn 2:15–17).

The writer of Hebrews affirms the necessity of holiness in a true child of God when he teaches us that “without [holiness] no man shall see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). The Apostle Peter explains that we must be holy “in all manner of conversation” because God who has called us is holy (1 Pet 1:15–16). Now, if God has called us only by the voice of preaching, it would be impossible for us to obey His command to be holy, but the fact is that all regenerate children of God are called with an effectual calling, which attends the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ. For this reason, the Apostle Paul says: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new” (2 Cor 5:17; cf. Eph 4:24).

The genuine child of God no longer lives for his own carnal pleasure. Neither does he live to please man. He lives instead to glorify God and to please God in every aspect of his life (cf. 1 Cor 10:31; Gal 2:20). While the unregenerate man is motivated by how much money, status and pleasure he can get, the regenerate man is motivated by how much eternal good can be obtained (cf. Mt 6:24). While the unregenerate man may continue to enjoy the immoral entertainments of the world, the regenerate man finds these things more and more loathsome (cf. 1 Pet 1:14). While the unregenerate man may have no qualms about being found in drinking clubs, casinos, dance halls and cinemas, the regenerate man avoids these places and finds himself in much vexation of spirit if he were required to be in such places (cf. 2 Pet 2:8). While the unregenerate man may enjoy the company of worldly persons, the regenerate man desires to be a testimony to these and yet at the same time feels increasing discomfort to be in their company for any length of time (Ps 1:1). While the unregenerate man may engage on conversation centred on the pursuit of wealth and pleasure without any pinch of conscience, the regenerate man not only find these talks unedifying but frustrating (cf. Eph 5:4).

Familial Test

The Church of Christ is a family. Christians as such must love one another. John puts it this way: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death” (1 Jn 3:14). No one will dispute that a love for God is an indispensable evidence of salvation. No one will dare claim to be Christian if he has no love for Christ and no love for God. Yet, experience teaches us that many who portray themselves as fervent believers have little love for fellow believers, or even entertain hatred towards individuals who name the name of Christ. John notes this fact and warns of its contradiction:

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? (1 Jn 4:20).

John’s logic is very simple: If we say we love God whom we have not seen, and yet not love they for whom Christ laid down His life, whom we can see (1 Jn 3:16), then obviously our love for God is not genuine.

Every true Christian, as such, must love other believers because all believers are in the same family, same body in Christ. Now, this does not mean that we have no duty to love unbelievers, for the Lord teaches us to love our neighbours as ourselves. But our love for the brethren must be an especial love (cf. Gal 6:10). Again, this does not mean that we must necessarily have this especial love for anyone who claims to be a Christian, for there are many today who hate Christ, who call themselves Christians. To love these enemies of the Cross in the same way we love the brethren would be to despise the name of Christ.

This test of John is therefore not so straightforward when we look beyond the boundary of the local congregation. But we may say this: a true child of God will be able to honestly say he loves every member in his local congregation, at least.

What about brethren outside the communion? Well, no individual believer ought to take it upon himself to declare who is a believer and who is not, and therefore chooses whom he would love and whom he would not. The true child of God should therefore love any Christian who is a member of any communion which we can to some degree recognise as a true church of Christ. Indeed, we can put aside the case-by-case scenarios, and safely declare that an unforgiving or quarrelsome disposition is a sure mark of an unregenerate heart.

Now, it is true that one man differs from another so that some of us are more affectionate and some of us less. Some of us feel more keenly than others. As such, we must not think that if we cannot shed an empathising tear for someone, that we are therefore unregenerate. John makes it clear: Love is not just a feeling, it is also an act of the will. This is why we can be commanded to love one another (1 Jn 3:23). The affection of love is necessary, that acts of love be not hypocritical, but the will to love will be in every regenerate heart so that there is a desire to do good to another even if the feeling of affection is not obvious. So John urges us: “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18).


We have seen the five Johannine tests of life. This list is not necessarily exhaustive, but it does give an indication as to whether you are truly born again. A failure in any of these tests may indicate unregeneracy. On the other hand, an honest assessment that indicates a renewed mind and transformed life base on these tests can give us good assurance that we belong to Christ, for man by nature are dead in trespasses and sin, and so cannot measure up to any of these tests.

Bearing in mind the existence of a remnant of corruption within us, we know that no one of us can measure up perfectly. As such you must be very suspicious of yourself if you can read these tests without a great sense of unworthiness and failure, for in all probability if you can do so, it would indicate either unregeneracy or serious backsliding. Then I would urge you not to continue deceiving yourself, and I would urge you to restudy the list diligently and honestly, but this time bearing in mind that Satan may be deceiving you and you may just be hanging over the precipice of hell by a thin thread. May you, in this way, be spurred to “strive to enter in at the strait gate” knowing that “many… will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Lk 13:24). But if you are struck by your failures as you test yourself, there is great hope. Do not despair. Acknowledge your sin and shortfalls, and cry out to the Lord importunately until you are certain that Christ is formed in you (Gal 4:19).

J.J. Lim
24 February 2002