Knowing if They Know Him, Part 1

Part 1: Can We Know Who is Saved?

James, a friend from your church’s youth group, comes out as an open atheist. Shocked by the news, you talk about it with others at your church, “How can it be true that our friend isn’t saved?”

“He is saved,” they reply, “He prayed a prayer.”

The point of this little story is not about what saves someone, but why we’re surprised when it’s revealed that they were never really saved to begin with, and if a profession of faith reigns alone and supreme as the way to discern if someone is saved or not. Is it possible to know if someone is saved? How? We know that salvation comes from God, and not a magical prayer (John 14:6). We know that salvation cannot be lost or undone (Romans 8:38–39, Ephesians 1:11–14). Yet is it, in a sense, ‘seeable’? Is salvation detectable? And if it is, when are we supposed to try and detect it? And how do we detect it? The apostle John has a lot to say about knowing if one is saved (1 John 5:13), so in order to answer my questions, I’ve done a quick survey through his gospel account and three epistles to compile what he has to say about this issue.

Can We Know if Someone is Born Again?

I suppose the first question is simply: Can we know if someone is saved? Is it even possible to know who is saved and who is not? Obviously God knows who was, is, and will be saved (John 6:64, Ephesians 1:3–6). The believer themself can also be assured that they’re saved, by the work of the Spirit Himself within the believer (Romans 8:16, 1 John 3:24, 4:13). In fact, personal assurance is the express reason John wrote his first epistle (1 John 5:13). Yet John often goes further than merely saying that you can personally know if you are saved. Many times in his writings, he says that you really can know if someone else is saved or not.

“By this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifested: everyone who does not do righteousness is not of God, as well as the one who does not love his brother.”
— 1 John 3:10
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they were of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be manifested that they all are not of us.”
— 1 John 2:19

Both of the passages above make it clear that we can indeed know if someone is saved. Actually, to use the terms of the texts themselves: We can know whether they are born of God or are a child of the Devil (1 John 3:9). But John doesn’t stop here, he goes further.

“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
— John 13:35

I think this is one of the most pivotal verses for whether you can know if someone is saved. Firstly, Jesus here assumes we can discern who the other disciples are; who ‘one another’ is. But beyond that, after the true disciples have seen one another, and loved one another, Jesus tells us that this mutual love is like a billboard to the world of true conversion, true salvation. Not only does John 13:35 assume believers can discern other believers, but also that unbelievers can discern believers, by seeing their love for one another. Discerning or detecting who is saved is not only possible, it’s possible for everyone. This kind of discernment isn’t even an ability unique to those who are born again. Even those who are blind (2 Corinthians 4:4), darkened in heart (Romans 1:21), and dead (Ephesians 2:1) can discern who is saved; and by extension, who is not. It is quite possible to detect the saved.

When to Test if Someone is Saved

While it might make more sense to speak of what the test is, before talking about how often to administer it, I’d like to save the ‘how’ of this all as the climax to our conversation. If we can really know if someone is saved, then how often should we seek to find out? Should we be testing everybody’s salvation, or just some of them? Often it’s just assumed that someone is saved, but assumptions aren’t biblical commands. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “but examine all things; hold fast to that which is good.” Wouldn’t this include examining professions of faith? ‘But that text is talking about testing prophecies,’ you object. Although I think the apostle is applying a general principle to a specific situation, I understand the objection. What people seem to forget though is that there is an explicit command to test the genuineness of each person’s claim of faith in Christ.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.”
— 1 John 4:1–3

This is not limited to public false teachers. Although known teachers might be John’s largest concern, his language here— and throughout the whole book— is universal (1 John 2:19, 2:29, 3:10, 5:1–5). The phrase ‘every spirit’ appears three times in the opening three verses, not to mention that in verse six John speaks of ‘the one who knows God,’ and, ‘the one who is not from God,’ which is far more inclusive than just public facing false prophets.

Test the spirits. Test the souls. Test the persons. John isn’t talking exactly about discerning Satan or demons; at least not only that. He is talking about discerning what spiritual entity is behind someone. In verse 2, what does John say you’ll come to know by the end of the test? ‘The Spirit of God.’ However the way you come to know this, is not by testing the Spirit of God directly, but by testing the spirit of the one who ‘confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.’ We even see this play out in the text, as John shares the results of his own testing of his audience in verse 4, when he says to his original readers, “You are from God, little children…” John’s language here exactly reflects the kind of information he says will be produced by testing spirits; he declares that they are ‘from God,’ (cf. 1 John 4:3). John has tested his own audience, and found them to be brothers, just as he has tested the proto-gnostic false prophets whom he is warning against, and found the ‘spirit of error.’

Judgmentalism & Knowledge

Please don’t misunderstand, we recognize that someone’s thoughts are ultimately known only to them, though they don’t even fully understand their own heart (Jeremiah 17:9, 1 Corinthians 2:11). We are not omniscient, and so the results of our testing of the spirits should come with a degree of humility, especially depending on the specifics. The command from John is not for perfect certainty, only for testing.

Now this testing also shouldn’t be confused with what someone might call ‘judgmentalism’ or ‘hyper-criticality.’ In truth, there is no such thing as judging too much or too often, only incorrectly. We are to “…examine all things; hold fast to that which is good,” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Judging, or testing, all things does not mean that all things fail the test, or that we judge with haughty pride or undue suspicion (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). Judgment and condemnation are not always synonymous. The one who tests and declares someone as from the Spirit of God, is equally as judgmental as the one who declares someone dead in their sins (1 John 4:1–6). Testing also does not mean that we test once and never again, since certainly we might have missed something, or someone might have come to saving faith, or we simply got it wrong the first time. Nor does testing mean that the results will always be satisfying to us; your testing might well result in a strong, ‘I don’t know!’ In which case you may have to wait and see how things turn out. As we will come to see, some of the tests John gives us take time for evidence to accumulate. Nevertheless, the product of the test, which John repeatedly states, is that someone’s salvation will be manifest, proven, known (John 13:35, 15:8, 1 John 2:19, 2:29, 3:10, 4:1–6, etc.). While we might not have omniscient certitude, we can indeed know.

A Plea

Can we know who is saved? If you can't determine who is born again and who isn't, then you can't know who to disciple, who to evangelize, who to let disciple you, who to fellowship with and who not to, who is your brother or sister, who to date, who to marry, who you should be of one mind with, who's burdens you need to bear, who to exhort, admonish, call out for their sin, who to worship with, who to pray with, who you are united with, and who is your enemy. There’s about 50 or so ‘one another’ commands in the Bible, all of which suddenly become impossible to obey if we cannot perform the foundational exercise of figuring out who ‘one another’ is. If diagnosing someone’s spiritual state is required to do these things, then we not only can, but we must try to discern who is truly saved and who is not (1 Thessalonians 5:21. 1 John 4:1–3). The real question is this: How can we know who is saved? The answer to that question is my main concern in part two of this article. Click here for part two.