The Litmus Test of Genuine Christianity

(This is a repost from The Gospel Coalition here)


In our pluralistic culture, churches have become so varied that they spread confusion about what it really means to be a follower of Christ. When it comes to hot-button issues like gun rights, abortion, and homosexuality, professing Christians line up on opposite ends. Can Christianity legitimately be so divided? Or, to put it another way, can anyone discern the “real deal”? Is it possible to know what functional, practical Christianity truly looks like?

James, the brother of Jesus, says yes—and he gives us a simple litmus test:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (Jas. 1:27).

James provides a short, two-item checklist: (1) love—helping those in need, and (2) holiness—separating from worldly influence. These two traits summarize the practical outworking of a life changed by the gospel.

Much of the current division within the church comes from overemphasizing one trait over the other. Some churches tend to emphasize love, whereas others tend to prioritize holiness. But neither is negotiable. Both are essential for living the Christian life.

First Essential: Love

One way Christians can be tempted to forsake the requirement of love is to pursue our rights. Especially in America, where individualism is one of our sacred cows, we can get caught up in fighting for our rights, particularly as they pertain to religious freedom. There are certainly times and places to use proper legal means to secure those rights (as Paul did in Acts 22:22-30), but we should be known for something better than demanding equal treatment.

We can become so consumed with our liberties that we end up treating those in the world as our enemies, to the detriment of the gospel. God has called us to proclaim a message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20), something that is hard to do if we constantly approach unbelievers armed for a fight.

The Christian is called to consider the needs and preferences of others (Gal. 5:14). Yes, we must sometimes draw attention to a person’s—or even a nation’s—sins, but are we going to do so with our fists in their faces or with tears on our cheeks? During New Testament times, the government was far more corrupt and hostile to Christianity than ours is today, yet we don’t see Scripture commanding us to fight for our rights. Instead, we are instructed to expect unfair treatment—even blatant persecution—and to return hostility with love (John 15:18-20; Rom. 12:18-21).

Second Essential: Holiness

The sacred cow of individualism has affected not only our love but also our holiness. Too often, we have turned our personal happiness into the greatest good. As long as it makes me happy (whatever “it” may be), and as long as no one else gets hurt, I can and should pursue it. If I don’t pursue my own happiness, I am being untrue to myself. Or so the argument goes.

But the second fruit of genuine Christianity, James says, is “to keep oneself unstained from the world.” The world may tell us to follow our hearts, but we are called to be true ultimately to God and his Word—not to our autonomy. And being true to God often comes in the form of denying ourselves what we think we want, because it is actually bad for us (Rom. 13:4; 1 Pet. 2:11).

At the same time, we don’t want to be so far removed from the world that we don’t understand it. We can’t affect the culture if we aren’t engaging with it. In many ways, though, we have sacrificed our holiness on the altar of relevance. With the apparent purpose of being more engaged with our culture, the church has tried so hard to fit in that the distinction between churched and unchurched peoples has often been obliterated. We must take James’ warning to heart: aligning ourselves with worldly values is aligning ourselves against God (Jas. 4:4).

Christianity Is Countercultural

Christ-like love is a beautiful thing. To love unconditionally, regardless of another person’s maturity or theological depth or moral purity, is to love like God loves. It reveals a heart transformed by the gospel. Likewise, true holiness is a beautiful thing. Avoiding conformity to this world is a sign of a heart satisfied with promises and pleasures found in the gospel that exceed anything the world can offer.

Pure and undefiled Christianity is counter-cultural. It stands out as radically different from anything we would naturally think or do. Wherever we stand politically or denominationally, the true path of Christianity challenges us to confront the animosity and worldliness found in our own hearts. True Christianity may look to the world like foolishness, but it reveals God’s saving power.
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10 Responses to The Litmus Test of Genuine Christianity

  1. D.Philemon says:

    Enjoyed your post. We need check ourselves regularly to see if we are in the faith.

  2. Lon says:

    Mind if I disagree, somewhat? I think it’s overly simplistic to look for a single test (e.g. “litmus”). We could come up with many, many more passages that add to the number of litmusessssss.
    I also think this might be better termed “litmus” test for a Christian (e.g. a genuine follower of Christ), rather than a “litmus” test of genuine Christianity. I would submit that a test of genuine “Christianity” needs to be bounced against a claim about Christ (who He is, what He did). Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, JWs, Buddhism, etc can all talk about love and holiness in terms that are similar to Christians. However, they can not talk about Jesus the same way Christianity does.

    • TC says:

      Lon, I quite agree. Some clarifications are definitely in order. But it seems like he’s play off James’ idea of “Pure Religion” over against the false religion of chapter 2. It’s more of an intramural issue.

  3. Cap Stewart says:

    Thank you for the repost, Mr. Robinson! I appreciate it.

    Good clarifications, Lon. I agree. The overall purpose of the “litmus test” was to examine the fruit–not necessarily the root–of Christianity. That’s why I was careful to include language that pointed to a life that has already been transformed by the gospel.

  4. Simon says:

    TC, I do think the above blog post is right about love being litmus test of how Christians are to behave. If you think about it, true agape love for all is the single hardest thing for humans to do. To forgive your enemies, to truly love our neighbours and so on. Everything our Saviour taught us. This is what is truly countercultural. The typical culture wars that evangelicals engage in are not countercultural – they are part and parcel of our polarised, secular culture. Love is what truly transcends Western cultural wars and is what can truly transform people and society.

    Of course I take Lon’s point. Doctrine and dogma are important. However, I see no reason why orthodox Christians cannot affirm what is good and loving in other religions. Of course, I take the view that true Christianity (probably defined by orthodox Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity) is the fullest expression of what is good and true and lovely. And that Christian dogma, when it is expounded correctly, provides the impetus and grounding for God’s love to reign in our lives and communities. However, we haven’t been very good at this. In the US we see that Christianity has almost become a political ideology for large sections of the churches there – whether they be the Religious Right or liberal. Much of Western Christianity has sought to lessen and limit Christ’s teaching about love. This started with Augustine and his “just war” stuff. Many conservative evangelicals are enamored with individual rights like the right to own fire arms or to economic “freedom”. Christ’s command to turn the other cheek has been reduced to almost nothing in the West. We thus give away the countercultural, revolutionary love that Christ taught and lived. Once love is diminished, we are left with an ideology.

    • TC says:

      Simon, your comment is quite engaging. “Once live is diminished, we are left with an ideology.” Sad, but true, this is much of American Christianity.

      • Simon says:

        TC, not just in America. But also in the Western world in general. In more secularised Western societies, tolerance has basically replaced love. Where conservative Christians have sought to limit love (in my opinion), in the secular world, love has been replaced by tolerance. And tolerance is a very very poor substitute for love – in fact it is not substitute for love. Tolerance implies a dislike of the other, even though you can “tolerate” what they do and believe. Love means that you are involved with what your neighbour does. It connects you to others. Even though you may disagree, it provides the grounds for forgiveness and understanding and empathy. These three elements are sorely lacking in Western society, whether conservative evangelical or secular – especially forgiveness and empathy. It seems that people have no time for either these days.

  5. TC says:

    Simon, that’s why we need a Holy Spirit led revival, informed by the teachings of Jesus himself.

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