“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
The picture of the final judgment that Jesus paints in this passage is truly horrific. It is terrifying to think that there will be some people who will stand before God, truly believing that they will be allowed to enter His Kingdom, only to hear those dreadful words: “Depart from me. I never knew you.” Can any human imagine what they will feel in that fateful moment?
I certainly can’t, and neither can Mike McKinley. And that’s why he wrote his latest book, Am I Really a Christian?. McKinley knows the gravity of that question, and thus offers some guidance with a fitting seriousness. One’s answer to this question is not trivial, and thus McKinley encourages his readers to soberly consider all he is about to say. His humble and sincere spirit is evident in the first few pages:
But if you will believe it, I am writing this book because I genuinely want to help. We who profess to be Christians in the world today have a serious problem. Many of us are confused about a matter that is larger than life and death, namely, whether everyone who claims to be a Christian really is…Friend, you have a lot at stake in knowing whether you are genuinely a Christian. (13-14)
The first thing that struck me about the book was how thoroughly biblical it is. McKinley is careful to say what the Bible says, incorporating a number of different passages relevant to that fateful question. He is never shy in clearly presenting the Bible’s teaching, even when it’s unpleasant. However, he also isn’t oblivious to the careful nuance that is required when talking about “evidences” for true faith. The fact of the matter is that the Bible doesn’t give us a black and white list of criteria for judging whether or not a person is truly a Christian. It’s more complicated than that, not least of all because of the deceitfulness of the human heart.
Which leads me to my next point of praise. McKinley wisely reminds readers of the value of Christian brothers and sisters, who will be able to help us process through what the Bible has to say about true followers of Christ. This is especially profitable for those who struggle with assurance. He writes,
As a pastor, I often meet with brothers and sisters with sensitive consciences who feel every failure and struggle acutely. If that describes you, then you may want to enlist the help of some friends as you read through this book. (15-16)
This is a theme that is repeated over and over again. McKinley is keenly aware of the importance of being surrounded by a group of believers, also known as a local church, that is able to encourage us when we falter, rebuke us when we’re unrepentant, and reveal hidden sin in our lives. That’s why McKinley calls this “a book for Christians in churches” and notes that the person who attempts to engage in this self-examination alone “is off to a bad start and may never find the answers he or she is looking for,” (16).
McKinley has broken the book up into nine chapters: the first seven are meant to reveal that marks of a non-Christian, while the last two offer some helpful assurance for true believers, and another, more lengthy, encouragement to seek help from others. McKinley engages head-on issues such as merely claiming the name “Christian,” simply admiring Jesus, enjoying sin, not loving people, and not persevering in faith. Each chapter was personally convicting, but McKinley’s tone was consistently gracious and helpful.
It is important to note who this book was written for. It was not written for, and should not be used by, those seeking to obtain a list of criteria for judging the faith of others. The tricky thing about the “marks” of unbelief is that they are all present, to some extent, in genuine Christians. The only two people really qualified to judge a person’s heart is that individual and God.
I would give the book to two different types of people. On the one hand, it could be helpful for those who are confident in their faith, but need to be encouraged to heed the words of the apostle Paul, who exhorted his readers to “examine youselves, to see whether you are in the faith,” (2 Cor. 13:5). This was my main takeaway from the book. American evangelicals have largely neglected the discipline of self-examination, but it is commanded in Scripture and many in history have attested to it’s value.
The second type of person I would give this book to is the complacent Christian. This is the person who is living their life with little regard for God and His Word, and who thus needs a “reality check.” Thankfully, McKinley offers some compelling warnings, but in a non-judgmental way, which makes him hard to refute or ignore.
My one criticism is that the book can be a little dull at times. McKinley’s sober, restrained style generally left me wanting a little more…”oomph.” There are a few illustrations and anecdotes scattered throughout, but that wasn’t enough to prevent me from feeling a little bored at times (though perhaps this says more about me than it does the book itself).
All in all, Am I Really a Christian? is an excellent warning and exhortation to those who would claim the name of Christ. The answer to that question couldn’t be more important, and therefore shouldn’t be neglected, even for a moment.