The Biblical Traits of a Christian
“How may I know that I am a Christian?” This question ought to be a matter of utmost importance for us, for the answer to that question will determine our eternal destiny. Therefore, to assume that we are Christians because we have been born and raised in the church, have been baptized, and have made a public profession of faith could have tragic results.
Regretfully, such an assumption is far too common. Christ alerts us to this in the conclusion of his famous Sermon on the Mount when he distinguishes between the broad and narrow way, between fruitful and fruitless trees, and between wise and foolish builders (Matt. 7:13–27). His most serious assessment, however, is expressed in these words: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:21–23, King James Version).
How sobering that there will be many on the last day who will have professed the name of Christ and have been actively engaged in various church activities, and who will yet hear out of his mouth, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” It is even more sobering that these words were uttered by the One who will be the judge and who knew with precision what will transpire on the last day.
Thus, Paul’s exhortation must be taken seriously when he writes, “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). We will ignore that exhortation at our own peril! When our life’s journey ends, it will not matter what our pastor, elders, or family members think of us. The only opinion that will then matter is Christ’s opinion, and his final judgment will be without error. He tells us that he will deny entrance into heaven to many professing Christians who will be shocked and dismayed by his final assessment of them.
Christ does not leave us in the dark, however, as to what the marks of a true Christian are. First, he tells us globally in Matthew 7:21 that true Christians do not only profess his name but also are doers of his Father’s will. Briefly, his Father’s will is that we come to his Son, believe in his Son, and follow his Son in the pathway of evangelical obedience. True believers in God’s Son, the living Word of God, will honor him by honoring his written Word—by being doers of the Word.
Having briefly focused on the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, let us now turn to the opening section of this sermon, known as the Beatitudes, to find a more in-depth answer to the question, “How may I know that I am a Christian?” Christ answers that question at the outset of his sermon by pronouncing the citizens of his spiritual kingdom to be blessed—to be supremely happy—because of specific traits that will identify them as such.
In the first seven opening beatitudes, Jesus gives us a composite verbal portrait of the Christian, beginning with “Blessed are the poor” and ending with “Blessed are the peacemakers.” This comprehensive portrait (Matt. 5:3–9) is followed by a concluding beatitude in which Christ describes how an ungodly world will respond to the citizens of God’s spiritual kingdom. The ungodly will persecute genuine believers who reflect the character of Christ, and it will revile them and speak all manner of evil about them (Matt. 5:10–12). Remarkably, being persecuted for righteousness’ sake also belongs to the blessedness of true believers.
As we take a closer look at this portrait, however, it should be noted that the traits of the Christian are set forth by Christ in a remarkable arrangement. The recognition of that arrangement is essential for a proper understanding of each of the individual traits set forth by the Beatitudes. To use a common analogy, we first need to consider what the entire forest looks like before examining the individual trees.
Upon examining the sequence and interrelatedness of the first seven beatitudes, a remarkable structure will emerge. Let me begin by proposing that the fourth beatitude—the central beatitude of this seven-beatitude structure—represents the core trait of the Christian. It is the axle to which the other traits are connected as the spokes of a wheel. To put it differently, it is the focal point of Christian experience that unites all seven traits as a coherent and interconnected entity. Christ defines it as a hungering and thirsting after righteousness and being filled with that righteousness.
I will therefore first briefly consider this core activity of Christian experience. This will be followed by considering the internal disposition of the Christian (vv. 3–5) that will culminate in such hungering and thirsting. I will then conclude by examining the external disposition of the Christian, for he who is filled with the righteousness of which verse 6 speaks will manifest this by the fruits of his life. We will see, as Scripture says, that such will be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers (vv. 7–9).
In Matthew 5:6, Jesus says, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Jesus thus uses an analogy that is familiar to everyone. He is saying that the people of his kingdom, the children of God, will be men and women who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and who cannot be satisfied unless they obtain that righteousness for which they yearn so intensely. In other words, this hungering and thirsting after righteousness, and being filled with that righteousness, represents the pith and marrow of the life of faith. The true believer will repeatedly embrace Christ by faith, followed by its inseparable fruit of abiding in Christ (John 15).
Christians yearn for that righteousness in a twofold way: they will yearn to be in a right relationship with God and to live a life that is right—one that conforms to God’s righteous standard. Can you identify with that? This inner and experiential yearning is absolutely fundamental to true Christianity. Jesus here brilliantly merges two fundamental aspects of the Christian life: a yearning for imputed righteousness and for imparted righteousness. Let me put it this way: a true believer longs to be redeemed by Christ and to be conformed to Christ—to be united to him and to be like him. That is the essence of the Christian life. To express it in theological terms, the Christian hungers and thirsts for justification and sanctification. Both of these foundational components of salvation are combined in this word righteousness.
Two questions now need to be asked, “What produces this spiritual hunger and thirst? What causes sinners to seek righteousness?” Naturally we have no such desire. By nature we seek for our blessedness in everything other than this righteousness, and we are ignorant of our need of it.
Therefore, the first thing Jesus mentions is being poor in spirit. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Why does Jesus begin here? Because without an experiential awareness of our spiritual poverty, we will never hunger and thirst after his righteousness. This prompted Jesus to say, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matt. 9:12).
However, the painful and experiential awareness of one’s spiritual poverty will result in experiential mourning. The Beatitudes are cumulative, and this mourning represents the Christian’s emotional response to his spiritual poverty. Recognition of one’s spiritual bankruptcy is not something a Christian takes lightly. It causes him to grieve deeply (Rom. 7:24).
And that leads us to the next beatitude, “Blessed are the meek.” Meekness is the disposition of a person who knows his proper place before God. A meek person is someone who sees himself as God sees him and thus recognizes the gravity of his sin. We hear this meekness in the confession of David in Psalm 51:4: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.”
A recognition of one’s spiritual poverty, the mourning and grieving over that poverty, and the humbling of oneself before God will culminate in a hungering and thirsting after righteousness. That will cause us to realize that as spiritually bankrupt sinners we need a righteousness outside of ourselves. That experiential realization will cause the Lord Jesus Christ to become, and continue to be, so very precious.
All who have such a hunger and thirst for righteousness will also “be filled.” Christ is saying here that when you hunger and thirst after righteousness, your soul shall be filled to overflowing. Thus, they who believe in, trust, and are united to Christ also will become like him. That will affirm the genuineness of our Christianity. Our faith is not real unless in some measure we begin to resemble Christ in how we think, speak, and behave. God’s Word therefore declares that “he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7).
Christ then proceeds to describe how this grace manifests itself, highlighting the essential components of the Christian life: being merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. One striking feature of the structure of the Beatitudes is the direct parallel between the internal (vv. 3–5) and external disposition (vv. 7–9) of the Christian. Simply put, they who are poor in spirit will also be merciful; they who mourn over sin will also be pure in heart; and they who are meek will also be peacemakers. And since Christ uses the present tense in each beatitude, he is saying that these traits will habitually and repeatedly manifest themselves.
In summary, God’s children will thus have an internal, habitual disposition of being poor in spirit, mourning, and being meek, causing them to hunger and thirst after righteousness—a righteousness to be found in Christ alone. Then, the righteousness for which they yearn, and with which they are filled, will spill over into their lives and cause them to be habitually merciful, pure of heart and life, and peacemakers.
My overarching premise therefore is that Matthew 5:3–9 is the preeminent passage in all of Scripture to teach us what a Christian looks like. It is a flawless verbal portrait drawn by the living Word himself. It is not accidental that this portrait consists of seven components, for the biblical number seven is the number of perfection. We may therefore conclude that verses 3 through 9 of Matthew 5 set before us a perfect portrayal of every believer who ever has lived or will live until Christ returns.
Having said that, however, we need to understand that we cannot pick and choose the individual components of this spiritual portrait. Rather, we need to understand that these seven marks are true at all times and at all seasons in the life of every believer—although not necessarily to the same extent. In some believers we see the features of this portrait more clearly than in others—just as there may be both clear and blurry photographs of a given individual. Yet, when you look at a blurry photograph, you will still be able to determine who is being depicted. These seven traits of the Christian therefore constitute an organic and interconnected whole.
We also need to realize that the order in which Christ gives us the components of this portrait is not arbitrary. That is to say, we cannot take these seven marks, juggle them, and then present them in just any fashion. Rather, Christ articulates these traits in a deliberate, precise, and cumulative order: one beatitude presumes the previous one and anticipates the next.
The seventh beatitude therefore most appropriately concludes in verse 9: “They shall be called the children of God.” Today we would say that this is the bottom line. Jesus is saying, “Those of whom this is true, and thus exhibit all of these marks, they, and they alone, shall be called the children of God.” The Greek word rendered as “children” in verse 9 is a word that means “they shall reflect the character of God.” It is as though Christ is saying, “They will prove themselves to be the sons and daughters of the living God.”
Reader, do you recognize yourself in this portrait? Do the inner disposition of your heart and the outward manifestation of your life revolve around a believing hungering and thirsting after Christ and his righteousness—a yearning that can be satisfied only by Christ himself? John summarizes this in the simplest of terms: “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 John 2:4). After all, they who genuinely profess the Father’s Son will also be doers of the Father’s will!
P.S. For a detailed exposition of each beatitude, please consult my recently published book, Christ’s Portrait of the Christian: An Exposition of the Beatitudes (Grand Rapids: Biblical Spirituality Press, 2019). This book can be purchased from Reformation Heritage Books.
Rev. Bartel Elshout serves as a minister of the gospel in the Heritage Reformed Congregation of Hull, IA. He is the translator of Wilhelmus a Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Theodore Vander Groe’s The Christian’s Only Comfort, and author of Christ’s Portrait of the Christian: An Exposition of the Beatitudes.