Many years ago, not long after I became a Christian, I attended an evening church service by myself, and slid into a pew beside a woman who had spoken with me a couple of times previously. After a few moments of small talk, I said somewhat nervously, “I think I’m going to ask my mom to come to church with me soon.”
“That’s nice!” she replied, genuinely interested.
“Yes, I’m hoping she’ll like it. I’m just not sure,” I admitted.
“Oh, is she a believer?”
The question rolled off her tongue so naturally, and she asked it with such matter-of-factness, that I could tell she had a fairly straightforward understanding of what being a believer was all about. But it wasn’t a straightforward question to me, a new Christian, especially regarding my mom. (Religion was rarely spoken of in my family as I was growing up.)
So when she asked it, I froze.
I thought I probably knew what being a believer meant (“had she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior?”), but I wasn’t entirely sure. What if you didn’t really know? What if you hoped you knew, but the person had never actually said? What if the person said some things to hint that they were, but there was little evidence in their life? What if they really were a believer, but you said you thought they probably weren’t because you saw no indication of it? My anxiety rose as all of these questions ran through my mind in a split second. Then I stammered out, “I … I’m not really sure. I guess I don’t know if she is or not.”
“Is she a believer?”
Now that I’ve been a Christian for quite a while, I know when this question is likely to come up. It’s often asked regarding a prayer request for a person who is extremely ill or near death. It might be asked when a person begins dating someone new. It’s mentioned sometimes in what is usually a secular situation as a happy circumstance (a Christian boss, teacher, neighbor, etc.).
But all those years ago, I wasn’t sure what my friend actually meant, or what the answer might be. In the time since, I’ve learned a lot about the difference between a belief that can be merely stated verbally, and a faith that must be lived out and will (or ought to) affect all areas of a person’s life.
What does it mean, to be a “believer”?
When a Christian asks if someone is a believer, they’re not just asking, “Does this person say they believe in Jesus?” The question goes much deeper than that.
To be a believer is both simple and complex. In simple terms, it means that you have acknowledged your own sinfulness and need for a Savior. You know from experience that you are a poor ruler of your own life (which is the opposite of what the world says), and need to instead let God take control. You confess this belief by accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior.
That’s Step One of belief—but it doesn’t stop there.
True belief produces an active faith …
Step Two (and this step takes an entire lifetime) is clearly explained in a very practical book of the Bible, written by James, brother of Jesus:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22)
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? … For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” (James 2:14, 26)
Over and over again, James reminds us that our belief must live out loud in both speech and action.
… and it’s life-changing.
Passive belief merely says, “I believe.” Active faith takes the next step, showing evidence of our changed hearts and transformed lives in Christ. Because we all come from different starting points in our faith journey, have different personalities and gifts, and have different obstacles to overcome, this active faith will look different for each of us. But it will be present in our outward lives and be discernible by others.
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, can you look back over your own life and see a forward movement, a changed and softened heart, a mind eager to know God, and actions and speech that reflect Jesus working in you and through you? It’s a tall order, but to one extent or another, that’s exactly the kind of work that the Holy Spirit is doing in you in your walk with Christ. It’s transforming you, and it shows.
“Am I a believer?”
So when a Christian asks if someone is a believer, they’re asking if that person has a saving faith in Jesus Christ, and it’s understood that there will be outward indications in their life. Now, the answer to the question of others’ eternal salvation is not ours to judge in the ultimate sense—and thank goodness for that. That’s God’s territory. But while we sometimes can’t answer the question, “Is she a believer?” about other people, it’s a valid question to ask ourselves, about ourselves, every day.
In our words to others, in our actions and deeds, are we living out what we say we believe? These day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute Christlike choices could never be accomplished on our own. God is doing this work in us, and with us, so that “I’m a believer” becomes more than something we merely say. Thankfully, we already know how it all ends: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
So this active faith, this reflection of Christ, this transforming grace—it all flows from true belief and trust that God will do what he says he will do: bring it to completion. If you are a believer, Christ lives in you and enables you to put your faith into practice. He is with you every moment and gives you the strength to live out your belief. You can depend on it.