With so many churches teaching so many different things, how can one identify those who remain faithful to Christ's original teachings? With the world so heavily influenced by Satan and a counterfeit Christianity, how can one find the truth?
Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:20-21).
Jesus promised His Church that the "gates of Hades"—the grave—would never prevail against it. The true Church of God would not die out; it would survive any attempts to destroy it.
How can you find that true Church of God, the Church Jesus built? How can you locate God's special people in the midst of the splintered and fractured faith known as Christianity? What distinguishes them from those to whom Jesus Christ said, "I never knew you"? (Matthew 7:23).
To answer these questions we need to understand an important lesson Jesus explained in a parable.
A lesson from a tax collector
To recognize the distinction between converted servants of God and those whose righteousness is measured by their traditions or opinions, we must see beyond impressive outward appearances. In His parable about the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector), Jesus shows how to discern the traits with which God is pleased as compared with the characteristics that tend to impress other people (Luke 18:9-14).
In this parable the Pharisee, an obvious religious practitioner, sets an impressive example. He appears the model of godliness, one who does all the right things. He faithfully tithes and spurns injustice and immorality. He fasts and prays regularly and frequently. That he thanks God for his righteousness indicates a conviction that his own religious approach to life is pleasing to God. He sees himself as a righteous man. No doubt he greatly impresses others as well.
The tax collector, however, holds a far different view of himself—and has a far different reputation. Anyone would have suspected him of being corrupt, filled with greed and graft—extorting more from people than they owed, as was common. Hardly anyone would have trusted the tax official; most people would have avoided him like a disease.
Yet, in this parable, who is the genuine servant of God? The tax collector is the one who truly repents and recognizes his insignificance compared with God. He sees his past for what it is. He admits his sins and humbly asks forgiveness. He displays an attitude similar to that of Christ—"not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42). A spiritual transformation occurs in his life.
But the Pharisee, confidently believing himself to be a true servant of God, remains blind to his own spiritual condition. He believes his approach to God is right, convincing himself that he is pleasing God. But he has no comprehension of true repentance. He is among those "who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (Luke 18:9).
Who would you have chosen as God's servant if you had been asked to decide between the Pharisee and the tax collector? Would you have correctly discerned the one who was acceptable to God? Or would you have been impressed by the apparent righteousness of the Pharisee because he appeared to be an outstanding spiritual example, a member of one of the most prestigious religious groups among his people?
We must realize that God views people differently from the way we view them. We can see the outside of a person, but God sees inside people: "For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).
How Paul was deceived
The apostle Paul is a classic example of a man who learned his lesson—because of his own experiences. Paul had been a Pharisee, a member of one of the strictest Jewish groups of his day. He was sincere in what he believed and practiced. He summed up his own zeal and adherence to the precepts he had learned as a Pharisee:
"If anyone makes claims [of righteousness in the flesh], I can make a stronger case for myself: circumcised on the eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred; in my practice of the law a Pharisee, in zeal for religion a persecutor of the church, by the law's standard of righteousness without fault" (Philippians 3:4-6, Revised English Bible).
Paul explained the reason for the existence of the spiritual blindness he had so zealously represented: "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God" (Romans 10:1-3).
This is a common problem. Paul persecuted the Church of God because of his spiritual blindness and self-righteousness. Later he thanked "Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief" (1 Timothy 1:12-13).
Paul, a devout Pharisee, was sincere. But he was sincerely wrong. After God opened his mind, he could see just how wrong he had been.
The condition of Christianity
The highly visible, popular Christianity of our age abounds with Christians who are much like Paul was before God called him to repentance. They are sincere but lack understanding of the righteousness of God. Like the Pharisee in Christ's parable, they cannot believe they could possibly be wrong. They neglect obedience to God's law because of their lack of understanding—having been victimized by a false gospel—yet they are sincerely convinced they are serving Jesus Christ.
Like Paul before God called him, they do not recognize sin in themselves. Because of their lack of understanding, they do not even know what sin really is. If asked for the biblical definition of sin, most would have no idea how or where God defines sin in the Bible.
As those who came before them, they follow "traditions of men" in place of the commandments of God. They have been blinded through Satan's pervasive influence on people's beliefs.
Many of them are sincere. They have learned enough about the purpose of Christ's life, death and resurrection to understand some of God's plan to save mankind. Many read the Bible regularly and sincerely want to please God. But sadly they, like Paul before God called him, remain blinded to the real meaning of sin, repentance and conversion.
Is the knowledge they have gained and the respect they have for the Bible all in vain? No. When God opens their eyes to truth and they willingly acknowledge their mistakes, they will recognize the true definition of sin and repent.
The advantage of knowing the Bible
When the Church of God began on that Day of Pentecost long ago, it originated among the only people on earth who were intimately familiar with the Holy Scriptures—the Jewish people. Knowledge of those Scriptures gave them a tremendous advantage.
Paul asks: "What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God" (Romans 3:1-2, NIV).
Paul's fellow Israelites held to inaccurate ideas about many important parts of Scripture (as is the case with many people who consider themselves Christians today). But most of them had at least learned many basic truths. That was their advantage.
Biblical knowledge provides an advantage—to an individual, to a community, to a whole nation. Anyone who knows the Bible has gained an advantage. Those who practice what they know have an even greater advantage.
Having already acquired much biblical knowledge in their homes and synagogues, Paul's countrymen had a foundation on which they could build. What they had learned was not wasted. Gentiles who had no knowledge of the true God or His ways had no such foundation. (Yet, according to Romans 2:14-15, some gentiles had a willing and obedient attitude even without proper knowledge—to the embarrassment of disobedient Israelites who knew the law.)
But the principle applies. And so it is with those who today believe the Bible is God's Word but think they can pick and choose which biblical teachings they wish to apply to their own lives. They have been taught to ignore some of the commandments of God and accept the traditions of men. But many of them are at least familiar with the Bible. That is of great value.
Having knowledge of the Bible can provide the same advantage to them as it did to the Jews of Paul's day. But, to capitalize on that advantage, they must learn to understand the Bible correctly and let it be their ultimate guide in belief and practice. A false Christianity, under the influence of Satan, has misled the many, and only those few who obey God are His special people.
Examine your own understanding
You may be much like the Jews Paul wrote about. Maybe you, although familiar with the Bible, are only beginning to understand its basic teachings. Maybe you are just now learning the importance of keeping God's commandments, real repentance, the destiny of mankind, the Kingdom of God, the meaning of salvation and what the Church of God that Jesus built really is.
If you are already familiar with the Bible, you have a distinct advantage. Continue to study it, diligently adding to what you know and correcting what you have misunderstood. If you are unfamiliar with the Bible, it will be to your advantage to learn what it teaches. It contains knowledge essential to salvation (2 Timothy 3:15-17). (For additional help, be sure to download or request Is the Bible True? and How to Understand the Bible . Both booklets are yours free for the asking.)
Above all else, let God correct you through His Word. Have the attitude of David: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24, NRSV).
If you wish to find the true Church of God that Christ built—those "special people of God"—you need to know what you are seeking. You need to know the key characteristics that identify God's people.
You shall know them by their fruits
More than any other factor, it is the fruits of God's people that tell the story. "Therefore by their fruits you will know them," says Jesus. "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:20-21).
You want to locate other people who are special to God because they do God's will. That is the fruit that Jesus says is most important. He also says, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). The special people of God not only do God's will, they do it "because God's love has been poured into [their] hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to [them]" (Romans 5:5, NRSV).
To God, love and obedience are inseparable: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). Paul states the same thought in different words: "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10, NRSV).
The power of the Holy Spirit causes the love of God to flow through His people within the channel of His law. His law defines and directs love. Doing anything contrary to God's law is the antithesis of love. For example, committing murder, adultery or theft breaks God's law. Doing any of those things shows a lack of love to God and neighbor.
How important is the relationship between love and obedience? It is the key that distinguishes the true people of God from those deceived by Satan: "In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness [God's commandments, see Psalm 119:172] is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother" (1 John 3:10).
Love and doing go together. They are inseparable. Both are essential for the true followers of Christ.
James says: "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does" (James 1:22-25).
God will not accept mere lip service. Jesus said, "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me" (Matthew 15:8). He also said, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things" (Matthew 12:35).
The hearts and minds of God's servants are transformed by His Spirit so that they want to obey Him. They willingly submit to and obey God. Serving God is a way of life, not an empty ritual. True Christians believe God, and they practice what they believe.
The evidence of their obedience can be readily observed in the fruits of their lives. Truly you can know them "by their fruits," especially the fruits of love and obedience. (For a fuller explanation of love and obedience, download or request our free booklet The Ten Commandments . )
How God's laws define love
Everything God requires of His people, and every tenet of right living in the Bible, is founded on two basic principles— loving God and loving our fellow man.
One man asked Jesus, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" (Matthew 22:36). Jesus answered by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).
God's special people understand the Scriptures. They know that the design and purpose of God's law are based on loving God and loving other people. They understand that treating others as God commands is love.
Through Moses, God asked ancient Israel, "What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?" (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
This is simply an expanded version of the first great commandment cited by Jesus Christ: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. Notice, too, that loving God and obeying Him are inseparably linked. Loving God is demonstrated by obeying God's laws, which He gave for our good.
Continuing, we see a similar expansion of the second great commandment: "Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. For the Lord your God . . . shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (verses 16-19).
God's message, in the Old and New Testaments, is simple. Since God shows no partiality but loves all people, including persons unlikely to receive much respect—foreigners, orphans, widows—He commands His followers to treat these people according to the instructions in His law.
The obedient and converted people of God
Revelation 12 pictures the people of God as a woman under attack by Satan (verse 13). The setting of this prophecy is just before the return of Jesus Christ. "And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (verse 17).
Notice that the Church is described as keeping God's commandments and holding fast to everything Jesus taught. This demonstrates that the Church Jesus built has always obeyed the commandments of God and will continue to do so even until the time of Christ's return to earth.
This passage makes it clear that it is impossible for a church to claim to know God and disregard the need to obey His commandments. The apostle John makes this plain: "Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar [Greek pseustes, a falsifier, one who breaks faith, a false and faithless person], and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him" (1 John 2:3-5).
The Church is made up of obedient people who diligently strive to obey Christ's instruction to live "by every word of God" (Luke 4:4). They are people who regularly go to God in prayer for the strength and power they need to please God and grow in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18).
The people of God are converted; they have received God's Spirit (Romans 8:9). They understand when and how God gives His Spirit—that one must first repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). They know that baptism without repentance is merely an empty, invalid ritual.
For example, the apostle Paul had to rebaptize some people who had previously been baptized but lacked sufficient understanding to be truly converted (Acts 19:1-5). They had been immersed in water, but they did not receive the Holy Spirit until Paul properly counseled and rebaptized them.
True conversion requires a basic understanding of repentance and the meaning of baptism. (For a full explanation of repentance, baptism and conversion, be sure to download or request your free copy of Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion and The Road to Eternal Life .)
Satan's deception has led to false conversions
Those who "accept Christ" but have no comprehension of what sin is and lack real repentance have a false conversion. Here is where Satan's deception has been the most successful. Jesus said plainly that many would follow false prophets, accepting a false conversion.
How can this happen? It happens because few people understand what sin is. They have been taught that they can selectively obey, that full obedience to God's laws is no longer necessary. They have believed a false gospel that, at its core, teaches we can disregard parts or all of God's law.
Satan has persuaded people to "believe on Christ" without understanding what He taught. He has convinced them to accept the idea that the Bible is God's Word while believing they can receive salvation without repenting of disobeying God's laws. Through such deceptions the devil has promoted a multitude of false conversions and created a Christianity lacking God's Spirit—an unconverted Christianity!
The Church today
The Church Jesus built is a truly converted body of people who have repented of their disregard for God's laws. They have been transformed by baptism and the receiving of God's Spirit. They are imperfect; they still falter and sin at times. But they repent. And they rely, in faith, on Jesus Christ to help them live by every word of God.
The Church today is the vehicle Jesus Christ uses to proclaim the truth about the coming Kingdom of God to the world (Matthew 24:14). It is the family God is building—His own children—who will receive eternal life at Christ's return (1 John 3:1-2; 1 Corinthians 15:51-53).
As children of God, the Church anticipates a "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). Its members eagerly await the return of Jesus Christ so they can assist Him in bringing true repentance and salvation to the world (Luke 11:2; Revelation 3:21).
To fulfill their mission and maintain the closeness and unity that Christ expects of them, the members of His Church regularly assemble together as commanded in the Scriptures (Exodus 20:8-11). They take seriously the admonition: "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The Church assembles together on the seventh-day Sabbath, as was the custom of Jesus Christ and the apostles (Luke 4:16, 31-32; Acts 13:14, 42, 44). Its members strive to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles in all things (1 John 2:6; 1 Corinthians 11:1).
The members of the United Church of God are dedicated to preserving and proclaiming "the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 1:3, NRSV). Congregations of the United Church of God, an International Association, are striving to do their part in fulfilling the mission Christ gave to His Church. (If you would like to learn more, request or download our free booklet This Is the United Church of God. )
We meet in major cities around the world. We are zealously committed to obeying God, loving one another and completing the Church's mission of spreading the true gospel of the Kingdom of God. All who desire to learn the truth, to obey God and fellowship with others of like mind and spirit are always welcome.