“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” John 3:3

Occasionally you will come across someone who readily claims that he tried Christianity once and failed. He prayed the sinner’s prayer and nothing seems to have happened. He walked the aisle and asked God to save him. He sincerely tried to turn over a new leaf, give up his sin, and be good. He found he simply cannot be a good Christian.

This situation is quite common among people who have been “inoculated” with just enough “Christianity” to harden their hearts, seemingly putting them farther from Christ and His salvation by grace. Perhaps they were raised in a church-going family but saving faith was never planted within them. Maybe they had a severe trial and they went through a “foxhole conversion.” It may also be that some eager Christian witness moved well ahead of the Holy Spirit in forcefully pressuring them to claim “God’s four spiritual laws” and follow the “abc’s” to get saved. Or maybe during an invitation at the end of an evangelistic message they accompanied a repentant friend forward but were not themselves under the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

In each case the person was misled to think that they “tried” salvation. But it usually does not take long to discern that real, spiritual vibrancy never stirs within them and neither does authentic, enduring love for their God. Their Christianity is a hollow façade. Without spiritual life, sin still has free reign and steps boldly within his heart. Though it may be muted by their moral high tone, the sin nature has not changed and a niggling suspicion dogs the inmost conscience.

Eventually, the unrepentant sinner, the “convert,” will come face to face with his hypocrisy and will be forced to admit that Christianity just did not “take.” He has chosen to give up his pretense and live by the “Golden Rule” hoping that God will take notice of him and others will think him a good person. But, as far as salvation, he is probably a lost cause.

Truth be told, authentic Christianity is not something you try on. It is not like trying on a pair of shoes to see if they look good, or if they pinch and are to be discarded as an ill-fit. Our text, or rather our Lord, explicitly says salvation is a new birth, being born from above. The first birth is not something you “try,” it is being endowed with life, acquiring human nature, and being gifted with the “image of God.” Applied to spiritual birth, when you get saved you are endowed with life, acquire the divine nature, and you fulfill your role as being an image bearer of God! This is not an external attempt at a good fit, it is an inside-out change of heart and direction.

Other verses to keep handy when you help a person discern whether their “attempt” at Christianity is an honest assessment before God should include the following verses in John 3, especially verse 36: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Plainly, either life is or it is not, and the wrath of God continues to weigh heavily upon him. Eternal life, by definition, is eternal and cannot be intermittent. How dare we question God’s ability when He sets His hand to bring eternal life to a spiritually dead man!

If he is truly born again but living disobediently, a fitting passage to use is Jeremiah 2:19: “’Your own wickedness will correct you, and your backslidings will rebuke you. Know therefore and see that it is an evil and bitter thing that you have forsaken the LORD your God, and the fear of Me is not in you,’ says the Lord God of hosts.” Then, in Jeremiah 3:13f, the prophet declares, “Only acknowledge your iniquity, that you have transgressed against the LORD your God, and have scattered your charms to alien deities under every green tree, and you have not obeyed My voice,’ says the Lord. ‘Return, O backsliding children,’ says the LORD.’” Revelation 2:4f also is appropriate in this case: “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.” The warning is clear for anyone who is born again but lives in sin. Revelation 3:15ff is also good to keep in mind.

If he is not born again, though he may have gone through the motions of “getting saved,” your work is to present an unadulterated Gospel message. There is nothing more dangerous than truth with a little poisonous error mixed in. If the Holy Spirit has revealed to him that he is not really born again then start with the basics—as if the person has never heard the Gospel—and you probably will not go wrong.

He must be challenged to repent and believe. 2 Thessalonians 1:8f reads, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” Deuteronomy 4:29 calls upon him to seek the Lord while he may be found! Trust and obey.