“Do you think he’s a believer?” This is what my friend asked me after we ended our Bible study. My friend and I had been meeting with a Muslim for a number of weeks and reading through Scripture together in order to share the gospel. “I think he is,” my friend continued. I was a little skeptical.

This conversation sparked an internal debate. How will we know when Hamdi comes to faith? What will that look like? What truths do we need to nail down in order for him to be considered a brother in Christ? What will be the deciding factors?

Before we can answer these questions, we need to understand the nature of the new birth.

Idealists and Minimalists

Inevitably we face the risk of requiring too much to discern salvation (the idealist approach) or requiring too little (the minimalist approach). The idealist is prone to create a list of beliefs and actions that a person must exhibit in order to be considered a Christian. He may say things like, “Hamdi’s idea of the Trinity is a little modalistic,” or “I’m not sure he understands the hypostatic union that communicates why Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is sufficient.” The minimalist tries to determine the lowest common denominator. He may say things like, “Hamdi loves Jesus, that’s good enough for me. We don’t want to bog him down with our Western categories of theology.”

To answer the question accurately we need to determine what we’re talking about when we say “salvation.” Scripture speaks of salvation in three senses: I am saved (justification), I am being saved (sanctification), and I will be saved (glorification). Therefore, we must first ask, “What is required for justification?” Michael Horton gets to the heart of the issue when he says that asking how much we need to know to be saved “turns salvation into another version of works righteousness, where we’re graded on the most minimal pass/fail exam. The point to be made is that we are saved by Christ, not by our answers, and that the Christ who saves us expects us to learn everything he has to say.”

Horton scolds both the idealist and the minimalist. We are saved apart from our proper theology in order to develop a proper theology. It’s not an either/or debate. Therefore, we should careful not to require a checklist of doctrines in order for a Muslim to be considered a Christian. We must present them with the basic gospel message of repentance and faith that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We need to realize that people often enter the kingdom with bad theology. They actually know very little (i.e. they’re a sinner in need of a savior, and Jesus is that savior). People react differently when they believe. Some will change overnight, and their spiritual fruit will be evident in love and good deeds. Others change slower, and their fruit is more sporadic.

Typical Process

Muslims coming to faith typically involves a process, often a long one. Missionary Dick Bailey has produced this chart to identify what that process may look like:

Muslim Beliefs


Jesus is only one of the prophets.


Jesus is somehow unique among the prophets.


Jesus actually died on the cross according to the Bible’s account.


Jesus died for my sins on the cross; I know I am sinful and cannot save myself.


Jesus is somehow the Son of God and the almighty God incarnate, even though I don’t understand how.


I receive Jesus by faith as my Savior and Lord, submitting myself to him.


Jesus is able to help and guide me by his Holy Spirit.


Jesus is in the lives of other believers too; the church is his body.


Jesus is worthy of my life, and I confess him in baptism. Jesus cleanses me from all sin when I confess and forsake it, and I seem to sin so often.


Jesus speaks to me through his Word, and I love to meditate on it.


Jesus is my Lord, and I am willing to lose my family and possessions for him.


Requiring “Westminster quality” theology for salvation is not realistic. However, we must not neglect teaching Muslim-background believers God’s Word either. Bad theology is not an option in the ongoing life of a believer.

Consider this example. The doctrine of the Trinity and the sonship of Christ are very difficult concepts for Muslims to grasp. We should not make a full understanding of them a requirement for salvation, but we should make them a requirement for discipleship. Doctrines like the Trinity and sonship of Christ give the “nut and bolts” of the gospel. They make sense of the good news. They solidify it. They make it more precious. Paul said twice in Acts that he did not shrink back from giving them the whole counsel of God’s Word (Acts 20:20, 27). In Colossians he said that he desired to present every man mature in Christ (1:28). Jesus himself told us to teach the nations all the things that he commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). If our Muslim friends have genuine questions about these hard doctrines, we must be patient and thorough in our explanation and not just tell them, “These aren’t necessary for salvation, so let’s not worry about it.”

Still a Mystery

In the end, the issue of when a person comes to faith is a mystery (John 3:8; Mark 4:26-27). John Owen said in his work On the Mortification of Sin in Believers:

The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge is not so much in the matter of their knowledge as in the manner of knowing. . . . The excellency of a believer is, not that he hath a large apprehension of things, but that what he doth apprehend, which perhaps may be very little, he sees it in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving, soul-transforming light; and this is that which gives us communion with God, and not prying thoughts or curious-raised notions.

Our task is to present them with the simple message of the gospel and give them the whole counsel of God’s Word as they are able to bear it (John 16:12-13). As my pastor, Randy Edwards, has said, “Ultimately, we prefer to hold loosely our understanding of what people are doing or not doing to be saved, but rather that God does it and we can trust that he will do it.”

Finally, here are some question you can ask Muslims to discern their position in the process of salvation and discipleship:

  • What do you believe about Jesus?
  • What do you believe about the Bible?
  • Who made Jesus?
  • Do you think you can do enough good works to get to heaven?
  • On what basis does God extend his mercy to you?
  • What do you believe about Muhammad?
  • What do you believe about the Qu’ran?
  • Do you think Jesus died on the cross for your sins?
  • Do you think Jesus rose from the dead?
  • Do you believe that Jesus is God?