"Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord gave attention and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who esteem His name. "They will be Mine," says the Lord of hosts, "on the day that I prepare My own possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him." So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not serve Him." (Malachi 3:16-18)

It has always been a very difficult thing for the church to distinguish true believers from all unbelievers. After all, only God knows the heart truly and even our best insights into the lives of others often can be clouded by a number of factors. And so, we normally accept a person's credible confession of faith as genuine until it becomes obvious that the life of the individual does not match up with the confession. Perhaps it was to help guide the church in this task that the Spirit of God furnished us here with several identifying marks of the righteous - characteristics, if you will, which serve to identify the peculiar people of God. Oh, you didn't see that word (peculiar) in the text? Well, it was there - when God spoke of preparing a people for His "own possession." That's really what that word indicates - 'peculiar'. Not in the sense that we are queer or odd or unusual, but in the sense that we are a 'purchased people', a people that God has bought and gathered to Himself (see: Ex 19:5; Ps 135:4; 1 Pet 2:9; Titus 2:14). So, it is this distinctive group of true believers, exclusively belonging to God, that is being set forth here and demarcated from all others by the following traits.

First, we read of their "fear" for the Lord. What does that mean? Well, later we're told that the righteous "esteem" the name of the Lord. Both of these words indicate a love and respect for God that are woven together into a holy reverence for Him within the life of the believer. To "esteem" also carries the sense that God is "thought of" or "considered" by us. We do not shuffle Him off into some forgotten, obscure corner of our existence, but usher Him forth into the light of our daily walk.

In Proverbs, it is said that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". So, the believer, distinguished by his or her "fear of the Lord," also is marked by a wisdom not found among the ungodly of this world. By godly wisdom we grow to esteem God above self and value the things of God -- things not seen and eternal -- over the material, temporal, and passing things of this world. Genuine believers show this wisdom as we are stirred to consider the disposition of our souls while others remain preoccupied with the joys and comforts of the body.

Then also notice that true believers are denoted as those who speak to one another. Of course, this is no run-of-the-mill conversing that is being alluded to here, but a holy conversation among the people of God, a reminding one of each other, of the glories of our God (Col 3:16), an encouraging of one another in the faith (1 Thess 5:11), and a stimulating of each other unto good works (Heb 10:24). John Calvin even goes so far as to see herein an excitement, an animation, within these conversations, as the people of God become even more caught up in the beauty of their God and King. Surely this sort of conversation most clearly sets apart the people of God in a day such as ours when all 'God-talk" is publically discouraged.

Finally, the believer is distinguished by obedient service which is indicated in verses 16 and 17 as God lovingly promises to spare His people "as a man spares his own son who serves him". I believe that what is being stressed here is service for God in the public arena. In other words, the focus is on a genuine faith in God that cannot be restricted to the sphere of private devotion divorced from any public obligations. Leslie Newbigin once wrote that "the church exists (at least in part) to challenge the ideology that rules the public life of a nation" and "the church cannot without guilt absolve itself from this responsibility, where it sees the possibility, of seeking to shape" that public life. One difficulty the church today now faces stems from our seeming willingness to agree to a hands-off security offered by the State if only the church will agree to a self-imposed banishment from the public arena. It is becoming painfully clear to us today how false that sense of security truly is. Newbigin asks: 'Can room really be made for faith in the private sector if it is cast out from the public one? Will not Satan and his forces, who oppose all true faith wherever it is found, not rest until genuine faith (and the right to exercise it) is stamped out entirely?' The true believer is distinguished, then, by a conviction that any strategy to divorce the truth and authority of God's Word from the obedient observance (service) of that Word in all areas of life (public and private) must ever be opposed and rejected.

As believers, our lives are to reflect real devotion for God, a love for our fellow believers, and a godly concern for the culture in which we live. Such faith, service, repentance and confession, we are told, are recorded in a book of remembrance -- not because God is in any danger of forgetting, but to assure us all the more of His intention to remember His peculiar people whom He does treasure.

The Rev. Donald Caviness is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, MS.