I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a story approximating the following. Somebody has grown up going to church, hearing the gospel and made a profession of faith or prayed the sinners prayer. They apparently go on with the Lord for a bit until, eventually, drifting away from the church and Christ. If pressed, they might still say they believe, but there is absolutely nothing about their lifestyle that gives any indication that this is any more than mere words. For many, there isn’t even a claim to love Jesus.
This sort of story does the rounds and few Christians wouldn’t be able to tell you of one they know about. But I have also noticed, with troubling frequency, how many people under those circumstances still want to insist that person is a believer and belongs to the Lord. There is no sign of fruit, no evidence of belief and often no understanding of the gospel. But nonetheless, we still hear that the Lord still has them, for some reason. This concerns me deeply for two reasons.
First, it doesn’t do anything to help those people come to Christ. If we continue to affirm that somebody is a believer who has clearly departed from the faith, we are doing nothing other than comfort that person all the way to perdition. In all honesty, I cannot wrap my head around why you would want that for your family and friends. Why would you want them to go on in the false belief that they’re alright as they are by telling them the profession they made years before – despite every evidence to the contrary that it ultimately wasn’t genuine – are somehow still believers?
If we claim to love our family and friends, we surely can’t be content with affirming them in beliefs that are actively damaging to them. They don’t need our reassurance that they’re safe in the Lord; they need the gospel. They need to hear that they aren’t okay and, if they carry on as they are, they will remain outside of Christ and face all the disastrous consequences of being so. To comfort somebody as a believer, to affirm faith that clearly doesn’t exist, does them no favour at all. It is actually damaging the very people we claim to love.
I have heard similar things said to comfort believing parents regarding their unbelieving children. But again, it might feel nice to tell people that the Lord still has their children, but we don’t actually help them or their children by pretending it is so. Instead, helping people see the reality of the situation – that without ongoing, active faith in Christ there is no salvation and that is effected by the Holy Spirit, who is obviously absent in the heart of someone who has no concern for holiness – means they can continue to hold out the gospel clearly to those who need to hear it.
I appreciate with family and friends it is not always the easiest thing to do. Especially if the gospel is considered to be something we have heard hundreds of times before and have no interest in it. And I’m not suggesting that every time you meet them you need to pull out your two ways to live presentation and the Lord is unhappy with you if you don’t. All I am saying is we need gospel clarity; both about the situation and for the sake of those who need Christ. If we think people are safe in Christ when they’re not, we’ll comfort them and exhort them in all sorts of ways that are actually helping to keep them our of the kingdom. If we are conscious that people are not believers, it means we can deal with them appropriately – not as projects or as potential converts or anything crass like that – but just in the way we encourage and speak to them. We will be sure not to say things that give false comfort and we might be more aware of the need to take opportunities, such as it is right, rather than ignoring them. What is needed it gospel clarity.
But the second reason this sort of thing troubles me is that is speaks to a potential misunderstanding of the gospel itself. If somebody really does think such a person is still a believer, it begs the question: how well do you actually know the gospel? If you think living like that and having no concern for the things of Christ means you are still a believer, have you actually understood what the gospel is and what it demands?
I think one of the problems stems from an easy-believism that is rife in the Evangelical church. Say the right prayer and Jesus forgives your sin. And because your salvation cannot be lost, that prayer is all you need. Once saved, always saved and all that. It reduces the Christian faith to a little mantra that, no matter how far from it you depart, can never be undone. Kind of like a Disney witch spell, but like, one with nice consequences for you at the end of it.
But that isn’t the gospel. Nor is it the means of salvation. It is true that the elect cannot lose their salvation. But the way they don’t lose their salvation is through the work of the Holy Spirit, causing them to persevere for Christ until the very end. Which is why, if somebody falls away in the described above, it is pretty solid evidence that the Holy Spirit wasn’t in them to begin with because, if he were, they would have pressed on. The Bible is clear enough that without faith there is no salvation, there is no pleasing God. And that faith is not just assent to an idea, it is an active, ongoing belief in the promises of God, embodied and fulfilled in the person of Jesus, that continue on in him. That sort of faith works its way out in a life that is totally change, seeking to live in light of the promises that we claim to believe and building everything around the claim that Jesus is who he said and that God will do all he promised in and through him for us.
A life that seems to have no interest in Christ and his church nor pays any heed to his commands is not a living, active faith promoted from within by the Holy Spirit. It is a non-existent faith. It is belief that some words you said years ago is good enough to deal with your sin once and for all and to secure a place in Heaven for you. I’m afraid that isn’t a teaching you will find anywhere in the Bible. Apart from ongoing, active faith in Christ there is no salvation and telling people otherwise is not loving them, it is actively encouraging them on their way to a lost eternity.
And so, what we need is some gospel clarity. We need clarity on what the gospel actually is. We need clarity regarding to whom the gospel actually applies. We need clarity about these things so that we can tell people who need it the gospel, and encourage them to believe it, whilst recognising those who already know it and encouraging them on in it. If we get those things mixed up, we end up encouraging people to Hell by telling them believe the gospel when they don’t and causing genuine believers to start doubting their faith by encouraging to start believing the gospel when they already do! Without gospel clarity, we do great damage to people. If we really love people – particularly our friends and family – let’s get clear on the gospel.