Being a Christian in this broken, frail, and deeply beautiful world can be difficult. Contrary to what many preachers would have you believe, it isn’t all sunshine, roses and blue birds on your shoulders. It can be dark, painful and confusing. Ask anyone in the Bible. Start with Job, ask Jeremiah who said God “seduced” him, Peter, or Paul and ask them if following Jesus made life easier. And because of that, this life is full of questions.
When I was a youth pastor I got a lot of questions about what it meant to be a Christian. “What do you mean honor your father and mother?” “Are rated-R movies okay?” And of course, “How far is too far?” And then there was this more serious question, which I believe is a question many Christians ask, “Can you lose your salvation?”
Coming out of the Reformed tradition my answer was always “No” and then I would proceed to outline the rich doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and my students would proceed to fall down in deep adoration of this grace…or sleep, you decide. I’m believing the former.
But there is this pesky text (did I just say that?) in Hebrews where the writer says,
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
This makes it seem like it is indeed possible for one to lose their salvation. That it might just be possible for someone to experience grace and know Jesus, only to one day walk away.
This troubled me. I mean, it goes against a doctrine I have long stood on and found hope in. That God would work in me, and around me, and in spite of me to hold me fast to himself that I might not drift away from him. And here scripture seems to say I could drift. And if I do, then it might be impossible to come back. Bring on the sleepless night!
As I thought through this, I began to wonder, “Is it possible to participate in Christianity and been seen as a follower of Jesus while never actually knowing Jesus?” And more scary to me as a pastor, “Could it be that there are many in my church simply participating in Christianity but who are not truly regenerate?”
This is a disturbing line of thinking to me. It seems incredibly dark. So my first instinct is to look to the scriptures. Do we see any validity to this possibility in the text. I think we do. Look at Judas. One could make the case that he was not a true follower of Jesus even though he fully participated in following him for three years like the rest of the disciples. Or look at Ananias and Sapphira in Acts, or Simon the Sorcerer and you can see that there existed those who participated in the life of the church who were not true, regenerate followers of Jesus.
It seems it is possible for someone to fully participate in the community of believers and not be a disciple of Jesus. They can know the Bible, understand sin and grace, pray well, conceptually grasp good Christology and theology of atonement, even teach classes and lead others and still not be a follower of Jesus. And when that happens and they leave church, two things happen. One, everyone wonders what happened and two, they become inoculated to the gospel. Think of an immunization here. You are a given a small dose of the virus so that your body may fight it off in the future. In much the same way, those who participate in the church can become immunized to the things of Jesus to such a degree that it nearly impossible to bring them back to faith.
So what do we do with this? I don’t think it right to simply acknowledge the possibility of people in church and then do nothing. Fatalism never looks good on anyone. I think there are a few things we need to consider:
1. We can’t see a person’s heart. Therefore we shouldn’t try and figure out who is who. Doing so is not a prudent use of our time, nor is our responsibility. As I read the scriptures our responsibility is to treat everyone in the image of God, as someone being reconciled to God.
2. Discipleship, discipleship, discipleship. Over the last century discipleship has been watered down to a tawdry to-do-list centered on individualistic efforts at piety. And while I wouldn’t say any of those things are unimportant, I would say they not the apex of discipleship. Discipleship in the Bible was always carried out in the midst of relationship (I’ll post an example list in another post). While we as humans have no ability to bring about true transformation in another person’s heart, we can introduce them to the one who can. There is no better vehicle for this than the one modeled to us by the Creator himself: relationship.
3. Never underestimate prayer. As noted above, since we can’t bring about transformation in the heart, we can pray. And the God who can change the heart of a king can change and bring about the transformation that leads to life.
4. Never stop preaching the explicit Gospel. Enough with the self-help sermons. Enough with the focus on making people feel better about themselves. Enough with the prosperity Gospel. Enough with assuming the gospel and making it implicit. Where the gospel is implicit and assumed moralism, legalism, humanism and a lot of other -ism’s are right around the corner. Preach the gospel unashamedly, continually and explicitly. Who knows, by the Holy Spirit and the gospel a heart may be tuned to be in line with the behaviors of one who simply participating.