What do we look for to see if someone’s faith is genuine? Some would tell us that there are two kinds of Christians – those who show their faith by holy lives and others who do not. It is almost a two-tier Christianity.
To give examples: there are those who teach that some Christians (the really godly ones) are ‘sons’ of God whereas others are just ‘children’ of God. From a different source, we hear that some believers are Spirit-filled but others are carnal.
Yet again, there is the idea that some Christians have accepted Jesus as Lord but others have only gone as far as accepting him as Saviour. These examples could be multiplied – the teaching is common though there are many variations on the theme.
Why do people teach these things? The main reason is that many who once professed faith, in Christ have since lost all interest in spiritual things. Some are in our churches; some are not; but they often still profess themselves Christians.
How do we regard them? As weak Christians, as backslidden Christians, or as unconverted? Just to provide some substance, I once heard a preacher say that you can trust in Christ for salvation today; fall away tomorrow; live the rest of your life in sin; but still go to heaven.
The rationale behind this thinking may be to protect the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, but it assumes that one can believe in Christ without having any change in behaviour. People may not intend to advocate this but in their minds it is clearly a possibility.
How do we respond to this line of teaching? First, we will show that this teaching is unbiblical. Second, we will examine two objections to our position. Third, we will show the devastating effects of the teaching.
The Bible teaches that true faith transforms the life. Consider a few well-known passages.
James 2:14 asks a rhetorical question: ‘If a man claims to have faith but has no deeds, can such faith save him?’ The obvious answer is ‘no’. Verse 26 makes it clear, ‘Faith without deeds is dead’.
I once heard a preacher refer to this verse. ‘This verse used to really trouble me’, he said. I wondered why. He went on to tell the audience that it troubled him until he saw that the faith was dead not as far as salvation was concerned, but as far as a good witness was concerned.
In other words, the person would still be saved but wouldn’t have an effective testimony. But James does not say that faith without works is ineffective or unimpressive – he says that such faith is dead. It is false faith.
In Hebrews 12:14 the writer says, ‘Without holiness no one will see the Lord’. Lack of holiness does not mean less reward for the believer – it means no salvation. Such people will not see the Lord: they will not be in heaven.
Ephesians 5:5-6 tells us, ‘No immoral, impure or greedy person … has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God’. That is not to say that people cannot fall into these sins and repent, but it does mean that those whose lifestyle is of the nature described will not inherit the kingdom.
Paul adds, ‘Let no one deceive you’. How might they be deceived? By thinking that they could live that way and still be saved. A man once told me that he was sure there were prostitutes on the streets of London who were Christians. They would continue that way all their lives, but they would still be saved. Is that so? Not according to the apostle.
We could multiply similar Scriptures, but these will suffice.
Naturally, there are objections to our understanding of Scripture. We will consider two.
Firstly, say some, our teaching undermines grace. If salvation is by grace through faith, then to insist on holiness is to add works to faith.
The teaching that Jesus must be Lord of a person’s life for them to be a Christian has been attacked as opposing salvation by grace alone. Some have labelled the teaching ‘Lordship theology’. Others have called it heresy.
But the works we insist upon are not the basisof salvation but the evidenceof salvation. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone – but that faith invariably leads to a holy life. As Paul says, we are ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10).
Again, writing to Titus, Paul declares that Christ ‘gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people eager to do what is good’ (or ‘zealous for good works’; Titus 2:14).
The Reformers of the seventeenth century used to say that ‘we are saved by faith alone. But the faith which saves is not alone’. They meant that it is always accompanied by good works.
A second objection – and really the chief one – is that some who profess to believe do not live holy lives. We all know people who once professed faith in Christ and appeared to do well for a while, but then fell away.
Should we assume they are Christians because they ‘believed’? Some openly say that only an intellectual faith is required. This view was quite common in the eighteenth century and was known as Sandemanianism. We rarely hear that term today, but its essence is still with us.
The Sandemanians were so frightened of emotion and subjectivism that they went to the opposite extreme and reduced ‘faith’ to nothing more than a mental acceptance of truth. But it is clear from Scripture that more than intellectual faith is necessary for salvation. In John 8:30 we read of those who ‘put their faith’ in Jesus, but before the end of the chapter those very people tried to stone him. What kind of faith was that?
In John 2:23 we again read of people believing in Jesus, but he would not entrust himself to them. They ‘believed’ in him, but he did not believe in them! Nicodemus was another example of this kind of intellectual faith but he still needed to be born again!
The idea that ungodly people can be Christians gives false assurance. Consider someone who made a profession of faith 20 years ago. They have shown no spiritual interest for more than 19 years, but at the beginning they were assured that they were children of God.
Such a person – one who displays no holiness of life or spiritual appetite yet is convinced that he or she is a Christian – is in grave spiritual danger. It is like a blind man crossing a bridge after a storm, who does not know that the centre span has been washed away. He is only a few steps from disaster.
Is someone reading this who is relying on a profession made years ago, but presently has no vital interest in the gospel and does not delight to obey the Lord?
Or perhaps you have a friend or loved one who once professed but now has no spiritual interest. You are reluctant to face up to the fact that they are not a true believer, and hence do not warn them of their danger.
In either case, a right understanding of the plight of those who claim to be Christ’s but do not live for Christ should help to correct our thinking. ‘Awake you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light’ (Ephesians 5:14).
Raising the level
The second result of the teaching we are exposing is that it fills our churches with unbelievers. A few generations ago there was a general expectation in evangelical churches that people would live holy lives, regularly attend the meetings, and be faithful in family and private devotions.
Today these things may be hoped for but are hardly expected. Large numbers only attend church once a week. Family devotions are non-existent and private devotions are rare. Financial commitment is pathetic. Lifestyle is little different from the world.
The people concerned are labelled ‘weak Christians’, whereas if we upheld biblical standards we wouldn’t regard them as Christians at all.
Is it surprising that we see little of God’s power? Is it surprising that we see few conversions? Is it surprising that strife and division are common in many churches? What is the answer?
We certainly need to pray that God would visit and purify our churches, but there are things we can do. We need to raise the level of what we believe a Christian should be. Preachers need to preach faithfully on what is expected as to the evidence of true conversion.
We should be more concerned for biblical standards than for the size of our membership rolls or congregations. May God visit us, humble us and bring glory to his name in our lives and in our churches.