A podcast listener named Jacob writes in to ask a really tricky pastoral question. “Pastor John, how do you approach people in your life who believe they are saved, but you have a feeling they are not? I understand the dangers of being judgmental in a situation like this, but being in the Bible Belt, I feel like I am in this situation all the time.” What would you say to Jacob?
I would say this is a huge concern. It is now, and it always has been. And, of course, it is not just in the Bible Belt. I mean every church has nominal members. Yes they do. Every one. The mainline churches are just as plagued as the Bible Belt by people who think they are Christians when they are not.
I live in Minnesota and to be Minnesotan is almost to be Lutheran or Catholic. And those churches just as much as any Baptist church in the Bible Belt are shot through with people who think they are Christians when they are not. And it always has been a huge concern. Already in the New Testament we read, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). So for a long time there they were. There they were in the church, looking just like everybody else. And they went out and that is how you knew finally that they weren’t of us.
“Those who fail to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
And Paul speaks to whole churches. People sometimes stumble over this. Paul speaks to whole churches words of warning that those who fail to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit will not inherit the kingdom of God. And he is just talking in general to the whole church. He is not saying: Oh, there are one or two unbelievers among you. He means all of you take heed, because you might be faking it. Those who have “no love for the Lord,” he says at the end of 1 Corinthians, if you don’t love the Lord, then you are “accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22). There is nothing new about this problem at all.
So let me just throw out a few possible suggestions for how to relate to someone in whose life you don’t see — and you are not infallible here — you don’t see sufficient evidences of God’s grace to give you confidence that they have been born again or are truly Christian. And I am assuming here now that we are talking about a person who has an ongoing relationship, not just who sees them once a year, say, at a family gathering. So here we go.
1) Pray. Pray earnestly for a spiritual awakening. And awakening is the right word. It leaves open whether the person is saved or not saved. You don’t know for sure, but awakening is what we all need anyway. If you are a coasting believer or you are an unbeliever who thinks you are a believer, you need to be awakened, stunned, brought awake, and brought to a vital love relationship with Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. So pray.
2) Fold these folks into your life as much as possible, and draw them into situations where you can set the agenda rather than they. The goal here is that they taste and see the kind of experiences they may not have, rather than drawing you into the empty worldly entertainments where it is almost impossible to speak about spiritual things. So draw them into your joy and your kind of walk with Jesus wherever you can.
3) Be willing to go with them to their church and invite them to go with you to your church, assuming you go to different churches. And use those occasions to talk about your experience of worship and the word. And if you go to the same church, model for them how you respond spiritually, affectionately, earnestly to the preached, biblical truth, to the songs, and so on.
“There is great power when others hear you talking of the Lord as a real, precious friend that you speak with.”
4) Speak regularly of your own actual experience of the Holy Spirit and of Jesus and the power of the word of God and the spiritual disciplines in your life. This is not preaching. This is overflow. And if it is not overflow, it is not going to be very helpful. This is just overflow from a real walk with God. And the hope is that they will taste something that they are missing when they see you talking of the Lord as a real, precious friend that you spoke with this morning.
5) When a particular website or a quotation or a sermon or a testimony or a book or experience has been moving to you — has done something real for you, it has touched you by the Spirit — share that with them. Offer the book to them, the website to them, the sermon, whatever, and tell them why it touched you. Maybe they will look at it, and perhaps God would use it to quicken their own experience.
6) Continually circle back to the affections that the new birth brings about. I am just saying not mainly behaviors here. Don’t go there over and over again, this behavior, that behavior. Not mainly disciplines, not mainly moral standards, but authentic, spiritual, emotions that are created by the Holy Spirit through the new birth by the word of God. And I am sensitive to this right now. I am including this here right now because I just finished teaching 1 Peter, and one of the main lessons I am taking away from 1 Peter is the stress, over and over again, on a life marked by a different set of passions than the passions you once had in ignorance, he says in 1:14.
So when it seems appropriate to ask them about their experience, do it. Ask about what is it like for you to fear God. What does it mean to you to sanctify Christ, regard him as holy, experience awe of Christ in your heart? What does it mean to you to love Christ? Talk to me about your love for Christ. What does the phrase “joy unspeakable and full of glory” mean to you (see 1 Peter 1:8)? What are your experiences of experiencing no anxiety or fearlessness in the face of threat? Or talk to me about Spirit-wrought affection for fellow believers. Or describe to me tenderheartedness. Tell him you are struggling with tenderheartedness. Ask him to talk to you about his pursuit of tenderheartedness.
The point here is that genuine Christianity is marked by a new heart, new emotions, not just new ideas and new patterns of behavior. That is quite down the road. That is fruit from this sap surging up from the root of the new birth called the religious or the Christian affections. So draw them out so they can recognize they may not have them. And they may have a totally superficial, external, formalistic view of the Christian life. And all this talk about affections will be a foreign language to them and they may wake up and say: I don’t think I have been born again.
And one of the easiest ways to do that, by the way, is to be in a little Bible study with them, and when you come to those words, just ask them to talk to you. This is a Bible study. What do you think that means? And how do you experience that? And maybe they will say: I don’t. And then you can get to the root of the matter.
7) And lastly, if and when the time seems right, you might just want to be straightforward and express your concern for their soul. One way to approach this gently would be to ask if they ever struggle with assurance of their salvation, and tell them you do from time to time. And then illustrate for them how you apply the promises of God to make war against doubt and fear to encourage your own soul, and maybe they will open up like a flower and say: Yeah, I really do sometimes wonder whether I am a Christian. They may get angry at you for asking that question. They may pull away from you. But always assure them you love them and you are praying for them and you want to be their friend and however that shakes out, you don’t want to pull away from them.
“Pray for God to waken hundreds of nominal people to the seriousness of sin and the preciousness of Christ.”
And of course, at some point you lay out the heart of the gospel, making sure that they got it right and don’t have some moralism replacing the gospel that they might have missed. And you do it with a view to the seriousness of sin and the necessity, the miracle, of the new birth so that they know this is outside of their reach. This is a miracle that has to happen to them.
What our churches need — this is kind of a summary of all of this — what our churches need is old fashioned, heaven-sent revival that is a great Spirit-given awakening where hundreds and hundreds of nominal people are awakened to the seriousness of sin and the preciousness of Christ. That is what we pray for.
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