Mr. A is a member of the church. He was baptized years ago, still professes faith, and shows up routinely on Sundays. While he isn’t known for possessing much love to Jesus, or much zeal for spiritual things, neither is he known for being an open sinner. He is nice enough. He serves from time to time and doesn’t avoid getting into a conversation on his way out the door. He struggles with his set of sins, but who doesn’t?
While he sits in the same pew every week, truthfully, not many would notice if he left. He is not exactly a model of a hearty believer. But he is a member still — different members, different gifts.
Is he growing in holiness? You can’t really tell. Is he increasing in his knowledge of Christ? Hard to say. Does he really love the brethren? Well, what exactly do you mean? Does he warm at the love of God or delight in the Lord Jesus? Perhaps deep down. You’ve attended church with this person, maybe overlapped in a small group with him, but for all of that, his heart for his Lord hasn’t surfaced much. He blends into the pew from Sunday to Sunday like a fake plant in the corner of the sanctuary.
The years pass. He raises a family. His daughter sings in the children’s choir. His wife occasionally cooks meals for church gatherings. He never commits grave immorality. He never promotes heresy. He never stops coming. His gravestone eventually reads, “Here lies Mr. A., Christian husband, father, churchman.”
Over the years, I have been gravely concerned for this type of man — drawn to this man — probably because I used to be like this man.
Church for the Unconverted
To put it plainly: I believe that men like Mr. A are far too comfortable in too many churches as they sleep themselves into hell. Nominalism — or if you want the Bible word, lukewarmness — is perilous to the professor’s soul and is too often ignored in churches. Consider some words from Jesus.
Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. (Luke 14:34–35)
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, “Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?” (Luke 13:6–7)
I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. (Revelation 3:1)
Because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:16)
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)
A saltless professor thrown away into the manure pile. A fruitless fig tree cut down. An empty reputation exposed. A lukewarm sip of water spit out of God’s mouth. A tepid lover unwelcomed as Christ’s disciple. I tremble at how many men and women follow the gentle slope of religious duty, and even church membership, peacefully into hell. These spiritual centaurs bore some resemblance to Christian people up top, but had their hooves dug into the love of this world beneath.
What has come to bother me — and what I believe should bother you — is that too many seem to have no category for lifeless professors in churches. It seems to seldom occur, even to some doctors of divinity, that church directories can hold names of the dead. And while no local church will be constituted perfectly of the regenerate, my issue is with unscriptural vitals being taken for life, allowing for the broad way to become a highway through local churches.
“The longer I live, and the closer I come to heaven,” John Piper writes, “the more troubling it is that so many people identify as Christians but give so little evidence of being truly Christian.” This is my heart. “My sadness grows,” he continues, “when I consider that there may be millions of people who think themselves as heaven-bound, hell-escaping Christians who are not — people for whom Christ is at the margins of their thoughts and affections, not at the transforming center. People who will hear Jesus say at the judgment, ‘I never knew you; depart from me’ (Matthew 7:23)” (What Is Saving Faith?, 29).
“How many do we have in our churches who, year by year, give little to no evidence of being true Christians?”
How many do we have in our churches who, year by year, give little to no evidence of being true Christians? How many do we call “brother” or “sister” who seat Christ in the nosebleeds of their thoughts and affections? Do we notice them? Oh to consider that so many will have perished — not despite the church’s questions, pleadings, and warnings, but happily in the midst of a true local church with good men preaching. They strayed to hell unbothered by surrounding saints and ultimately unknown and unpursued by their pastors.
Lukewarmness is to be repented of in our churches, not reinforced through laxity. The great and first command — our born-again privilege — is to love the Lord our God with our whole being (Matthew 22:37–38; Deuteronomy 30:6). If we cast off this command in favor of our own standards for the Christian life, if we prop up the religious lost, insinuating that head knowledge and regular attendance make a Christian, local churches can become — of all places — the most comfortable for the spiritually dead.
What can perpetuate this vicious cycle? What can contribute to nominal members feeling so at ease in Christian communities? I think one tendency Protestant churches can fall into is to overstate justification and understate regeneration.
When everything becomes about justification, when the story stops at what Christ has done outside of us in his substitutionary death, we can lean toward lax standards for what constitutes membership and discipleship. Everything can become reduced to cognitive assent — intellectually agreeing with what he accomplished — and we short-circuit the emphasis on the “obedience of faith,” bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, or “faith working through love” (Romans 1:6; Matthew 3:8; Galatians 5:6) — in other words, the life and actions of living faith.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). Of course it can — salvation is by faith alone. What do you mean? too many answer. And in so doing, we countenance a dead faith — one that attends and says it believes certain creeds, avoids public scandal, but does not joyfully, fearfully “work out your own salvation” or “strive . . . for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Philippians 2:12; Hebrews 12:14) — all flowing from a true justification in Christ alone through faith alone.
A lifeless, pulseless, passionless religious life evidenced in routine attendance — is this the power of God for salvation? Our confessions answer plainly:
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love. (Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.2)
“Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Jesus turned Nicodemus’s world upside down by teaching that, in this new-covenant age, no one will be in heaven who has not born again on earth.
So it is. A heart-change, a love-change, a creature-change must happen if we will be in heaven — yet how many know the power of this change? Most members in our churches, we expect, but we must never lose sight that being born again proves itself over time with unmistakable fruit. Such is bound up in the new-covenant promise given to Ezekiel:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25–27)
“Being born again proves itself by unmistakable fruits of salvation over time.”
God will give us a new heart, a new love, a new allegiance in this new birth. Therefore, John can make such black-and-white statements in his first epistle concerning how our assurance as Christians directly relates to our lives of obedience and love for other believers (1 John 2:29; 3:9–10; 4:7; 5:1, 18).
“Once a member, always a member” is more tidy, more clean, and more convenient for already-too-busy pastors, but it is also more tenuous — for them and us — in view of that great Day when we will stand with them and “give an account” for their souls (Hebrews 13:17).
Many Will Say on That Day
Many is one of the most comforting and one of the scariest words to proceed from Jesus’s lips in the Gospels. Here it is the scariest:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:21–23)
Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (Luke 13:24)
Many lost men and women will go to that great judgment day believing themselves to be saved. They went to church; they did works in his name; they called him Lord. Let that sit with you a moment. Can anything be more miserable, more shocking, more pitiable than one of our people — or us — gasping in utter unbelief as angels drag them away? “But Lord, you are my Lord! I am one of your followers!”
Oh, before it is too late, resolve now, as far as it goes with you, not to let your people sleep their way into judgment. Will we not tell them to watch, to stay alert? Will we not call them to that discipleship found in the New Testament? Will we not be watchful over their souls in earnest prayer? Will we not encourage and exhort and rebuke and blow the trumpet of God’s word in their ears? Will they hear “I never knew you” from the Lord in heaven after we, their pastors and fellow members, did not know them on earth? Will we be their abettors unaware?
O Lord, for our sake and theirs, may it not be.