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?
A Pervasive Problem
I would say this is a huge concern. It is now, and it always has been. Of course, it is not just in the Bible Belt. I mean, every church has nominal members. Yes, they do. Every church. 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. 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.
“Those who fail to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
It always has been a huge concern. In the New Testament we read, “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). For a long time, there they were in the church, looking just like everybody else, and then they went out. That is how you knew finally that they weren’t of us, John says.
Paul speaks to whole churches — people sometimes stumble over this — words of warning that those who fail to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19–22). 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, are “accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22).
Wisdom for Your Witness
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 — sufficient evidences of God’s grace to give you confidence that they have been born again or are truly Christian. I am assuming here now that we are talking about a person who has an ongoing relationship with them, not just a person who sees them once a year at a family gathering.
1. Go to God first.
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 if 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. Draw them into your life.
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 them drawing you into the empty worldly entertainments where it is almost impossible to speak about spiritual things. Draw them into your joy and your kind of walk with Jesus wherever you can.
3. Attend church together.
Be willing to go with them to their church and to 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. 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.
4. Let your faith overflow.
Speak regularly of your own actual experience of the Holy Spirit and of Jesus and of the power of the word of God and of the spiritual disciplines in your life. This is not preaching. This is overflow. If it is not overflow, it is not going to be very helpful. This is just overflow from a real walk with God. 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. Share touching content.
When a particular website or a quotation or a sermon or a testimony or a book or an experience has been moving to you — has done something real for you, has touched you by the Spirit — share that with them. Offer the book to them, the website to them, the sermon, 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. Focus on the affections.
Continually circle back to the affections that the new birth brings about. Don’t go to behaviors over and over again: this behavior, that behavior. Don’t go mainly to disciplines, not mainly to moral standards — but to authentic, spiritual emotions that are created by the Holy Spirit through the new birth by the word of God.
I am sensitive to this right now. I am including this because I just finished teaching 1 Peter, and one of the main lessons I am taking away from it 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, as Peter says in 1 Peter 1:14.
So, when it seems appropriate to ask them about their experience, do it. Ask and say things like this:
- “What is it like for you to fear God?”
- “What does it mean to you to sanctify Christ, to regard him as holy, to 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 (1 Peter 1:8)?”
- “What are your experiences of experiencing no anxiety or of experiencing fearlessness in the face of threat?”
- “Talk to me about Spirit-wrought affection for fellow believers.”
- “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.
“Genuine Christianity is marked by a new heart, new emotions — not just new ideas and new patterns of behavior.”
So, draw them out so that they can recognize if they may not have them. 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. They may wake up and say, “I don’t think I have been born again.”
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 born again, just ask them to talk to you. It is a Bible study, after all. Ask, “What do you think that means? How do you experience that?” Maybe they will say, “I don’t.” Then you can get to the root of the matter.
7. Express your concern.
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 to tell them that you do from time to time. Then illustrate for them how you apply the promises of God in order to make war against doubt and fear and to encourage your own soul.
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. Always assure them that you love them and that you are praying for them and that you want to be their friend and that, however it shakes out, you don’t want to pull away from them.
Praying for Mass Revival
Of course, at some point you lay out the heart of the gospel, making sure that they have it right and don’t have some moralism replacing the gospel, which they might have missed. You do it with a view to the seriousness of sin and the necessity, the miracle, of the new birth so that they know it is outside of their reach. This is a miracle that has to happen to them.
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.