Sometimes my sense of duty seems to come into conflict with my instincts. This almost inevitably leads to duty laying a playground beating on instincts and stealing his lunch money. You see, I attempt to respond to every email that I receive, but every now and then I receive one that just seems like bad news. This happened a couple of days ago. I received one that contained an essay in which the author, with whom I had never had previous contact, claimed that he would prove a popular Christian figure to be unregenerate. I should have just hit “delete.” Instead I elected to reply and gently suggested that people should exercise caution in attempting to prove that other professed Christians are “out.” Here is what I wrote:
You say, “I will show that the author does not personally know the Lord Jesus Christ…” That is a serious charge for one believer to make about another and I am not sure that any of us are qualified to make such statements. I also don’t feel that you proved the statement in your essay. It may be true that [Christian figure] does not believe, but I think we need to show caution and charity towards others who claim to be believers.
In other words, the authors of this article were attempting to prove that a popular Christian leader was not a Christian. Period. When I objected to this, the authors of the essay took the time to explain the reality about myself. I thought you’d be interested in knowing more about me. I received the following email that said, among other things:
Your admonition to us that “we need to show caution and charity towards others who claim to be believers” is not only contrary to Scripture and to the living examples of the Lord and His disciples, it is, as Paul tells you, an evidence of perfect unbelief. You would not be able to say what you did to us unless you have never known the Lord. Yes, you are speaking no differently than do many in nominal Christian circles, while there are few who say what we say, so surely, you might find solace in numbers. However, you will not find solace in the Truth, because Truth does not agree with you. If that is so, and it is, then you need to come to a fear of God heretofore unknown to you, before you can presume to go and teach with the false knowledge you now have of God and Jesus Christ.
The Bible says to “beware of false brethren.” That being so, do you not think that, contrary to your advice, it is a far more serious matter to call those who are not believers, believers, than it is to call those who are believers, nonbelievers? In the former, one aids others into the hands of false prophets and teachers…wolves…and gives godly credit where it is not at all due, while in the latter, true believers who are called nonbelievers, and who thus suffer defamation or denial in Christ for His sake, will endure and become the stronger for it. It happens to us all the time. We suffer persecution for His sake. Do you? We know by your fruits that you do not. Tim, you have much to reconsider. You do not have what you think you have. Thus, we write, for good.
At this point instincts, still wiping their blackened eyes from the beating they had received, glared tauntingly at duty as instinct’s older brother marched over to lay a beating on duty. Not wishing to maintain such a ridiculous exchange I replied:
It was against my better judgment that I replied to your email, but did so out of a sense of duty or perhaps charity. I regret that decision. To now accuse me of having false gods in my life that I am unwilling to forsake is a serious charge and one for which I must believe you have no foundation as you scarcely know anything about me.
I am not interested in maintaining this conversation so there is no need to reply.
But of course, human nature being what it is, these people felt they had to have the last word.
“You have an evil eye and an evil tongue, Tim. You justify the wicked and condemn the righteous. Why then would you be interested in maintaining conversation with us when we do the opposite? Go your way then. You are not prospering now, and having heard the truth, you will prosper even less. Please consider.”
So there we have it. Based on two or three sentences I wrote, the authors determined the following about me:
- My life shows evidence of unbelief.
- I am not a believer.
- I have never been a believer.
- I am merely towing the line with the rest of my nominally Christian friends.
- I hate the truth and am thus unqualified to maintain this web site.
- I do not suffer any type of persecution.
- I have poor judgment.
- I justify the wicked and condemn the righteous.
- I have now heard the truth and will begin to suffer for rejecting this “merciful correction.
Based on this ridiculous little exchange I have added the following caveat to my contact page. “Do note that while I do love to hear from those who read this site, I will no longer read essays or articles that are forwarded to me by an author who has not first established contact with me. In other words, if you have written an article that you would like to share with me, please get to know me first. This is likely to save us both a great deal of aggravation.”
I am going to use this little exchange to springboard a brief discussion on whether or not we, as humans, are qualified to make the ultimate human judgment about another human being. In other words, can one professed Christian say with any sense of certainty that another is unregenerate?
We need to preface this discussion by admitting that it is impossible for us to know with absolute certainty whether any other person is a believer. And yes, this even extends to Martin Luther, John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon. Because faith exists entirely within the heart of another person we can never be completely certain whether or not it is real. We do not have to look far into Scripture and even into our own experience to find many examples of people who seemed to be true believers but fell away. Paul acknowledged this when he wrote, in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?-unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” Paul knew that some who professed to be believers were not and thus he encourages each of them to continually test their hearts. One terrifying aspect of the final judgment is that there will be many going to hell who sincerely felt they were believers.
In Who Are You To Judge?, Dave Swavely adds the following: “[R]egarding who are the wheat and who are the tares, they [the apostles] left that judgment to God - except in the case of those who were under church discipline. The biblical writers did not attempt to deterine or distinguish true believers from false believers within the church. They accepted people’s profession of faith, as long as it was a credible or biblical profession; and they treated all members of the church as believers, unless the process of discipline proved otherwise. We should therefore do the same.” It is also worth nothing that even the process of discipline dictates that we are to assume that the other person is a believer until the process has actually been completed and the individual has been excommunicated. It is not until that point that we can assume the person is unregenerate.
How we define a credible profession of faith may vary slightly from church to church, but it should definitely contain an affirmation that the person is saved by grace through faith, should affirm many of the doctrines concerning the nature of God and the person should have been identified with the church through baptism or other forms of membership. If a person has professed faith, been baptized and been received into membership his claim to be a believer has a certain level of credibility. Conversely, if he has refused to be baptized and to be received into membership we would have a good reason to be concerned about his profession.
So what are we to do with those who claim to be Christian yet say or do things that seem to contradict their faith? Swavely says the following and I agree with him.
I would suggest that when someone has professed personal faith in Christ, been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and identified with the church, we are then under obligation from Scripture to make no negative judgment about the validity of his faith. That obligation remains even when a professing believer seems to exhibit a lack of fruit, or even if he commits repeated and heinous sin, because in those cases the other members of the body of Christ are called to encourage, admonish, and if necessary discipline him according to the process Jesus outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. Each of those means of sanctification are based on the presupposition that in most cases the Holy Spirit is present and operative in the sinner’s life. Otherwise they could not be effective in helping that person to grow in grace and to put away the sin against which we all continue to struggle.
In summary, a person who professes to be a believer and has made a credible profession of faith, should be treated as a fellow believer until such a time that he or she has been removed from fellowship through the process of church discipline or until he or she has expressly denied the primary doctrines of the church. If a person who once professed Christ declares, “I am no longer a believer and I deny Christ” we do not need to wait for church discipline to take effect before we assume that he is an unbeliever. This attitude of caution towards judging the salvation of others prevents church members from building walls between themselves and other believers that would prevent fellowship and would alienate one part of Christ’s body from another. Sinful judgment on our part can lead to a badly fractured church that does not honor God.
Based on this I believe I was justified in urging caution towards the men who wrote me attempting to disprove the faith of another professed Christian. This Christian figure has done much that would require that I urge caution in reading his books or placing oneself under his ministry. However, he professes faith in Christ and insists that he upholds the primary doctrines of the church. Thus I feel that we need to treat him as a brother, loving him as such and encouraging him to correct the obvious error in his life. We can assume that the Holy Spirit is operative in his life and is willing and able to empower him to make the necessary change. We should leave the ultimate judgment to God.