If a member of our church is struggling with sin, when do I as a pastor question their genuine salvation? This question was asked tonight at our Wednesday bible study. I thought it would be helpful to type some of the thoughts shared there for interaction or edification here.
First it should be said that there is such a thing as self-deception where someone thinks he’s a follower of Jesus and saved from God’s judgment when he actually is not. Matthew 7.21 and following quotes Jesus stating this terrifying reality:
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.”
The bible also makes clear that we should examine ourselves and test whether we truly believe in Jesus Christ (see 1 John). Paul tells us to examine ourselves, “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!” (2 Cor 13.5).
So when is it ok and wise for us to seriously question and cast doubt on someone’s claim to be a Christian and saved from the judgment of God that all of us deserve? Jesus gives us the answer in Matthew 18.15-17. Jesus says,
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Treating someone like “a Gentile and a tax collector” in Israel in Jesus’ day was to treat the person like someone who was cut off from God, not considered part of the true people of God. So let’s ask the question this way, “When is it time to consider and treat a fellow member of your church like a Gentile and a tax collector?” The answer is clear. Only when a member of the church rejects the call to repentance and restoration by the whole church and the church excludes him should you consider that professing believer and now former member of your church an unbeliever. That is not to say the person is definitively an unbeliever, but that the church treats and thinks of him as one since his unrepentant heart through the various stages of love and restoration have exposed his commitment to and belief in sin over his commitment to and belief in Jesus.
Jesus goes on to say that this is the church binding and loosing (Matt 18.18). This is an exercise of the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16.19) that is given to the apostle Peter, the rest of the apostles, and the church as a church. The pastor or pastors don’t exercise the keys on their own. I as an individual church member and pastor cannot exclude, loose, and use the keys. The church as a whole can and does. And until they do, I don’t treat a fellow member in our church as an unbeliever, but like I treat every member, a sibling in Christ with indwelling sin struggling to trust and obey Christ by the grace of God.