Michael Patton of Parchment and Pen has a blog post that’s getting me riled up, entitled Why I Don’t Like “Once-Saved-Aways-Saved”. Here are some passages from the post, and I’ve included the link so that the reader can see them in context:
I have often said that it is easier to tell when someone is a true Christian than to tell if they are not. In other words, some people wear their conviction on their shoulder. The power of the Holy Spirit could not be clearer. Their passion, understanding, grace, humility, and faith are clearly evident in everything they do. I know and can state with a great degree of confidence that they trust in Christ and are saved. They are in the race and they are running. Others, however, it is hard to tell. They may say they are saved, but I am not convinced with the same degree of conviction. They may be convinced, but I am not. I am not saying they are not saved, I just don’t know. Some live in a perpetual state of doubt, failure, and terrible sin. They may be in the race, but they are not running. However, even when they are at their worst, I cannot say with the same degree of confidence that they are not saved than when I can say someone is saved…
I have someone who I can’t figure out. Conversations with him are always very frustrating. I just want to crack his head open and see what is inside. I want to gaze where only God can see. What I want to know is does he really know Christ? My heart says “I hope” but my mind says “I don’t know. I doubt it.”
If you were to look at the life of this friend, you would not suspect that he has ever broached the throne room of God. You would not expect that he has ever humbly bowed at the cross, understanding his own condition and asking for mercy. I have never seen him read his Bible and I have never heard him honor Christ with his words. His life is one of constant pursuit of what the world has to offer and it completely controls his emotional state. Comforting him with spiritual talk is useless as you will get the gaze of ridicule and quickly share in the humility of having your conversation cut short by awkward silence.
Yet, when push comes to shove, this guy will give you his testimony. Every once in a while he will tell you why you don’t need to be worried about his spiritual condition. He will confidently tell you of the time when he was twelve years old and walked the aisle at Church to accept the Gospel. Once his tale is complete, he has exhausted his ability to have a spiritual conversation and the awkward silence ensues.
Is this guy saved? Can it be that he truly walked the aisle so long ago and has not flexed a spiritual muscle since? Why is he so secure in his salvation?
In his office, there is one spiritual relic. It is an old piece of paper that hangs prominently by his desk entitled “The Believer’s Security.” On it are listed all of the passages of Scripture that give assurance that a believer cannot lose their salvation. This unqualified doctrine was something that he was taught immediately after his saving experience. This is what he banks on every day.
That reminds me of something John MacArthur says in Chapter 7 of his book, Faith Works: The Gospel According to the Apostles:
A dear friend of mine once ministered in a church where he encountered a retired layman who thought of himself as a Bible teacher. The fellow would seize every opportunity to teach or testify publicly, and his message was always the same. He would talk about how “positional truth” had given him new enthusiasm for the Christian faith. The “positional truth” he spoke of included the perfect righteousness of Christ that is imputed to believers at justification. The man also loved to point out that all Christians are seated with Christ in heavenly places ( Eph. 2:6 ) and hidden with Christ in God ( Col. 3:3 ). He was eager to remind his fellow Christians that we all stand before God as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” ( 1 Pet. 2:9 ). Those “positional” realities are true of all genuine Christians, regardless of our level of spiritual maturity. Our unassailable standing in Christ is one of the most precious truths of Christian doctrine. But this particular man, obsessed with “positional truth,” lived a deplorable life. He was a drunkard. He was addicted to cigarettes. He was ill tempered and arrogant. He was unloving to his wife. He had created division and strife in several churches over the years. He was completely undisciplined in almost every way. My friend once visited the man’s home, and signs of his ungodly lifestyle were all over the house. To this man, “positional truth” evidently meant truth that has no practical ramifications. He had wrongly concluded that since our position in Christ isn’t altered by our practice, Christians really needn’t be bothered about their sins. He evidently believed he could be assured of the promises of the Christian life even though none of the practical fruits of faith were evident in his walk. In short, he loved the idea of justification but seemed to give scant attention to sanctification. My friend rightly encouraged him to examine whether he was truly in Christ ( 2 Cor. 13:5 ).
As with most things, I have a mixed reaction to these statements. Let me start with the negative, for that’s stronger in my reaction. How can we tell that these people are not saved? Granted, Michael Patton says that he doesn’t know whether or not his acquaintance is truly saved, since he can’t see into the person’s heart. But he goes on to say that he doubts it. And John MacArthur praises his friend in the ministry, who encouraged that one guy to “examine whether he was truly in Christ.” So Patton and MacArthur are expressing doubt about somebody’s salvation.
But what is the basis of their doubt? Patton says that there’s an “awkward silence” when he tries to have a spiritual conversation with the person. But does that mean this person is not saved? Not everyone is glib when it comes to talking about their faith. Not everyone is comfortable talking about spiritual matters with other people. Maybe they see religion as a private matter—between them and God. Perhaps they don’t enjoy being comforted with spiritual talk because they like to handle their problems privately, or they’re not always sold on upbeat religious platitudes. I know even mature Christians who are like this.
Patton says that this person’s “life is one of constant pursuit of what the world has to offer and it completely controls his emotional state.” Yeah, him and who else? We’re all like this, to some degree. Believing in Jesus Christ and looking to him (and not the world) for my security and sense of identity is difficult. I’m not going to judge a person just because he fails at it, or doesn’t grasp it at this moment in his Christian walk. (Or at least I’ll try not to judge him.)
Patton says that this person does not “honor Christ with his words.” What’s that mean, exactly? Not everyone says “Praise the Lord” when they enter a room. Plus, it appears from what Patton describes that this guy actually does honor Christ with his words: he gives his testimony, and he has passages of Scripture on his desk that comfort him with the doctrine of God’s love.
Throwing the guy MacArthur criticizes into the mix, maybe these guys are trying their best to love God and other people, but it’s not particularly easy for them. Perhaps the guy MacArthur criticizes has difficulty internalizing God’s love for him, and so he tries to remind himself and others of the “positional truth” that he’s saved through God’s grace, or he causes divisions in church to get attention, or he vaunts himself, or he seeks comfort in booze and cigarettes. This man deserves our prayers and compassion, not our judgment. Instead, his pastor implies to him that he’s not truly saved.
I’m sensitive about this issue because of the times Christians have judged me for not appearing passionate enough, or not being glib enough in spiritual conversation, or not loving others according to their definition of love (namely, social extroversion). With all due respect, I don’t need that judgment! I have enough people judging me in my day-to-day life, so I don’t need that from Christians. Michael Patton wrote a post a little while ago about why some people ditch the Christian faith. Maybe this is one reason!
Yet, some of what Patton and MacArthur say resonates with me, for (as my readers may detect) I judge conservative Christians. I don’t understand how some of them can believe in Christ and have Jesus Christ living inside of their hearts, and yet be jerks, or cliquish, or snobbish, or manipulative just like people in the world. I’d like to think that their faith would make them a cut above the rest, but, alas, that’s not always the case. I can tell myself that they may be trying to be good, even as they battle a painful past, or urges. The temptation to judge them is so great, such that I can fume about them all day long. But I should try to have compassion and pray for others to find peace.