Is A “Carnal Christian” Saved? (Part Three)
Part Two of this three part series asked why this question is important and answered that. Now I would like to turn to attempting to answer the question. Any attempt to answer this is bound to annoy and even distress some people. There are no simple, straightforward answers in this much controverted subject.
In order to help readers understand what I am talking about (and what I’m not talking about), I will offer here an illustration. So, once again, the question is should Christians offer assurance of salvation to persons who once professed faith in Christ but have for a long time shown no signs of spiritual growth, inward change, moral transformation, Christlikeness in character, fruit of the Spirit, etc.?
Here is an imaginary case study of such a “carnal Christian.” “John” (the resemblance of this profile to any particular person is purely coincidental!) came to Christ by profession of faith during a revival at his church when he was twenty years old. He walked the aisle, knelt down with the evangelist, and “prayed the sinner’s prayer.” He was baptized upon confession of faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord two weeks later. Then he joined the church. The small business he established in town grew and he became prosperous and “successful.” His church ordained him as a deacon and he became “church moderator” for two years. He occasionally teaches adult Sunday School classes and participates in leading worship from time to time. Several pastors have come and gone during John’s twenty years of being a member and church leader. During these twenty years John has gone through two divorces and is in his third marriage. His first two divorces were due to his own infidelity to his wives. He is widely known to be greedy and dishonest in business. He preys on the poor with predatory lending practices. Almost every pastor for the past fifteen years was driven away because of John’s power and hostility. John spreads ugly rumors about pastors and other church members and engages in harsh criticism of many people in the church. A new pastor arrives. He gets to know John and recognizes that he is eaten up with bitterness, anger, malice, resentment, lust, and avarice. And yet he is a leader in the church. He gives only one hundredth of his income annually but, because that is a large amount, the church has come to depend on his giving. One day the new pastor dares to take John out for lunch and asks him whether he is saved. John reacts very angrily “Yes! Of course I’m saved. I asked Jesus to come into my heart and forgive my sins twenty years ago!” The pastor doesn’t contradict John but wonders about his “testimony.” Six months later John’s third wife divorces him. His teenage children turn against him. His business falters. He approaches the pastor for spiritual counsel and advice. His first question to the pastor is “Am I saved? Tell me the truth.”
If “John” isn’t a model of a “carnal Christian,” it’s difficult to imagine who would be. And, based on my sixty-two years of life in the “thick” of American evangelicalism, I can testify that many such people sit in the pews as members and even fill leadership positions in American evangelical churches. And I can testify that many pastors are afraid of them because they often wield much power in their churches.
The question I am addressing in this series is not “Should pastors and other Christians go around denouncing people as ‘unsaved’ just because their lives are imperfect?” Anyone who thinks that’s the question is simply not reading carefully. To be sure there are segments of American evangelicalism (or fundamentalism) where that happens, but my experience indicates the vast mainstream of American evangelicalism is not like that. The problem facing most pastors and Christian leaders is what to say to or about (when necessary) a person like “John.” I fear we have largely “wimped out” and refused to take any stand or even answer the question “Am I saved?” By-and-large we have opted for a simple and non-threatening approach such as “Well, if you accepted Christ as your Savior and still accept him as your Savior, you are saved.” But that ignores the numerous New Testament warnings including Jesus’ own that any plant that does not bear fruit will be torn up and cast out.
I suspect that we American evangelicals (in general, by-and-large) are driven by fear of being small and regarded as “cultic” by others. Church discipline has virtually disappeared among us. “Discipleship” has largely been reduced to listening to sermons, occasionally praying and reading the Bible, and participating in church activities.
Now I will go way out on a limb and suggest another reason for our woeful situation. Many, perhaps most, evangelical churches, pressure children to “make a profession of faith” by the end of a week of Vacation Bible School or in Sunday School or…. We communicate to children and very young teens that all “salvation” requires is lisping a few words about “Jesus is my Savior” and they’re “in” with God and us forever—regardless of what happens after that. I have witnessed numerous cases in churches of tweens who “professed faith in Christ,” were baptized, and then spent every church service playing on their cell phones, chatting up the youths next to them, and showing no interest whatsoever in the things of God. Years later they become deacons and Sunday School teachers and never hear anything about the importance of becoming holy persons, Christlike in character, receiving the infilling of the Holy Spirit with the result of being changed inwardly, receiving the “expulsive power of a new affection.”
So what should be the case? What is the answer to “Can a carnal Christian be saved?”
Based on the New Testament and the best of Christian tradition, I believe we cannot offer assurance of salvation to people like “John” in the above case study. But here’s how the pastor might counsel him (and people like him) spiritually: “John, you once professed Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, is that correct?” Assuming the answer is yes: “John, do you still profess Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord?” Assuming the answer is yes: “John, your life doesn’t show evidence of Jesus as Lord of your life. Your life is filled with sin and empty of signs of grace—the fruit of the Spirit. Does that concern you?” Assuming the answer is yes: “Then, John, you need to repent and revisit your conversion experience in a new spirit of humility and brokenness. I can’t say for sure whether you are right now saved or not, but if your heart is troubled it can’t hurt to repent and ask Christ to forgive you and send his Holy Spirit into your life to change you.”
That’s the easy part. The hard part is actually going to someone like John and initiating such a conversation and following through. But that is exactly what a pastor (and others) ought to do in cases like John’s. Assuring them of their salvation in the absence of any signs of grace and in the presence of manifest sin ruling their life is destructive and absolutely wrong.
So where is the “tipping point?” At what point in a professing Christian’s life ought a pastor (or other spiritual friend or guide) intervene and question their salvation? Every Christian sins. Nobody is perfect. If you inspect any Christian’s life closely enough you will find some huge flaw that they might not even be aware of. Everyone is “carnal” in some sense. The difficult question must be “What seems to be the ‘ruling principle’ [to use John Owen’s language] or ‘inward disposition’ in the person’s life?” Given their character and behavior, what seems to be driving them most of the time even if they occasionally or even frequently “stumble?” A truly saved person will always be one who knows he or she is a sinner, forgiven only by the grace of God, who lives a life of repentance and sorrow for sin, and who desires “the things of God”—inward transformation into Christ like character, intimacy and communion with God, the good of others, etc. An unsaved person, even if they have once professed faith in Christ, is a person whose “ruling principle” or driving inward disposition is concupiscence and pride, love for worldly pleasure (wealth, fame, lust, etc.), mastery and domination over others, etc. Such a person does not truly desire the things of God mentioned above—unless he can have them alongside concupiscence, pride, etc.
Back to the driving question of this series: Not “Should we go around questioning imperfect people’s salvation?” but “Should we offer assurance of salvation to persons who, having once made a profession of faith, show no signs of grace, inward change (as described above) and instead show signs of “carnality” as their driving disposition? My answer is no, we should not. Instead we should remind them of God’s mercy, the cross of Christ for them, their need of Holy Spirit-wrought regeneration, and invite them to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness and the infilling of the Holy Spirit to drive out their old ruling disposition and receive a new one marked by love for God and neighbor.