It’s Monday Grace!
“But can a person(s) be truly born again when their actions are SO incompatible over SO long-decades and decades-with having a regenerate heart?”
Wow! That’s a great question! So relevant for most of our lives. This is the central question in “Z’s” recent comment. I thought it was worth answering in a post because many of us have wondered the same thing. Especially those who have been abused by people claiming to be part of the Church.
It is possible for a believer to commit any sin, I think. Once we look back to the flesh, with all its temptations and compromises, we find ourselves back to many of the same feelings we had before. When those feelings come on us, and we fail to look to the Spirit, we may fall as we would have before. I think we have the story of Peter’s denial to show us this. He truly loved Jesus and was dedicated to Him, yet Peter denied Jesus with crude oaths.
So, is it possible for someone to be a real believer while continuing to be cruel and abusive? I suppose. But I think that believer would be under constant and serious conviction from the Spirit. (That may explain the continual anger, of course, but I can’t imagine that it would last decades. Abusers are usually angry people.)
It is far more likely that the person has never been a believer and has been acting consistently with his or her true heart. For so long, the church has allowed, even taught, such cheap grace that the unbeliever can be welcomed without a relationship with the Savior and without any significant change in behavior. Performance spirituality welcomes those who are willing to “pay the price” the church suggests. Give money and time, don’t rock the boat too much, and you can stay in the local church without ever joining the heavenly Church.
Churches every Sunday are attended by unbelievers who do not seek the gospel or the Lord because they think they already have their “deal” with Him. When I was first in the ministry, I met a man who told me that he “and the man upstairs” had “an understanding.” That understanding, according to him, was that he would do his part and the Lord would do His part. They would leave each other alone otherwise. While I have never heard it put quite like that since, I have certainly met many people who trusted in their “understanding” with the Lord.
But there is still this thing called “repentance.” While I do not think repentance comes because of changed behavior, I do think that repentance causes changed behavior. It is a new way of thinking, and that new way of thinking should result in a new way of behaving. A Christian might forget or disobey, but the new ways will grow dominant over time.
Someone who continues to act in the same way as they did without Christ probably doesn’t have Christ, especially if that old way continues over a long period of time. Just because he or she goes to church and claims to be a Christian doesn’t mean Christ has become his or her life.
Interestingly, the way to handle these people is given to us in Scripture as being the same for unbelievers and pretend believers. I don’t think Scripture has any real concept of what we have come to call “backslidden” or “carnal” Christians. There are Christians who might slip back to carnal ways until the Spirit reminds them of who they are. There are also phonies in the church who use the same vocabulary and claim the same position as real believers. I don’t see any in-between group.
How does the Scripture tell us to treat unbelievers? With love and hope. We are to share the good news about Jesus. We are not to entrust ourselves to them or listen to their views on Christian life and doctrine. Pray for them to come to Jesus. Present the hope and love you have in Jesus but remember that they are not your real family.
And how should we treat unrepentant and hurtful pretend believers? By considering them as unbelievers. Matthew 18 has become unpopular in the church today because people have misused it in so many ways, but it broaches this subject. When someone sins against you and is unrepentant even in the face of third-party admonition, then you are supposed to treat that person as an unbeliever.
And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
The Jews listening to Jesus that day would have understood this to be the separation they experienced from the “heathen and tax collector.” It meant that person was not of the faith, not of the family. It did not mean to shun the person or to do evil to him. In fact, just the opposite. Jesus constantly taught the people to reach out to the lost and outcast.
A similar perspective is found in 1 Timothy 5:8:
But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
1 Timothy 5:8
This man is acting even worse than an unbeliever. How should he be treated? As a lost sinner! He needs Jesus. Pray for him, call him to repentance, share the gospel.
Again, we are to love unbelievers, but not to trust them. We are to pray for them, but not to look to them for spiritual guidance. We are to welcome them into discussion, but not as brothers and sisters. We are not to look to them as examples or follow their ideas.
And what if, by some strange set of compromises and compulsions, this cruel person is a real believer? Then what? Treat that person as an unbeliever anyway.
Now, this might seem strange and challenging. If someone is acting like an unbeliever, satisfying the flesh and doing evil, then that person needs Jesus. Maybe he or she is saved, but at that moment Jesus is not the focus of the heart. Instead, the old way is trying to pull them back, and you can help by reminding them of the consequences of sin. Believers might not lose heaven or salvation by sinning, but they can certainly suffer earthly consequences.
Paul often had to remind his readers of the pain and suffering they left behind when they came to Jesus.
21 What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The answer is always Jesus. He is the strength and victory of the believer. He is the hope of the lost. He is the redemption of those who try to do it themselves.
Summary: While it is possible that such cruel people might be believers, it is unlikely, and the Scripture encourages us to treat them as unbelievers in either case. Let God worry about whether these people will be saved. You should neither trust them nor consider them as part of your Christian family.