I’ve had quite a few conversations recently concerning people, who identify themselves as Christians, and who have expressed a desire to be baptized, join the church or take some leadership position within the church. The problem is, that in quite a few of these cases, there are behaviors and attitudes involved that make this problematic.
The issue at hand is sin, or more specifically, continuing in a lifestyle or behavior that the Bible clearly categorizes as sinful. The question is: can we accept such a person, baptize them, include them in church membership, allow them to take a leadership position when they are intending to continue in what the Bible calls sin?
The pressure to do so can be intense. We don’t want to be judgmental. We recognize that we are all still sinners in need of grace, however long we have been a Christian. We want our churches to be loving and welcoming places. We want to avoid the judgmental, hard-hearted attitudes that Jesus so clearly rebukes in the New Testament.
But to accept people on those terms has theological consequences. It means that we communicate that it is acceptable (or even possible) to accept Jesus as Savior, but not as Lord. We are communicating that it is possible to receive the benefits of a relationship with Jesus, but without the costs – and this is to do an injustice to the teaching of the Bible.
The Christian is called to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength. In the New Testament, obviously Jesus (as God) is included in this command. But Jesus clearly says, “If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15) The inverse is surely true. If you do not keep his commands, you cannot truly be said to love him, and therefore should not call yourself a Christian.
The big difference here is to do with intention. A person who intends to love God, and accepts that the Bible says about sin, but who slips up and sins occasionally, is commonplace, and we meet such characters frequently in the New Testament (Peter for example). No one doubts their salvation or their sincerity.
But in modern times, we are encountering a different mindset. This mindset says, “I want a relationship with Jesus, but on my terms. He made me the way that I am, and I plan on continuing just as I am.” This is a problem. This mindset either disregards what the Bible says about sin (“that’s just an old-fashioned cultural prohibition which has no place today”) or accepts it but doesn’t care. After all, aren’t we all sinners?
Though we must always tread carefully when talking about who is saved and who is not saved, there are a couple of basic truths we can affirm:
- Salvation requires repentance. This means agreeing with God that sin is sin, that it is bad, and that we should turn from it.
- Salvation requires life change and transformation. As the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthian church, “If anyone is in Christ they are a new creation. The old has gone. The new has come. (2 Cor 5:17).
Hebrews 10:26 is very clear on this point:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left,…
Which is to say, we cannot genuinely expect to be accepted by God, to expect the sacrifice of Jesus to be efficacious if we continue sinning on purpose. Yes, we will slip, we will make mistakes, but we must not deliberately pursue actions or a lifestyle that deliberately sins.
Salvation without repentance, salvation with transformation, is not a salvation that is known in the New Testament. This is the padded cross, Christianity without a dying to self, faith without carrying a cross, and it’s a sham. If a person continues just as they were, we could legitimately ask, “What exactly were you saved from?”
So, the challenge for those of us encountering such attitudes is to communicate love and acceptance but not to water down the genuine requirements of the gospel, namely repentance and life change. By our fruit shall we be known. There is supposed to be outward evidence of an inward change. We certainly do not want to come across as judgmental, but we cannot adopt an “anything goes” mentality either. The love that we offer such people should be like this:
We love you, but we love you too much to leave you the way you are. And as you seek to leave a life(style) of sin, we will walk alongside you, we will pick you up when you fall, we will encourage you. But we will not deceive you into thinking that Christianity requires anything less from you than everything. True love means wanting the best for you. And the best for you is a life that God wants; nothing less will do.
May we communicate that with all the love and grace at our disposal.