This booklet is based on a portion of Why Christians Sin by J. Kirk Johnson, published by Discovery House Publishers.
Managing Editor: David Sper
Cover Photo: Michael Forrest
©1993 RBC Ministries--Grand Rapids, MI 49555 Printed in USA
How can we help a brother or sister who no longer lives for Christ? Is it right to think of them as fallen members of the family? Or is it safer to assume that those who are not willing to do the will of God have never been born of the Spirit?
In the following excerpt of Why Christians Sin, pastor and author J. Kirk Johnston offers help in discerning between real and professing Christians. He also shows how important it is for us to disciple and encourage one another through the disappointments of life. According to Johnston, it is in disappointment that genuine believers are most vulnerable to deep falls into sin.
Martin R. De Haan II, President of RBC Ministries
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Not too long ago, I was encouraged by a woman from my church to share the gospel with a young man who was dating her daughter. She felt that he would be open to a gospel presentation, and when I called him, indeed he was.
I met with this young man for a couple of hours, getting to know him personally, and then carefully explaining the good news about Jesus Christ to him. At the end of the gospel presentation, I asked him if he was willing to trust Christ as his Savior. He immediately said yes. We prayed together and I sincerely believed that he had entered into God's family.
When I sent one of the elders from our church to follow up on him, however, this new "Christian" kept putting him off. Later on when I talked with him personally, he professed to be a Christian, but he could not explain to me in any intelligible fashion what it meant to be a Christian.
Since that time, it has come to light that the young man's "conversion" did not result in any spiritual fruit that could be observed, and I have had to conclude that he is almost certainly a "professor," but not a "possessor." John Piper in his book Desiring God stated:
We are surrounded by unconverted people who think they do believe in Jesus. Drunks on the street say they believe. Unmarried couples sleeping together say they believe. Elderly people who haven't sought worship or fellowship for 40 years say they believe. All kinds of lukewarm, world-loving church attenders say they believe. The world abounds with millions of unconverted people who say that they believe in Jesus (p.42).
There are undoubtedly many people in the world today, and especially in the United States, who call themselves Christians, but who are not truly born again. This should not surprise us, because this was also true in Christ's day.
One day Christ was speaking in the synagogue in Capernaum, and He told all who were listening that "he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life" (John 6:54). This caused quite a stir among those listening, including Christ's "disciples" (vv.60-61). The final result was that "many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore" (v.66).
Here were people who professed to "believe" in Jesus and were following Him as "disciples," but who then left Christ, never to return. What was the problem? Were they unwilling to accept the lordship of Christ? Not according to the passage. Were the rigors of discipleship too much for them to endure? Apparently not. The problem was that they had never truly believed that Christ was the Savior and the Messiah. In fact, Christ told them that "there are some of you who do not believe" (v.64).
For some time these people followed Christ and
claimed to be His disciples, but when they finally understood the essence
of Christ's message, they rejected it and Him. When they said, "This
is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" (v.60), they really
meant, "Who can accept it?" They were unwilling to accept Christ
as their Savior and Messiah. There are always people around who claim to
be Christians, but who actually are not.
First of all, there are false teachers as well as false professors. False teachers are different from false professors because they deliberately misrepresent themselves as true believers for various reasons. Sometimes false teachers pretend to be believers in order to gain sex, money, or fame. Jude warned about this in his letter (Jude 16). But in many cases false teachers claim to be Christians so that they can spread false doctrine.
Recently, some Mormon missionaries showed up at our Wednesday night service, claiming to simply be Christians who were looking for a place for worship and fellowship with other believers. Their real motive, however, became apparent when they began to contact people from our church. They were seeking people to convert to Mormonism. I arranged a meeting with them and told them they were not to enter our services again or contact our people. They left my office still insisting that they were Christians who meant no harm. They were false teachers, not just false professors.
When we know that someone is not a Christian but is pretending to be one for sinful reasons, then according to Paul we are to "turn away" from him (Rom. 16:17-18).
False professors, however, are people who think they are saved but who have not truly believed. They may have faith, but that faith is deficient and/or defective.
False professors sometimes have a problem understanding that they are sinners who are totally lost. They may be "trusting" in Christ, but these people are also trusting in their good works. Thus their faith in Christ is deficient. They are not trusting in Christ alone to get to heaven. Others who are false professors realize they are sinners, but they do not understand that Christ's death totally paid for all their sins. Thus their faith is defective because they believe they have to do good works in order to make up the difference.
So false professors do not completely or correctly understand the gospel message, and it is our responsibility as Christians to help them comprehend it.
It is true that the Holy Spirit is ultimately the one who convicts people about their sinfulness as well as the righteousness found in Christ (John 16:8-11). If it were not for Him, not one person would ever come to a clear understanding of what the gospel message is all about. Nevertheless, God has sovereignly decided to use people who faithfully present the Word of God as a part of this process (Rom. 10:14).
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When believers discern false professors, how should they approach them? First, they should not go to these people and accuse them of not being true Christians, or even directly question whether they are saved. It is entirely possible to be mistaken and to offend unnecessarily either a believer or someone who thinks he is saved. If the accusing believer
is wrong, it could severely damage the assurance of a sinning Christian. It also could cost the believer the opportunity to present the gospel to an unbeliever.
The Lord was very candid with the false professors in John 6 about their unbelief. But Christ is God and He knows all things. He knows the hearts and minds of people; believers do not. We must proceed much more carefully. Developing a relationship with a supposed false professor may clear up doubts about his spiritual status. If a relationship with the person in question does not clarify matters, then a discussion about spiritual things is in order. This can easily begin with the classic question: "If you were to die tonight, and stand before God, and He asked you why He should let you into heaven, what would you tell Him?" (from Evangelism Explosion, D. James Kennedy, p.30). This question has an amazing ability to sort out the professors from the possessors.
Many times in my personal ministry I have talked with people who said they were Christians and who even talked about faith in Christ. But when I asked them this question, I received an answer that clearly indicated they were not trusting in Christ alone to get them into heaven. Some are really trusting in good works or Christ plus good works, and some can't even answer the question, which indicates that they haven't really thought through the issue. It's amazing how confused or deceived people can be about their standing with God, even people in good, Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches.
Jerry Jenkins, in an article in Moody magazine, described an encounter with just such a person:
Less than a year ago, I was helping a friend counsel someone on the brink of divorce. My friend noticed a hearse go by and asked the counselee an adapted version of "the Kennedy Question". . . "If that were your body in that hearse, do you know you would be in heaven?" I thought he was wasting time. I mean, the man with the bad marriage was raised in a Christian home, attended a fundamental church, had spent a couple of years in Bible college. Why not save evangelism for someone who needed it? The answer was sure and immediate, just as I knew it would be. "Yes, I know I would be in heaven." Good, I thought, let's get on with the marriage counseling. But my friend wasn't through. "On what basis?" Again the answer was quick and sure. "On the basis of my works." I laughed. It was a joke, right? The classic answer was so opposite of the truth that it had to be a put-on. My laughter died when I could see in his eyes that he was serious. Over the next several minutes we asked and probed, finally establishing that what he had understood from all those years of sitting under the preaching of the gospel was that he had to earn his way into heaven (March 1987).
Asking people on what basis they expect to get into heaven is usually nonthreatening and revealing, particularly if a believer has established a friendship with the individual. Of course, it is appropriate and right for a pastor from the pulpit to remind the people regularly that it is entirely possible for some of them to be professors but not possessors. He ought to issue a general challenge to "test yourselves to see if you are in the faith" (2 Cor. 13:5), and then go on and clearly explain the gospel.
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It is not appropriate to confuse people about the gospel by giving them a gospel presentation that includes issues that are not an integral part of the offer of salvation. John MacArthur quoted a friend as saying that "the contemporary church often fails to present the gospel clearly enough for the non-elect to reject it" (The Gospel According to Jesus, p.134). I have no doubt that this is true to a certain extent. But it is also true that the contemporary church has sometimes made the gospel so complex or confusing that even the elect reject it, at least in those instances.
The United States Defense Department in its service
manual gives a recipe for canned fruitcake to be served to its personnel.
This recipe takes up 18 pages! (Time, 1/6/86, p.73). Leave it to
the Pentagon to make something relatively simple into something incredibly
complex. Many people today are doing the same thing with the gospel. The
gospel message is relatively simple, but many insist on making it unnecessarily
It is true that Christ sometimes discussed discipleship along with a simple offer of salvation, but this was not always the case (see John 34). When Christ discussed discipleship along with the gospel, He kept the issues in the correct order (salvation first, discipleship second). He also presented discipleship in gentle and encouraging terms (Matt. 11:28-30).
On the occasions when Christ challenged His disciples about their level of commitment to Him, His purpose was not to add conditions to the simple gospel message but to demonstrate that those being challenged were either unbelievers (Mark 10:17-23; Luke 9:57-62), or if they were true disciples they were not following Him as faithfully as they should (John 21:15-19).
S. Lewis Johnson Jr. put it well when he wrote in Christianity Today:
The glory of the gospel of grace and a limited response do not seem compatible, but the solution is not to be found in inducing shallow professions that do not last by the questionable methods of "decisional evangelism" or by introducing sterner demands that have problematic biblical support. Let us remember that our sovereign God alone saves souls, and He can be trusted with that work. Let us do our work of preaching His saving Word. Lewis Sperry Chafer used to exhort his students (all men in those days), "Men, preach an accurate gospel!" That's still good counsel. Then the results may be left safely with the Lord (9/22/89, p.25).
When believers present the gospel clearly to someone they think is a false
professor, that person may still fail to grasp the full implications of
the gospel. They should continue to present the truth to him tactfully and
lovingly until he understands what the gospel is all about. When the truth
finally sinks in, he will either truly trust Christ, or as some did in John
6, he will leave, never to return. When people who once claimed to be Christians
deny Christ and walk away, they are "apostates." This means they
have departed from, or rebelled against, the truth. This brings up an important
question: Can a true Christian become an apostate.
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A man named Skip Porteous recently wrote an autobiographical work titled Jesus Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Years ago this man professed Christ as Savior, went to Bible college, did evangelistic work in Southern California, and pastored two churches. But since then he has totally repudiated his faith in Jesus Christ. Today he is adamant in his opposition to Christ and evangelical Christianity.
Regardless of what the title of his book says, the Bible indicates that this man never was indwelt by the Lord Jesus Christ.
In 1 John 2:18-23, John explained that certain people left the fellowship of Christians and denied the deity of Christ. These people were apostates. They fellowshiped with true believers for a while and perhaps appeared to bear real spiritual fruit, but then they suddenly left. John said, "They were not really of us" (1 John 2:19). These apostates never really believed in Christ, although they claimed to do so for a while.
The scriptural answer to the question, Can a true Christian become an apostate? is no. But that does not mean that a true Christian will always or completely be free of doubt. Doubt is a very real possibility for a Christian (James 1:6-8), but there are different kinds of doubt.
First, Christians can have doubts about whether or not they are really saved (1 John 3:19-20). Christians can also have doubts about God, whether or not He really cares or really keeps His Word. There is nothing in Scripture that indicates that those doubts will last only a few moments or even a short period of time. Christians can have doubts about themselves or God that go on for indefinite, but significant, periods of time. Although Christians may have doubts, true believers will never completely or permanently lose their faith in God.
Over the years I have talked with many people who tell me with great sincerity and conviction that they believe Christ died for their sins, and that they are trusting in Christ to get them to heaven. They believe that God loves them and sent His Son so that they can have a home in heaven. But in the same breath, some of these people admit that they have severe doubts about God's love for them at that moment. They are disappointed with God and/or the Christian life. Consequently, these people are often consciously sinning. But they have not totally abandoned their faith in God or Christ.
Some people believe that Christians can totally and permanently lose their faith and deny Christ as their Savior. It's true that Christians can in moments of weakness deny Christ; Peter did it, and he was a great servant of God (Mark 14:66-72). But even though a true believer may momentarily or temporarily deny Christ, that person will set the record straight, as did Peter. The reason true Christians cannot and will not totally and permanently deny Christ is that God will not let them. As 1 Thessalonians 5:24 says, "Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass."
Sheldon Vanauken understood the faithfulness of God. While still a young man and a young Christian, his wife, "Davy," died of a terrible disease. This tragic incident caused him to have serious doubts about God. He wondered why God would allow such a tragedy to happen. As he remembers in his book, A Severe Mercy:
The world was still empty without Davy, and now God seemed to have withdrawn too. My sense of desolation increased. God could not be as loving as He was supposed to be, or the other alternative. One sleepless night, drawing on to morning, I was overwhelmed with a sense of a cosmos empty of God as well as Davy. "All right," I muttered to myself. "To hell with God. I'm not going to believe this damned rubbish anymore. Lies, all lies. I've been had." Up I sprang and rushed out to the country. This was the end of God. Ha!
And then I found I could not reject God. I could not. I cannot explain this. One discovers one cannot move a boulder by trying with all one's strength to do it. I discovered without any sudden influx of love or faith that I could not reject Christianity. Why, I don't know. There it was. I could not (p.191).
There are some people who pretend to be Christians in order to take advantage of believers or to present false doctrine to them. They are false teachers. However, many people in the world today, even in evangelical churches, are false professors. These people are living sinful lives because they do not really understand the gospel and thus have never truly accepted it.
There are others who have left the church and denied
Christ who are also living sinful lives. These are apostates.
There is still another group in the church today people who profess Christ and demonstrates some spiritual life, but they are also consciously sinning. These are disappointed and disillusioned Christians. They have not completely lost their faith, nor will they. But they are struggling with trusting God on a daily basis. What can and should be done to help these brothers and sisters in Christ?
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Don Rosenberger, a sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor during World War II, trusted Christ as his Savior on October 8, 1943, and subsequently became very involved with Dawson Trotman and his fledgling Navigator's ministry. Working his way up to one of Dawson's "lieutenants," he continued for many years to serve the Lord with the Navigators. He also trained counselors for Billy Graham Crusades. In 1953 he left the Navigators to become director of the Christian Youth Crusade. At this time he was also attending graduate school and pastoring a church.
Over a period of 20 years he drifted out of a close, personal relationship with God. He separated from his wife, pursued a career as a financial consultant, and became satisfied with himself and his life.
The problem of conscious sinning and uncommitted living for Christ by someone like Don is not unique to contemporary Christianity and is an example of an increasing number of wayward Christians.
D. L. Moody said many years ago, "We are suffering more today from professed Christians who have either gone to sleep or who have never waked up than from any one cause."
Hannah Whitall Smith said in 1875:
The standard of practical holy living has been so low among Christians that very often the person who tries to practice spiritual disciplines in everyday life is looked upon with disapproval by a large portion of the church. And for the most part, the followers of Jesus Christ are satisfied with a life so conformed to the world, and so like it in almost every respect, that to a casual observer there is no difference between the Christian and the pagan.
The fact that a straying Christian is an old problem
for the church does not make it any more acceptable. Some do profess Christ
without truly possessing Him, but what about those who are disappointed
with God, fellow Christians, or the Christian life in general? How can we
help these wayward believers?
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First of all, it is the believers' responsibility to help these brothers and sisters in Christ. In Galatians 6:1, Paul addressed himself to all the "brethren," not just church leaders. He went on to say that those who are "spiritual" have the responsibility to "restore" any Christians who are caught in a trespass.
The word caught indicates that a person is ensnared or overpowered by a certain sin, and that without help they are unlikely to escape it. We who are "spiritual" must come to their aid. This term spiritual does not refer to complete spiritual maturity or "having it all together." It simply indicates in the context that if one is walking "by the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25) and sees someone ensnared in sin, the person walking by the Spirit is obligated to help.
The type of help required is indicated by the word restore. It has the idea of returning someone or something to its original state and is used in the sense of mending or resetting a broken bone. This word not only indicates that the process is one of restoration rather than punishment, but it also indicates that the process will be initially painful. It will hurt, but it is necessary for the healing to begin.
Before we approach a Christian who is ensnared in sin, we should try if possible to develop a friendship with him, or at least communicate to him in a concrete way that we care about him. Otherwise, we cannot expect him to listen to us. We have to go to him, as Galatians 6:1 says, "in a spirit of gentleness," which involves "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15).
What we should say to a believer caught in sin is not indicated by Galatians 6:1. I believe that is because Paul knew that every situation is different. We cannot and should not approach everyone in exactly the same manner. If a believer is unconsciously sinning, loving exhortation is in order and should be sufficient.
We need to remind believers to read Romans 12:1, where Paul exhorted them to present their bodies a "living and holy sacrifice." This is both reasonable and right in light of "the mercies of God" that have been shown to them.
A further reminder to read 1 Corinthians 6:20 would probably also be helpful, where Paul said, "You have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body." We have no right as Christians to live as we see fit. We now belong to God, who has bought us with the precious blood of His Son, Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:18-19). There is an interesting illustration of this truth in David Frost's Book of the World's Worst Decisions:
In 1910 Olav Olavson, a Swedish citizen, fell on hard times and decided to sell his body for medical research to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. The following year he inherited a fortune and resolved to buy himself back. The institute refused to sell its rights to his body, went to court, and won possession of it. Moreover, the institute obtained damages, since Olav had two teeth pulled out without asking their permission as ultimate owners of his body (p.26).
While God has no problem with our getting a tooth pulled if necessary, a true Christian knows that Jesus is Lord, and that from the standpoint of the cross Christ deserves his allegiance, service, loyalty, and obedience. Believers who are sinning need to be reminded of this truth both personally and from evangelical pulpits. Nevertheless, exhortations to acknowledge Christ's lordship and to obey Him may not be enough to turn them back if the problem is disappointment or disillusionment.
Christians who are consciously sinning are usually disappointed or disillusioned with God, the Christian life, fellow believers, or all three. These believers have not forgotten what God did for them at the cross, but they are wondering why things are so apparently wrong or bad now. In order to restore these believers, encouragement will be necessary.
The writer of Hebrews commanded us to "encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called `Today,' lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (3:13).
When we encounter a fellow believer who is ensnared in sin but has little interest in escape because of disappointment or disillusionment, it is important that we encourage that person before he becomes hardened against God by it.
Encouraging someone takes time, and it begins with finding out why wayward believers are disillusioned with Christianity. Those who want to help must probe gently and listen intently. People who are away from God often do not want to admit it, or they simply cannot verbalize their problems. They know something is wrong, but they can't figure out what it is so they blame God.
Encouragers must pinpoint problems and then lead sinning Christians back to God's Word for an understanding of what happened and what God was doing at the time a certain problem began. Although encouragers cannot know God's mind perfectly, they can make general observations based on Scripture and God's character. These new perspectives from God's Word should turn on some lights for disappointed Christians.
After caring Christians diagnose root problems, they should then lovingly exhort erring believers to trust God completely and to do what is right. The fact that discouraged believers often feel that God has betrayed them should be understood and acknowledged. Nevertheless, once the misunderstanding is cleared up, the responsibility of these struggling believers is to obey God. The restorer must not stop with encouragement. Exhortation must follow to motivate lapsed believers to do what is necessary.
It would be nice if sinful and uncommitted Christians would respond immediately and positively to restoration efforts. Why don't they? One reason is that concerned restorers can be wrong about the spiritual state of sinning Christians. The possibility also exists that some people have never truly understood the gospel and are not saved. If they are saved, it is also possible that the real reason for their disillusionment has not yet been uncovered. Perhaps they were not initially approached "in a spirit of gentleness" and love, and therefore they are still very disillusioned and perhaps even more so than before.
Whatever the reasons Christians are leading sinful and uncommitted lives, other believers should not give up on them. They should continue to love them and if possible encourage and exhort them. Above all, they should be balanced in their approach to wayward believers. Over-exhortation may drive them away, but encouragement without diagnosis of the real issues may resolve nothing.
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If encouragement and exhortation don't work, what about church discipline? Where does it fit into this process? Should every Christian be immediately and formally disciplined by the church for any conscious sin? I used to think so, but I had a hard time reconciling this with 1 Thessalonians 5:14, which says to "help the weak." The word weak here refers not to physical weakness but to spiritual, and help means literally "to hold one's self over against." In other words, mature believers are to support spiritually weak Christians by keeping them from getting into sin or falling further into sin.
The spiritually weak are believers who desire to do what is right but lack the discipline to follow through. Usually they are new Christians; however, these people can also be believers who because of their sinful past continue to struggle with certain sins. Occasional encouragement and exhortation alone will not be enough to turn these believers around. They will require constant supervision and support to keep them from sinning.
This initial approach does not preclude formal church discipline or excuse sin. In 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Paul said, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us."
Christians who lead "unruly" lives are to be disciplined. But what does "unruly" mean? It is a military term that means to be "out of step." In verses 7-13, "unruly" Christians are those out of step with the church, an unnecessary "burden." Their sin is open and obvious, disrupting the entire church. These people are to be exhorted to do what is right (1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:12), and if they don't they are not to be associated with (v.14).
Paul did not say to excommunicate them. That discipline is reserved for sexually immoral believers (1 Cor. 5:1), those causing divisions (Titus 3:10), and teachers of false doctrines (Rom. 16:17). Rather, other believers are not to "associate" with unruly Christians so that they "may be put to shame" (2 Thess. 3:14). The word associate refers to Christian fellowship or social mingling. When sin affects the entire local body adversely, the welfare of the church has to come before the interests of individuals, no matter who they are or how much some may care about them. Nevertheless, Paul also said, "Do not regard" them as enemies, "but admonish" them as brothers (v.15).
We have a definite responsibility to restore erring Christians. God expects us to do our part, and He uses us as we do so. But God's part in restoration is more crucial than ours. In fact, we may come to the point where we cannot do anything else, and God has to take over completely.
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In John 15:1-2, the apostle quoted Jesus as saying, "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away." R. K. Harrison believes that this phrase translated "takes away" is best translated "lifts up." Joseph Dillow points out that this is the way this word is used in at least 8 out of 24 occurrences in the gospel of John. "Lift up" is a possible meaning for this word because it is a standard practice in vineyards to lift up fallen vines so they can begin to bear fruit again.
When Christians are consciously sinning and not bearing fruit, God at some point steps in to lift them up. Why He does not do this immediately is hidden in His own wise and loving purposes. God has several different ways to bring the wayward believer back to the fold.
In 1 Kings 19:2-18, God restored one of His prophets. The prophet Elijah was a part of God's great victory on Mount Carmel (1 Kin. 18), and it appeared that everything was going great. But then Jezebel vowed to take Elijah's life and he fled, discouraged and scared. He actually pleaded with God to take his life! That's how disillusioned he was.
God demonstrated His love and concern for Elijah
(vv.5-7) by sending an angel to feed him twice. Once it was "the angel
of the Lord," the Son of God. God also allowed him to sleep so that
he could get his strength back. He had to have realized that God was graciously
providing for him.
Sometimes God so visibly demonstrates His great love for fallen believers that their problem quickly goes away. Disappointed believers become convinced that God really loves and cares about them. God's provision was not sufficient for Elijah, so God overwhelmed him with a tremendous display of His power (vv.8-14).
Elijah traveled 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb, which is also known as Mount Sinai. It was here that Moses received the Ten Commandments and saw the glory of God (Ex. 33:17-23). In the very same cave, Elijah stood by as God dazzled him with a tremendous display of His power first a strong wind, then an earthquake, and finally a fire.
Sometimes God impresses erring Christians with His incredible power so that whatever disappointed them is no longer a problem. Those who wondered what in the world God was doing, or if God was really in control, suddenly realize that God is able to do whatever He desires and that He is doing just that. In Elijah's case, even God's power was not enough, so God encouraged him with the support of other godly men (vv.15-18).
Elijah was sent by God to anoint two new kings who would help him in his campaign against Baal worship. God also instructed him to anoint another prophet, Elisha, who would help and support him, and eventually succeed him. Finally, God informed Elijah that there were still 7,000 people in Israel who were loyal to the true God. All of this was carefully calculated to encourage Elijah by showing him that God really was supporting him.
Sometimes God encourages the discouraged believer with wonderful displays of His support. When this happens, that person is no longer disappointed because he sees that God is helping him and will continue to do so.
As a result of God's manifestation of His love, power, and support, Elijah was restored and went back to faithfully serving God with his life.
Unfortunately, even when God clearly displays His love, power, and support, some wayward believers fail to come back. Then God has to take more painful measures.
In Hebrews 12:4-11, the writer warned that those "whom the Lord loves He disciplines" (v.6). God disciplines those who belong to Him when they refuse to do what is right. In fact, He even "scourges" those who require more severe discipline. The word scourge may refer to a whip lashing. How God does this varies from person to person. He knows how to get a person's attention and to lash him where it will be most effective in bringing him back.
The fact that God disciplines a person is a clear indication that he is part of God's family (v.7). If a person continues in deliberate sin and no severe discipline is forthcoming, it indicates that that person is illegitimate (v.8).
Normally, when God disciplines a person, "it
yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness" (v.11). However, there
are some erring believers who still will not respond.
God's plans never fail. When He sets out to restore a wayward believer, He does so. But God may have to bring that person home to glory to do it. If a Christian continues to refuse a close walk with God on earth, then God may bring him home to heaven where complete restoration will occur (1 Cor. 5:5; 11:29-30; 1 John 5:16).
I have often wondered why God does not seem to
call home more Christians who are consciously sinning. It doesn't appear
that God is really doing this on a regular basis, but maybe He is. It may
not always be apparent who is willfully sinning, and only God knows why
Christians die when they do. And if He lets sinning Christians live, it
is because He is incredibly gracious and longsuffering. Undoubtedly He puts
up with people and their sin much longer than His followers would. Believers
cannot discount the grace of God nor presume upon it.
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When God restores a wayward believer to a renewed life for Him on this earth, He expects others to get involved in the discipling process. As Bill Hull said:
All Christians have a desire to grow, to please God, and to make their lives count. The desire surfaces periodically; the pastor/coach looks for those teachable moments and claims them as precious jewels of opportunity. The Christian becomes inspired by a sermon, by reading Scripture, or by a conversation. The event causes him to renew his commitment to grow. But desire without discipline derails good intentions (The Disciple-Making Pastor, p.93).
If faithful Christians don't properly disciple revived believers, they can become disappointed again with God, with other Christians, or with the Christian life. That's why the words of Robert Coleman must ring true for every believer: "Discipling men and women is the priority around which our lives should be oriented" (The Master Plan of Discipleship, p.9).
In November of 1980, Don Rosenberger agreed to meet with an old friend, Doug Sparks. He and Doug had served the Lord together in the Navigator ministry 30 years earlier. Don could not bring himself to turn down his friend's request for a meeting, but he was very apprehensive about it.
On the arranged weekend, Doug and Don traveled
together to Cape Cod. As they drove along, Don admitted to Doug that he
was not "in fellowship with the Lord." At first Don said it was
because he had changed some of his thinking about Christ and God's Word.
But then he went on to confess that he had suffered with some "profound
disillusionments and disappointments."
As Don talked, Doug continued to simply listen. It came out that Don had been deeply hurt, particularly by a prominent Christian leader. He was a great servant of God, but like all of us, he had weaknesses. As Don continued sharing, he began to sob. Doug kept on listening through the tears, but finally he put his finger on what needed to be done in order for Don to be whole again. He asked Don if he had ever in his heart really forgiven the man for what had happened. Don did not respond, but he began to ponder Doug's words and his question.
The morning after his long talk with Doug Sparks,
Don rose early to go down to the beach. He wanted to avoid Doug if possible,
but he could not avoid God. As Don walked along the ocean, he began to talk
with God really talk with God. As he did, he began to cry uncontrollably.
Later on, he told Doug at breakfast, "It was as though scales dropped
from my eyes and I could see again the way I did 20 years ago."
When Don got back home, he called his wife, Eleanor, and told her what incredible things God had done in his life. A few days later they had a tearful reunion and began the process of restoring their marriage.
Don Rosenberger is now living faithfully for the
Lord, and God continues to work in his life in a marvelous fashion. In the
same way, He will work in ours if we humbly admit our need of Him.
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A young father trusted Christ for salvation and began to attend church regularly. For a number of years he lived a normal life, loved his wife and kids, and generally conducted himself in an exemplary way. Yet something was missing in his life. He wasn't routinely sinning, but he wasn't actively living for the Lord either. Satisfaction in the Christian life eluded him, and for a number of years he didn't make progress.
Four or five years ago the example of his wife and family encouraged him to devote himself more fully to God. This kindled a spiritual flame, and he joined a men's discipleship group for a year. He participated in a men's leadership group the next year and began serving God in earnest.
Now this man is an elder in our church and a fine servant of God who truly enjoys his close relationship with the Lord. Those who have seen his development over the last several years are delighted by what God has done through biblical discipleship.
New Christians need discipleship, and so do fallen believers. But indifferent followers of God need it too. Some Christians are disappointed with God, but many are simply ho-hum about their faith. They do not have a close relationship to God and are unsure how to have one.
As a start they need to commit themselves to being
the best disciples of Jesus Christ they can be. Then they should seek out
some other Christians to disciple them. Although some believers can disciple
themselves, most will need to get involved in the discipleship ministry
of a local church or find some mature Christians who will disciple them.
God uses human disciples as well as His Spirit to encourage and mold lackadaisical
believers into Christ's image. Godly desires and intentions are where we
have to begin, but to get to the end successfully, we need others to disciple
Discipleship is the key to sustained and consistent growth. We must either go forward and become serious about living the Christian life or we will stray further and further from God. Hebrews 2:1 says, "We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away." If we begin to listen to and act on what we have heard from God, we will not wander away from Him and into deliberate sin with its terrible consequences (Heb. 2:2-3).
God wants to revitalize our lives, but we have
to do whatever it takes to become His disciple. Becoming a commendable disciple
of Jesus Christ does not happen overnight. In fact, it is a lifelong process
of learning and growing. Yet if we are willing to pursue it properly, it
will change our lives! And as our lives change, we will change the lives
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This booklet, When Christians Sin, is based on a portion of the book Why Christians Sin: Avoiding the Dangers of an Uncommitted Life by J. Kirk Johnson. Kirk is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and Biola University's Talbot School of Theology. He is the pastor of Harmony Bible Church in Danville, Iowa. His book is published by Discovery House Publishers, a nonprofit ministry of RBC Ministries.
We are pleased to be able to incorporate an excerpt of a full-length Discovery House book into our Discovery Series once each year. We feel that this is a good way to expose to our members other sources of solid, biblical teaching, and to expand our involvement with respected teachers and authors who are sensitive to and who share our purpose.
Discovery House Publishers was designed to provide resource materials that RBC Ministries cannot offer on the usual no-charge basis. For more information about Discovery House or for a list of their biblical resources, call 1-800-653-8333 or write to:
Discovery House Publishers
P. O. Box 3566
Grand Rapids, MI 49501-3566