Over the past several years, we have witnessed a number of well-known church leaders leave the faith. For some that means theological compromise due to cultural capitulation and for others it means a false teaching, and for still others it has been a complete abandonment of faith.
While these episodes feed confusion and cause discouragement, these are not the most unsettling stories. It’s the personal stories that don’t make headlines that shake us up the most: friends that used to go to our youth group, a co-worker whose faith encouraged us a year ago, or even a mentor that first shared the gospel with us. These are the stories that cause more than confusion, they cause deep pain and sorrow.
How are we supposed to process these stories? What does it mean for those who walk away? Are they saved? Did they lose their salvation? The fear and doubt generated by these experiences can be overwhelming.
Again. No easy answers. Each story is different. Each person an individual, their circumstances and decisions are complex. Thankfully, there are some handles we can reach for so that we can navigate this issue with faithfulness and clarity.
1. Our responsibility is to engage one another with truth in love.
It is not our job to determine if someone is saved or was saved. Neither are we given the task of gauging the authenticity of someone’s faith. What we are called to, our God-given responsibility is to speak truth to one another, encouraging one another, offering guidance and warning and even correction.
Faith is a team sport. Holiness happens in relationship… yes, a relationship with God, but that divine relationship is demonstrated in our relationships with others. We cannot say we love God whom we cannot see if we do not love our brother whom we can see (1 John 4:20). Even so, we build relationships, offer friendship, ask questions, invest time, and build one another up in the faith.
2. We must acknowledge our limitations and weaknesses.
We do not have perfect perception. We are subject to error. More than error, we can be lead astray by our own experiences and deceived by our own sinful feelings. Therefore we must be gracious in our assumptions and slow to draw conclusions. We seldom have the whole story (especially if we have only heard one perspective), and our judgment can be clouded by bias and emotion. There is a reason the Bible encourages us to submit to one another and to require more than one witness when considering accusations.
3. We can only engage the reality before us.
As we seek to live our faith alongside one another in community, we must resist the temptation to speculate on situations, to fear hypothetical motivations, or to feed imaginations with worry. Discernment, concern, and possibility all have their place, but we must guard against over-reaction and premature judgment. These are not only counter-productive, they can be unloving and sinful (as previously mentioned).
Doing life in genuine community is an investment. We must commit to believing the best about one another and seeing Christ work His plan in one another for His glory. When correction is needed or suspected, we then come humbly and gently to deal with what we see, not what we suspect or fear.
4. As long as we have breath, the story is not over.
Most judgements we are tempted to make this side of eternity are premature. As long as someone is still walking on this earth, their story remains under development.
When someone walks away from the faith, we cannot know in that moment what this behavior ultimatley means or how they will finally finish their course. It could be that they are leaving the church and the faith as evidence that they were never born again (1 John 2:19). It is also possible that they are experiencing a deep struggle and a dark season of the soul. They might be saved but experiencing a season of disobedience or “desert wandering.”
Only time will reveal if the Lord’s hand will remain on them and eventually turn them back to the way.
4. Remember the difference between hope and assurance.
When all is said and done, we can only acknowledge what see God doing in one another’s lives. When we see the fruit of righteousness on display in one another’s life, we should celebrate, affirm, and encourage.
When we see a believer turn from the way, their godly affections wane, and their love grow cold, we are called pursue, inquire, and intervene.
When we witness these dark seasons of the soul, our hearts become heavy and we don’t know what to pray. Do we pray that our sister return to the faith? Do we pray for the salvation of our brother? Do we talk to our friend about returning to faithfulness or about coming to salvation?
How do we make sense of this?? We may not be willing (or able) to say with any degree of certainty that our friend is not saved, but we certainly cannot say int he moment that he or she is.
In these times it is understandable, and I would say appropriate for us to acknowledge a lack of assurance regarding the salvation of another as they walk through a period of extended and willful disobedience. However, we must never lose hope.
There is always hope that their faith was genuine and that they will come back to it because God is faithful. There is always hope that they might come to faith as if for the first time because God is merciful and good.
Even when assurance is minimal, hope remains. Assurance is grounded on the visible work of God and the evidence of grace. Hope is anchored to the faithfulness and mercy of God.
So, pray as you are burdened. Pray for your friend as you understand their situation. Pray all possibilities as you throw your hope on the altar of His sovereignty, submitting your uncertainty before His omniscient throne.
Hold onto hope and ask Him to hold onto you. If our perseverance was dependent on our strength, we would all fall so we must pray for each other in humility as we trust others to pray for us.