Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Can a statement of faith be false?

A while ago, I got into a conversation with a gentleman over what constituted a true believer. His position, as he explained it, was that there was no such thing as a false statement of faith, as those who proclaim Christ as their Lord and say they believe in him will be saved. His opinion appeared to be that there was no such thing as a "false Christian." Is this the case in scripture?

Let's first review the words of the apostle John:
I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. [3 John 1:9-11]
The apostle John, writing to a spiritual son known as Gaius, makes mention of a man named Diotrephes. Little is known of this person, other than what is mentioned here. Diotrephes' faults are many: he seeks personal power; he denies the authority of the apostles (v. 9); he refuses to welcome traveling missionaries who need a place to stay; he hinders those who desire to help the missionaries, and even excommunicates them if they do so (v. 10).

John now addresses Gaius personally again, telling him to "not imitate evil but imitate good" - that is, to do good in stark contrast to the evil done by Diotrephes. The apostle John then writes: "Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God" (v. 11). This language is similar to John's other writings, and expand on the words of Christ that you will know someone by their fruit. For example, in his first epistle, the apostle had written: "No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him" (1 John 3:6).

Here now is the relevance of this passage to our topic: in saying "whoever does evil has not seen God," John is in essence questioning - if not outright denying - Diotrephes' salvation. Remember Diotrephes was not an unbeliever: he was a self-proclaimed Christian, and seemingly a leader in a local church. Given both, he should have seen God, but John says he had not. He was unregenerated and unsaved - he was a false Christian.

Let's now review the words of Jude, regarding the false teachers who were slipping into the churches:
But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. [Jude 1:17-21]
Jude has spent much of his epistle writing against the false teachers and heretics who were invading the churches. He now reminds them that the apostles had warned them about this before (v. 17), going on to give a near direct quote of 2 Peter 3:3. It is interesting to note that Peter, in his original epistle, had made mention of the prophets and Christ, and Jude now makes reference to the apostles. It is interesting to note that this shows two things: 1) the early church understood what God was doing with the writings of the apostles; 2) the writings of the apostles were seen with the same authority as the prophets and Christ, and quoted as such...but this is all getting off topic.

Jude then gives three labels for the false teachers and heretics: they "cause divisions," are "worldly people," and are "devoid of the Spirit" (v. 19). The label of divisive against false teachers is ironic given that, in the church today, it is usually the people who do what Jude was doing who are called divisive. If some Christians today were consistent with their own level of discernment, they would have called Jude a Pharisee and a legalist.

In any case, I want to hone in on two words Jude uses: "worldly people" and "devoid of the Spirit." The phrase "worldly people" is the same phrase used by the apostle Paul in reference to unbelievers (cf. 1 Cor 2:14). The phrase "devoid of the Spirit" means that the false teachers and heretics did not have the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul had written that believers had the Spirit within them, and if anyone did not have the Spirit, they do not belong to Christ (Rom 8:9). This combination of "worldly people" and "devoid of the Spirit" means that the apostle Jude was challenging the salvation of the false teachers and heretics - he was basically saying they weren't Christian. Keep in mind that these were men who claimed to be Christian, and acted as if they were. They are written as being among the other believers (v. 4), and participating in the fellowship meals (v. 12). They were active in the community, and for many would have merely been assumed to have been true believers.

These false teachers are now contrasted to Jude's audience, who were believers (v. 1), and who were told to build themselves up in the faith (implying faith was already there) and praying in the Holy Spirit (v. 20). They could pray in the Holy Spirit because they were not like the false teachers and heretics - they were true Christians. They had the Spirit inside them and were marked as Christ's.

In both these situations, we see examples where a person's statement of faith was questioned or challenged by a biblical authority. The reasons are different: 1) John challenged Diotrephes' salvation on the basis of his evil acts; 2) Jude challenged the heretics' salvation on the basis of their false doctrine. We might call one the "fruits of deeds" and the other the "fruits of creeds": a regenerated heart will not unrepentantly continue in or attempt to glorify their sin (cf. Rom 6:1-4); one of God's sheep will not follow the voice of a stranger (cf. John 10:5).

On the contrary to our opening contention, there do appear to be such things as false Christians, who have made a false statement of faith without ever being regenerated. There are likewise signs of noticing this false conversion, as both Jude and John display for us. On the flip side of the coin, of course, there is the opposite extreme, where we launch into an inquisition against other people, or accuse them of not being saved based on trifles. We must therefore remember what Jude said regarding supposed believers suffering from error, for he wrote "show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh" (Jude 1:23).