Perseverance of the saints demands church discipline
Church discipline can be the mechanism for inspecting the genuineness of conversion.
John grew up in what could easily be described as a traditional evangelical church — marked by contemporary/blended music and sermons with bits of Scripture interspersed and heart-warming thoughts about God.
When John was 10 years old, he heard “the gospel.” According to his memory, the gospel centers on the idea that God loved him and had a wonderful plan for his life. God wanted to give him eternal life if he would turn from his sins and make a decision to follow Jesus. He remembers walking down the aisle of his church as the choir sang “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.”
Why perseverance demands church discipline
Fast-forward 20 years. John is married with two kids. He’s not a member of any church, but he does attend on Christmas and Easter. When asked by a friend who had just begun to have interest in Christianity, “John, are you a Christian?” He replied, “Well yes, of course.”
His friend was a bit more persistent than John had anticipated. A follow-up question: “I’m struggling to know if I’m a Christian, and I wonder how you know that you are a Christian?” Without hesitation, John replied, “I walked down the aisle of our church when I was 10 years old and decided to follow Jesus.” Intrigued, his friend asked, “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” At this point, John was silent. He had no idea what it meant to follow Christ.
Based on this line of questioning, is John a Christian? Is John “persevering” in the faith?
At some point, John had embraced the doctrine “once saved, always saved” but had relinquished any notion that the truly saved persevere in the faith. Apart from his childhood connection to a church, John’s life looked little different than an unbeliever’s.
Scripture constantly warns about the danger of false conversion. At the return of Christ, many people will be banished from the presence of the God they claim to know (Matt. 25:41). True conversion is rooted in the effectual work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit makes us a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). As a new creature in Christ Jesus, the Christian grows in personal holiness — what the Bible calls sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3). Sanctification occurs as Christians meditate on and submit to the will of God (Rom. 12:1–2) as they reside in a new family (the church) and are conformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:28–30).
Perseverance as preservation
Perseverance in the ways of God is best understood as preservation by the Spirit through the written Word of God in a church. A “once saved, always saved” motif that doesn’t understand conversion and its vital connection to a church shouldn’t comfort anyone in any way.
Consider John 10:28. Here, Jesus unequivocally states that he and he alone grants eternal life to individuals. He says these individuals will never perish. This claim is astounding. When Jesus grants eternal life to a person on earth, death is rendered powerless. Jesus said no one would take them out of his hand. It’s by his hand they were created, and it’s in his hand they remain secure.
In light of these doctrinal clarifications, what should faithful churches make of people like John who forthrightly state they are Christians but have no active love for Christ or his church? Is John a Christian? Is it possible for a man like John to be a Christian if he has no affection for or endurance with Christ and his church? Has John persevered?
Christians live out their conversion in anticipation and preparation with other Christians in a local church. Together, they’re being fitted for heaven as they worship, learn, and grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. A churchless conversion (a “decision for Christ” in the past apart from the present reality of sanctification in a community of faith) more easily leads to apostasy. Too often, modern evangelism practices traffic in a flimsy doctrine of conversion that results in decisions without discipleship and professing Christians who value their independence from a church. Such people are more likely to be duped by false assurance.
However, when a biblical understanding of conversion is recovered, the revival of church discipline will follow. If marking out the church from the world is the fruit of conversion, then discipline (both formative and corrective) becomes the mechanism for inspecting the genuineness of conversion. When discipline is wholly neglected, churches tend to fall into disrepute as the gospel their members’ lives profess is diluted.
When discipline is practiced faithfully, the purity of the church is protected and with it the witness of Christ and his gospel in a particular community. If, as the author of Hebrews states, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6), and that discipline often happens in the context of the church (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5), then the presence of disciplinary care becomes a means by which believers persevere in the faith (Heb. 12:7).
Whether John realizes it or not, his soul is in danger. His mind is warped by a false doctrine that endures largely due to unhealthy churches and a wrong understanding of conversion. What must be made clear by every true church is that conversion to Christ is mandatory for every man or woman who claims to be a Christian, and that every true conversion will result in lifelong perseverance (Matt. 18:3; Acts 17:30–31; Phil. 1:6).
False doctrines about assurance are pervasive in our modern church culture. They must be confronted and gently rooted out of the minds of people who falsely — and with good intentions — claim to be Christians.
And yet, how many of us have friends and family members who, though claiming to be Christians, live like John and think like John, while “their” church says nothing? In such cases, churches become complicit in perpetuating a false assurance of “once saved, always saved.” More likely, the person was “not saved, never saved” in the first place.
Pastoral care of these self-deceived souls will be difficult. But pastors must clearly teach that there can be no assurance of salvation outside the scope of God’s revealed Word.
With great difficulty, we must make sure every self-deceived, self-professing “Christian” is aware that it is a dangerous error to be disconnected from a local church. We must lovingly confront them, informing them of the grief that awaits. The coming day of the Lord could result in their banishment from God’s presence (Matt. 7:21-23). Over time, we hope their presence in a vibrant church will introduce them to the true pursuit of holiness together with the people of God.
The Christian life cannot be whatever one wishes it was. It must be derived from Scripture, ordered around the life of a church, and vibrant in the life of all professing believers. Anything less cannot be considered Christianity. Anything less will not persevere.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.