1 Timothy 4:16
Is it possible that many of our hearers each week, even many of our members, aren't saved.
Langston Hughes recounted his "salvation" account. One of community pressure. Langston Hughes became and remained-to the best of my knowledge-a persuasive atheist.
Aren't the Gospels full of images that warn us against worrying about false conversions? Should we be suspicious of grace? Well the Bible tells us there's opposition to the truth, that there will be false converts. Why bother trying to fix something that the Bible tells us will be a problem.
Well, the experience of Langston Hughes is one I fear may be repeated thousands, if not millions, of times in our churches in the United States.
I want us to look first at the plan, then the problem, then the source of the problem. And I'll end with a few practical tips.
I want to begin with God's plan. God has an overarching purpose to get glory for Himself through His people.
God would do this through Jesus Christ. This lion of Judah is also the lamb. Revelation talks about the innumerable multitude.
Jesus says he will build his church on Peter and the confession he had made. He promises to always be with his disciples and that they were to go
God would bring his glory through Christ and specifically through the church. It's not merely about evangelizing the lost but about congregating the converted.
God set Israel apart. His people were the means to bring him glory. That's been God's plan from Genesis to Revelation, to have God's name brought glory by His people.
I hope you're encouraged that what you're about is maybe even something bigger than what you thought you were about. But that brings me to point two.
God's people were unfaithful. Instead of honoring his name, they mingled with the nations and adopted their customs and worshipped their idols (Ps 106).
When the people were in exile, God explained to them again and again that all that he did, he did for His own name.
Romans 2:24 - God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. In the OT, Israel brought shame on God's name instead of being what they were called to be, a light to the nations. Whatever God did, He did to honor his name, so that the nations would know...
God does all that he does for the glory of his own name. Read through Ezekiel. You preach that from your pulpit, and you'll get a very quick test of what is going on in your church spiritually. Christians love this message. Non-Christians hate it.
Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in Heaven. That's why Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:12 that we are to live exemplary lives before pagans.
The problem that I am pointing to is not the occasional hypocrite but systems that seem to produce false converts but whole congregations that are typified and charactarized not by holiness but by worldliness.
4 Dimensions of this problem.
- These people are confused about their status. There is no evidence these people are reconciled to God. That's not loving to them.
- The church's internal love is hindered. As Paul talked about a little yeast working through the whole batch of dough, there are congregations with many people with this problem. Does this make our congregation less loving, less forgiving, less joyful. What toll does this take on the leaders. Most of us our married, we have families to shepherd. Our churches are entirely full of sinners. We are dealing entirely with sinners... even when we are alone. But churches are to be made up of a subset of sinners, repentant sinners. If not, the Church looks more like the world.
- The Church's witness to the world is subverted. We have nothing better to offer them. When the world is in the church, we have nothing better to offer them. The very light of the Church is dimmed.
- The worst of all: God's name is defamed. The reason God sets apart a people for Himself is for his own glory, but this sets up a situation for his name to be defamed and blasphemed. 1 Cor 13: The Church is to reflect the truth of Christ. Our churches are to reflect the glory of God, but we work against him when we build churches that camouflage His character.
The Source of the Problem
What do we do that would help to create such false conversions?
We have to begin by looking at ourselves.
There are innumerable warnings about false teachers in the NT.
Maybe God's people are needed to reflect God's character and glory because we do it better when we're in community with one another. That's when you really see the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The teachers have a particular responsibility and accountability for this. I think the text I started with is a good summary. 1 Tim 4:16.
In order to prepare this I walked through the NT to try to find any evidence for what the writers are saying is a good church vs. a bad church.
We need to know that we can teach the wrong things with disasterous results. Saving faith comes only from the hearing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What if there is a different message? Will false teaching be ignored? No, it will bring converts, but it will bring false converts.
We need to always be guarding these five truths.
- God's judgment is coming. 2 Peter 3
It's easy to fill a church with people who will follow their own evil desires. Avoiding the doctrine of Hell is one step away from denying it altogether. But when we focus on it, we find ourselves to be more objects of mercy than those siting in judgment.
- We should be judged by God. We are lost, depraved under the good, right, fearful, and certain judgment of God. There is not just judgment out there for someone. We need to feel and fear our own helplessness. We deserve God's judgment. If he is as good as He says he is, he should judge us. We must understand that our natural lostness means that people have a tendency not to believe our message. We think that if we keep fiddling with things, we'll get everyone to respond. Be very careful with that reasoning. That can land you far, far away from the Biblical Gospel.
Those who are from the World will not accept the Gospel, and if they would accept it it's because there has been a change not in them but in the Gospel being preached. Imagine how humility is increased when we realize we deserve judgment. We gain a keen sense of God's mercy. We need it but do not deserve it. I had a young man who wanted to be a member of our church who was an annihilationist. I encouraged him to go back and read a few things, some articles and some Scripture. At first he was a little put off that I had put him off, but a few days later he came back and with a voice full of emotion thanked me because the Cross had become so much sweeter to Him.
- Our only hope is in Christ.
Any denial of the bodily resurrection is a denial of Christ Himself.
When we get this right, we begin offending and attracting all of the right people. The self-righteous and the falsely self-confident are offended, and those who know they are sinners saved by grace are attracted.
- We don't see the fullness of salvation in this life.
It is an error to see following Christ as primarily for benefits in this life. Christianity is a faith of waiting. "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." What message do we need to teach clearly? Vast crowds can be assembled for self-help, but that is different than the Gospel. We must trust all of God's commands even though they seem to oppose what is good in this life.
In Nigeria brothers and sisters fear for their lives when they gather for church, but why do they do it anyway? Because they have hope in the next life.
- We can deceive ourselves and others about our relationship with God.
Please teach this clearly. It's counterintuitive in our culture. It's clear in the Bible. We can deceive ourselves. We think we are the world experts on us. 2 Cor 13:15: Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.
Think of those people that you've baptized in the last year. Have you taught them these five things? If we are off in any of these things, it can result in false converts hiring false teachers. Don't ever, ever, ever take refuge in the doctrine of the soverignty of God that the elect will be saved anyway. That's awful in so many ways.
If you want to make sure that your successor doesn't preach the Gospel, just make sure that you accept lots of people into membership who aren't truly converted.
- God's judgment is coming. 2 Peter 3
Those who listen to the Gospel also watch how we live.
- It is an error to present a church without holiness.
Unholiness may thrive in some churches with no teaching on sin, no accountability, rampant individualism and committment to privacy. Preach through 1 John. Hebrews 12:14: Without holiness, no one will see the Lord.
How tempting it is to present the Church as affirming and tolerating all sins, even the ones people do not repent from.
Imagine not just an individual but a whole community that is being transformed in the likeness of God.
- It is an error to present a church with no suffering.
We would all, left to ourselves, avoid poverty and sickness. On the one hand, that is fine as goals for our lives, but that is not sufficient for ultimate goals. True Christianity will call us to suffering.
Health and Wealth preachers are false teachers, but do we do more mild versions of the same thing? Do we do it with our triumphalism, with our smiles and our triumphant music?
One of the things I've heard from non-Christian visitors is that they appreciate that we deal with things seriously, that they don't have to pretend everything is okay.
The truth is, no cross, no crown. Jesus said that in this world you will have trouble. Jesus said that if we would follow him, we must take up our cross and follow Him.
- It is an error to present a church without love
If love does not mark the Church, then it may attract spiritual hobbyists, theological accountants but not inconvenience themselves in love for others. (My note: It is love that leads to suffering.)
I preach hour long sermons at our chruch and we get a lot of people who like theological knowledge, but I tell the young men who like to read that stuff that if you're not willing to get up an hour early on Sunday to help a 90 year old man get to church, I'm not sure you're a Christian at all.
I pray that every single one of us experiences a Church full of love. One of the most striking needs our church has is churches full of Christians giving themselves away to one another in love, experiencing real love with authority and kindness and ability to correct.
- It is an error to present a church without holiness.
Is it clear that false conversions are the suicide of the local church?
Let me end with three summary encouragements.
- Always be evangelizing.
Evangelize steadily and well. Ask yourself what temptations you face to get false converts rather than true converts. Greater numbers don't mean better.
- Always be shepherding sheep.
Exactly how this will look will vary depending on the size of your church, but remember to each person you take into membership, you have good evidence to believe they are eternally fine. Do not forget God has called you to a great role in people's lives.
- Always remember the account that you are to give to God.
John Brown said to one of his pupils, "I know the vanity of your heart and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, but assure yourself on the word of an old man that when you are called to give an account of them at the judgment seat of Christ, you will feel you have had enough."
Save yourself. Did you not know that preachers can be lost. Spurgeon said, "God never saved any man for being a preacher."
Watch your life and doctrine closely, for if you do you will save yourself and your hearers.