You’re sitting in your living room after small group, reflecting on the conversation of the evening. While you’re reviewing the night, you remember something a group member said, and it catches you off guard:
“I don’t know why we put so much emphasis on the Bible…it’s just a book.”
As you pray over this, you recall other similar comments—That’s just Paul’s opinion, God and I have an understanding, and so on—and become increasingly concerned that this person may not actually be a Christian.
And, guess what? They may not be.
The grim picture presented by statistics
According to numerous studies in both the United States and Canada, we’ve got good reasons to be concerned. For example, in a recent study commissioned by Ligonier Ministries, 41 percent of Americans somewhat or strongly agree with that the Bible is not literally true, and 46 percent do not believe it is entirely accurate in all it teaches. 71 percent believe they must contribute personal effort to their own salvation, and 44 percent believe there are many paths to heaven. Likewise, only 18 percent of Canadians believe the Bible is the Word of God, and the majority of Canadians (69 percent) and half of Christians believe it contains irreconcilable contradictions.
Clearly, we have some issues here. Given this information, it’s only logical to assume (though cautiously) that there are many men and women within our churches—and even some in our small groups—who believe they are Christians, but aren’t.
I realize this is highly contentious—perhaps bordering on arrogant—statement to make, so it’s important to clarify: In saying this, and in citing statistics like these, I’m not suggesting we have license to self-righteously determine who is and is not a Christian. Only the Lord ultimately knows if someone’s profession of faith is genuine. Similarly, we must also be careful not to confuse someone who is immature in his or her faith with someone who is actually unregenerate.
So how do you know the difference? Here are a few indicators.
The marks of an immature believer
An immature believer is one who is simply confused about what the Bible teaches and what it says. He may be a brand-new Christian in need of guidance or a long-time Christian who simply has not sat under authoritative biblical teaching. He may even be one of those people who constantly fights over secondary issues.
While an immature believer may not understand Scripture well or may have some serious errors in his understanding of God, he is ultimately marked by a teachable spirit. He is open to correction from people who love him. He takes heed to godly counsel. He has a desire to learn and grow into the likeness of Christ.
The Corinthian church is a perfect example of immature believers. They lacked discernment concerning doctrinal issues. They excused gross unrepentant sin. They abused spiritual gifts in worship. Despite all this, they received correction from Paul. Ultimately, they were teachable.
The signs of an unregenerate churchgoer
Here’s where things get complicated. The unregenerate churchgoer is very good at hiding in a crowd. Many of these churchgoers have been going to church for a long time; many more serve in the church as greeters, in children’s ministry, or even leading a small group (I’ve even heard stories of pastors discovering their fellow elders aren’t actually believers).
Like an immature believer, these churchgoers are marked by a lack of biblical knowledge or an errant understanding of God. Others are characterized by a dogmatic legalism that elevates morality to the highest form of authority. Some believe that grace frees us to sin unashamedly (Romans 6:15). Some believe that all things are lawful, despite not being beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12-13). All will turn away from sound doctrine and find teachers who will tell them what they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
They do not heed godly counsel. They do not submit to authority. They don’t have a desire to grow into the likeness of Christ (even if they say otherwise). They are not teachable. These are the clear marks of an unregenerate churchgoer.
What do I do if I think someone in my small group isn’t saved?
You might be thinking, “Does it even matter if I think someone’s a Christian or not? What do I do with the person who is already in my group?” The answer, again, is both simple and complicated.
Does it matter if we think someone may or may not be a Christian and how do we respond? Yes! Our friends’ salvation and ongoing relationship with Jesus should be of great concern to us. If we love our friends, we need to do what we can to assist them, whether they are mature believers, immature, or secretly unregenerate. Here are a few things you can do that may be helpful:
- Pray a lot. Only God can change the heart, and if you suspect someone in your group may not actually be a believer, then you need to be praying for him to draw this person to himself.
- Keep Christ the focus of our studies. Our studies must always be pointing to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Teach the gospel when it’s popular and when it’s not (which is all the time). Only the gospel has the power to transform the hearts of the mature, immature, and unregenerate alike.
- Be patient. Paul exhorted Timothy to teach with complete patience. Not everyone learns at the same rate. Everyone stumbles; everyone gives in to temptation and should be treated with gentleness.
- Exhort privately. If there’s a person in your group whom you’re concerned may not actually be a believer but thinks he or she is, talk to them privately about some of your concerns. Don’t point fingers or declare them to be non-Christians (since, again, none of us know for certain), but do challenge.
- Pursue accountability. We must cultivate an atmosphere where it’s safe to confess our sins, to be open about our struggles, and give and receive appropriate correction. It’s harder to hide when your culture encourages openness.
- Humbly hold your ground. Not everyone will endure sound teaching, but hold fast to it, especially when it’s hard. But the key here is to do it humbly, remembering that we all have blind spots in our theology (after all, if perfect theology were the benchmark for salvation, then we’d all be doomed).
- Be willing to say goodbye. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do is to ask someone to leave your group if they are disruptive, unrepentant and unteachable.
Are there unregenerate sheep in the fold? Probably. However, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. So what do we do? We pray, we keep Christ the focus of all our studies, we show patience and mercy, we pursue accountability and confront sin in love, we hold our ground on key doctrinal issues while also admitting that we have blind spots, and we must be willing to say goodbye to those who will not do the same. Is it easy? Nope. Is it the right thing? Yep. Will it make a difference? Only time will tell.
An earlier edition of this article first appeared at Right Now Media and was republished at ChurchLeaders.com. This edition has been modified from these earlier versions.