Thursday, December 30, 2010

Counseling Carnal Christians (Part 1: The Predicament)

By Dr. Fred Chay
Among the many "hats" the local pastor wears, the counselor’s hat is one that must be donned with confidence, compassion and capability. The "ministry of counseling" is one that the pastor can ill afford to neglect. Most of his counseling is not clinical in nature, nor does it require a deep knowledge of pharmacology. At times there are cases that require a clinical expert and he must refer these sporadic cases to competent Christian psychologists, psychiatrists, or counseling centers.  These more serious issues should be “outsourced” to experts more trained in the areas of clinical help for these people.
For the most part, though, the pastor is faced daily with the problems that plague the progressing Christian. However, much of his strength, stamina, and schedule are monopolized by dealing with what the apostle Paul has labeled the "carnal Christian". How is the pastor to deal with believers who have not only stopped growing and have become stagnant, but also have begun to indulge in seriously sinful behavior?  Dealing with carnal Christians in the local church is the subject of this series.

A Present Pastoral Predicament

The problem lies in the fact that Christians, born again by the Spirit of God, still struggle learning to "trust and obey", as sung about in that great hymn of the faith. The theology of this great hymn is biblical to the core, but there is the human factor called "the flesh” that we believers find a great hindrance to its implementation. It is the "Traitor in the Gate", the old self, flesh or sin nature which exists within us, that often stifles and sabotages us from growing to maturity in Christ.
The result often is carnal, sinful, behavior that not only astonishes the Christian community but many times the Christian who is committing the act as well. The church has been rocked in recent years by various scandals among the shepherds as well as among the sheep.  Financial sin of many types, sexual sin of all kinds, relational sin of various stripes and more harm believers, the church, and the reputation of the church to a lost and dying world which is reticent to turn to the church for help.
The solution that is often employed in the church when faced with carnality is two-fold depending on the severity of the sin. If it is sin that is seen as part of growing up, or maturing, one that has little community hindrance, the remedy is often a "Christian coddling" or mild "talking to." These kinds of sin might include gossip, or lying, or anger.  When a Christian is found to harbor grudges the pastor might normally take such a person aside and talk to them and that is all.
If, however, the sin is of a more serious nature such as adultery, immorality, homosexual activity, or idolatry, then often the questioning of the sinner's salvation comes into play. This process of dangling a person over hell by calling his salvation into question seems to be a reflex reaction that finds its roots in Puritan theology.  Several passages of Scripture (notably in Hebrews 6 and 1 Corinthians 6) seem to speak of a deep sense of loss experienced by those who perpetually and unapologetically commit these kinds of sin. 
However, it remains to be seen whether there is a more effective means of motivation for those who have made a profession of faith in Christ.  It must be granted that there are many people in the pew who believe they are Christians who are not. However, the problem of validation has to do with the content of their belief rather than the consistency of their behavior.
Any pastor or serious servant of Christ knows the heartache of dealing with the carnal Christian.  This person has professed personal faith in Christ, but in one or more areas their life contradicts their profession.  These people maintain that they trust Christ for their eternal life and yet their life does not exhibit a death to sin or any “upward trend” of personal holiness or “fruit” which might give secondary evidence to their conversion.
How do we deal with people like this?  How have you dealt with them in your pastoral or personal experience?  What are the biggest areas of concern that you face with people living in consistent sin in your midst as believers in Christ?
As evangelicals who affirm the inerrancy of the Scriptures and believe that the Bible governs us in all matters in regard to faith and practice in the church, we will look next at a case study recorded for us by the apostle Paul dealing with just such a pastoral predicament.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lines in the sand?

Over at Relevant Magazine, Craig Groeschel writes about different “lines in the sand” that represent various “stages” of faith in Christ.  Go read his article and then come back here for a discussion of the issue from a Free Grace perspective.  (the comments can be a bit snarky, so take my advice and don’t feed the trolls!)

First of all, let’s thank God for opportunities like this to discuss the most important issue in the world: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) Rather than bemoan the fact that the writer makes judgments that we disagree with, let’s rejoice that this gives us an opportunity to discuss a significant issue and once again trumpet the free gift of God through faith alone in Christ alone.

The “lines in the sand” analogy is an interesting one.  In the analogy, the “third line” represents someone who has crossed into the territory that is fully committed to following Christ whatever the cost.  No matter the sacrifice, service to Christ out of love for Christ is the only option for this person.  They are devoted followers of Christ, conformed to His image and desiring to live a life of eternal impact.  Naturally, the Free Grace Alliance believes that all Christians should live this kind of life!  No other attitude makes any sense in light of the amazing gift of eternal life that God has given us.

The second and first line are more problematic, though.  In the second line, a believer (his term) will give back to God and serve but only if it does not cause significant discomfort.  The believer believes enough for it to make an external difference in their behavior, but not if that difference is too extreme or uncomfortable.  Most, even many, Christians have spent some time here.  This is the “lukewarm” Christian that is distasteful to Christ (Revelation 3:15-16) and should be in our own lives as well.

It is Groeschel’s description of the first line, though, that causes the most concern:

“Is first-line faith real Christianity? Is believing in Jesus enough? Although God is the only true judge, I’m not sure simply believing in Christ makes a person a Christian. Honestly, I’m tempted to say, “No, I sincerely don’t think it is real Christianity.” Even demons believe in Christ. I worry how many people might be deceived. Instead of truly living as followers of Christ, many lull themselves into a sense of false comfort. What if they’re really “cultural Christians,” false believers? I don’t point my finger at others, only at myself. For way too long, I’ve claimed a belief in God, but my life didn’t reflect it.”

We of course would disagree with the ultimate application of this assessment.  The “even demons believe” (James 2:18) argument is a red herring, as we know nothing of the soteriology of angels. (This has been discussed in the free grace camp significantly before; as one instance, Dr. Fred Chay and I wrote a book that addresses this issue at some length)  Also, the difference between “line 2” and “line 1” is very subjective.  How much service qualifies for line 2?  Third, what do we make of those who believed in Christ in biblical texts like John 12:42, who “believed in Him” (which, especially in John’s gospel, is clearly a statement of the reception of eternal life) and yet were afraid of people so much that they would not confess Christ publicly?  Clearly there are some areas where the message is not as clear and simple as we would like.

Looking more into the article, though, we can see that perhaps Groeschel’s argument isn’t as far from a Free Grace position as we might have first thought.  In the paragraph quoted above, Groeschel gives himself some “wiggle room.”  He says, “God is the only true judge,” giving rise to the possibility that there may well be those who genuinely trust Christ but have not (yet!) come to the point of sanctification where Christ matters more than this world.  He is tempted to say no, and yet he can’t outright.  Is it enough?  Well, he doesn’t seem to want to say so because it’s a defective brand of discipleship.  However, in the end he isn’t sure.

Even better than this statement is an earlier one that he makes about his own experience going from somewhere between 1 and 2, to living past 3:

“I cried for all of God, and His presence became immediately real. Although I’d unquestionably been spiritually reborn a decade and a half ago, it was like I was being born again.”

This crisis of faith came 15 years after he says that he was unquestionably born again!  This experience was like being born again, though it emphatically was not.  He had been living at line #1 and identifies at times with other believers who live there.  This is an honest assessment and a wonderful bit of transparent authenticity.  We might dissect the experience he had (from many angles, no less; was this a “second blessing”? Was it a spiritual crisis?  Whatever it was, in his eyes it was not his conversion), but the description of it aligns well with the idea of the free gift of eternal life through faith alone in Christ alone. 

Also, from a pastoral perspective we would have to agree with Groeschel in some capacity.  Someone who seeks God only for the blessing He brings is an enigma.  Indeed if they honestly and truly place faith alone in Christ alone, we know that the testimony of Scripture is clear that they are a child of God and the recipient of eternal life. (John 1:12)  However, we can’t tell the content of someone’s heart any more than our Reformed brothers and sisters can.  External appearances can be deceiving; those who showcase a life of holiness and good deeds may not be Christians at all (Matthew 7:21-23), and those who do not show external fruits of regeneration may indeed be regenerate (1 Corinthians 3:15).  The opposite is also true, which means that if someone says that they have trusted Christ but shows no sensitivity to Him or desire to grow in Him we cannot be sure of their eternal status.

Finally, recognize that even while we have some disagreements in the path, the end result goal is the same for both us and men like Groeschel.  We all want to be “line #3 Christians” who pursue God passionately and love Him wholeheartedly.  No one whose theology is true to the roots of the Free Grace movement is content with believers who are “pew potatoes.”  We all want to see those in our ministries and our families fully devoted to following Christ.

So what are your thoughts on the article?  Where is he right, and where would you be uncomfortable with his message?  Do you think that we have to agree with his ambiguity with “line 1” Christians?  And without the crisis that Groeschel experienced, how can we progress to being devoted followers of Christ and help others do the same?