The Reality of Believer’s Backward Walk

It is man’s nature to judge self or others by looking at the outward appearance. Thousands of years ago, Israel desired a king like all the surrounding nations—a king that appeared regal and charismatic. After God had rejected this king, the Lord exhorted Samuel, “The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Thousands of years later, the same problem still exists in the heart of man, even (or especially) among those who are labeled as Christians: We have a propensity to judge the salvation of others—or to judge our own salvation—by what we see on the outside rather than by Whom one has trusted in the heart.

Because many professing Christians seem to be so worldly and lacking discernment in spiritual things, a host of pastors and Bible teachers have dealt with this problem by claiming that such individuals are not saved in the first place: “If I can’t see a change in the life, then surely they are not saved”; “A true Christian would never … (fill in the blank).”

They have changed the doctrine of repentance into a change of life rather than a change of mind; they have changed the doctrine of eternal security into a “probation security” that forces a person to look at his works to determine whether or not he will persevere until the end; they have changed the doctrines of justification and regeneration into a man-centered effort that focuses on self rather than focusing on Christ alone and His finished work. Thus, Satan has once again gained a battle victory by popularizing “another gospel” that requires works on the part of man.

The teaching that a true believer will always show visible fruit in his or her life or that no such thing as a carnal Christian (or lukewarm Christian) exists is completely contrary to Scripture, and yet this teaching seems to be increasingly prominent among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Many believers today have a desire to judge the reality of their own salvation or that of others on the basis of their outward walk and witness—or lack thereof. Yet the idea that a believer needs to examine his actions (or others’) to determine whether or not one is truly saved is unscriptural. The implication of this kind of theology is that salvation is only genuine through saving faith plus certain subsequent works or behavior—visible actions that can be quantified and observed by others. Those who embrace this teaching either ignore or reject the reality of positional/progressive/perfective sanctification.

The Word of God is unequivocal with regard to justification: A sinner is justified solely through the grace (unmerited favor) of God as one recognizes his sinfulness and inability to save himself and trusts in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone for his eternal salvation. This is not “easy believism”—this is saving faith. In other words, an individual repents (i.e. changes his mind concerning his lost state and ability to save himself) and places his faith (trust) in the person and cross-work of Jesus Christ alone to save him. While justification is a one-time event, Christian growth (progressive sanctification) is a life-long process that is unique to every individual. We see this reality throughout the Scriptures.

The Old Testament chronicles a wayward people (Israel) who were and are still God’s people despite their constant failures. Consider Lot—described as “righteous” in the New Testament yet one who lost his testimony before the world. Consider David, called “a man after God’s own heart,” who failed God before and after he ascended the throne of Israel. Consider the many kings of Israel and Judah, some of whom waffled back-and-forth between serving God and serving others. Consider the nation of Israel as a whole, whom God designated as His own and yet who frequently rejected Him and were depicted as “sick” from their head to their feet (Isa. 1:2-9). Sometimes when God’s people were confronted by the prophets or the reading of God’s Word a revival broke out, only to last for a short period of time. Just prior to the 400 “silent years,” Malachi contrasted Israel’s self-deception against God’s faithfulness. And yet, these were still God’s people. Thankfully, among all these, a faithful remnant always existed who were no more or less God’s people than those who failed Him, but they exemplified the walk of God by faith.

In the New Testament, one can find the same sad reality in the church—those who are truly part of the body of Christ through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ but who often go their own way and live for “self” rather than for their Savior. First Corinthians 2:14-3:3 describes three categories of people:

The Natural Man—an individual who does not have the Spirit of God within. In other words, this person is “unsaved” or “unregenerate.” He cannot understand the Word of God due to his lack of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and no “good works” are truly “good” as they are motivated by altruism rather than God’s glory and, in reality, are nothing more than “filthy rags” that he tries to pass off as “righteousness” (Isa. 64:6).
The Spiritual Man—a believer who possesses the Holy Spirit and is yielding to the Spirit rather than to the flesh. This individual is “abiding in Christ” and is truly walking as a disciple (follower) of Christ. As he is enjoying fellowship with the Lord, the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of the Spirit in his life for God’s glory.
The Carnal Man—a believer who possesses the indwelling Holy Spirit but is choosing to live according to the desires and dictates of the flesh rather than the Spirit. Failing to abide in Christ, this individual is more concerned with “self” (in an ungodly, worldly sense or even in a pious, self-righteous sense—either way, his focus is inward rather than God-ward).
While the natural man is totally incapable of walking with God, the justified believer who has trusted Jesus Christ as his Savior can choose to walk according to the Spirit (the spiritual believer) or according to the flesh (the carnal believer). Should a Christian choose to walk according to the desires of the flesh, then he will fail to bear the fruit of the Spirit and will, instead, bear the fruit of the flesh. This individual is described as one who is “grieving” (Eph. 4:30) or “quenching” (1 Thess. 5:19) the indwelling Holy Spirit—something only a true Christian could do. Yes, it is wholly possible for a believer to grieve and quench the Holy Spirit through his errant beliefs or behavior.

The Holy Scriptures—both the Old and New Testaments—were written for our instruction, learning, and admonition. God has given His Word in order for believers to grow and learn. Rather than pulling verses out of context that seem to promote the idea that one’s salvation is based upon external works (either in order to be saved or to prove one’s salvation), believers need to understand and embrace: 1. the doctrine of justification (salvation comes through God’s grace alone as the sinner trusts solely in the person and work of Jesus Christ for his eternal well-being) and 2. the reality of the two natures within and the need for the believer to yield to the Spirit rather than the flesh. One must take a “big picture” understanding of church-age Christian living, comparing Scripture with Scripture.

A Few New Testament Examples

Consider the apostle Paul’s epistles to the carnal Corinthian believers. The entire first letter to the church of Corinth is replete with admonition concerning the wayward spiritual walk of these saints. Some had been chastened by the Lord for their carnality (1 Cor. 11:30) while many others were continuing in their self-centered lifestyles. Paul’s second letter indicates that, while they did heed the words of his first letter, they still struggled in the flesh. In 2 Corinthians 11:2-4, Paul tells this church that he wants to present them to Christ as a chaste bride, but he fears that if a false teacher comes to them offering another Jesus, spirit, or gospel, they will “bear with him”—that is, they will accept his false doctrine. This embracing of a false Jesus, spirit, or gospel would have a detrimental effect on their beliefs (doctrine), which, in turn, would certainly affect their behavior (works). Despite the Corinthians’ continual struggles with false beliefs and ungodly actions, it was their trust in Jesus Christ’s person and work alone that was the “proof” of their salvation. As one studies the epistles to the saints in Corinth, it is essential to bear in mind that Paul is addressing believers (1 Cor. 1:2; 2:1; 3:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; 8:1; 13:11).

Consider the Christians in the churches of Galatia. The Galatian saints to whom Paul wrote were certainly believers, but they were rejecting grace for legalism. Not only were they propagating a false gospel, which mixed grace with works and was under God’s curse (Gal. 1:6-9), but they were also attempting to grow spiritually by embracing a legalistic lifestyle. He writes, “Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). These believers (Gal. 1:6, 11)had fallen headlong into legalism, from start to finish: They began to embrace and propagate a false gospel as well as a false understanding of spiritual growth.

In Revelation 2-3, Jesus Himself addressed seven churches in Asia Minor through the revelation given to the apostle John. In these “mini epistles,” only two of the seven churches avoided any reprimand by the Savior. Five of these churches—Ephesus, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, and Laodicea—were guilty of aberrant doctrine and/or behavior. Of course, Jesus was addressing believers in these churches, and yet these saints had left their first love, had embraced false doctrine, had permitted false teachers to influence the saints, and had allowed the things of the surrounding culture to take priority in their lives. Yet in each instance, Jesus does not call upon these believers to question their salvation; rather, He urges them to repent and then take the necessary action to be the kind of Christians who would glorify Him.

The author of Hebrews implored the Jewish believers to refrain from sliding back into a legalistic Judaism. Their lives were marked by an infatuation with the very religious system from which they had been saved. Failing to understand that Jesus Christ is “far better” than the Law in every way, these saints began to exhibit an “evil heart of unbelief” (Heb. 3:12) by neglecting their “great salvation” (Heb. 2:3) through erroneous beliefs, which led to wrong behavior. These saints were “dull of hearing” and could only handle the “milk” of the Word when they needed to be chewing on the “meat” of Scripture (Heb. 5:12). The author of Hebrews thus exhorted them that, because they were saved, they need to “draw near” to Christ and “hold fast the profession of [their] faith” (Heb. 10:22-25).

If any Christian or non-Christian were to look at the lives of the Hebrews, the Corinthians, the Galatians, or the believers in the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom Christ wrote, one would likely question their salvation. And yet, their salvation was not based on their works or their behavior but rather on their faith and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.

In John 15, just prior to His death, Jesus spoke to His disciples, telling the eleven (Judas had already departed) of their need to abide in Him in order to bear spiritual fruit in their lives. These eleven believers and Paul would be the foundation of the soon-to-be-inaugurated church (Eph. 2:20). Jesus emphasized the importance of the “abiding life,” noting, “Herein is My Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be My disciples” (Jn. 15:8). Keep in mind that they were already “saved”; the issue in John 15 is not “salvation” but “discipleship”—whether or not a Christian is actually “following Christ,” that is, being a disciple. Yes, it is possible to be a genuine believer but not truly be a “disciple” (a follower or imitator of Christ).

What, then, are the consequences of carnality?

If a wayward walk is not the litmus test of salvation, then why not embrace the antinomian view of Christian living: that a believer can live any way he desires and still “get to heaven”? Many people today want to deny that a carnal Christian exists because to accept this supposedly means that believers can sin at will. Those who deny the eternal security of the believer often make this same claim, believing that the doctrine of eternal security is unscriptural because it “allows” for aberrant belief or behavior.

Just because the Bible teaches that it is possible for a believer to live in carnality does not mean this behavior is acceptable to God. What is Paul’s answer to this? “Should we continue in sin that grace may abound. God forbid!” The answer to the quandary of the wayward believer is not to deny the reality of a carnal Christian or deny the reality of eternal security. The answer is to “know … reckon … yield” (Rom. 6)—to know who we now are in Christ, to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, and to yield ourselves to the control of the Holy Spirit. In other words, we are to seek to grow and mature in the Christian life and move forward rather than continually questioning the assurance of our salvation due to a focus that is stuck on self rather than on Jesus Christ and His perfect work.

God’s Word is unequivocal concerning the serious consequences of a wayward walk (a carnal lifestyle). The carnal Christian will experience a lack of fellowship with the Savior, the chastening hand of God, and an incalculable loss of reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ. The apostle Paul says that at the Judgment Seat a believer can even claim to have done a variety of good works, but if they were accomplished apart from the Spirit’s enabling (through self-effort) or for the wrong reasons, then such works will be burned up. “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss” (1 Cor. 3:15a). Nevertheless, the carnal-but-justified saint is still saved: “But he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15b). He adds in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” Interestingly, the primary Scripture texts detailing the Judgment Seat of Christ were written to the carnal Corinthian saints.

It is vitally important for all believers to continually examine themselves to see whether they are abiding in Christ or, conversely, walking according to the flesh. Again, the apostle Paul instructs the Corinthian saints, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor. 13:5). He adds, “And this also we wish, even your perfection” (2 Cor. 13:9). Paul did not question the salvation of these carnal Christians; rather, he encouraged them to personally and honestly determine whether or not their walk was consistent with their profession of faith. Had these Corinthians tried to verify their salvation according to their works or behavior, likely not one of them could have claimed to be saved. Rather, those who had trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation were to move on to “perfection,” or spiritual maturity. Because “Jesus Christ is in [them]” (2 Cor. 13:5), they needed to abide in Him and allow the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in their lives.

It is unbiblical to assert that a believer should look at his or her life in order to determine whether or not one is truly saved. The one and only “test” that determines whether one has been justified before God is this: Have I trusted in Jesus Christ alone, who died for my sin and rose again, to be my Savior? The focus is not upon what we do for God but on what He did for us.

The bottom line is this: The child of God may or may not be walking in proper fellowship with God. Keep in mind—the whole purpose of the New Testament epistles is to lay down correct doctrine that is intended to lead to correct behavior. The problem is that all believers continue to struggle with the flesh, and we will have this battle until we receive our glorified bodies. Even the apostle Paul wrestled with the flesh and concluded that victory comes only through the indwelling Holy Spirit as the believer yields himself to the Spirit’s control (Rom. 7:15-8:1).

So often, believers want to judge their salvation (or another’s) based upon what they can—or cannot—visibly see. Let us focus on declaring the one, pure gospel and refrain from being the “judge and jury” as to another individual’s relationship with the Lord. Let us be careful not to devise a “works” theology of salvation—a false gospel that makes behavior, works, or “lordship” the litmus test for salvation—in an effort to address the problem of carnal Christians. Rather, let us boldly continue to proclaim the glorious gospel of grace. Likewise, let us stress the importance of spiritual growth and the biblical consequences of carnal living as we, with all longsuffering, endeavor to help and disciple wayward believers who are struggling with the desires of the flesh. And finally, “let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for He is faithful that promised;)” (Heb. 10:23)—praise God, He is faithful, even when we are not!

— Pastor Matt Costella. Reproduced from Foundation magazine, Issue 3, 2019.

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