Stop trying to discern who is “really” saved and who isn’t.
I say this as a simple message I’ve slowly learned from reading Scripture. Simply put: there is never a Biblical command or permission for us as individuals in the Church to make decisions about whether other individuals in the Church are actually Christians or not.
There are similar issues, to be sure. We are commanded to discern false teachers, but their position of authority and destructive impact, not to mention their peculiar relationship to the churches they teach, makes their case quite different from Joe in the pew. We are also commanded to discern between false churches and the true Church based on the criteria of love, holiness, and sound doctrine (specifically, a right view of who Jesus is). And finally, we are certainly commanded to judge between good and evil actions and lives, and to call our brothers and sisters to repent if they sin.
But, none of that is the same as a command or permission to decide whether Joe two pews down is a “real Christian” or something else.
There is no such command. Nor is there such a permission.
If Joe is participating in the life of the Church through a local congregation, we have only one proper response: accept him as a brother. If he is a living a life or espousing doctrines that contradict the Christian faith, we may and should by all means call him out and ask him to repent. If he doesn’t, we should certainly exercise church discipline up to and including excommunication, cutting him off and kicking him out. But until (and perhaps only until) that point, we are only allowed to treat him as a wayward brother, someone who has strayed from the truth and needs to return.
The one thing we have no right to do is try to decide whether we’ll see him in glory on Judgment Day. We can’t declare him “real Christian” or “fake Christian,” or speculate about the negative possibilities for his eternal destiny. Why? Because until he is removed from the congregation (which he should be if he persists in unrepentance), we have no ground to stand on from which to make such a judgment, even as a personal opinion. We have only one option: take his baptized identity for granted and treat him as a member of Christ’s Body. Apart from Jesus’ promise to be with us when two or three are gathered to execute church discipline, we don’t have any basis for saying otherwise. So our job is to treat them all as brothers until Jesus comes back to sort out His own household. He is the Judge who sees in the depths of the heart and knows the reality of all faith or pretending. He will make sure of who is His far better than we ever could.
So in case it’s not obvious exactly what I’m proposing, I’ll break it down:
Treat everyone in the congregation of the Church as a “real Christian.” Period.
If they sin or adopt heresy, call them to repent.
If they continually refuse to repent, boot them out.
Treat everyone outside the Church as outside of Christ. Period.
I think this solves lots of problems, and I think it’s Biblical. Nowhere in Scripture do we find commands or permissions to try to discern between true and false, real or fake, members of the Body. Instead, we find strong church discipline and letters which address whole churches as believers. We find acknowledgments than human judgment is utterly fallible and based on the outside, and that only God sees the heart for what it is.
Note that, again, none of this is to say we can’t judge sinful lives and behaviors as sinful, and even seriously so, or judge heresies as heretical. We must do these things, and do them consistently without compromise. But we aren’t permitted to go from “Joe is living sinfully right now [or for a long time]” immediately to “Joe isn’t a Christian.” We instead must bind ourselves to the form of the Church and its authority in this age, where we come together and go through the appropriate processes of discussion and discernment to execute discipline or encourage restoration.
Anything beyond that is a presumption of Christ’s own prerogative over His Church, a denial of His own right to discern and define His bride.
This is not, I want to emphasize, just a part of the “Don’t judge,” “You don’t know their heart!” or “Your Christian walk is just between you and God” cultures. We must judge right from wrong, darkness from light, goodness from evil, and obedience from rebellion. People’s actions do expose, to at least some degree, their hearts. And our walk with God is not our own, but is part of a collective pilgrimage of the whole Church in which we are all members of one Body whose lives affect and determine each other.
But none of that puts us in a place to discern the core: what actual relation someone in Christ’s Church has to Christ. How are we to know who will repent, who is going through a David/Bathsheba fall, who is disrupted like Peter, or who was like Judas all along? We cannot know from our limited perspectives what is really going on, and we must defer to Christ. Our only responsibility is to remove the wicked person from among ourselves, but love them before, during, and after.
Basically, as Romans 14:4 says, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”