Christians are holy people. They obey their Lord. They live so as to please Him. They depart from that which is sinful. They live lives separated from the world and its ways. When a man claims to be a Christian, yet lives an unholy life, he is not a Christian. That is all there is to it.
It is true that every child of God is always learning and growing, which means we are not to expect perfect conformity to all the commandments of the Lord. After all, we ourselves are far from such perfection, and indeed sinless perfection will only be a reality in heaven. But even so we must expect to see, in any true child of God, a holy life, and a desire to be even more conformed to Christ and His Word; and thus a humble submission to His Word, a willingness to be taught more of the Lord’s ways, and a ready and willing desire to repent whenever he learns that what he has been doing is not right before God.
Will a woman who is truly converted continue to dress immodestly? Will a truly converted man continue to use filthy language? Will a child of God live as a drunkard, or in fornication, or in sodomy? Will he defend and justify such evil practices? It is impossible. And these are just a very few examples. The point is that the Holy Spirit works within every child of God, that he may be conformed to the image of Christ in all things. Believers are holy people. They separate themselves from the world and its ways.
7. Other Doctrines of the Faith
In Matt.28:19,20 the Lord Jesus said, “Go ye therefore, and teach [make disciples of] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”. We have looked at the doctrines essential to salvation, and also at other doctrines which have to do with the being of God, the salvation of men, etc., which a true Christian will embrace as he is taught and increases in understanding.
Lastly, there are those which have to do (for example) with matters of church government; interpretation of prophecy; what are called the Lord’s positive commandments (i.e. not His absolute moral commandments); etc. And on these things brethren in the Lord do not always see eye to eye.
For example, some churches practice infant “baptism” instead of true believers’ baptism; some practice open communion instead of strict communion at the Lord’s supper; some hold to a particular form of church government, and some to another; some belong to a denomination instead of being independent; some follow what the Scripture says about head coverings and some do not; some hold to a certain interpretation regarding the fulfilment of prophecy, and some to another; etc., etc.
The mere fact that someone has a false understanding of any of these doctrines does not, in itself, mean he is unregenerate and unconverted, or that we cannot fellowship with them. All Christians are learning and growing spiritually all the time, and each one at a different pace. This is why the Lord gives the churches teachers! They are to teach the “all things” of which Christ spoke. And this is why we are not to expect all Christians to be precisely the same in knowledge and understanding. For this reason, concerning doctrines such as these we must be tolerant and patient, and receive such people as brethren when they give us reason to believe they are, even though they may not see eye to eye with us on all these matters.
But there is a mystery here. Let us take the doctrine of baptism as a very glaring example. Many paedobaptists have been genuine, godly Christians, even though they have erred on the matter of baptism. Now when a man rejects the biblical teaching of believers’ baptism and claims it is right to “baptize” babies, and yet we receive him as a brother in Christ because in other matters he is sound in doctrine and godly in conduct; why do we not receive another man as a brother in Christ who (for example) rejects the biblical teaching of the Trinity, or the eternal Sonship of Christ? After all, the teaching on baptism appears so straightforward compared with the doctrine of the Trinity, which appears much more complex. Why then may we at times receive as a brother the one who does not hold to what appears easier to grasp, but will reject as a brother the one who does not hold to what appears far more difficult?
The reason is that such truths as the eternal Sonship, the Trinity, etc., lie at the very heart of the Gospel of Christ. These are among the great matters of the Gospel. Without them there is no Gospel at all. The soul of every true believer delights in them, according to the knowledge of them to which he has attained. He receives them with faith and joy: such great truths as the being of God, the Person and work of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc. These are aspects of the “doctrine of Christ” (2 Jn. 9) which, if rejected, reveal that a man is not a true Christian, as we have seen.
Other doctrines of our faith may to our natural reason seem as if they should be easier to understand and accept, but often the believer is in more darkness on these than on the ones which are more difficult, yet which are a fundamental part of the “doctrine of Christ”. That this is often the case may seem to natural reason a strange thing, and so it is; for we are dealing with spiritual matters, not natural ones.
This was clearly understood by earlier generations of believers. The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, for example, correctly stated: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet.3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, by the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them (Psa.19:7; 119:130).
This is the reason why (for example) a Christian may clearly perceive that baptismal regeneration is a damnable heresy, but may hold to the error of infant baptism all his life! He rejects the damnable heresy that a baby can be regenerated by water; yet he does not see through the heresy that baptism is not for babies at all. Why is he able to clearly see the one, but not the other? It can only be attributed to the grace of God, enlightening him on that which is essential, but leaving him in darkness (though natural reason would assume it would be easier to understand) concerning that which is not essential to salvation. Both baptismal regeneration and infant baptism are heresies. But the former is a damnable heresy, the other is not.
8. When Some Members of a True Church are Unregenerate, and Hold to Heresy
Even in a true local church there may at times be some members who sinfully hold to heretical and damnable false doctrine. For example, some in the church at Corinth were actually denying the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15:12)! But where this is the case, the church itself may still be a true church of Christ, because it officially maintains and proclaims sound doctrine, despite having some within it who reject the truth (although they should not be there, and should be removed from membership once they are known and if they persist in such heresy).
In addition, a church may officially maintain a number of false doctrines and practices, and yet still be, overall, a true church of Christ – depending what those false doctrines and practices are (as shown above).