“What do we do about the presence of both the regenerate and unregenerate in the local church?” – Part 1: Definitions and Differences
We recently had someone who wanted a few questions answered in light of the presence of both the regenerate and the unregenerate in the local church.
First, some quick background… Though the church is primarily about gathering and equipping God’s people through preaching and witness to the gospel, the New Testament implies in a number of places that there are inevitably those among it who aren’t the real deal. For example, Matthew 25:31-46, while about final judgment, makes clear, along with Matthew 3:12 and 13:30, that sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, and good and evil all live, grow, and exist together, in the world and in God’s Kingdom, and by necessary implication, even in the local church, until the harvest/judgment. (Yes, I know, that last sentence was complicated and may require a couple readings, even after reading the passages. It also, btw, has serious implications for how much our world is currently in a post-garden state of sinful brokenness. The curse is real, people!) Otherwise, were the world different, and not comprised of both sheep and goats, why would the New Testament warn about false prophets in Matthew 7:15; Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1? Also, while some view this passage differently than I, and interpret it to refer to those who were truly believers, see Hebrews 6:4-6 for an example of those who participated fully in the Christian covenantal community who were never true Christians in the first place.
Given that both regenerate and unregenerate are present in the world… How can we tell the difference between the two? How should a church direct its approach to teaching? How should a church carry out discipline and correction?
We only have time to cover the first question this week. We’ll get to the final two questions later. But before diving in, we need to more clearly define “regenerate” and “unregenerate”.
To be “regenerate” (pronounced rē-JEN-uh-rut) means to be “born again” (most literally, “to be again”). It is the act of God to impart new life in us in a way that brings us from death to life and that makes us a new creation with God’s Spirit in us (Ezekiel 36:26-27; John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 6:63; Romans 8:1-11; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13; James 1:17-18; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; Titus 3:3-7; 1 John 5:1). (Quick theological diversion… Some Christians (including me) believe regeneration precedes and enables our response of faith (because we are dead in sin and “cannot see the Kingdom”) and some believe our faith precedes and enables regeneration (because we are sick and damaged because of sin, but not dead, and still able to come to Christ through what they call God’s “prevenient grace” given to all people), but that’s for another day/entire book.)
To be “unregenerate” is to be dead in one’s sins, in rebellion against God’s will, unable to see God’s Kingdom, and in love with the world. For some further definition beyond the passages above, see “What must a person do to be saved?” – Part 1: Saved From What?
So, how can we tell the difference between the regenerate and unregenerate? By seeing the fruit of either God’s Spirit, in the regenerate, or the flesh, in the unregenerate.
First, a quick word of caution… In the spirit of Galatians 6:1-9, the two main reasons to be aware of fruit are (1) to ensure personal progression in Godliness (Romans 6; Ephesians 2:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; James 2:26) and (2) to maintain a purity of gospel preaching and witness through correction (Matthew 18:15-20; Luke 17:3-4; 1 Corinthians 5:12-6:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15). We musn’t become legalists (Matthew 23:1-7, 27-28; Acts 11:2; Galatians 2:4-5, 11-14; Philippians 3:2) who measure fruit for sake of self justification/righteousness instead of humbly and for God’s glory and mission. I think it’s ok for us, as a church, to measure the corporate fruit and ask ourselves whether we are achieving our mission of Helping people find and follow Jesus. It’s a good thing for us to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” (verbiage used in our fccregen.org ministry), at an individual level, to see whether we are progressing in Godliness. It’s certainly important for us to maintain purity of doctrine that keeps the gospel at the center, something we’ll address more in Part 2. But, when we get away from the spirit of Galatians 6:1-9, we naturally devolve into self-righteous legalism that perverts the gospel.
Ok, to finally answer the question… We can tell the difference between the regenerate and unregenerate by paying attention to the fruit, produced either by the Spirit or the flesh. Those born of God are progressing in holiness (1 Peter 2:2; 1 John 3:9-10; 5:18), are not defeated by the hostility of the world (1 John 5:4), and are working to strengthen the church (Romans 10:1; Philippians 1:7-9; 1 Peter 1:22-23), whereas the unregenerate adhere to false doctrine and produce division and hostility within the body in a way that hinders Kingdom advance (Matthew 7:16-20; Acts 20:29-30; Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 11:3-4; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:17-18; Titus 1:10-11; 1 John 4:2-3; Revelation 4:1-3).
So, ask yourself… Am I born of God’s Spirit, a sheep following Jesus whose increasing affection for Him results in more Christlikeness, greater faithfulness that refuses to sit on the sidelines, and deeper dedication to being a missionary whose life communicates God’s goodness and glory?! Or am I a goat in love with the world’s empty schemes and whose fruit shows who I am really following?!