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On Judging Persons "Unregenerate"
by John Pedersen

     Upon what basis do we determine another to be “unregenerate”? Sinful behavior? False doctrine? Both of these? In answering this question, it is first needful to understand the biblical doctrine of regeneration. Regeneration is the gift of the Holy Spirit whereby one understands and believes the gospel of God’s righteousness by Jesus Christ. This understanding and belief is a demonstration and seal of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and is itself a pledge, a guarantee of the resurrection. (The above is not a comprehensive definition but rather a statement of what the Bible teaches about regeneration.). In I Corinthians 2, the Apostle writes, “Now we have received, not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things which have been freely given us by God.”. Here it is clearly stated: The presence of the Spirit in our lives accounts for our knowledge of the truth of the gospel, i.e., what “has been freely given us”, including the forgiveness of sins and the imputed righteousness of Christ. He also states the opposite: Those who do not have the Spirit of God neither receive nor know gospel doctrine: “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, neither can he know them, for they are Spiritually discerned.”. Knowledge of the gospel and belief in the gospel are always conjoined. As the examples and teaching of the Bible show, one is never present without the other. It therefore follows belief in the gospel, the doctrine of Christ, is demonstrative of regeneration, and to be “unregenerate” is to reject the doctrine of the gospel in unbelief; it is to demonstrate what the Apostle describes above- inability to receive the things of the Spirit of God.

     Not a few who claim the Christian faith maintain more is needed than “mere” faith in Christ and knowledge of the truth to be regarded regenerate. According to many, it is necessary, in addition to faith, to demonstrate moral reformation; a change in behavior, i.e., “good works”. Faith alone, they say, is meaningless. It must be accompanied by obedience in one’s life. Not only is it necessary to show understanding of the gospel; it is also necessary to demonstrate behavior commensurate with God’s moral law, for if this behavior be absent, no knowledge of the gospel or claim to faith should be received. But this raises a dilemma: What standard is applied to the “good works” of a professing believer whereby they are seen as an acceptable basis for the conclusion one is regenerate? To put it another way, just how “good” do these good works have to be? A common answer goes like this: “A regenerate person may sin, but they will not continue in sin. A regenerate person will quickly repent of sin and will not commit the same sin over and over. A regenerate person may think about certain sins and entertain them in his mind or heart, but will never ‘go there’ and actually carry them out. A regenerate person will not ‘live’ in a particular sin indefinitely, and for one to do such is a demonstration he is unregenerate.”. The difficulty with this answer is in what is assumed about sin and the standard whereby sin is accounted. According to Scripture, sin is the transgression of the law. The law does not require our best try at being “good”. The law demands perfect conformity to God’s revealed will. This eliminates half-measures, best attempts, or relative degrees of goodness. If one does not continue in perfect conformity to do all the moral law of God requires, they can not point to their behavior as a biblically sanctioned condition or ground of their regenerate status. It is all or nothing. Elders in a congregation of Jesus Christ do not tally the extent or number or degree of “good works” and then determine the person has reached a certain “critical mass” or “level” of moral perfection so as to be legitimately regarded as regenerate. Instead, they receive as brethren those who believe the doctrine of Christ and help them (believers) stop sinful behaviors and replace them with behaviors reflective of God’s perfect standard, looking to themselves lest they fall prey to the same behaviors so as not to bring reproach on the gospel. If the church (as represented by Elders who serve in the local congregation) judges “regenerate” status based on the added condition of good works, this invariably leads to hypocrisy and departure from the doctrine of the gospel itself.

     It leads to hypocrisy because elders are not sinlessly perfect in their character and conduct. Elders have the flesh and elders are sinners. To declare one “unregenerate” based on some sinful fault is to declare one’s self free of this fault. More than this, it is to make this determination with the judgment no regenerate person may have this fault. If it were possible for even one regenerate person to have a particular fault for which another is deemed “unregenerate”, this would show the judgment is based on a false standard. Judging in this manner is manifestly hypocritical when the absolute character of God’s standard is taken into account. With this, such judging leads to a “faith plus works” doctrine of acceptance with God contrary to the gospel. We are not justified by faith plus works. We are justified by faith apart from works. Regeneration should therefore be judged without consideration of works on one basis only: belief in the gospel. If belief in the doctrine of Christ is not stridently maintained as the sole basis for judging the regenerate status of a person, a church where the doctrine of Christ was once proclaimed will quickly turn to another gospel. Regenerate persons may be bewitched by Satanic deception. They may sin against the very truth they know and believe and require correction and restoration. In their bewitchment, they may fit the very description Paul uses of the Galatians: “I marvel that you are turning so quickly from the one who called you by the grace of Christ to another gospel...”(Galatians 1). To reiterate in summary: When we determine a person to be “unregenerate”, on what basis do we do so? Do we do so because they do not confess and profess belief in the doctrine of the gospel? Or do we make this determination because we are able to point out some sin in their life we deem ongoing and not repented of? If it is because we are able to point out a particular sin or sins we deem ongoing and not repented of we must maintain no regenerate person may have this particular sin in his/her life, or this sin expressed in this manner. This is a declaration we ourselves are free and clear of this particular sin we are accusing the other person of. No person who knows the extent of the law’s demand and the fact all sin is related can make this claim. There is only one criteria for judging another to be regenerate or unregenerate: Belief or unbelief in the gospel. If we add the criteria of good works we are effectively adding a condition and implicitly (hypocritically) declaring we meet this condition. This is more than a mistake. This is departure from the gospel. We should receive as brethren those who profess belief in the gospel. The credibility of one’s profession is not measured in terms of degrees of sin/sinlessness. Those who profess belief in the gospel will accept help from others to stop particular sins, and will not defend any sin or sinful practice as “OK”. They will agree with the biblical instruction to stop stealing, lying, corrupt communication, immorality, disregard for lawful authority, covetousness, and so forth, with the help and guidance of Elders who care for them, and will seek to adorn their profession with kindness, tender mercy, and good works aimed at the perfect standard of God’s moral law and out of a desire to thank God for His forgiveness and salvation. Those who believe the gospel will not, however, proclaim their own sinlessness, or declare themselves innocent of sins they see in others. Such is not belief in the gospel, but confidence in one’s own self.

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