There are no quantifiable answers to the questions Ryrie raises. Indeed, some Christians persist in sin for extended periods of time. But those who do forfeit their right to genuine assurance. "Serious sin or unwillingness" certainly should cause someone to contemplate carefully the question of whether he or she really loves the Lord. And those who turn away completely (not almost completely, or ninety percent, or fifty percent) demonstrate that they never had true faith (1 John 2:19).
Quantification poses a dilemma for no-lordship teaching, too. Zane Hodges speaks of faith as a "historical moment."" How brief may that moment be? Someone listening to a debate between a Christian and an atheist might believe for an instant while the Christian is speaking, but immediately be led back into doubt or agnosticism by the atheist’s arguments. Would we classify such a person as a believer? One suspects some no-lordship advocates would answer yes, although that view goes against everything God’s word teaches about faith.
Jesus never quantified the terms of salvation; he always made them absolute. "So therefore, no one of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions" (Luke 14:33); "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me" (Matt. 10:37); "He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal" (John 12:25). Those conditions are impossible in human terms (Matt. 19:26). [Even those who want to make these statements of Christ apply to a post-conversion step of discipleship don’t solve the dilemma of their absoluteness.] That does not alter or mitigate the truth of the gospel. It certainly is no excuse for going to the other extreme and doing away with any necessity for commitment to Christ.
Ryrie’s comments raise another issue that is worth considering. It is the question of whether lordship teaching is inherently judgmental: "How long can I be fruitless without having a lordship advocate conclude that I was never really saved?" Zane Hodges has made similar comments: "Lordship teaching reserves to itself the right to strip professing Christians of their claims to faith and to consign such people to the ranks of the lost" (Absolutely Free 19).
Certainly no individual can judge another’s heart. It is one thing to challenge people to examine themselves (2 Cor. 13:5); it is entirely another matter to set oneself up as another Christian’s judge (Rom. 14:4, 13; James 4:11).
But while individual Christians must never be judgmental, the church body as a whole very definitely has a responsibility to maintain purity by exposing and excommunicating those who live in continual sin or defection from the faith. Our Lord gave very explicit instructions on how to handle a fellow believer who falls into such sin. We are to go to the brother (or sister) privately first (Matt. 18:15). If he refuses to hear, we are to go again with one or two more people (v. 16). Then if he refuses to hear, we are to "tell it to the church" (v. 17). And if he still fails to repent, "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer"" (v. 17). In other words, pursue that person for Christ as if he were utterly unsaved.
This process of discipline is how Christ mediates His rule in the church. He went on to say, "Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven"" (Matt. 18:18-19). The context shows this is not talking about "binding Satan" or about praying in general. Our Lord was dealing with the matter of sin and forgiveness among Christians (v. 21ff). The verb tenses in verse 18 literally mean, "Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven." Our Lord is saying that He Himself works personally in the discipline process: "or where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst" (v. 20).
Thus the process of church discipline, properly followed, answers all of Dr. Ryrie’s questions. How long can a person continue in sin before we "conclude that [he] was never really saved?" All the way through the discipline process. Once the matter has been told to the church, if the person still refuses to repent, we have instructions from the Lord Himself to regard the sinning one "as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer."
The church discipline process our Lord outlined in Matthew 18 is predicated on the doctrine of perseverance. Those who remain hardened in sin only demonstrate their lack of true faith. Those who respond to the rebuke and return to the Lord give the best possible evidence that their salvation is genuine. They can be sure that if their faith is real it will endure to the end—because God Himself guarantees it.
"I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). And "I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day" (2 Tim. 1:12).
THE EARLY YEARS OF HEARING THE GOSPEL PREACHED
Drafted by Charles E. Whisnant