No Benefit of the Doubt
Yesterday, I linked to 5 Signs Your Child Is Not Saved. Being a father, this is obviously of immense concern to me. Nothing delights me more than the evidences of genuine saving faith I see in some of my children, and nothing grieves me more than the absence of those evidences in others. I want nothing more than to see them all following Jesus. It would be nothing less than parental malpractice to assume their salvation and cease confronting them with their sin and their need to examine themselves to see if they “are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). It troubles me to see how many Christian parents assume the salvation of their children.
It also troubles me to see how many Christians assume the salvation of virtually everyone around them who claims to be a Christian, attends church, and generally lives a moral life. Christianity, while certainly never less than that, is much more than that. Yet so often, when challenging those assumptions, I am charged with being judgmental and uncharitable, as though we should give the benefit of the doubt.
But the benefit of the doubt only goes to those who are able to accomplish the goal in question. We may assume individuals to be honest until they lie to us or steal from us. We may assume new employees to be reliable until they are habitually tardy, absent, or lazy. We may assume the best of people until they give us reason to doubt them, because we may assume they are able to perform dutifully. Even unbelievers are capable of basic integrity.
No one is capable of doing anything to save themselves. Salvation—in particular, regeneration—is a miracle, an act of God (John 3:1–8). Therefore, it is not uncharitable to assume someone is unsaved. In fact, since we are born as unregenerate sinners (Psalm 51:5), enemies of God (Romans 5:10), and Scripture clearly states that the people of God are the minority (Matthew 22:14), we should assume the vast majority to be unsaved and in need of the gospel. It is no loving act to assume sick people to be well, and thereby deny them the cure.
The notion of assumed salvation is found nowhere in Scripture. On the contrary, we are repeatedly taught to judge the faith of others. Matthew 18:15–18 instructs us to treat unrepentant sinners as unbelievers. 2 Corinthians 6:14ff commands us not to “be bound together with unbelievers.” Both involve judgment of faith, and the latter in particular assumes we can—and must—make that judgment.
So, how should we judge?
We should assume anyone we don't know to be unsaved, because we love them and want them to be saved. To that, we should make the single following exception: we should treat as brothers and sisters anyone who belongs to a local church body that is theologically orthodox (notice, I do not say any and every church so-called) and practices biblical discipleship (meaning: first, that their testimonies have been judged credible by the elders before admittance; second, that the Word is taught faithfully and thoroughly; and third, Matthew 18 discipline is practiced). In other words, we should give the benefit of the doubt to the qualified shepherds who have already judged their profession, understanding that because no shepherd is omniscient or infallible, there are still tares among the wheat. (Geneva Bible)
Those we do know should be judged, in addition to the local church affiliation standard in the previous paragraph, by the same criteria as we judge ourselves. But that's another post, a whole book, even, which you will find here.
The purpose of this is not simply to see who is in and who is out. The purpose is two-fold: to maintain the purity of Christ’s bride, and to prioritize evangelism. The mission field, for most of us, is not out there and far away. It is right next door, and in our own homes. It will not do to pray for unreached peoples far-off while pretending the unsaved nearby are safely in the fold.