Not everyone is at the same exact place spiritually.
We have been talking about how to disciple someone else. In the last post we stressed the importance of thinking about where the person you are wanting to disciple is at spiritually and then adjusting how you disciple them accordingly.
Paul says this is the way he worked.
It’s more of a rebuke in 1 Corinthians 3:1, but notice what he tells the Corinthians. “But I brothers, could not address you as spiritual people but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.”
He identified where the people he was teaching were at, and what they needed to know and understand so they could mature, and that directed the way the he interacted with them.
We need to do the same.
We need to think about the spiritual condition of the people we want to disciple and what they need to know and understand so they can mature, and that should direct the way we interact with them.
This requires thinking because the people we are discipling don’t usually wear signs around their neck that says, spiritually immature, rebuke me.
And that is why I am stressing, that you have to think, you have to process, because while they don’t wear signs that you tell their spiritual condition, the Bible shows us certain characteristics that we can use to help identify where a person is at in the discipleship process, we are not going to get arrogant about this and be like, oh, we totally know, but still there are fruits that come from certain roots, and I think doing the work of processing information in order to identify a person’s spiritual condition will really help us do a better job in actually discipling.
When we look at the Bible, there are at least five major places a person can be spiritually, besides heaven or hell, and each one of those stages is going to have a major impact on how you work with them.
We will look at the first.
First, they can be spiritually dead.
It is not a good place to be. But there are a lot of people who are in this particular condition and so you need to ask yourself, as you think about the person you are discipling, are they alive spiritually?
I know it sounds harsh to put it like that, but we all came into this world spiritually dead, so it’s a pretty common condition, actually.
And it’s important for you as you to go to disciple someone, not just to assume they are believers.
Because it is difficult to disciple a spiritually dead person. Obviously. Really, what they need from you is loving evangelism. They need the gospel. Pre-discipleship, you might even call it.
Now as you think through whether the person you want to influence is spiritually dead, understand this is a fairly broad category
Spiritually dead people come in all shapes and sizes.
But, I think if you wanted to, you could maybe boil it down to there being two different kinds of spiritually dead people.
One, there are out and out pagans, who don’t believe in God, or who openly admit they believe in a different God than the God of the Bible.
This would include atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and on and on. And these kind of spiritually dead people are fairly easy to identify, since they say things like, I am not a Christian.
But then two, there are other people who are spiritually dead, but they say they are Christians and they maybe think they are and they are really kind of passionate about claiming to be a Christian.
Yet in spite of all that they are saying to you about being a Christian, the reality is they have what James, one of the writers of the Bible, would call a dead faith. They have a faith that doesn’t save. And these kinds of unbelievers can sometimes be a little more difficult to identify because from the outside they look a lot like everyone else at church.
Still, with spiritually dead people, whether they are admit they are pagans or not, there are certain common characteristics that you can look for and this is the kind of thing I am saying, you are going to have to think through and process as you do the work of discipling.
One of the most common characteristics of a spiritually dead person is that self is at the center of their lives.
Now, again you have to be thoughtful about this, because sometimes people are using pleasure to get what they want, and sometimes they are using religion, but either way it is self that rules.
There are people who are super serious about doing the right and then there are people who could care less about doing the right and at first you look at them and you think they are very different, the guy in the bar getting drunk and the uptight deacon at the church, but then you look a little closer and you see they aren’t that different, really, it’s just that one guy is using rules and religion to pursue self and the other guy is using alcohol.
Spiritually dead people tend to have a whole lot of respect for their own opinion. Especially when it comes to debates between what they think and what God says. So they will agree with God’s Word when God’s Word agrees with them, but when it doesn’t, then it is their opinion that is more important than what God says and you really can’t get them to move on it.
Ultimately, spiritually dead people are disobedient. They are not submitting themselves to God. And ultimately, they can’t because they are slaves to sin. It looks almost like an addiction in practice. It is like they are addicted to sin.
While spiritually dead people sometimes show up to worship, and they might even talk about worshiping God, but if you look at their actual lives and where they really are finding their happiness, their security, and their identity, it is in things like money, status or power. That’s what they truly worship.
They might say they know the gospel, but often you will find they don’t. What they say is the gospel is really different than what is the gospel. Like for example, when you ask them about themselves, they usually believe they are good enough to be accepted by God, or if they are feeling a bit guilty for something they did and know they are not good enough, they still will be convinced they can be good enough to be accepted by God if they just try a little harder.
In other words, they aren’t too concerned about the problem of sin. This is not something that keeps them up at nights, unless it is somebody else’s sin or the fact that their sin is making their life more difficult. What they hate about sin are the consequences, not that sin is against God.
And when it comes to eternal life, they like the idea, sometimes, say, if given the choice between heaven and hell, they might choose heaven, but here’s the deal, given the choice between heaven and their desires, they would choose their desires. Heaven is better than hell, in their minds, but it is not better than sin.
Their relationships usually are characterized by a lot of wishing they had what other people had, getting angry that they don’t, prejudice towards others, hate, basically.
Now sometimes, what is confusing, is they may have a lot of knowledge of biblical information, it seems like they know the Bible, but what you will find as you get to know them is that there is really little love for the person of Christ.
Sometimes you might find they get passionate about the Bible, and you get excited, because man, this guy seems interested, but usually when you look a little closer, it is about issues in the Bible that are not central or essential or topics that they can use to somehow promote themselves.
Those are a few of the characteristics of spiritually dead people, there’s a whole lot more of course, but the point is again, I am showing you, what you are doing as you are discipling, is you are processing information, you are thinking about where this person is at spiritually.
Is he spiritually dead?
I have been reading a book on discipleship recently, called Real Life Discipleship by Jim Putnam, and the author of that book has what I thought was a helpful way of thinking about all this, he encourages people to really listen to what the person they are wanting to disciple is saying, and he does that because there are common ways of speaking that will help you identify people in various spiritual conditions.
The way he puts it, is “the phrase identifies the stage.”
So for example, a spiritually dead person, here are some of the common things Jim Putnam suggests you might hear them say: (along with a few I have added)
“I don’t believe there is a God.”
“I don’t care if there is a God.”
“The Bible is just a bunch of stories.”
“I think all those religious books, like the Koran and the Bible are the same.”
“You can’t know what God wants until you die, so why worry about it until then.”
“I don’t care what you believe or do, so long as you are a good person.”
“Am I a Christian? Of course, I keep the Ten Commandments.”
“How long have I been a Christian? I have always been a Christian. I was born one.”
“I am a pretty good person overall.”
“I will repent right before I die, that way I can do what I want until then.”
“I am afraid I am not a Christian because, I am not good enough to be one.”
“I don’t know where I am going when I die.”
“What is the gospel? Oh pastor, that is a hard question.”
If as you look at what the person’s saying and how they are living, and you are pretty sure they are spiritually dead, they don’t know the gospel, or are they living in contradiction to the gospel, then what do you do? How does this information help you?
It gives you a place to start. This person needs salvation.
They need that more than they need a better marriage or a new job or anything else, and so you might start by praying for them on a regular basis.
You know salvation is a miracle, so you keep asking God to perform that miracle.
God usually uses relationships to draw people to Jesus, so you might have your friend over to your home and seek to develop a better friendship with them.
You know God uses the church and the love between believers, so you might them have over to something that your gospel community group is doing.
You should certainly be praying that God would help you love them as a person. That you wouldn’t just look at them as a project, but that you might have Paul’s attitude, where you long for their salvation.
And as we always say, you should be looking for opportunities to ask some gospel centered questions and then try to listen to their answers without slamming them, but still being honest about what the Bible says.
Donald Whitney suggests some of the following questions as being helpful:
- When you die, if God says to you, “Why should I let you into Heaven?”, what would you say? Are you interested in what the Bible says about your answer?
- If you were to die tonight, where do you think you would spend eternity? Why? Are you interested in what the Bible says about this?
- Do you think much about spiritual things?
- How is God involved in your life?
- How important is your faith to you?
- What has been your most meaningful spiritual experience?
- Do you find that your religious heritage answers your questions about life?
- Do you have any kind of spiritual beliefs? If what you believe were not true, would you want to know it? Well, the Bible says . . . .
- To you, who is Jesus?
- How can I pray for you?
Maybe, when you have the opportunity, share your testimony with them. Especially, pray that God would give you opportunities to take them back to the gospel and show them how it applies. So often, people think they know the gospel when they don’t, so ask God to help you take advantage of an opportunity to share the actual gospel with them.
Now there are spiritually dead people that are willing to learn more about Jesus and express an interest even, and one thing you might do, is just ask the person you are wanting to influence, would you like to get together and talk about spiritual things?
Sometimes we are so afraid to do that, but the person would actually be willing to do that if we just asked them. And you know maybe, we are afraid, because we don’t think we know the answers, but we probably know some, if we are Christians, and we can always say, I don’t know, to the questions we don’t know the answers to, and then we can work on finding out the answers.
But, if you think it would be helpful, you can always try to host a group at your home, I would love to see this happen, and if you don’t like talking to groups, just have someone come and lead a discussion on something that might stir up interest in some of your unbelieving friends, like:
Why do bad things happen? What makes the Bible different from other books? Who is Jesus and what did Jesus do? They could talk about the difference between the gospel and religion. Or why all religions don’t lead to God? They could try to answer the question, is being a good person good enough to get into heaven? I think, honestly a gospel-centered view of finances might be something where you could have some people come, and if you really look at what Jesus said about finances, it would be shocking to a lot of people.
Or if you think a group would be too much, and you don’t feel like you can answer those questions well enough yourself, another thing you can do, is set up an appointment with your friend and then ask somebody at the church who is a little further along in their understanding if they wouldn’t mind coming to your friend’s house and talking about some of those things.
Just remember as you deal with spiritually dead people that there is a Holy Spirit and you are not Him. You can rejoice that their salvation is not dependent on your abilities, but instead on God’s working in their life.
When you talk with spiritually dead people you don’t have to know every answer and you shouldn’t pretend like you do. That just isn’t real and they’ll figure out you are just playing games pretty quick. And if they attack you for something you say to them, that’s a golden opportunity for you to show the difference being a Christian makes. Whatever you do, don’t respond to a spiritually dead man like a spiritually dead man.