Summary: Just because someone is going to church doesn't mean they're saved. Let's explore this popular phrase and learn the truth about going to church.
Have you ever been in a of a conversation with someone who was discussing a friend, family member, or co-worker and all the sin which they are involved in, or all the religious error they are practicing, or all the problems their life consists of, and they end the description by saying, “Well, at least they’re going to church”?[i] Have you ever heard someone say that? Have you ever said that? If the truth be told, I’m confident we’ve all said something to the effect of “well, at least they’re going to church.”
What do we mean when we use that phrase? So often these words follow a description of all the things that are wrong with the other person’s life, or the erroneous doctrines their church teaches. We seem to excuse their sinful behavior as if saying, “Despite all the wrong they are doing in their lives and despite all the religious error they practice, they’re all right because at least they’re going to church.” I fear many times we knowingly use this statement as a way of comforting ourselves, as way of soothing our consciences, as a way of relieving us of the responsibility of taking the truth to them, because “at least they’re going to church.”
Friends, these things ought not to be. Please consider with me some biblical principles that need to make us stop and think before we say, “At they’re going to church.”
#1. Just Because They’re Going to Church… Doesn’t Mean They’re Forgiven
The phrase, “At least they’re going to church” seems to imply that going to church every Sunday somehow forgives a person of their sins. They maybe a cheat, a drunkard, and an adulterer Monday thru Saturday, but because they go to church on Sunday they’re somehow forgiven of their sins. This simply isn’t true. God’s system of forgiveness is not a one for one deal. People cannot make-up for, or obtain forgiveness of one sin for every one minute he or she is able to sit in a pew. It just doesn’t work that way. In God’s system of forgiveness, a person’s sins are forgiven when:
They are baptized. That’s what Peter said in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Later Ananias echoed the same thought when he asked Paul, “Why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). So long as a person goes to a church that doesn’t teach baptism for repentance, then it does them no good to be going there because they can’t receive forgiveness without baptism.
They repent of their sins. Repentance is one of the core messages of the Gospel. Shortly after Pentecost, Peter also taught repentance to those gathered in Solomon’s portico when he said, “Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Within this verse lies the definition of repentance; to turn from. One only receives forgiveness of their sins when they turn from them. And, as Paul would later say, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Why does He command all people everywhere to repent? Because forgiveness comes through repentance, not the act of going to church. Without repentance it doesn’t matter how many churches and church services a person goes to, they are not going to be forgiven.
They confess their sins. The promise is, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). A person who is not willing to humble themselves and confess their sins to God and as James says, “to one another” (James 5:16) is not a person who is forgiven, and no amount of church going will change that fact.
#2. Just Because They’re Going to Church… Doesn’t Mean They’re Faithful
I’m afraid that we have misused the word faithful so much we no longer truly understand what it means to be a faithful Christian. In our day to day speech we use the word faithful primarily in connection with church attendance. For example, we say “brother and sister So and So sure are faithful, why they’re at every service”, or the converse is, “Well brother and sister So and So are not as faithful as they should be because they’re rarely here anymore.” What we have done is we have defined faithfulness as going to church, or attending all the services. Therefore, when we say, “At least they’re going to church” it implies that we believe them to be faithful Christians based on the fact they go to church. Now don’t get me wrong, faithful people will attend the services of the church, Hebrews 10:24-25 says as much. But, if a person is deliberately sinning Monday thru Saturday, then going to church every Sunday, it doesn’t make them faithful to the Lord. Rather as Hebrews 10:26-27, they are God’s adversary and can expect the consuming fury of fire as their reward. According to God’s word a faithful person will: