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.”
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.
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:
A faithful person will put God first “seek[ing] first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). So long as a person puts the world first (i.e. work, recreation, sports) and puts their ideas of right and wrong before God’s kingdom and His righteousness, then it doesn’t matter how many church services they attend they’re not faithful.
Additionally, a faithful person will continually add to their faith. Peter said it this way, “add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love” (2 Peter 1:5-8). Adding to one’s faith requires them to be in God’s word every day, not just in a pew once a week. It requires them to spend time in prayer every day, not just in a building once a week. It requires them to exercise their faith every day, not just when it suits them. Going to church regularly will not make up for a lack of study, prayer, and spiritual exercise.
Not only will a faithful person put God’s kingdom first and add to their faith, they will also be living sacrifices. Paul calls for Christians to “present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] reasonable service.” He goes on to say, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds” (Romans 12:1-2a). In view of what Paul is saying, a faithful person is one who is a living sacrifice for God by not conforming to this world and changing the way they think (cf. Matthew 5:3-6). Therefore, someone who fails to live in this matter is not faithful and no amount of church going will change that fact.
Just Because They’re Going to Church… Doesn’t Mean They’re In Fellowship
According to The Handbook of Denominations (21st edition) there are currently 227 different kinds of religious denominations in America. These different denominations don’t teach all the same doctrines. They vary widely even on the foundational issues of who Jesus is, on salvation, work of the Holy Spirit, and worship. Logic alone tells us that something is wrong with this picture. The phrase “at least they’re going to church” implies that because a person is going to church they are in fellowship with God. However, according to the Bible that’s just not the case. From Matthew 15:8-9 we learn that if a person teaches manmade doctrines their worship is in vain. They went to church but they didn’t have fellowship with God. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus spoke of people, who on the judgment day would appear before Him calling Him “Lord” and recounting how they had done many great works in His name. However, Jesus said to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” We would say they went to church, and they went to church often, but they didn’t have fellowship with God because they were workers of lawlessness.
According to God’s word, there is but one-way to have fellowship with Him and that is do what He says. That is the message of 1 John 3:24, “Whoever keeps His commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” Also Jesus said, , “Not everyone… will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 7:21) and “Blessed… are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28). God is so plain, those who keep His commandments are those who have fellowship with Him, not those who merely go to church but live their lives as they please Monday thru Saturday.
There’s grave danger in using the phrase “at least they’re going to church.” It’s dangerous because it implies that despite all the wrong a person is doing they’re okay simply because they’re going to church. You have seen in this lesson even though a person goes to church, that’s not all that really matters, there’s so much more to being a Christian than going to church. Just because a person is going to church doesn’t mean they’re forgiven of their sins, nor does it mean they’re faithful Christians, or does it mean they are in fellowship with God. Be the kind of person who takes action, not the kind that makes excuses, and teach your friends, family and co-workers the truth of God’s word.
I would be amiss if I didn’t challenge us all to look at ourselves and ask, are you making excuses, not for others, but for yourself because, “at least you’re going to church”? Just because you’re going to church that doesn’t mean you’re forgiven of your sins, only baptism, repentance and confession can insure that. Nor does going to church mean you’re faithful, only putting God first, adding to your faith, and being a living sacrifice for Him means you’re faithful. Nor does going to church mean you’re in fellowship with God, only keeping His commandments can bring that about. Maybe we need this lesson, not to just remind us of the need to not stop making excuses for others, but to remind us to not make excuses for ourselves. I pray that we will all grow to be forgiven, faithful and in fellowship with our God.