I recently spoke with a dad who raised his three kids in a loving, Christian home. He and his wife are faithful parents, and each child once professed faith. But now in college, none follows the Lord. There is still hope, of course, but my friend has wrestled with self-doubt. Did I do something wrong? He’s also questioned God’s will. How could he let this happen?
This dad gravitates toward verses like Psalm 38:10–11:
My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my nearest kin stand far off.
We’ve all been there. Someone we care about—someone with whom we’ve shared the gospel clearly and often—refuses to submit his or her life to Christ. You’ve planted gospel seeds but see no growth.
How can a mature Christian stand firm in the faith when a loved one refuses to bow the knee to Christ? I’ll answer with a couple of don’ts and a couple of do’s.
Don’t Abandon the Doctrine of Hell
When you wrestle with the persistent unbelief of family and friends, Satan will ask, “Did God really say there is such a thing as hell?” Don’t tolerate this line of thinking. The doctrine of hell is tempting to abandon yet crucial to embrace.
God used the doctrine of hell to save me. When I first heard the gospel from a high-school friend, I pushed back. She pushed back even harder and said unless I repented of my sins and put my faith in Christ, I’d go to hell. I couldn’t believe she said this, much less believed it. Thankfully the Holy Spirit used her conviction and boldness to open my eyes. Months later, I trusted in Christ.
But I don’t finally believe in hell because of a young woman’s conviction. I believe it because my Savior preached it:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matt. 18:9)
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt. 25:41)
Avoid leaning into the ethical teaching of Jesus while dismissing his teaching on eternal punishment. Christ is not just the Savior; he is the Judge. Please don’t abandon good theology because you don’t like the implications. We are either a people of the Book or a people of our own inclinations. There is no in-between.
Don’t Stop Crying
If Jesus could weep over the physical (and temporary) death of Lazarus, how much more should we mourn when those we love don’t love Jesus?
Paul grieved that so many of his Jewish brothers and sisters rejected Christ. They claimed to love the law and the prophets, but they hated the One both the law and the prophets predicted. It tore Paul up inside:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Rom. 9:2–3)
Paul rightly grieved the unbelief of his Jewish family.
Our theology is useless if it leaves us unfazed by the unbelief of those we love. Don’t stop crying over your lost friends and family. The absence of grief is not the presence of maturity. Jesus and Paul shed tears. But maybe you don’t mourn over your loved ones the way you should. If that’s you, what should you do?
Pray more. Pray for your lost friends and family by name. Plead with God to give them life. Ask your Father to do whatever it takes to bring them to a saving knowledge of himself.
Ponder eternity. There is nothing more sobering than the reality of life without the Lord. To be “cut off from Christ” is to be without hope. Proper meditation on hell will soften our hearts to those who have yet to bow the knee.
Do Back Off
If you’re confident you’ve shared the gospel clearly with your family and friends, feel the freedom to back off. They know where you stand. They know where you think they stand. It’s time to be quiet and pray.
Does this mean you never bring up their spiritual state? Of course not! There may be times when it’s appropriate to say, “Mom, it’s been a while since we talked about Christ. I know what you believe; I just want to remind you if you ever want to talk more about him, I’m always available.”
Backing off your family member doesn’t mean ignoring or cutting them out of your life. Rather, it means spending time with them without constantly discussing their spiritual state. What does this look like practically? Four things:
1. Pray for them regularly. Where there is life there is hope.
2. Be yourself. Don’t hide your faith. Continue to talk about things you value. This will undoubtedly mean talking about your relationship with Christ and your local church.
3. Express affection. Let them know you care. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Make it obvious they matter to you not because they may one day be saved, but simply because you love them.
4. Give them space. This may mean you no longer forward them spiritual emails or even invite them to church. Think twice before getting them another Christian book for Christmas. If you have made the gospel clear, you are free to back off.
Do Trust the Lord
One of the hardest sermons I ever read was preached by Jonathan Edwards. He took Romans 3:19 as his text: “that every mouth may be stopped.” The doctrine of this verse, Edwards argued, is simple: “It is just with God eternally to cast off and destroy sinners.” In other words, who are we to talk back to him? He is a just God.
I need to remember punishment is what I deserve. I have rebelled against God, I have sought to be my own personal king. Had not the grace of God broken into my life and replaced my heart of stone with a heart of flesh, I would be facing an awful eternity (Ezek. 36:26).
I once heard Mark Dever urge his congregation to “take God’s side against sin.” This is what Edwards did. This is what I want to do. When it comes to the sin in my own heart, the sin in the world around me, and even the sin in those closest to me, I must always take God’s side.
Those who are sinful—and that’s all of us—deserve eternal punishment. It’s not easy to make this statement, but it’s true.
All this leaves us with a simple question: Will you take God’s side against sin, even when that sin is found in those we love? By God’s grace, I want to. If I’m going to follow him faithfully, I have to trust not only that he is in control, but that he is good. When I’m faced with the possibility of those I love never submitting to Christ, I must believe with Moses that my God is the “Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice” (Deut. 32:4). All of them.
When it comes to your unbelieving family and friends, will you trust the Lord? Ultimately, the only way to have peace in the face of loved ones who reject Christ is to marvel at the grace of God who, in Christ, accepts us. God saved us when we were dead in our sins, and he can surely save our loved ones with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. It would be no less a miracle for him to save them than it was to save us.