I met a man on the streets of East St. Louis last year during a one-day mission trip out there. He looked like he was in his sixties or early seventies, lived in a nice house, drove a nice car, and mentioned something about a few grandchildren. He was a nice guy. Further, when I asked him about his own spiritual beliefs and what he thought about Jesus, he told me that he was a believer, that he asked Jesus to save him decades ago, and that he was a member of a Baptist church. After a few minutes of nice, friendly conversation, I asked him how often he attended his church. "Well, I haven't been lately", he said. So I asked him how long it had been since the last time he went. That's when he started to tell me about something his pastor said that made him mad back when Nixon took office, and he hadn't been back to church since!
What?! That was literally forty years ago! This guy had not just "not been to church lately", he had lived the majority of his rather long life completely avoiding the worship of a God that he claimed to believe in.
And this guy was in no way unique. I see it all over the place out here where I serve as pastor. Ninety-eight out of a hundred people will tell you that they believe in Jesus, that they 'got saved', that they joined a church, got baptized, etc. Maybe ten out of that ninety-eight actually regularly attend church somewhere.
My first thought about this always goes back to what Jesus said was the first and greatest commandment: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37). It sure doesn't seem possible that a person can love God with all of his heart, soul, and mind and never care to be a part of His worship (which He commanded). What that guy in East St. Louis has done is tantamount to saying "I do" to some marriage vows and then living apart from his wife for the next forty years. If that were to happen, the husband may say "I love her" all he wants, but his actions will tell the opposite story.
The Bible says, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? Faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:14, 26). To continue the analogy of marriage, individual physical acts like hugs and kisses are not what 'makes up' the essence of love, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone that you love your wife if you never kiss her, never hug her, never talk to her, never look at her. True love overflows into actions. The same is true with faith.
Even though faith and salvation are not created by actions such as church attendance, baptism, tithing, etc., real faith will certainly overflow into such actions. A person who claims to trust Christ to be his all-sufficiency for salvation and who claims to love Him and want to serve Him isn't fooling anyone when he won't show up for an hour once a week to praise His Name. His claims of faith ring really hollow when he can't give a tithe because then he thinks won't have enough to live on. Thus, James says, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (1:18).
In the very next verse, James says, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!" Good for you! You're just like the demons! You have a demonic faith! In all seriousness, that's the kind of faith that the guy I met had. He was as good as a demon. And yet, somehow, I bet that he thought that his destiny would be different from theirs. We need to stop helping guys like this think this way by teaching that faith can exist apart from works. Let folks know the difference between genuine and false faith, and let those folks who come forward in a church service for salvation know that their future actions will prove whether the decision they're making is real and lasting or not.