Jeremy Sarber

What is the believer’s relationship with unbelievers?

If Christ and his gospel are dividing the world into two groups, believers and unbelievers, then what is the relationship between them? Specifically, what is the believer’s relationship to the unbeliever?

I’ll give you five simple points to consider.

1) Believers must accept our separation from unbelievers.

What do I mean by that? The first part of it is, of course, acknowledging the difference between us. That difference is expressed here in Ephesians 2. Again, Paul says:

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

But, he says, God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (Eph 2:4, 5). We did walk like everyone else—past tense—but now we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10).

We now believe differently. We act differently. Our affections and perceptions have changed. We are altogether new creatures from the inside out. As a result, there is friction between the born-again believer and the unbeliever who remains dead in his sins.

By accepting this fundamental separation, I mean that we should acknowledge it and live accordingly.

But how? I’ll let Paul explain it: Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? (2Co 6:14).

There is cause for concern if you feel totally comfortable in fellowship with an unbeliever. Maybe you won’t notice a problem at first, but as time passes and your faith grows stronger, you’ll begin to notice that tension. If nothing else, you’ll find yourself drifting from the same people you once called friends. That’s normal. That’s to be expected.

By the way, the same is true even among family members. In Matthew 10, Jesus said that family will turn against family.

There was another occasion when Jesus’s unbelieving brothers were standing outside, waiting to talk to him. When someone told him that they were out there, he replied, Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Mt 12:48). Then, he pointed to his disciples and said, Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:49-50).

Jesus, of course, wasn’t advocating total separation from unbelievers, family or otherwise. He wasn’t suggesting that we stop treating family as family. But the fact is, the relationship between believers and unbelievers is inherently limited. Our views, minds, priorities, likes, dislikes, senses of right and wrong—everything about us is different on a fundamental level.

Do you understand what I mean?

Having said that, my second point is equally important.

2) Believers are not supposed to make the hostility worse.

Jesus taught, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:44, 45). In the same sermon, he said, Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Mt 5:9, 11).

The Bible does not teach us to fight back. God doesn’t call us to add fuel to the fire. To the contrary, Peter tells persecuted believers:

If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20-23)

Yes, the separation exists between God’s people and the children of wrath, but we are not supposed to make matters worse by trampling the mission field. Remember that the end game is unity, not separation. While the gospel may divide us now, we’re not trying to be divisive. Apart from sacrificing the truth, we should do everything we can to promote peace.

According to Jesus, God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Mt 5:45). We deny God’s example for us if we fail to treat everyone with anything less than love and mercy.

Think of the Westboro Baptists who travel the country to protest funerals. Are they promoting the gospel of peace? Are they following the example of Christ who did not threaten or revile others? No, they spew hatred and elevate the hostility. Worse yet, they do it in the name of God.

Of course, the Westboro Baptists are an extreme example. Let’s talk about you and me. We don’t have to hold up signs that say, Thank God for dead soldiers,” to fuel the fire. All we need are a few scathing Facebook posts or a spiteful tone in conversation to encourage a rejection of our faith.

Before I get ahead of myself—

3) Believers are commanded to make disciples.

Again, the end of salvation is unity. In the meantime, God commands us to treat this world as a mission field where we attempt to unify as many as possible around the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Go therefore,” Jesus said, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). In John 4, he tells his apostles, Lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (Jn 4:35). Even the despised Samaritans—they were in Samaria at the time—were part of the mission field. Don’t trample the mission field. Harvest it. Plant seeds. Water the budding crop. Pray that God will give growth.

Do you think the Westboro Baptists are making disciples? No, they’re not. In fact, they’ve driven away some of their own members, turning them away from Christianity altogether.

What about us? I beg you to examine yourself. What example are you setting? How are you representing Christ and his church online and offline? What tone do you use? What words do you say?

Consider Paul’s example. He said, I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some (1Co 9:22). Time and time again, we may instantly turn people away with our presentation of the gospel, assuming that that what’s supposed to happen. Not necessarily.

Paul preached the gospel to unbelieving Jews in Ephesus for two months before they told him to leave. Paul understood his purpose. His goal wasn’t to force the gospel down someone’s throat. Evangelism is not a drive-by shooting. He understood that God called him to make disciples. Yes, we are to be bold, but we are also to be patient, loving, and gracious. We are to be understanding.

Don’t trample the mission field.

4) Believers are commanded to love unbelievers.

I’ve covered this point already, but let me add that loving someone is not the same as fellowship. Loving someone doesn’t mean that you have to be close to them or spend a lot of time with them. Even so, I can’t stress the importance of love enough.

Just remember that truth, spiritual gifts, faith, even good works—none of it means anything without love. Paul says:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

So what is this all-important love?

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is not describing a love that is exclusive to husbands and wives. It is not a love shared between only believers. Love is love, and the Bible teaches us to love even our enemies.

5) Believers are commanded to pray for unbelievers.

To be clear, our love for unbelievers should not be superficial. We are not to pretend to love, but we are to actually love from the depth of our hearts.

For example, listen to the angst in Paul’s voice when he says, Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved (Ro 10:1). Earlier, he said, 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 (Ro 9:3).

Even Jesus stood outside of the city of Jerusalem, a city he intended to judge for their rejection of him, and he wept. He didn’t weep for himself. He wept for them, saying, Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Lk 19:42).

It makes me cringe when I hear Christians talk about unbelievers as though God’s coming judgment of them is a thing to be celebrated. God himself said, I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Eze 18:32). His judgment may be righteous and necessary, but it’s never desirable.

The hearts of believers should be filled with an unquenchable passion to see people saved, united with us by God’s grace. Even when they reject the truth and we are forced to shake the dust from our feet, we shouldn’t walk away with a satisfied grin, thinking, That’s their problem. Praise God for the doctrine of election. No, Jesus wept for them. Paul prayed for them.

Paul tells Timothy:

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Our love and concern for others should run so deep that we are in constant prayer for them. Think about that. We should be on our knees pleading to God on their behalf.

But what are we prone to do instead? We separate ourselves completely. We publicly revile them even though the Bible says, God judges those outside (1Co 5:13). In our pitiful attempts to evangelize, we say, Here are the facts. If you won’t accept them right here and now, then I’m out of here.” Praying for them rarely crosses our minds if ever.