“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven… A time to search, and a time to give up as lost; a time to keep, and a time to throw away” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 6). Through the inspired writer, God admits that there are times when we must give up seeking certain things. More significant responsibilities may lead us to determine that the risks involved in searching for someone are too great to justify our involvement. Whether it is trying to win an argument, seeking the perfect automobile, or saving somebody from his or her habitual sins, we must make some difficult decisions when it comes to how much we are willing to invest in a pursuit.
It is most significant to notice this idea in the realm of spiritual work. How far are we willing to go to help save somebody? Is there a proper point at which we need to move on to other evangelistic opportunities, or should our quest for a single soul become an all-consuming odyssey? In this lesson, we will consider some of these thoughts and seek an answer as to when it is time to give up as lost the object of our energies.
“Lest I Myself Should Be Disqualified”
In Jude 23, the author states, “Have mercy on some with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh.” It is clear that in our endeavors to seek and save the lost, we will encounter people suffering in terrible, even abominable, sins. It is the Christian’s job to teach the Gospel to these people – the verse clearly teaches that we must “have mercy” in spite of the risks. At the same time, however, we must balance our desire to save others with the need to save ourselves. “With fear” seems to indicate that some discretion needs to be applied in our evangelism. In other words, seeking and saving the lost (Luke 19:10) is a pursuit that is admirable, but not without some healthy prudence to temper the enthusiasm. It is an unfortunate truth that some people in this world cannot be trusted – there are villains who want nothing more than to destroy and abuse the people of God for their own malicious desires. Also, there are people who live in ignorance of their own contagiousness, and are completely unaware of how Satan is working to tempt them. For example, preachers often become lightning rods for the attractions of sin-laden women. While some preachers take advantage of this situation for their own gratification (2 Timothy 3:6), other preachers do not realize how attractive they are when they offer spiritual guidance to these women. “When a woman is crying on your shoulder, be careful! I am not suggesting that every woman who comes to you is out to get you… I am simply pointing out that because she is hurting, your tendency will be to offer comfort. This comfort can easily be misinterpreted and lead to sin. Always maintain a professional distance” (Preparing the Young Man to Preach, Kercheville, 124).
How sad it is when preachers of the Gospel become so engrossed in their evangelistic efforts that they neglect their own spiritual needs! Some preachers lose control of their personal lives, their children, their marriages, and even the regulation of their own desires. Even Paul admits in 1 Corinthians 9:27 that he needed to buffet his body daily, “lest after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” According to Paul, it is imperative that each of us keep ourselves from the precipice of sin before worrying others – sin is a very real possibility, even for Christians as strong and devoted as Paul!
Furthermore, he goes on to write in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself so that you too will not be tempted.” While it is imperative that we restore our sinful brothers and sisters to the grace of God with such a spirit of gentleness and mercy, we must keep a good watch over our own souls as well.
How does a Christian reach a point at which he loses his own soul in the pursuit of someone else’s? Can it be that there are times when the risk is just too great to bear? Indeed, we must make sure that we have our priorities straight when it comes to evangelism. There should never be a time when we walk blindly into a sinful situation for the sake of trying to save another – I would never enter a house of ill-repute to save somebody from fornication, nor would I start attending worship at a Mormon church every Sunday to try and influence them. This is not to say that I should give up hope that they may someday come to God. It does, however, mean that I may have to give up the active pursuit of that person’s soul. We should never follow a person into sinful situations to try and save them. Otherwise, we have become the same as those who argue in favor of situation ethics – “Well, it’s okay to go to a bar as long as I’m talking about God while I’m there” or “My friend said he would only listen to me talk about the Gospel if I went fishing with him this Sunday.”
There are times, friends, when we must accept that some people do not want to be saved. As sad as it may be, we have an obligation to move on and seek other fields of evangelism – we cannot spend our entire lives trying to save one stubborn person when there are so many receptive souls just waiting to be led in the right direction. Our Lord exhorts us in this effort in Matthew 10:14. “And whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet.” As long as we preach the Word to the best of our ability, then we are not held responsible for those who reject its message. Without regret, we must give up, move on, shake off the dust from our feet, and seek another listener. There are so many people who need to hear the Gospel, and our Lord described it best when He said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38).
When Do We Give Up As Lost?
In the previous section, scriptures were presented that made it clear there are times when we must “kick the dust from our feet” and move on to new evangelistic opportunities. When the risk to our own souls is too great, we may have to allow those who are sin to continue in sin for the sake of self-preservation. Christians should not “cast their pearls before swine” by joining a lost soul in sinfully dangerous situations, or in falsehood, for then two souls will be embroiled in that unrighteousness.
But the important lesson that we must all apply to our work in the kingdom is the need to strike a balance – we cannot jump head first into sin to try and save someone from it, but we should also not be so afraid of risks that we neglect our duty to save anybody! Consider the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), for in it we see the ideal treatment of a person who refuses to return home. In the text we read about a son who asks his father for his portion of the inheritance. Leaving his duties at the family estate for adventure in a faraway land, the young man wastes his money on loose living and finds himself deep in the regrets of a wasted life. What we should focus on, however, for the sake of this article, is the attitude of the father. The father never refused to let his son leave. The father never kept back the inheritance. The father never tried to seek after his son, to save him from his mistakes, to bail him out. Like this man, we sometimes have to let people go – we cannot abandon our own responsibilities to spend our lives seeking our prodigal sons. What an irresponsible man this father would have been had he neglected his duties at the farm! In the same way, we cannot become so involved with the hunt for a lost soul that we begin to ignore the needs of our families. Paul wrote that a father’s first responsibility is to the well-being of his dependents (1 Timothy 5:8). But was this all that the father did? Did he “give up” on his son? Should this man be ashamed because he allowed his son to fall away and live a sinful life in a distant land? No, for this father never gave up hope. He stood on his property, waiting for the return of his younger son, eager to see his figure appear on the horizon. And when the young man did return, the father welcomed him back with open arms! While we may make the decision to let somebody fall away – for someone with a mind to sin will sin no matter what we may do – we still have an obligation to be there for them if they decide to return to God.
Even Paul allowed some people to become slaves to sin – not because he wanted to give up on their souls, but because there was nothing more he could do for them but be supportive if they decided to return. “But if any has caused sorrow… Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:5-8). According to the inspired writer, it is necessary to “give up as lost” those who refuse to repent. In fact, we must withdraw ourselves from that person in order to save the rest of the congregation (1 Corinthians 5:6). But when the times comes for that person to return, let us always be there to reaffirm our love for them.
The point is, friends, that we should never pursue one soul so far that we neglect the needs of our own souls, the souls of our families, or the congregation. There are so many receptive souls out there just waiting to hear the Gospel. Instead of being discouraged by the prodigal sons in our lives – those people who we try to save, but are unwilling to come home – let us press on. Let us look to the future. Let us keep preaching, keep evangelizing, keep loving, and keep seeking and saving the lost.
In response to this lesson, some Christians may feel disillusioned or confused about what to do next. After all, we must obey the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), but we also have obligations to our own souls and our families to stay a safe distance from suspicious characters and potentially sinful evangelistic situations.
“Does giving up as lost mean we are responsible for that sinner’s soul?” – It depends on how we have handled the situation. It is clear from Ezekiel 3:17-19 that the watchman of God is obligated to warn the people around him. Yet, notice the exhortation in the text, “Yet if you have warned the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you have delivered yourself.” We have to teach the Gospel to everybody we can, but part of that job is moving on to new people when one proves to be unrepentant. We should never feel guilty about “giving up as lost” if we have done our best.
“I am uncomfortable with this idea of ‘giving up’ on people. Jesus never gave up on anybody.” – That is only partially correct. While Jesus leaves the door of salvation open to everybody, we must realize that even He knew when His listeners were unwilling to change. In the story of the rich young man (Matthew 19:16-24), the man leaves Jesus after hearing an unfavorable message. Notice that Jesus never pursued the man. He may have never seen Him again, in fact. Yet Jesus did not feel guilty about letting the man go away in his sinful state because Jesus was not responsible for this man’s soul. The rich young man decided, on his own, to walk away in his stubbornness. Let us remember that when we are forced to give up on lost souls, it is not because we have failed – it is because they have hardened their hearts.
“On a practical level, how do we apply this lesson?” – Truly, we must see that not everybody will be saved, and some will even try to infiltrate the church and carry our brethren away in sin. For the false teachers, we must have very little patience. John even instructs us to reject the false teacher so thoroughly that we do not even give him a greeting (2 John 10-11). This means that when a member of the congregation persists in spreading a doctrine that is morally reprehensible (as all falsehoods are), then we must cast them away from the church and only make contact for the purpose of exhortation.
When we are dealing with a sinner who comes to us with a sordid past, let us always remember that we, too, had sins that were terrible before we were Christians. We must accept new converts with love and gentleness, helping them aiding them in their walk of righteousness. However, there is a safe and appropriate way to help such people. If there is any degree of danger, then fathers have a first obligation to the safety of their families. Feeling uncomfortable around repentant pornographers, molesters, or abusers is normal, and God gave us these feelings for a reason. While we can welcome these believers into the fold, it is best not to trust them with dangerous situations until they have earned trust. Without a doubt, a repentant child molester should not be teaching children’s Bible classes, or babysitting, or be given any access to the nursery. This is a risk that no parent should be willing to take.
When welcoming women who have had marital problems in the past, there is certainly great wisdom in the idea that she should not be spending time alone with a man. Married men need to bring their wives along for Bible studies, and these troubled women need to seek guidance and comfort only from other women of the church.
These situations, and many more like them, reflect the idea that we need to preach the Gospel to all people, especially those weighed down with terrible sins. But putting these lessons into practice also shows that we understand Jude’s exhortation about rescuing the lost with a healthy dose of fear.
“Is there a benefit to ‘giving up’ on people?” – Most definitely, and it is found in the practice of ostracizing unrepentant people. When we have to give up on people, whether on potential converts who refuse to listen to the Word of God or on Christians who refuse to repent (Matthew 18:15-17), the goal is to induce enough guilt in their hearts to lead to sorrowful repentance. “For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it… I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance… For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation” (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). The goal of our evangelism is bringing salvation to all people. While some may reject us, and we are forced to move on, we must remember that for every soul who rejects the Gospel, there is surely another just waiting to hear it!