I caught myself saying something the other day that really didn't make sense. I was explaining that I have one friend who is struggling with the truths of the Gospel, while another is denying their authority and placing his faith in his experiences. While both are nonbelievers, the former, I said, is "closer" to salvation than the latter.
There's a fundamental error in evaluating someone's proximity to salvation by their ability or willingness to embrace scripture's authority or grasp its difficult concepts. I do believe that we can sense the Holy Spirit's work in some lives better than in others, but my faulty evaluation left out one essential variable: the power of God.
Judging by appearances, my assessment of the situation is largely correct. If this was a continuum, with salvation on the positive end, damnation on the negative and conflicting ideas taking positions based on the extent to which they are conducive to the two absolutes, I would have a reasonable argument. But salvation is not a continuum. Nor is it a Venn diagram, with luke-warm territory hovering somewhere in the middle. Salvation is a game of absolutes, and you're either in or you're out.
In more than a few scriptures, Jesus lets us know that he's not big on outward appearances. He said that the tax collectors, prostitutes and other assorted sinners (you know, the kind that we would never dare associate with today) were entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the teachers of the law, the religious leaders whose ritual purity was only exceeded by their spiritual ignorance. And in John 3 he says that men fall into two camps: Condemned for not believing in the Son or saved because of their belief in him.
Before we get into measuring someone's proximity to faith, we should remember that outward acts of righteousness can never nullify the curse of sin. The man who sins once is just as far away from salvation as the one who daily wallows in inequity. The man who dies in a brutal car accident is just the same as he who passes away in his sleep. They're both dead.
And whether a lost person is spiraling out of control or straddling the line of legalism, Jesus can bring them back to life.