I think the key may be that there are different kinds of seeking spoken of in Scripture.
The unregenerate person in a Christ-centered church is easier to understand if we compare to a nominal Buddhist or a Muslim or Mormon or Christian Scientist. They may be sincere, and they may be seeking and they certainly may do any number of works in the name of their religion. They may even live as “better people” as a result. But not only are they not saved (they don’t know Jesus), they are not even “true Mormons” or “true Muslims,” but only nominal ones.
It is more obvious when we think of it happening somewhere other than a Bible believing church. Yet wheat and tares grow up in a Bible believing church in the same way they do everywhere else. Hopefully, though the PROPORTION of wheat to tares is much higher in those associated with a true community of faith.
On the seeking thing, there is a paradox. Romans 3 says no one seeks after God. Yet in Acts 17 it says:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
This is a clear statement that men DO seek God (though of course it doesn’t contradict the Romans 3 context of no man, in his depravity, seeking God in the ultimate or effective sense). The statement “that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” indicates some who seek him do not find him. So there is a “seeking” after God that is not the same as “As many as the Father has given me will come to me.” It is the product of man made in God’s image, with that emptiness that only he can fill, that longing and yearning for God but with a sinful bent that makes things into false gods. Hence, idolatry itself is a perverse form of seeking God, but not one that honors Him.
In 1 Chronicles 28:9 Solomon is told of God, “If you seek him, he will be found by you.” Jesus said “Seek and you will find.” Yet in Acts 17 some are said to seek without finding. The seeking referred to, then, must be different in some critical respect.
Isaiah 55:6 says “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” But doesn’t this imply that the time could come when one could seek the Lord and NOT find Him? When Jesus said “Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness,” he suggested that it might be possible to seek God’s kingdom, but not FIRST. A man might be said to seek God, but because he seeks or pursues other things ahead of God, he might remain unregenerate. So he sought God without finding Him; yet he did not seek God purely or wholeheartedly.
Jeremiah 29:13 says “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” But note he doesn’t just say “seek me” but “seek me with all your heart.” Which means it must be possible to seek God, but not with all your heart.
Then there’s the Isaiah passage that says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” This could be seen as the irresistible grace, Hound of Heaven sort of thing, e.g. C. S. Lewis who called himself “the most reluctant convert in England.”
When Hebrews 11:6 says God “rewards those who earnestly seek him,” does that imply that it is possible to seek Him, but not earnestly? There is a big difference between a half hearted curious seeking and an earnest pursuit of God.
So the devout Hindu is seeking God, and in another sense the materialist and the sensualist are seeking God—they are just looking in the wrong places and settling for false gods. But are they seeking? Yes, to a limited degree, they are, but it is not necessarily the seeking that is directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In his novel The World, the Flesh and Father Smith, Bruce Marshall wrote that “the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”
Are occultists who pursue the supernatural seeking God? In a sense, yes. They are looking in a forbidden place, but they are looking. But they are not seeking God with all their hearts, and many will not find Him.
So, there are levels and degrees and even different kinds of “seeking.” A word study of “seek” might be helpful, because you’ll see these different meanings in Scripture.
There is a seeking that can be explained by human nature and emptiness, apart from the specific prompting of God’s Spirit. This is one reason why false religions are so popular.
So then there is “not seeking” (though in another sense people all seek without knowing it), there is “seeking based on image bearers’ curiosity and longing for something better” (a general seeking that may not be Spirit-empowered) and there is “seeking empowered and directed by the intervention of the Holy Spirit.” All of these are forms of “seeking,” yet they are not the same. This must be the case, or Romans 3 and Acts 17 (and other passages) would be contradictory.