It’s one of the biggest and most frequently asked theological and pastoral questions: can a Christian fall away? Can a Christian stop being a Christian? Because I’ve been asked it so often, and because I’ve been asked it a number of times recently, I’m re-posting this article from a few years ago (with a brief addition at the end). I hope it’s helpful.
If you don’t want to read through this whole thing but you’re still interested: (a) don’t be lazy! 🙂 (b) I’ve put a bullet-point summary at the end. And please remember, this is just my way of thinking through the issue, and plenty of other Christians would think differently. So don’t just take my word for it – check if what I’m saying matches with the Bible.
The first thing to say is that the Bible doesn’t really directly answer this question with a yes or a no. If anything, the closest thing the Bible gives us to a direct answer is ‘Don’t fall away!’ Instead of simply expecting the Bible to answer our questions, often we need to allow the Bible to change our questions and set the agenda for the discussion.
As you probably know, the New Testament has plenty of passages that warn people against the dangers of abandoning their faith in Jesus Christ. Some of the clearest ones are Hebrews 6:4-8, Hebrews 10:26-31, Matthew 10:22, Mark 13:13, and John 15:1-7 – which all warn Christians not to let go of Jesus. We have to keep trusting him, relying on him for forgiveness of sins, living for him, serving him, abiding in him.
How do these warning passages fit into the whole issue? We’ll come back to that in a minute.
2. Okay, but can a Christian fall away? No!
If we want a ‘yes or no’ answer to this question, I think the answer is no. A Christian cannot fall away.
Often we think about being a Christian from our point of view. We think about our decision to trust in Jesus, or our decision to say no to sin and live a godly life – the things that we believe and we do.
Those things are important, but let’s think for a moment about how Paul describes the Christian life in Romans 1-8:
• Christians are called (by God) to be saints (1:7)
• Christians are justified by God’s grace as a gift – so salvation is something that God does (3:24, 8:3)
• Christians have had God’s Spirit poured into their hearts (5:5); he now dwells in us (8:9-11)
• Christians have been united to Christ and so have been brought from the realm of Adam into the realm of Christ (5:12-21)
• Christians have died with Christ and will be raised with him (6:1-11), and we are now dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus
• Through Jesus Christ, God has delivered us from the body of death (7:24-25)
• God has changed Christians from being people who are hostile to him and cannot please him (8:7-8)
• God called us, foreknew us, and predestined us (8:28-29)
• Christians are God’s elect (8:33)
The point of all that is:
(a) Being a Christian is the biggest possible change – much bigger than we often realise
(b) Being a Christian is about what God does much more than being about what we do
So, can a person who is called, chosen, foreknown, predestined and elected by God since before the foundation of the world somehow slip through God’s fingers? Can a person who has died with Christ somehow un-die with Christ? Can God’s Spirit – who makes it possible for us to call Jesus ‘Lord’ in the first place (1 Cor 12:3) – fail to keep someone trusting in Jesus? Can we be un-united to Christ? Can we be born again (John 3) only to be un-born again (or to die spiritually after being given new spiritual life)?
When we look at salvation from God’s point of view and remember that it’s all his work – and a work that brings the biggest possible change, at that – the issue comes into focus. The question is not ‘can we fail?’ The question is ‘Can God fail?’ Surely the answer to this question is a massive ‘No!’
This doesn’t mean we never look at ourselves to make sure we believe the truth and live accordingly. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 we are specifically commanded: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.” However, the most important thing is to not just look at ourselves, but to look to God and trust everything he’s done for us in Christ. (Other great passages to read are John 10:27-30 and Eph 1:3-14.)
3. “But I know people who’ve fallen away…”
We all know people who have appeared to be genuine Christians, yet after a while have packed it in and now don’t want anything to do with Jesus. How do we make sense of this?
We need to remember that people who come to church a lot can have their morality and their way of life affected by just being around other Christians. More to the point, Jesus is so magnificent that it’s possible for a person to come into such close contact with him and be so compelled by him that it really does change their life – for a while. But over time, it becomes clear that there was never a real, saving trust in Jesus – no matter how much Jesus affected that person in other ways. So, in the end, we can conclude that a person like this was, tragically, never really ‘born again’ (as Jesus puts it in John 3:1-8).
We shouldn’t be surprised by this, for at least two reasons:
1. It happened to Jesus during his earthly ministry (for example, the crowds welcomed him into Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’, then a week later were baying for his blood and wanted him crucified)
2. Jesus taught that this would happen. For example, in Matthew 7:21-23 he warns that many people will claim to be Christians (and even do great things in his name) but that his verdict on the last day will reveal that they never really trusted him. The parable of the sower also predicts that many people will hear the word and initially receive it with joy, only to have it ‘choked out’ (13:20-22).
This doesn’t mean we should be suspicious of anyone who claims to be (and looks like) a genuine believer. God’s work in people’s lives is powerful and real, and it doesn’t help anyone for us to become doubtful and uncertain about everyone’s salvation. But we should at least have categories of thought that help us understand what may be going on when people we know seem to ‘fall away’.
4. The warning passages
If a genuinely saved Christian can never fall away, what’s the point of all those warning passages? Are they just pretend?
Basically, God uses these warnings to keep his people trusting in him, and to remind them of the danger of not trusting in Jesus. As Jesus says in John 10:27, his sheep will hear his voice. Part of hearing his voice will mean responding to the warning passages by heeding them and so not falling away.
God understands our human frailty, so he graciously relates to us in this way. Because he wants us to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Phil 2:12), he doesn’t just bypass our ability to make decisions. Instead, he warns us and urges us to keep trusting in Christ. But as we do that, we can also take great comfort in knowing that, if we are Christians, ‘it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:13).
5. So can we really have assurance?
So you might think, ‘If it’s possible for a person to look like they have genuine saving faith in Jesus, but they don’t really, what about me? How do I know I’m really saved?’
The best way forward is NOT to questions like, ‘Do I have enough faith?’ or ‘Am I good enough?’ or even ‘Am I really saved?’
Instead, the most important question we can ask is: ‘Am I trusting in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of my sins and for my salvation?’ (Colossians 1:23; Hebrews 3:14; Hebrews 6:12). Look to Jesus, not yourself. Look to the object of your faith, not to your faith.
Then, we can also ask ourselves other questions like:
• ‘Is there evidence in my life that the Holy Spirit is changing me?’ This doesn’t mean we trust in our good works, but it is right to look at our lives and expect (and pray!) that God’s Spirit would produce the fruit of the Spirit in us (Gal 5:22-23).
• Similarly, ‘Is my faith leading me to do good works?’ James 2:14-26 tells us that faith without works is dead. As the saying goes, “We are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone.”
But the most important thing is to remember the source of our salvation: Jesus, and his death on the cross for us. If you want assurance as a Christian, look to the crucified and risen Jesus, and trust in him daily.
• DON’T fall away! The Bible’s answer is not so much yes or no, but a warning not to fall away.
• NO, a genuine Christian can never fall away and will never fall away. Think about it from God’s perspective, not just ours. Christians are chosen by God, predestined, elected, called, etc. The question is not ‘Can we fall away?’ The question is ‘Can God’s purposes fail or be thwarted?’
• When someone ‘falls away’, sadly it means they weren’t really trusting in Jesus. He warned about this, and even experienced it himself (Matt 7:21-23; Matt 13:20-22; Matthew 21:9 –> Matthew 27:20)
• God uses the warning passage to keep his people trusting in Jesus
• Don’t look at yourself first, but instead look at Jesus. Are you trusting in him?
AN EXTRA NOTE FOR ANYONE INTERESTED
When I first posted this article a couple of years ago, some of the comments described it as ‘a triumph of theology over exegesis’. In part, I understand the criticism: we should always be willing to change our theological system when passages of Scripture reveal that our system has been flawed, and our theological system should arise out of our exegesis of the words of Scripture, read carefully in context. However, on reflection, I think we need to remember that any decent approach to the Bible will always be interplaying the two. That is, exegesis of individual passages will always be informed by our theological system, and vice versa. And as we read the Bible, there will always be times when we don’t interpret individual passages in a certain way because of what we believe other passages mean. I’d encourage you to think about whether or not I succeeded in doing that, but remember that theology and exegesis can very happily co-exist, if we’re doing them both properly.