What are We to Make of "Believers" Who Fall Away? - Radical

What are We to Make of “Believers” Who Fall Away?

If you’ve been a Christian for a while, it’s almost a guarantee that you can make a list of friends or acquaintances who once professed Christ, and maybe even loudly, but who now, tragically, no longer participate in the life of the church. They have lost their faith. They may be open about the fact that they have left behind their Christian upbringing. Or maybe a tragic event shook them and they never recovered. Many just seem to drift, moving slowly yet surely away from the Savior they once joyfully embraced. The situation is not only sad, but it’s also confusing.

Losing Faith in the Lord

What are we to make of these “believers” who seem to have fallen away?

Before answering that question directly, we need to consider some biblical principles to help us think through our response. And just to be clear, we’re not talking about someone who misses a couple of Sundays or that guy who makes an inappropriate comment here or there. We’re talking about people who used to identify as followers of Christ, but who no longer seem to care about Christ or the church, at least not as far as we can tell. They seem altogether indifferent to the things of the Lord.

What We Don’t Know

First, we need to recognize what we don’t know. Unlike God, we cannot look on the intents and motives of the heart, which means that we cannot be one-hundred-percent certain about someone’s spiritual condition. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The complexity of the human heart, combined with the unknowns in certain situations, means that our spiritual assessment of such people who lost their faith should always be expressed with humility and with a sense of our own limited knowledge.

What We Do Know

Second, we need to recall what we do know. We know from a number of passages that those who belong to Christ cannot lose their salvation. For instance, Jesus says that his sheep will “never perish” because no one is strong enough to snatch them from his hands or the hands of his Father (John 10:28-30). Paul also speaks of the certainty of the believer’s salvation, claiming that everyone whom God foreknows, predestines, and justifies will also be glorified on the last day (Romans 8:29-30). These and many other passages assure us that God’s children do not get kicked out of the family. Eternal life cannot be lost.

While true followers of Christ do not lose their salvation, Scripture is also clear about the fact that those who belong to Christ persevere to the end. That is, true believers always continue trusting in and obeying Jesus until God calls them home. Sure, they continue to battle sin, and they may wander for a time, but they do not ultimately fall away. And, of course, this is God’s work in them, for they can only persevere in the power of the Spirit. A number of passages teach what has historically been referred to as the perseverance of the saints. For instance, Jesus says, “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13). Other passages make the same point: true Christians do not depart from the faith (see 1 John 2:19; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).

What’s at Stake of Losing Faith

If one of the characteristics of true believers is that they always continue in the faith, then it follows that walking away from Christ and his people is serious, as in eternally serious. Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” Jesus also spoke of branches that would be “thrown into the fire” because they did not abide in him (John 15:6). The stakes could not be higher for those who walk away from the faith; judgment and eternity hang in the balance.

What Love Requires

To return to our original question, what are we to make of “believers” who seem to have fallen away? We know they haven’t lost their salvation, but because true believers always persevere in the faith, we also can’t be sure that they ever had it in the first place. It’s entirely possible for people to claim to be followers of Christ and then later prove to be unbelievers. Jesus talks about such people in the parable of the soils: they initially receive the word, but because they have no life-giving root to their faith, or because their love for the things of the world is stronger than their love for Christ, they ultimately prove that they don’t belong to God (Mark 4:1-20). Profession doesn’t always mean possession.

We might say, with all humility, that there is evidence that such people do not belong to Christ. Hopefully their wandering is temporary, and by God’s grace they may eventually repent, but given the stakes, we should not assume anything. Either way, we must seek after such people. The concern of fellow believers is one of the means that God uses to preserve his people to the end. It’s also one of the reasons why church membership and church discipline are safeguards for those who profess Christ. For the good of our souls, we need other believers to hold us accountable. With compassion, urgency, and with much prayer, we should reach out to those who seem to be wandering. Love requires nothing less.

David Burnette serves as the Chief Editor for Radical. He lives with his wife and three kids in Birmingham, Alabama, and he serves as an elder at Philadelphia Baptist Church. He received his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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