Can Christians Fall Away?
One of the perplexing questions raised among Christians is the issue of security. Is it possible for Christians—that is, genuinely converted, regenerate, Spirit-baptised Christians—to fall away?
Some would say no. And they would point to the many, many promises found throughout the New Testament which declare in unambiguous terms the commitment of God to keep his people. Here’s a short list of them:
And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (Jn 6:39, 40)
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified, he also glorified…[nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:29, 30, 39)
God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability… (1 Cor 10:13)
[We] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance… (Eph 1:13-14)
…he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion… (Phil 1:6
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life. (Jn 5:24)
Note all the past tenses. It’s a done deal! These many promises have rightly given believers great comfort. God has me. I am safe in his hands. My security is a sure security because it is dependent on God’s determination to fulfil his promises.
But wait! There are also many passages in the New Testament, addressed to followers of Christ, which warn of the dangers of falling away.
The Book of Hebrews is particularly strong on this. Hebrews 3:7-4:13 is an important passage to explore since it connects God’s promises of old with our faith today. The words of warning given in the Old Testament are applied directly to New Testament believers. The same “forefathers” are given as examples (see also 1 Corinthians 10).
Here are some further examples to ponder:
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. (Heb 2:1)
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit… if they then fall away… (Heb 6:4-6)
Other passages to consider include Matt 24:12-13, Mark 13:13, Luke 9:62, 1 Cor 15:1-2, Col 1:22-23, 2 Tim 2:11-12, Heb 3:6, 12-14; 6:11-12; 10:36.
What are we to make of these warnings, especially in light of the strong words of assurance pointed to earlier?
Some hold the assurance passages as pre-eminent and so dismiss the warnings as clearly not meaning what they appear to mean. This is often done to protect the unity of thought of the Bible. Because the Bible is written (ultimately) by the same author we rightly expect unity of thought. There will not be any ‘out and out’ contradictions. If a passage appears to contradict another it will appear that way because we haven’t understood it rightly, not because it actually is a contradiction.
But there are some warning passages that are so clearly warnings given to Christians that it is very difficult to read them in any other way. This is the case with the passages spoken about above in Hebrews and 1 Corinthians. In fact, the language used to describe the subjects of the warning of Hebrews 6 (those that “have once been enlightened”) is used again in chapter 10 to clearly describe Christians (10:32). It is irresponsible to read these passages in any other way than that those who follow Christ must beware lest they fall away.
The implication is obvious. The very presence of warning passages must mean it is possible to fall away. Otherwise, these warnings become little more than idle threats. They descend to the level of the threats one might make to a child who makes nasty faces—“If the wind changes you will look like that forever”—a warning that only works because the child doesn’t realize it’s not possible. I suspect this is how many people view the warning passages of the New Testament. Often the phrase ‘once a Christian, always a Christian’ leads to this kind of reading.
But God is not in the business of giving idle threats. These warnings must therefore mean it is truly possible for a genuinely converted, regenerate Christian to fall away. The logic expressed here suggests to me it is not possible to avoid the question ‘can Christians fall away?’ and simply urge people to take heed of the warnings anyway. The power of the warnings rests upon the answer one gives to the question. If Christians can’t fall away the warnings become meaningless, and so why take heed of them?
However, if some reject the warnings because they don’t fit with the assurance passages, others fall into the equal and opposite mistake of rejecting the assurance passages. There is no security for believers apart from their own strength of will to keep themselves. This is perceived to have the advantage of making Christians take seriously their responsibility to live for Christ, but over time it turns living the Christian life into a desperate task. It makes my ongoing security dependent on my own meagre resources. Ultimately, it even undermines the foundation of our salvation as coming to us by grace alone.
Solving our problem
We therefore seem to have a problem. We have two different statements: one assuring Christians that God will keep them to the end, and one warning Christians of the dangers of falling away. Can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory passages? I believe we can and I believe the reconciliation brings to light a glorious insight into the way that God deals with us. There are still some mysteries but the fact is, whether or not we can reconcile them, we are bound to hold both truths with equal fervency. Calvin modelled this. “We are taught … that call and faith are of little account unless perseverance be added …” (Institutes, III, XXIV, 6).
It may be helpful to note that the tension we feel with these two truths is the same as the tension we find in the earthly life of Christ. Could Jesus have sinned? Surely the fact that he suffered when he was tempted is evidence he must have been able to sin. But surely the many promises of God concerning the victory of his purposes in Christ meant he wasn’t going to! He could sin, but if he did God’s purposes would fail and his promises would have amounted to nothing. Equally, Christians can fall away, but God promises he will keep them. There’s no doubt about it, there is a tension!
Although the tension can’t be removed entirely, we can go some way to understanding how they work together.
The key to understanding how these two truths stand together is found in answering the ‘how’ question: How is it that God keeps us to the end?
Those that emphasise the first truth (God keeping us) often sound as if they mean God will keep us no matter what we do. Our security is of the kind that we could not fall even if we wanted to. This suggests that the way God keeps us is without regard to our will, and even despite our will.
We might illustrate this understanding of God keeping us safe by comparing his protection to a fence erected around a high platform. It is impossible to fall, even if we wanted to jump. There is a force outside of us that stops us.
Often the phrase “once a Christian, always a Christian” is understood in this way. It is often (not always!) taken to mean that God keeps us by this ‘fence’ method. There is nothing I could do to lose my salvation. I am locked up by it, even so far as to be held against my will. This understanding of how God keeps us makes it impossible to read the warning passages as genuine warnings. They must not mean what they seem to mean.
However, the Scriptures are very clear. What we do does matter. God doesn’t keep us safe against our will or without regard to our will. We are his only “if indeed we hold fast our confidence” (Heb 3:6).
The work of the Spirit
If we wanted out, he would give us an out. And yet it is also true that God has promised to keep those that are his! How?
There is an answer that not only does justice to the two seemingly contradictory truths mentioned above, but it also brings them together in a harmonious whole that reveals a wonderful insight into the nature of our relationship with God.
God keeps us by two complementary things. The first is an external work of his Spirit. The second is an internal work.
The external work is the work of inspiring the words of warning (the Scriptures). The internal work is the work of enlivening our will, empowering our hearts to take heed to those warnings such that we keep ourselves in God’s love.
In contrast to the fence in the illustration above, it might be said that God keeps us safe on the platform by erecting warning signs (not a fence) that spell out the real danger of stepping off the edge. He then works within us by his Spirit to empower our will to take heed to those signs so that we keep away from the edge.
The critical thing here is that it is possible for a Christian to fall. We are not kept safe by a fence. The sober reality is, if we disregard the signs we will fall. Our only hope of remaining safe is to take heed of the warnings and keep ourselves from the edge. However, the wonderful promises in Scripture assure us that this desire in us to take heed to the warnings is actually the inner work of the Spirit complementing his external work of inspiring the warnings.
We are kept safe by God. Our ability to stand before him on the last day is 100% his work. I can trust him entirely to keep me to the end. I can rejoice in this truth. But it is necessary to know that he keeps me to the end by making me take heed of his warnings and so remain in his love (“keep yourselves in the love of God”, Jude 21).
An important insight
There is something more glorious in God’s sovereign protection of believers than a simple magic fence that stops us falling. God works in us through his Spirit by his word so that we are alive to him and his concerns. He works in us to keep us safe by opening our eyes to see what he sees. He creates followers (through a ministry of his word by his Spirit) who love what he loves and so participate with him in his desires. He desires that we live godly, holy lives unfettered by the deceitfulness of sin, which so entangles and destroys. His Spirit does this by drawing our attention to the Spirit’s word, the Scriptures.
The glory of the reality of the warnings is that they remind us that God has made us alive in Christ. We are no longer dead to the things of God and so enslaved to our own passions and so bound up to death. God now calls us friends. He works in us sovereignly as participants. He calls on us to heed his words as people who can now see the power of them. He works in us to grow in maturity such that we love what he loves and hate what he hates and so keep ourselves— knowing all the while it is him who works in us to keep us! (Phil 2:12-13).
There is an enormous danger in continuing with a simplistic “once a Christian, always a Christian” stance. Ironically, in a desire to uphold the sovereignty of God in our salvation, some run the risk of denying the very means by which God sovereignly keeps us from falling—the seriousness with which we are to take the warning passages. We assure people there is no need to take heed of the signs because there’s a fence out there on the edge that will ensure we can’t ever fall—even if we wanted to. Many therefore live unconcerned about the dangers and so fall into the very danger the warning passages were given to guard us against.
A unity in the things of God
There is no secret to life with God and being kept in him. We continue to live in Christ in the same way we came to him—by heeding his word. The Christian life (if it is to be the mature Christian life) is to be soaked in every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. As we hear these words, cherish them, dwell on them, heed them and trust them, so the Spirit of God deepens our Christ-like character so we love what God loves and hate what God hates.
But there is a further unity of thought here. There is a unity between our work and the work of God’s spirit. How do we bring the Spirit to bear in our lives? By giving ourselves to his word (remember that the sword of the Spirit is the word of God, Ephesians 6:17). In other words, the connection between God’s sovereign work by his Spirit and us is dependence on the word of God. It is as we hear, heed and trust the Word that the Spirit works in our lives to bring us to maturity, free us from sin, deepen our relationship with the father and sovereignly bring us to the end. Relying on the Spirit is experienced by hearing, heeding and trusting his word.
Andrew Heard 2003
This article was published in The Briefing, August 2003.