We have all known professing Christians who, for a variety of reasons, turn their backs on the Lord and claim to no longer be Christians. Several years ago I had a student challenge the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints,” commonly called “eternal security.” She said, “But I know someone who was a Christian, and now he isn’t.” My response was the typical, not always accepted, but nevertheless correct, “How do you know for sure he was a real believer? And how do you know for sure that he has really fallen away?” This conversation that many of us have had, probably more than once, sets the stage for the question, “Can a real believer ever fall away?”
The answer to that question hinges on the word “real.” The Scriptures are very clear that when there is saving faith in Jesus Christ, there is “eternal life.” A real believer possesses this eternal life, which by definition is in fact, eternal, and can never end. A real believer “will never perish” – no “if’s, and’s, or but’s.” A real believer is in a position where Jesus said “no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28, NASB). If a truly born again believer could ever be lost, we have the absurdity of becoming “unborn” along with the fact that God becomes a liar, because His promise is otherwise. My salvation is as secure as the integrity of God.
While it is true that a real Christian can fall into sin and lose his fellowship with the Lord, there is nothing in Scripture to negate God’s promises to His own. When a believer sins, there is conviction. Romans 7:12-25 graphically illustrates this fact. Someone who has saving faith will not get away with sin and will not ultimately fall away from salvation, because that God-given conviction will always draw him back. The only good conclusion is that, based on the Scriptures, those who ultimately fall away were never believers in the first place, no matter how well they played the Christian game, even if they “served the Lord,” as did Judas Iscariot. Notice the words of John. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19, NASB).
One reason for the falling away of “believers” is that they never were exposed to the real Gospel and came by way of “easy believism.” So often, well-meaning Christians, in their zeal and haste to see others saved, will reduce the Gospel to a simple “repeat after me” formula that results in false profession and a deceptive sense of “security.” This can be especially true in dealing with children.
Dr. John MacArthur says that we “…have to cease doing something that has been traditionally done through the years, and that is telling people that if they prayed this prayer, they’re saved. I grew up in a generation, you know, when you’ve led this person to Christ, then say to that person, ‘Did you mean what you said? Now you’re saved …’ You can’t do that. You don’t know that when they prayed that prayer that really was salvation. You can’t see justification take place. It’s an invisible transaction. You can’t even see regeneration … we have this idea of salvation that says, ‘If you pray this little prayer, God will save you’ … That is the most skewed view of salvation. God only does what He wills to do and what He purposes to do. And all the sinner can do is the model of
Luke 18, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ You can only ask, you can’t demand … Now He’s not going to turn away the one who comes in all honesty, but I think ... we’ve taken it out of the hands of God and put it into a formula … and in the absence of genuine repentance, that formula is a recipe for apostasy.”
Another cause of false profession is the emotional approach, where the heartstrings are touched by a touchy-feely, warm fuzzy message rather than the actual Gospel. Often, people are brought into a situation where they “feel comfortable” and respond to the emotionalism they observe. In reality, if unbelievers “feel comfortable” in a church, there is something wrong with the church. The truth convicts, and being convicted does not always feel good, but it can lead to repentance and salvation. “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NASB).
However, Christians whose faith is emotion-based rather than truth-based are far more likely to live other than their profession and to let others down. This enables those they seek to win to use the lamest of all lame excuses for rejecting Christ, which is “I don’t want anything to do with being a Christian, because Christians are such hypocrites.” That “excuse” has been around for a very long time, and it is no more valid today than it was in the past. As a matter of fact, the book of Romans teaches that even those who never heard of Christ are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20), so where does that leave those who have heard? Blaming others for one’s behavior is very common today, and it may be popular with some psychologists, but it will not get anyone anywhere at the Great White Throne Judgment.
One who suddenly decides he can no longer believe the Bible and therefore “falls away” has clearly decided he is in a position to judge the validity of God’s Word. It is interesting to note that generally those who come to such a conclusion have not been taught and have never taken the time to learn basic biblical truth. It is normally a matter of the “experience” of salvation not “feeling” so good any more. Again, Dr. MacArthur says that in order to take this stance, “…you have to put yourself in a position to be the judge of Scripture’s validity. That is a very proud position to take, given the fact that for thousands of years the most godly and brilliant minds in Christianity have found the Bible to be consistent, inerrant, divine, you know, it verifies itself again and again and again every which way possible, but you are a higher judge, you are a more clear minded authority than all the Christian scholars of all the ages. So I think the danger sign in somebody that’s headed toward apostasy is they want to render judgment on the Scripture that is independent of history and that is independent of Christian theology … I think it comes because the heart is so proud and so rebellious that it will deny what is patently obvious.”
Some will deny the truth regardless of the evidence. Dr. MacArthur goes on, “…all the Pharisees knew that Jesus rose from the dead. They knew that. They knew He rose from the dead because they bribed the Roman soldiers to lie and say somebody stole His body. So talk about ... ‘don’t confuse me with the facts.’ That’s the resolute hard-heartedness of an apostate who with all the right evidence makes the absolute wrong conclusion.”
The best thing that can happen in our churches is the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Generally, those who fall away tend to come from the “feel good” types of churches rather than from churches where the Scriptures are faithfully taught. When real believers know the Scriptures, and where there is growth, there is no danger of ultimately falling away, because growth in the Lord indicates saving faith. MacArthur continues, “Go to the Word of God and anchor yourself in the Word and those doubts will disappear … don’t let temptation turn into sin by making you doubt the things that are clearly promised and revealed in Scripture.”
I am very thankful for my church and my pastor, who knows the Truth, teaches the Truth, preaches the Truth, and lives the Truth. “…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32, NASB).
The document from which I have been quoting is entitled “When Believers Stop Believing: Portrait of an Apostate.” It is the transcript of a radio interview of well-known pastor and Bible teacher, Dr. John MacArthur. The entire interview can be found here. I would also recommend Dr. MacArthur’s series of sermons on “The Doctrines of Grace.” There are no “feel good” platitudes here – only solid teaching of the Truth.