One area of disagreement among Christians concerns falling away from the faith, also known as apostasy. Some say that God will never allow a born-again believer to apostatize and finally end up in hell. Others say that this does sometimes happen.
Passages which seem to suggest that God never allows apostasy
There are certainly some biblical passages which most naturally seem to suggest that God never allows Christians to apostatize.
One of these is John 6:37-40, where Jesus teaches:
“37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 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. 40 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.”
(Scripture quotations in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
It is not easy to reconcile this passage with the view that God sometimes allows believers to fall away and lose salvation.
Another important text on this topic is Romans 8:29-30, where Paul writes:
“29 For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Again, it isn’t easy to interpret this passage in such a way that God would ever allow apostasy. For a discussion of this text, see my article: Does Romans 8:29-30 Prove That Genuine Christians Never Fall Away and Lose Salvation?
The two passages I have cited are probably the strongest pieces of biblical evidence for the view that God never allows apostasy, although there are other passages which might seem to point in this direction too.
Despite the existence of such texts, however, it is going too far to claim that any of them proves outright that God never allows Christians to apostatize. There is certainly some real biblical evidence for the view that apostasy is impossible, but it falls short of proof. And this evidence needs to be weighed against other evidence, something I will discuss below.
Passages that refer to God choosing Christians
Those who say that God never allows apostasy often point to Bible texts which tell us that God chooses or elects people for salvation. It is often said that God’s choice of a person is unconditional, and that it makes no sense for Him to choose someone unconditionally and then allow them to fall away.
The issue of God’s choosing people for salvation is actually a very controversial and difficult subject, and I don’t want to get into a long discussion of it here. However, it does seem right to understand God’s choice as having at least a large unconditional element to it.
Nevertheless, it is very doubtful that this amounts to proof that He never allows apostasy.
We should note especially 2 Peter 1:10, where Peter tells us:
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election . . .”
Note how Peter tells his readers to confirm their election, i.e., their being chosen by God. This most naturally suggests that situations might arise where Christians fail to do this. So Peter’s words here should caution us against rushing to use passages on election to prove that apostasy is impossible.
The argument appealing to the impossibility of being unborn
Another argument used by those who say that apostasy is impossible appeals to the biblical metaphor of birth found in John 1:13; 3:3-8; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18. The argument goes in this way:
These texts use the metaphor of being born to describe what happens to people when they become Christians and receive salvation. It is not possible for someone who has literally been born to become unborn. Therefore the fact that this metaphor was chosen to describe becoming a Christian shows that it is not possible to become spiritually unborn and lose salvation.
At first sight this argument might seem to carry considerable weight, but it is actually weak. Importantly, there is no reason to believe that every aspect of being born naturally must correspond to every aspect of being born spiritually. That would be to demand too much of the metaphor.
There are other biblical metaphors that will help to illustrate this point.
For example, in Matthew ; Mark and 1 Timothy 2:6 Jesus’ death is metaphorically described as a ransom for people. This is an excellent metaphor for illustrating what His death accomplished, but this metaphorical ransom doesn’t correspond to a literal ransom in every respect. A literal ransom has to be paid to someone. Yet if we ask to whom Jesus’ metaphorical ransom was paid, we are demanding too much of the metaphor. There is no one to whom Jesus’ ransom was paid.
The metaphor in Hebrews 12:1-2 describing the Christian life as a race is another case in point. Again, this is a great metaphor, but we must not demand too much from it. In a literal race we run against competitors. However, in the metaphorical race being described in this passage there are no competitors we run against.
Those who claim that the metaphor of new birth shows that Christians cannot apostatize are therefore using a weak argument. They are failing to take account of the limitations of metaphorical language. That it is impossible to be literally unborn does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to be spiritually unborn.
It is true that in 1 Peter the metaphor, more detailed than elsewhere, speaks of Christians being born again not of perishable seed but of imperishable seed. So we might wonder whether the imperishability of this seed means that it is not possible to apostatize.
The reference to imperishable seed in this verse does seem to imply that Christians have been granted imperishable life. Nevertheless, that still does not have to mean that apostasy is impossible. It could just mean that under normal circumstances – i.e., unless, exceptionally, a Christian apostatizes – this type of life will last forever, unlike natural life which will not.
I noted above that there are some biblical passages which most naturally seem to suggest that God never allows Christians to apostatize.
On the other hand, however, there are many passages where Christians are warned against apostasy. See, e.g., Matthew 10:22; 24:13; Mark 13:13; Luke 21:19; John 15:2, 6; Romans 11:17-22; 1 Corinthians 9:16, 24-27; 15:1-2; Colossians 1:21-23; 2 Timothy 2:12; Hebrews 2:1-3; 6:4-8; 10:26-31, 35-39; 12:15-17; James 5:19-20; 2 Peter 2:20-22; 1 John 5:16-17; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26-28; 3:5, 12, 21.
Many of those who say that God never allows apostasy claim that these passages are not directed to genuine, born-again believers. They say that they are in fact aimed at nominal Christians, who have never come to genuine faith in Christ.
This is a truly remarkable claim. Most of the passages in the above list are certainly directed to born-again Christians, and the others are at least very probably directed to them. And a number of other passages could be added to the list.
In reality, not only does the New Testament clearly warn genuine Christians against falling away and losing salvation, but this is a major New Testament theme. For some detailed arguments on this point, see my article: Biblical Warnings against Losing Salvation.
Thinking through the logic of the warning passages
Warnings against apostasy form such a prominent theme in Scripture, that many of those who say apostasy is impossible freely admit that these warnings exist.
Those who take this position claim that despite these warnings, God never actually allows anyone to fall away. They say that He uses the warnings as a means of keeping believers in the faith, and that He always makes sure that this means succeeds.
This would probably make sense if God didn’t allow Christians to fall away but they were unaware that He didn’t allow this. In this case, God could use the fear of what would happen if they fell away to spur believers on to remain in the faith, even though He would know that He wouldn’t allow them to fall away.
However, those who say that it is impossible for Christians to apostatize are almost always clear that believers should know that God will not allow them to apostatize. And they also – rightly – say that believers should have assurance that they are saved at the present time. (Genuine Christians do often struggle with assurance, but that is another issue.)
But if Christians know that they are currently saved and that God will not allow them to apostatize, the warning passages become extremely difficult to understand. If it is not possible for a Christian to fall away and finally be lost, these texts are warning us against doing something that we would know that God will never allow to happen.
Let me give a comparison. Suppose you went to an airport perimeter fence and saw the following sign:
WARNING! HUMAN BEINGS, DO NOT
GROW WINGS AND FLY UPWARDS
OR YOU MAY HIT AN AIRCRAFT.
If we saw a sign like this, we would think that someone was trying to make a joke. We couldn’t possibly take it seriously as a warning, because we know that the thing we are warned against cannot possibly happen. But if Christians know that God will never allow any believer to apostatize, this hypothetical warning at an airport is closely similar to the biblical warnings against losing salvation. Both would involve warnings against things that we know cannot happen.
Personally, I find it unlikely that we are supposed to think that the Bible frequently warns Christians against doing something that they know God will never allow to happen. Instead, I prefer the view that these warnings exist because God does sometimes allow born-again Christians to apostatize.
In my opinion, this is the most important aspect to this topic. It is true, as I have said, that some biblical passages most naturally seem to suggest that God never allows apostasy. And these are difficult for the view that He does allow it. But for me it is significantly more difficult to suppose that Scripture is full of warnings to Christians not to do something that they know God would never allow to happen. So I think that He probably does at times allow Christians to fall away from the faith and lose salvation.
Salvation would be lost by losing faith
If it is correct that Christians do at times fall away and lose salvation, we need to be clear that this would happen by losing saving faith and not by a failure to perform good deeds.
When someone is first saved, it is not because they have earned their salvation but simply because they have received the gift of salvation by faith. Similarly, when a Christian continues in a state of being saved, it is not by earning the right to remain saved but by continuing to have saving faith.
It is true that saving faith is always expressed in good deeds (see, e.g., James -26). The two things always go hand in hand. But it is the faith and not the deeds that is the means of salvation. So if losing salvation is possible, it would be caused by losing saving faith, not by a failure to perform good deeds.
Falling away is not easy to do
If it is true that Christians do at times apostatize, this is surely not something that is easy to do. To fall away, we would need to make a conscious decision to walk away from trusting in Christ. Or we would need to allow ourselves to drift further and further away from Him over a period of time until our faith ceases to be meaningful. Neither of these things would happen easily.
We must remember too that God has committed Himself to His children. He has not only saved us, but He works to keep us in the faith. And we can be sure that He does enough and far more than enough for us to be able to stay saved.
We should therefore never feel that the danger of losing salvation is lurking over us menacingly. We are surely much more secure than that.
Dangers of believing that apostasy is impossible
If it is possible for Christians to fall away from the faith, it should be obvious that failing to recognize this possibility might at times be dangerous. It could lead some believers to make poor decisions that endanger their salvation.
I would also suggest that the belief that apostasy is impossible is one of the main reasons why there are so many weak and lukewarm Christians in the church. Many think that because God would never take His salvation away from them, they might as well take a laid back approach to their Christian living.
By contrast, those who think that God does at times allow apostasy are often much more motivated in their Christian walk.
That is not to say that belief in the possibility of apostasy should motivate Christians to try to earn their right to remain saved. But if someone thinks that they could fall away, it is easy to see why they will be motivated to continue in the faith.
Some personal testimony
There is one final thing that I would like to mention, which includes something of my own experience. Many years ago, when I was a young Christian, there was a time when I was terrified of losing salvation and ending up in hell, and I suffered really badly in this way. Since I couldn’t know the future, and I couldn’t trust myself to make the decisions that would be necessary to remain in the faith, how could I be sure of ultimate salvation?
God released me from this fear, however. Today, even though I still don’t know the future and I still can’t trust myself to make the right decisions, I have a confidence that I will end up in heaven.
The kind of fear I have of losing salvation today is not an anxiety or terror. It is similar to the fear of what would happen if I walked too close to the edge of a cliff-top – an awareness of horrible consequences that I can avoid unless I make a conscious decision to do something really stupid. Even though technically and logically it could be possible for me to fall away, I believe that God will preserve me and keep me for His eternal kingdom.
I think those Christians who have a keen awareness of the danger of losing salvation that the Bible seems to portray are paradoxically actually very secure in salvation. I think it is those who believe that because they have been born again they therefore cannot finally be lost, who are at times more likely to be in some danger of falling away.