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.
Personally, I prefer the latter view. I admit that there are some biblical passages which most naturally appear to suggest that God never allows anyone to apostatize. And a couple of these texts strongly seem to support this view. But to my mind the counter evidence carries more weight. There are many texts which strongly seem to imply that Christians do sometimes fall away and lose salvation.
Two groups of those who say no one falls away
Those Christians who say that God never allows genuine believers to fall away can be divided into two broad categories.
First, there are those who deny that the New Testament contains warnings to genuine Christians not to fall away and lose salvation.
And second, there are those who agree that the NT does contain warnings to genuine Christians not to fall away and lose salvation.
Those in this second group claim that despite these warnings, God never actually allows anyone to apostatize. 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. Paradoxically, in this view, Christians are warned against doing something that they know God will not allow to happen.
My aim in this article
In this article my focus is not specifically on whether God does ever allow genuine Christians to fall away from the faith. I am not going to try to refute the position of the second group that I just mentioned.
I have to say, however, that I doubt that their position makes sense. It seems to me that if people are warned against doing something they know God will not allow to happen, then the warnings would cease to be warnings and biblical passages become nonsensical. Anyway, this isn’t something that I want to discuss in this article. For a discussion of this topic, see my article: Does God Ever Allow Born-Again Christians to Fall Away and Lose Salvation?
In the present article my goal is to refute the view of the first group I mentioned in the previous section, those who claim that the NT doesn’t contain warnings against apostasy.
This is a truly remarkable claim. In reality, not only does the NT clearly warn Christians against falling away from the faith, but this is a major NT theme.
To state the matter precisely, in the NT there are many passages where genuine, born-again, saved Christians are warned that if they fall away from the faith, they will lose salvation and end up in hell.
In what follows, my aim will be to prove this point from Scripture. And my method will simply be to cite some of the key passages and then comment on them.
Let’s turn, then, to see what Scripture has to say on this issue.
(Scripture quotations in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
Matthew 10 and 24, and Mark 13
In Matthew 10:22; 24:13 and Mark 13:13, while teaching about persecution of Christians, Jesus states:
“But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
The salvation in view in this saying is surely salvation from the penalty of sin, i.e., from hell. Not only is this the most common kind of salvation referred to in the NT, but nothing else even remotely fits the context in any of these verses. Jesus can’t be talking about being saved from death, not least because in the context of each passage we find the martyrdom of Christians (Matthew ; 24:9; Mark ). Nor is He referring to being saved from suffering persecution, because it is precisely the one who endures persecution who will be saved.
It is true that in these verses salvation is portrayed as something future. However, this is not a problem for understanding the salvation as salvation from the penalty of sin. The Bible refers to the salvation of Christians from sin’s penalty variously as something that has happened in the past, as something that is continuing during this life, and as something that will be completed in the future. Here the future aspect of being finally, completely saved from hell at death or the return of the Lord is in view.
We must note too that these verses have to be referring to genuine Christians, because those without a genuine faith would not be given a promise of being saved from sin’s penalty by enduring.
“To the end” could mean either to the end of the age or to the end of whatever period of persecution the Christians in view suffer. Regardless of which of these options is correct, however, Jesus is clearly implying that if these Christians do not endure to this end, they will not be saved.
This repeated saying of Jesus, then, stands as a warning to genuine Christians not to make poor decisions and thereby lose salvation.
In Romans 11:17-22 Paul tells the Gentile Christians among his readers:
“17 But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, 18 do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.
19 Then you will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’
20 That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you.
22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.”
In this passage each Gentile Christian is pictured as a branch of a wild olive tree which has been grafted into an already existing cultivated olive tree (v. 24).
Those Gentiles Paul is addressing here are certainly genuine Christians, not just nominal Christians. There are at least three reasons for this:
First, the cultivated olive tree must represent the saved people of God. Nothing else would make any sense in the context of chap. 11. It is therefore not possible that Gentiles who have only superficially accepted Jesus could ever be regarded as grafted into the tree.
Second, “you stand fast through faith” in v. 20 has to be referring to genuine Christians.
Third, in v. 22 Paul clearly implies that his readers must continue in God’s kindness to avoid experiencing His severity. Only genuine Christians would be given a promise of remaining in God’s kindness by continuing as they already are.
We should be in no doubt, then, that the ingrafted branches Paul refers to in this passage are genuinely saved Christians.
And these genuine Christians are clearly warned against losing salvation. In verses 20-21 they are told to fear lest they become proud and are cut off from the olive tree. And v. 22 makes a very similar point.
This passage therefore clearly warns born-again Christians to continue in the faith so as not to lose salvation.
1 Corinthians 9
In 1 Corinthians Paul says about himself and his ministry:
“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
The forceful word “woe” shows that Paul is thinking about some catastrophic event potentially happening to himself. The most natural interpretation is that he is contemplating losing salvation and failing to enter heaven if he makes the wrong decisions.
Similarly, a few verses later in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, he states:
“24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
The Christian life in this passage is compared to a sporting contest. Most naturally, winning a wreath represents gaining final salvation (at death or the return of the Lord) and disqualification represents a failure to gain final salvation.
This interpretation is made all but certain by Paul’s use of irony. When he talks about a potential outcome in which he, having preached to others, is disqualified, he is surely implying that this outcome would be ironic. Because his preaching is something that results in others being saved, the irony would make most sense if the disqualification is Paul’s own failure to achieve final salvation.
Almost certainly, then, in these passages in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul, who is obviously a genuine Christian, is saying that he is in potential danger of losing salvation if he makes the wrong decisions.
It is true that Paul is speaking about himself here. Nevertheless, he is doubtless presenting what might happen to himself as a warning of what could happen to the Corinthians if they were to make similar wrong decisions. We can add that because Paul’s words are inspired, this warning is given to all later Christians too.
1 Corinthians 15
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Paul tells the church in
“1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
In this passage Paul warns his readers that they need to hold fast the message that he proclaimed to them if they are to remain saved. He must have genuine, born-again Christians in mind, because superficial believers would not be given the promise of salvation by holding fast to what they have received.
It is important to understand too that when Paul talks about believing in vain here, he is not referring to defective believing. When someone does something in vain, it is not that they don’t do that thing properly. It is just that that thing doesn’t lead to the desired result.
For example, if I search for something in vain, my searching is genuine. It is just that I don’t find what I am looking for. Similarly, when Paul talks about the Corinthians believing in vain, he is thinking of a situation where the genuine faith they had to begin with will ultimately not benefit them because they fail to hold fast the message.
This passage, then, stands as a clear warning against falling away from the faith and losing salvation.
In Colossians 1:21-23 Paul tells the church in
“21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel . . .”
There are two reasons why Paul must be referring to genuine, saved Christians in this passage.
First, these people have been reconciled (v. 22). This can only mean that they have been reconciled to God by having their sins forgiven.
And second, he says that if they continue in the faith they will be presented before Christ holy and blameless and above reproach. This presentation is surely a reference to being admitted finally to heaven. And only genuine Christians would be given a promise of reaching heaven if they continue as they are.
So these are genuine Christians. And in v. 23 Paul promises them final salvation if they continue in the faith. But he is clearly implying too that if they don’t continue, they will not reach final salvation.
This passage is therefore another that stands as a clear warning against falling away from the faith and losing salvation.
In Hebrews 6:4-6 the writer warns:
“4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
Those who have shared in the Holy Spirit can surely only be people who are genuinely born again. In Ephesians the Spirit is said to be the one who seals, i.e., marks in a significant way, Christians for salvation, and the author of Hebrews is surely referring to genuine Christians in this passage.
There is a clear warning here, then, for genuine Christians of the dangers of apostasy.
In Hebrews 10:26-29 the author states:
“26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?”
The references to judgment, fire, punishment and there no longer remaining a sacrifice for sins have to mean that punishment in hell is in view here.
Furthermore, the reference to being sanctified by the blood of the covenant in v. 29 quite strongly suggests that genuine Christians are in view. It is much more difficult to think that the author has in mind superficial Christians who are only potentially sanctified by the blood of the covenant, but who have not personally taken hold of that sanctification.
This passage, then, should be seen as a warning to genuine Christians that if they apostatize, they will lose final salvation.
2 Peter 2
In 2 Peter 2:20-22 Peter refers to a certain group of people in this way:
“20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.’ ”
Escaping the defilements of the world through the knowledge of Christ here surely involves being genuinely saved. It is very difficult to believe that a superficial interest in the Christian faith that didn’t result in salvation would be described in this way. Similarly, the fact that the sow is said to have washed fits very poorly with the idea that the proverb is referring to a superficial faith that never involved forgiveness of sins.
So Peter is referring in these verses to people who have genuinely experienced salvation. And he says that their final condition is worse than their initial condition. This has to mean that things for them are worse than before they had the saving knowledge of Christ. So their last condition must involve being unsaved. The dog returning to its vomit and the sow returning to the mire surely symbolize something very similar.
By far the most natural way of interpreting this passage, then, is as a warning to genuine Christians against losing salvation.
Revelation 2 and 3
In Revelation 2-3 the risen Christ gives Christians in the seven churches promises that are conditional on their overcoming.
Revelation 2:7 promises eating of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.
Revelation promises not being hurt by the second death.
Revelation promises being given hidden manna, a white stone and a new name.
Revelation 2:26-28 promises being given authority over the nations and the morning star.
Revelation 3:5 promises being clothed in white garments, not having one’s name blotted out of the book of life, and having one’s name confessed before God and the angels.
Revelation promises being made a pillar in the
and having God’s name, the name of templeof God and Jesus’ name written on them. Jerusalem
Revelation promises sitting with Jesus on His throne.
Although these promises vary, they all surely refer to various aspects of what it will mean to reach heaven and escape hell.
Importantly, there is a clear implication that the person who does not overcome in each case will not receive the promises mentioned. Importantly too, these promises are addressed to all the members of the congregations, and each congregation would certainly have included some who were genuinely born-again Christians. So these verses doubtless stand in part as warnings to genuine Christians of the danger of losing salvation if they do not overcome.
We can note especially the promise to the church in
in 3:5 that the one
who overcomes will not have their name blotted out of the book of life. It is
difficult to believe that people who are only superficial Christians would ever
have their names written in the book of life. It makes much more sense to think
that those who are written in that book are genuinely saved. Sardis
There is therefore all the more reason to think that Revelation 3:5 is a warning to genuine Christians of the danger of losing salvation.
I will end my list at this point, although it could be extended much further with texts from a wide range of NT books. We have seen enough to make it perfectly clear that the Bible contains numerous warnings to genuine, saved Christians not to fall away from the faith and thereby miss out on final salvation. Those who deny this are simply not acknowledging what the Bible says.
As I said at the outset, it is not my intention in this article to discuss whether God does ever actually allow Christians to fall away and lose salvation. I think He probably does, but I don’t want to get into a long analysis of that whole topic here. In this article I am simply pointing out that the Bible contains many warnings against losing salvation. No one should be in any doubt about this.
The responsibility of church leaders
Given that this is a common theme in Scripture, church leaders should be careful to include warnings of this kind when teaching their flocks. I can’t speak for churches in other parts of the world, but where I live I have only rarely heard leaders warn Christians in this way.
I think there will be several reasons for this. Some leaders don’t believe that it is possible for a genuine Christian to fall away from the faith and therefore think that warnings against this are inappropriate. Others avoid this subject because it is controversial. And others might simply not want to frighten Christians by talking about the possibility of falling away.
None of these reasons is legitimate. Church leaders need to fear God, not what people might think of them. And they need to do their best to fit their ministries around what is found in Scripture – all Scripture, not just parts of it.
Warning Christians that in order to reach heaven they need to continue in fruit-bearing faith until they die or the Lord returns is a major theme in Scripture. It should therefore form a basic part of Christian teaching in all churches.