Can a Genuine Christian Walk Away from the Faith?September 15, 2022 The Gospel
Sorting Out What Scripture Says in This Difficult Debate
The following is an e-mail exchange I had a number of years back with a Christian brother who had left our church. For the sake of confidentiality, I'll refer to him as “Drew”. The only editing I've done is removing details for the sake of confidentiality. I pray this conversation is helpful to anyone who has wrestled over these same issues:
“It has taken me a little while to compose my thoughts and address something that I have found concerning. This comes from a place of love and I hope it is taken that way. I have no idea how to begin this so I guess I will just jump into it and ask the Lord to guide me.
When you began the "Stuck-ness" series you started in Hebrews 6. I was happy that you did this as I think this can tell us a lot about why we can sometimes seem stagnant in our faith. We went through verses 11 and 12 then jumped to Timothy and Revelation. Then came back to Hebrews 5:11-12 and then 6:7-9. Towards the end you said that these versus can indicate to us that maybe we were never really "born again" but maybe we have superficially claimed Christ because our parents did or for some other reason. I agree with this as you more or less know my story. However, my intention here is not to give you a recap of what you taught on but rather what you left out, namely Hebrews 6:4-6:
"For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame."
The writer of Hebrews is warning us that spiritual stagnation can lead to us falling away from the faith. Not backsliding or going through a season of struggle but denying the Lord Jesus. There are several verses in the New Testament that warn against falling away and the repercussions of doing so but these verses shows clearly that this is speaking of the regenerate not the unregenerate. In the sermon it seems as though you intentionally left this out as you taught the verses before and after but nothing about verses 4-6 at all.
My main concern is that I feel that the Church is representing Calvinism or Reformed Theology over what Scripture is saying. Don't get me wrong I have a lot of love and respect for what Calvin and the other Reformers did, but their words and their ideas were not infallible. I believe that we are save by grace through faith and their is nothing that can separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus. There is nothing we can do to ever earn God's grace. However, if we deny Christ whether it be from a slow falling away or under immediate threat of death or persecution He was clear that He would deny us. I guess I mean to say that we cannot sin our way out of God's grace but if we choose to give it up after we have had the witness of the Holy Spirit in us then we know the end for us will be worse them those who never believed.
While I have much more to say about the ways the Church emphasis extra-biblical ideas over Scripture I think that teaching that a Bible believing, regenerate Christian cannot fall away from the faith is simply not Biblical. I believe Hebrews 6:4-6 shows that it can happen. Also throughout the New Testament we are told over and over again to continue in and hold fast to the Faith so that we do not fall away. Why would letters by the Apostles to Christians tell the Christian audience that they must hold fast to the faith and give consequences for not doing so if it is not possible for them to fall away? I think this can be a dangerous teaching.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
[As you'll see, a good portion of my response to Drew is based on the reasonable principle that we should interpret what is less clear in God's word in light of what is more or most clear in God's word, and not the other way around.]
Thank you so much for reaching out, brother. I sincerely appreciate your love for Scripture and your desire to encourage faithfulness in how we handle God's word. I'm glad you brought this concern to my attention.
Let me say upfront that I am always more than willing to get together in person and talk about any concerns you might have. That being said, I know sometimes written correspondence can be helpful in laying out ideas and taking time to think through the issues.
So let me try to summarize some of my thoughts in light of your note.
1. Including the passage you referenced. The reason I chose that main text of Hebrews 6:11, 12 is that it talks about the idea of "sluggishness" or "dullness". That keyword is the same reason I went back to verses 5:11, 12. The other passages from II Timothy and Revelation were tied in because of that similar theme. My goal was not to do an exhaustive study of Hebrews 5:11-6:12. Could I have included 6:4-6? Sure. But they are notoriously thorny, and often misunderstood verses. To include them in the study would require a careful explanation of what they are and are not saying. I believe such a lengthy digression would not have served the main point of the message. As you indicated, I did connect with that passage's flow of thought when I talked about the genuineness of one's salvation in 6:9. But understanding why I went there, requires an understanding of the broader topic of assurance and the new birth.
2. What is clearer. I believe God's word teaches in many passages, and in many ways, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:6) Paul also expresses the certainty of God's work in I Thessalonians 5:23–24... Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. Paul reassured the Corinthians in the very same way: ...you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Cor. 1:7, 8) This confidence was based on the words of Jesus himself in John 6:39–40... "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.” Indeed, those that God gives to Jesus are those that God draws to Jesus (John 6:44). And those that God draws to Jesus are those chosen by God, even "before the foundation of the world"; those "predestined... for adoption". (Ephesians 1:4, 5). Paul also speaks about those predestined in Romans 8:29–30... For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Clearly, neither we nor Paul's first readers have been "glorified" yet. But he can still speak as if it has already happened because, according to God's plan, it's already a settled matter. It will happen. Nothing can change that. The 'chain of salvation' Paul describes in those verses cannot be broken. Those chosen are also those whose names appear in the "Lamb's book of life", mentioned frequently in the Revelation (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 20:15; 21:27). It was a book written "before the foundation of the world" (13:8; 17:8), and those listed in the book will not only be spared on the Day of Judgment (20:15) and enter the New Jerusalem (21:27), but they also stand firm in the face of the Beast (13:8, 17:8)(and yes, the book still contains many, many encouragements to stand firm, to not give up or in). And there are many, many more verses like these, verses that paint a beautiful picture of God's power to save us and bring us all the way home.
3. What is less clear. It is in light of that strong testimony from Scripture we must consider a passage like Hebrews 6:4-6. At first glance, it does seem to say that a regenerate person can fall away, contradicting that strong testimony of God's preserving grace (preserving grace that manifests itself in perseverance). But we know God's word does not contradict itself. Therefore, what is clearer should cause us to dig deeper into what is less clear (that includes this passage and a few others from the New Testament). And when we do, I think we discover this passage is not saying what we thought it said (for a solid, full treatment of this difficult passage click here). Ultimately, I believe it is the language the writer uses here that trips us up (language meant to emphasize the incredible amount of 'light' some have received). But this same writer also demonstrates that he understands God's preserving (perseverance-inspiring) grace. This is an excerpt from my final message in the "Stuck" series (focusing on Hebrews 3:12):
“These first readers, the original recipients of this book, needed to understand the gravity of what was happening, both in their church community and in their own hearts. Remember what the author said about where a hardened heart will eventually take you? It can lead someone “to fall away from the living God”. If not addressed, if not dealt with, a hardened heart, full of unbelief, can lead to a permanent hardness in which someone walks away from the faith they once professed. This is why the author is pleading with his readers to consider their current spiritual heading.
Now, this kind of warning can be troubling for us, because it seems to contradict what we know about becoming a new creature in Christ. The New Testament is clear that Jesus will lose no one the Father gives to him (John 6:39). So how then can someone fall away from true faith? They can't. The author of Hebrews confirms that for us in verse 14. Look again at what he tells them and us: "For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end."
How can you tell if someone has truly “come to share in Christ”? They will not fall away, but instead, will “hold [his or her] original confidence firm to the end”. Now does God use warnings like this to spur them on, to encourage them to check their hearts, to sober true believers? Absolutely.
But if that's true, who are those who fall away? They are those who have confessed Christ, but don't truly know Him. Their falling away is not from true faith, but from professed faith, from the truth, and from the community of God's people.”
And in 6:9, when the author says, "we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation", he is also speaking of the perseverance that characterizes the true child of God.
4. The key question. Drew, I understand that you believe Scripture teaches a true believer can fall away; that a person who is born again, a new creature in Christ, and a child of God, born of imperishable seed, can somehow reverse or lose all that. But I believe that idea is soundly refuted by God's word. I believe that position should drive us to the point of asking, "Do I believe in a God who can save me from every threat, every evil, every temptation, every circumstance, every spiritual force that might seek to take me from his arms...including my own flesh, my own heart, my own sin nature?" I trust that God can and will save me, even from myself. If He can't, I'm not sure I would trust that kind of God.
5. Reformed theology. You mentioned in your note "the ways the Church emphasizes extra-biblical ideas over Scripture", and I believe that was in the context of Reformed theology. Clearly something like Reformed theology is not attempting to add things to Scripture, but clearly explain what God's word actually teaches. But, yes, if you disagree with those conclusions, I guess it would seem certain ideas are "extra-biblical". I would agree that many theological systems teach ideas that are not in the Bible. For example, many in the Reformed tradition teach infant baptism. I believe that is a practice not supported by God's word; that it is a misunderstanding of what God's word says about circumcision, the covenants, and baptism. So ultimately, no theological system is without error. That's why we must always go back to God's word, as I've tried to do throughout this note. Yes, Way of Grace does believe Reformed perspectives/interpretations of Scripture are some of the best out there in terms of faithfulness to the word. But we do not allow those perspectives keep us from checking everything against God's word.
Drew, I hope these thoughts have been helpful, brother. My sense is that you've been struggling with more than just that sermon on Hebrews 6. My sense is that you feel like Way of Grace may not ultimately align with some key ways you understand God's word and the Christian life. I may be mistaken about that.
Please know that it is always my privilege to work through any doctrinal issues where you feel I/we are mistaken. We love you guys and having all of you involved! But my desire is for you and your family to be fed and excited about what God is doing among us at Way of Grace. If you don't believe that's the case, then we want to work through those issues with you, or be supportive in your efforts to find fellowship elsewhere.
Again, I'd love to connect in person at any time. Please let me know what questions or thoughts you might have, brother.
Grateful again for you reaching out,
[This is an excerpt from an additional note that I sent to Drew, an excerpt I thought helped fill out my response to the broader conversation...]
“As I indicated in my first note, my broader concern with your "concern" is that it makes my salvation ultimately about my efforts. If it were possible for one of God's elect to fall away, then it would come down to my failure to keep my faith strong. Consolations about God's redemption would ultimately be conditional ("You are a child of God (cf. I John 3:2)... for as long as you stay focused"... "You have been transferred to the kingdom of God's beloved Son (Colossians 1:13)... at least until you let your doubts take over and you head back to the domain of darkness"... "You have been born again to a living hope (I Peter 1:3)... until such time as you undo that new birth through love for the world"). That simply isn't what Scripture teaches about new life. It gives us strong reassurances that salvation is God's work from start to finish. It helps us to rest from the mentality of self-effort in terms of both meriting and maintaining new life.
But we hold that in tension with the fact that God does call us to action, to focus, to run, to resist temptation, to meet together, to pray, etc. But we heed that call in light of his sustaining power, not our own. Paul expresses this dynamic beautifully in Philippians 2:12–13
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Should Christians be afraid that sin's influence can tear them from their heavenly Father? No. But they should be extremely sober-minded about sin's destructive effects in us and through us. And we must be extremely sober-minded about what ongoing, unrepentant worldliness and compromise might reveal about the genuineness of our salvation. As John made plain:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (I John 2:19)
Can we fall away from a professed relationship with God, a life of sacred service, and a position among his people? Yes. Can we fall away from our adoption as sons, from the new birth, from our election, from God's purposes for which Christ died? No.”