Can a Genuine Christian Backslide?
It was a profound, shame-inducing moment, one I had coming, but one God used as embers that would eventually grow into a flame of spiritual awakening.
I was a 21-year-old sports journalist/college student working for a daily newspaper in the Atlanta area, not far from my hometown in the north Georgia mountains. I arrived to cover the baseball game just moments before the first pitch. It was Sunday afternoon. As I hustled to prepare my scorecard and situate my pre-internet era laptop and other necessary accoutrements, a colleague arrived at his seat next to mine in the press box. I was wearing a coat and tie—atypical attire for one about watch a baseball game in the Peach State in July.
“Man, why are you so dressed up?” he asked. “You look like you’ve been to church or something.”
“I have been to church,” I said. “I went to worship service this morning at First Baptist.”
He looked confused. “Huh? That’s a shocker. I’ve never taken you for the religious kind. You mean you’re a Christian? I’ve never seen that in you.”
His words, spoken matter-of-factly, left me feeling as if I’d grabbed onto a high-voltage wire. I spent all nine innings of that game thinking more about hypocrisy than homers. My Christian witness had taken a called third strike. Actually, it had never left the dugout. I was humiliated, not because he had failed to see my obvious piety, but because my life did not match what he rightly expected to see from a follower of Jesus Christ. It was the first time I had been to church in three years. He was right; there was no evidence that I was a Christian. Sadly, this was not a new development.
I had grown up in church, made a profession of faith at 10, and walked with the Lord until age 17. My family was in church Sunday morning for Sunday school and corporate worship, Sunday night for training union, Monday night for choir practice, Tuesday night for outreach, and Wednesday night for prayer meeting and Royal Ambassadors. I was an officer in FCA, a leader in my youth group, a mediocre but eager singer in youth choir. But the summer before my senior year of high school, my affections began to change. My heart grew cold toward Jesus and His church. When I graduated from youth group, I left church too. A private detective couldn’t have located my Bible.
I began to go places no Christian should. I hung with people whose rebellion didn’t trouble their consciences—I had friends in low places. I joined a rock n’ roll band; this was the mid-80s, the so-called “decade of decadence,” so you know what that meant … For a number of years, I lived the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. Jesus was out. Judas Priest was in. Though my time in the band was somewhat short-lived (Thankfully, God didn’t give me enough musical talent to play hair metal!), my time as a prodigal was not, and if being a Christian would’ve been a crime, no honest judge would’ve found me guilty. I was a Christian, but I was deeply backslidden, out of church, intentionally cut off from the vital means of grace that nourishes a baby Christian into mature adulthood.
After Darkness, Light
Mercifully, the sovereign hound of heaven trailed me in the middle of my rebellion. I sinned boldly, but I didn’t enjoy a nanosecond of my hedonism. The indwelling Spirit of God convicted me time and again. One night I returned home from a bar in Athens, Georgia, and lay awake all night sweating, thinking about the reality of hell, hearing Jesus’s words in Matthew 13:50, “and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Other Scripture verses learned in VBS, youth group, and in my home, warred with my mind regularly for months upon end—and one night I awoke in a sweat from a nightmare that I was being dragged to hell by a Satanic minion dressed like a black-hooded executioner. Once during a rock concert in Atlanta, I told a friend, “We really shouldn’t be here. The things we’re doing aren’t right.” He thought I needed another beer. I needed to come home to Jesus—and I knew it. Thirty years later, I’m convinced God was at work in my heart. Eventually, through a series of personal and biblical conversations with my older brother, my parents, and our pastor, the Lord drew me back to Himself and granted me repentance that left me weeping for hours over my sin, then rejoicing for weeks over the burden of guilt being lifted. At 22, the prodigal had returned to his Father.
But what happened? Did I lose my salvation during my late teenage years, only to regain it as a young adult? Some might think so, but I don’t. Scripture is clear that nothing can pluck a genuine believer from the hand of God (John 10:27-29)—not sin, not death, not Twisted Sister. Chapter 17, section 3 of the Second London Confession captures five years of my young life with stunning, glorious accuracy:
And though they may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins, and for a time continue therein, whereby they incur God’s displeasure and grieve his Holy Spirit, come to have their graces and comforts impaired, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded, hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves, yet shall they renew their repentance and be preserved through faith in Christ Jesus to the end.
Simultaneously Saints and Sinners
As I believe my prolonged foray into hedonism demonstrates, it’s possible for a genuine Christian to sin grievously, to spend a season away from the Lord, and later return—drawn by sovereign grace back to the Father whose Son saved him before he ran away to a remote country. Scripture demonstrates this clearly.
Think first of David, Israel’s greatest king. The youngest and most unimpressive of Jesse’s sons, God chose David to lead his covenant people. David was a poet, a warrior, a musician, a shepherd, a lover of sound doctrine, an adulterer, a schemer, a murderer.
David seemed to be a good man—until he slept with another man’s wife, the affair leaving the adulteress, Bathsheba, great with child. Then David connived to make her husband, one of the most courageous and committed soldiers in the king’s army, think he had impregnated his wife while on a weekend furlough. It didn’t work, so David’s machinations turned deadly—he had the soldier, Uriah, intentionally killed in battle. Yet, in Psalm 51 we read of David’s incredible, gut-wrenching confession, and his dramatic repentance before God. As he does toward all penitent sinners, God had mercy on David, even calling Jesus the final David, the sinless king and Savior of sinners.
Think of Peter. Don’t you praise the Lord for Peter’s presence in the New Testament? Peter was one of God’s choicest servants, but he was a bit of a character. So zealous (and misguided) was he for the Savior, Peter cut off a soldier’s ear when he perceived they had arrived to arrest the Lord of glory. But Peter’s devotion was bipolar. He could be rash, petulant, even unwise and chicken-hearted. On the night of the Lord’s crucifixion, he denied Jesus, not once, but three times, even cowering at the feet of a pre-teen girl who accused him of following Jesus. In the shadow of violent Calvary, Peter wanted nothing to do with the Christ. But God inspired the rest of the story. Our Lord interceded for Peter (Luke 22:32). He repented, was restored (John 21:15-19), wrote two epistles, and was preaching when the Spirit came in fullness at Pentecost. Tradition says he ultimately laid down his life for the cause of Christ—being crucified upside down because he was unworthy to be put to death in the manner of Jesus. Peter went away, but because he was one of Christ’s sheep, he returned.
By contrast, think of Judas. He betrayed the Lord into the hands of the authorities—just as God planned before time began (Acts 2:23). Jesus called him the “son of perdition” who fell away as prophesied by Scripture (John 17:12). Some theologians and theologies argue that Judas proves the possibility of final apostasy by a genuine believer, but that’s simply not the case. Scripture makes clear that Christ’s betrayer was a reprobate from the beginning, not a sincere follower of Christ who threw off effectual grace and walked his own path to destruction.
In his 1801 work, The Backslider: His Nature, Symptoms, and Recovery, Andrew Fuller distinguished between two different types of backsliders, a Judas and a Peter. The Parable of the Sower helps distinguish them:
Like the blossoms of spring, they for a time excited our hopes; but a blight has succeeded; the blossom has gone up as the dust, and the root in many cases appears to be rottenness.
Fuller encouraged pastors to strengthen the diseased and to bind up the broken and preach and teach in such a way to deepen the roots of the seed that has taken root in shallow soil. He said there are different types of backsliders, some, like Judas, were never saved, others, like Peter, will return. Gratefully, I was like Peter. As Fuller writes, God used my own wickedness to strike terror into my heart and used it as a means of drawing me back to himself.
All backsliding from God originates in a departure of heart from him … Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee. Know, therefore, and see, that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou has forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord of hosts. But the degrees of this sin, and the modes in which it operates, are various.
But how can it be that a disciple of Christ can fall prey to any of the members of the unholy trinity Scripture sets forth as the world, the flesh, and the devil? Luther’s famous theological formulation simul justus et peccator—simultaneously a saint and a sinner—is pertinent here. The Christian is just that—a redeemed sinner, who remains in a struggle with indwelling sin until death or the return of Christ. But a genuine follower of Christ will persevere to the end, even if his or her walk with Christ takes a side road for a season.
Final Apostasy—Big Deal or Not?
What about the doctrine of the final apostasy of genuine believers? Is it a secondary doctrine on which Christians may “agree to disagree” without much being lost in the details? It is far more dangerous to reject this doctrine than perhaps first meets the eye. Like the house that sits on an old, crumbling foundation, rejection of perseverance renders unstable many other critical doctrines that rely on it as a solid foundation.
If genuine believers can lose their salvation and be cast away forever, consider the collateral damage to other biblical doctrines:
Election and Predestination
If God chose His people in Christ before the foundation of the world, is it possible for those same people to then “unchoose” themselves? No matter one’s view of election, final apostasy seems to render meaningless Scripture’s teaching on God’s eternal predestining of a people. Even if one holds to election based solely on foreknowledge, final apostasy seems to make God unreliable at best.
According to Mark 10:45, Christ gave His life as a ransom for many. Jesus bore God’s wrath we deserved so He could buy us back from the curse of the law. If a ransomed one can be finally lost, doesn’t that then mean that the ransom price paid was not enough to actually purchase its intended product—the eternal salvation of God’s people? Final apostasy also seems to undermine the substitutionary nature of the atonement, since Christ was condemned in the place of His people. This view would seem to indicate that due to an exercise of their free will some of God’s people have once again fallen under condemnation with their sins no longer covered by the sacrifice of the substitute—even though they were once covered through the blood of Christ.
Justification by Faith
Justification is a legal declaration that says because of faith in Christ’s work on the cross, one is no longer guilty, positionally or legally, before God. Final apostasy seems to undermine God’s verdict and re-establish guilty charges against those who were exonerated by faith in Christ. This view mangles the foundational Reformation truth of sola fide.
Indwelling (or Sealing) of the Holy Spirit
In Ephesians 1:13-14, Paul describes believers as those who have been “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” It seems that a doctrine of final apostasy undermines Paul’s teaching of the Spirit given as a down payment guaranteeing salvation. If salvation can be lost, then the guarantee is meaningless, as is the down payment. And yes, we can grieve the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), but can we evict him? Scripture never says that.
Promises of God
In John 10, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand … and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” Also, Philippians 1:6 promises that God will complete the work He begins in His people, and the glorious passage in Romans 8:31-39 promises that nothing can separate the believer from the love of God. But how comforting are these promises if we can, as some argue, remove ourselves from Christ’s hand or circumvent the work God has begun in us? In what way do they remain as promises? If these promises are not true, doesn’t that undermine the very Word of God? Can we trust a God who is unable to keep His promises from being undone by the power of human choice? Is the will of man stronger than the will of God?
Intercessory Work of Christ
If Christ lives to intercede for us as Hebrews and Romans 8 contend and as John 17 and Luke 22 demonstrate, then in what meaningful way can we trust His prayers if He does not get what he prays for? If Christ prays that we will be kept as in John 17 and those prayers are frustrated, then it would seem to undermine both His intercessory work and His infallibility—Christ prays and then hopes His prayers will be answered and that we will remain in the faith, but our future salvation remains uncertain.
Preservation of the Saints
Inextricably linked to perseverance (and Christ’s intercession) is preservation. First Peter 1:3-5 contains a beautiful promise of God’s preserving grace for His redeemed people: “He has caused us to be born again … to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation to be revealed in the last time.” If God is guarding our inheritance in heaven, then to assert that free will can lead one to lose his or her salvation seems to exalt the power of man and denigrate the power of God, not to mention what it means for Peter’s language describing the inheritance as “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” Those words seem to ring with an empty note if it is possible for human beings to give away their inheritance.
No doubt, there are many additional implications for the denial of this doctrine, but these are a few of the most devastating consequences that show how crucial the doctrine of final perseverance is for Christian theology. If my reasoning is fully biblical, then it would seem that perseverance of the saints is anything but a tertiary matter. If the foundation crumbles, how can the building stand? Let us preach, teach, and defend this doctrine as a critical part of the entire soteriological structure. Surely children of grace can do this winsomely, even when they do so without apology.
Persevering Grace, How Sweet the Sound!
It is simply not possible to express, in mere words, the depth of my thankfulness to God that He gives persevering grace to His saints, even His prodigal sons. If it’s possible to forfeit salvation, I surely would have done it during those young years of wandering far from the fold of God. But, as James 4 puts is so simply, God gives more grace.
By no means should my testimony or these doctrinal insights encourage a backslider to remain “as is” and presume on the grace of God that one day he or she will repent and return to a state in which they will enjoy his love and mercy. That’s not my story and it’s the story of neither David nor Peter. But prodigal sons (and daughters) should be encouraged that God will love His elect children all the way into eternity because He is guarding their inheritance that is laid up in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy, where thieves can never break in and steal (1 Peter 4:5-6; Matthew 6:19-21).
Paragraph 3 of Chapter XVII of the Second London Confession