Can truly born-again believers drift permanently away from their relationship with the Lord, or are they eternally secure?
Let’s look at some key, representative verses from both sides of the debate. One side says any believer, whether shallow or truly born again, can drift away. They believe in security, but only on the condition that all believers remain firm in the faith, standing on God’s secure foundation.
The other side says that the truly born again can never drift away because God sustains them. They are eternally secure. Only the shallow or false believers who also belong to the Christian community leave the faith. They were never saved in the first place.
1.. The Bible teaches the security of the true believer
Ps. 37:23-24 says that the LORD makes firm the steps of those who delight in the LORD; if the man stumbles, he will not fall, because the LORD upholds him with his hand. This appears like eternal security because the LORD safeguards the believer in his hand, even during tough times. However, those who teach possible apostasy note the condition of delighting in the LORD. In other words, one must delight in the LORD, and then the believer will not fall away out of own (weakening) free will.
The entirety of Ps. 121 (eight verses) promises that the LORD will watch over Israel, and nothing shall harm this nation. But the bulk of the nation did fall away, so they were not true believers. Only the true believers remained in the covenant. This proves that God knows his elect. On the other side, the warning still assumes potential falling away of everyone who does not maintain his faith. Humans have a role to play—keeping their faith intact. And it is possible that anyone could lose faith, even truly born-again believers.
Ps. 145:20 says that the LORD watches over everyone who loves him but destroys the wicked. This seems to teach eternal security, but those who teach possible apostasy claim that the condition is maintaining one’s love for the LORD.
John 6:37 says that whom the Father gives to Jesus will come to him, and the Son of God will not drive them away. Of course the teachers who say it is possible to drift say that Jesus won’t drive his disciples away, but the individual truly born-again believer can drift on his own.
John 10:27-29 shows Jesus saying that his sheep hear his voice, and no one can snatch them out of his hands.
Rom. 8:35-39 asks the question: who can separate believers from the love of Christ? Then the verses list all the troubles that Christian can encounter; even death or life or angels or demons nor anything in creation can succeed in separating true believers from his love. In fact, true believers are more than conquerors (v. 37). Those verses teach strong eternal security, but the one thing that they omit is the faith of the truly born-again believer, and sometimes it weakens so much that he drifts away from a personal relationship with Christ. For those who teach possible apostasy, it is not so much leaving a state or condition, but a relationship with Christ.
1 Cor 1:8 is a reassuring promise, because it says that the Lord will keep them firm to the end, so that they will be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (his coming).
Phil. 1:6 and 1 Pet. 1:4-5 say that God will keep believers until the last day. And those who teach eternal security claim that God is the foundation of the believers’ persisting in the faith. On the other side. those who teach possible apostasy agree that God is the foundation of a secure relationship, but sometimes born-again believers sometimes just walk off the foundation, after much enticements and inducements, and then he exercises his free will.
2 Thess. 3:3 promises that the Lord will protect believers from the evil one. And 1 John 5:18 says that anyone born of God does not continue to sin, and Jesus, who was born of God, keeps the believer safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. These are great promises, and because no outside evil being can deflect the true believer off his course and his relationship with God. However, even a truly born-again believer can just give up and walk away from his relationship with God.
2 Tim. 1:12 show Paul reminding Timothy Paul was suffering, but this is no cause for shame, because Paul knows that God will guard what he has entrusted to him, until “that day,” or the second coming (or possibly his death). Paul was strong in his faith, so he would not fall away. But other truly born-again believers might weaken in their faith and drift, as Demas did, who abandoned Paul because of the former’s love of the world (3:10). If Demas was not truly born again, then why did Paul choose him? Was Paul so spiritually obtuse that he could not detect Demas’s shallowness? Since he associated with Paul, it is probable that he exercised some gifts, like his Spirit-inspired prayer language (archaically known as ‘tongues’). It is more likely that Demas was truly born-again, but simply left after being enticed by the world.
Heb. 10:32-38 is a long and great passage about the original readers of the epistle who suffered persecution, like imprisonment, public exposure and confiscation of property. Then in v. 36 the writer tells them to persevere (persist or “hang in there”), so that when they do the will of God they will receive what was promised, namely the coming of the Lord. And v. 38 says that the righteous live by faith, and the Lord takes no pleasure in those who shrink back. And so v. 39 says that the readers did not shrink back and were destroyed, but they had faith and were saved. Those who teach eternal security claim that God sustained those who were truly born again, while the shallow believers potentially could fall away or apostatize. On the other hand, those who teach possible apostasy of truly born-again believers claim that the warning is for everyone, the shallow and the true. It is possible for true believers to fall away.
2.. The Bible teaches apostasy of the true believer
1 Tim. 1:19-20 says that some have rejected faith and a good conscience and have suffered shipwreck of their faith, like two men, Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom Paul handed over to Satan, to be taught not to blaspheme. Those who teach eternal security claim that these men were not truly born again, while those who teach the potential of falling away may agree these men were not truly born again, but the others in Ephesus to whom Timothy was ministering were surely truly born again, or was no one truly born again? Paul’s warning was for the whole Christian community, whether the shallow or the truly born again. Therefore anyone can drift away from the faith and relationship with the Lord.
1 Tim. 6:10 and 21 teach that some have fallen away, for the love of money (v. 10) and special (false) knowledge. As noted in the previous point, Paul was issuing this warning to everyone in the Christian community; therefore, anyone can drift away. On the other side, those who teach eternal security conclude that anyone who fell away back in the first century had a shallow faith and were not truly born again.
2 Tim. 3:16-19 say that two teachers were part of the Christian community and departed from the truth and taught falsehoods (the resurrection had already taken place) and destroyed the faith of some. Nonetheless, Paul proclaims that God’s foundation stands firm, and believers are sealed with the inscription that “the Lord knows those who are his” and “everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.” Teachers of eternal security say that truly born-again believers stand firm on God’s secure foundation, while the shallow who were not truly born again wander off. On the other side, those who teach the possibility of apostasy say that the condition of remaining a Christian is to turn away from wickedness (v. 19). Sometimes the truly born again will wander towards the false teachings, like the ones who believed the false teachers.
Some verses seem to teach eternal security, while others assume that every believer could potentially fall away.
So it looks like your interpretation of these verses depends on your starting point. If you assume that only shallow believers fall away, while the truly born again do not, then you will impose this template, even if the evidence warns all believers against apostasy.
On the other hand, if your starting point is that every believer could potentially fall away and shallow believers are the most susceptible to do this, then you will interpret verses in that way.
My suggestion is that we should not get bogged down with these verbal disputes that can never be completely resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Therefore I hope we develop our relationship with the Father in Jesus’s name and through the power of the Spirit.
For John 15:1-6 and Heb. 3:12-14; 6:1-9, see the related post:
How can I be assured of my salvation?
Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams, who believes in the possibility of apostasy, writes: “Our security is not in ourselves, but in God. Moreover, there is no earthly security that begins to compare with it. ‘Salvation belongs to our God’ (Rev. 7:10), and we are totally secure in Him” (vol. 2, p. 131). “And this is how we know that he lives in us. We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (1 John 3:24).
Remain in Christ, therefore.
If I do all those components (below), do they make me a Christian?
You become a Christian by repenting of your sins, confessing Jesus is Lord, and asking the Spirit to cause you to be born again. Those other components (below) assume you have already been born again. I offer them here merely to help you grow in the relationship with the Lord that you already have.
Does disobeying any one of those six things (below) make me lose my salvation?
No. Positively, they just mean you are growing in Christ. They should flow as naturally in you as eating a meal. No strenuous effort.
Does doing a few bad things make me an apostate?
No. It is impossible to draw the line. (See the next question and answer).
Just develop your personal relationship with the Father in Jesus’s name and through the power of the Spirit.
How can I tell when I have totally lost my salvation?
It is impossible to know when a person “loses” his salvation. We cannot know where to draw the line between loss of intimacy, backsliding, and total apostasy.
In my past I lived a sinful life back in graduate school for a year or two, but I cannot say I “lost” my salvation. I can’t say I even completely broke fellowship with him. I could feel the Lord still working on me and wooing me back. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. My conscience was stinging me regularly, daily! I repented and was restored.
As noted, just develop your relationship with the Father, in Jesus’s name, and through the power of the Spirit.
Therefore, let’s not pronounce judgment on people, a judgment that says they are complete apostates when they do such and such. God may still be calling them back. So let’s instead pray for and encourage them, no matter how far they appear to be veering off course, from our limited point of view. Leave the final decision with God.
Your job is only to pray for the wandering and wayward!
So how does this post help me grow in Christ and persist in faith?
We should never live in fear that we can lose our salvation frivolously or casually. You can be totally secure in your Father. He really does sustain you by his grace and Spirit living in you. You can have assurance in your heart that you belong to him. Don’t let the devil whisper to you that you are not saved. That’s a lie.
You can have assurance of your salvation by the Spirit living in you. Here is one sample verse: “The Spirit himself testifies to our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16).
However, you can drift away from your walk with God. Those (above) verses of warning in the previous large section are for everyone in the Christian community, whether the shallow or the truly born again.
Therefore, let’s learn how to remain a Christian by focusing on our relationship with our loving Father through Christ and the power of the Spirit.
Here are six components you can follow to remain in Christ and live connected to the vine (Jesus) for your entire life (John 15:1-6).
1.. Surrendering. Surrender to the cross each day. Let Christ’s atoning work of the cross work its power in you. Jas. 4 says, “Submit to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” If Satan attacks, submit to God and apply Eph. 6:16.
2.. Living in the Spirit. Be constantly filled with the Spirit. The Spirit causes you to be born again or regenerated. Once you have this experience, you then need to be filled and filled and even more filled with the Spirit of God. This can happen daily. This constant refilling does not mean you are born again and again and again! But you need daily refreshment and renewal by the Spirit, for the power to minister and live a godly life. You can pray each day, “Father, fill again me with your Spirit today, so I can walk with you and serve you and help people.” If you want the wonderful and God-ordained gift of his prayer language (archaically called ‘tongues’), ask him for it. Go to a church that teaches it, like a balanced and loving Pentecostal church. If you do not want this gift, just ask the Father to fill you with his Spirit every day.
3.. Praying. You should talk to the Father daily, in Jesus’s name. This is called prayer. Surrender each day to him. Ask him to guide you by his Spirit. Converse with him, either out loud or in your mind (preferably out loud). Daily meditate on him and his Son Jesus Christ.
4.. Reading. His love letter to you is the Scriptures. Whether it is one verse or one chapter per day does not matter. (Some believers read multiple chapters per day.) Meditate on a verse a day. Let it renew your mind, which is so very important for your remaining in Christ and persisting in faith. If you don’t know where to begin, start with the Gospel of John. Use a modern translation, not the King James Version or KJV (sorry!).
5.. Fellowshipping. Did you know that God has millions of children around the world? You are one of them. Therefore, you are all brothers and sisters. You and they are one big family, sometimes functional, other times dysfunctional! Regardless, you need to spend time regularly with them. The most convenient way to do this is through a local church. Please be sure the church honors the first two points. They must teach prayer and the Bible. I prefer a church that teaches the first two points and also the next two.
6.. Sharing and ministering. Pray that God would open the doors in people’s hearts so that they too can experience what you have: salvation and being born-again and filled with the Spirit. God has good works for you to do, specially chosen for you. Seek him and find out what he has called you to do (not what you should do by someone else’s command or by your own clever ideas).
Written by James Malcolm
Remaining a Christian or Falling Away? (It discusses many other “standard” verses on the topic)