Were those who fall away from Christ ever truly saved?

As a church, we have been preaching through the book of Numbers. To supplement that teaching, we have been pressing into the points of application a little further in our home groups. This last week we looked at Numbers 15. You can hear the full sermon on this here.

One of the issues that seemed to cause concern for some was the section distinguishing unintentional sin from ‘high-handed’ sin. Particularly in view was the following section:

29 You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.

Clearly, to some degree, all sin is done intentionally. The distinction between these things is effectively between falling into sin and a purposeful embracing of sin. The Lord provided a means of restoration for those who fell into sin but for those who openly and flagrantly sin without any concern for God’s law there can be no forgiveness.

This is a position upheld in the New Testament. The writer to the Hebrews notes, ‘if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries’ (Heb 10:26f).

While that may seem harsh at first blush, the sacrificial system was designed to restore the broken relationship between man and God. It existed for those who had sinned but who wished to confess their sin, turn from it and continue in a relationship with God. Those who defiantly disobey God’s law without concern are not just ‘breaking the rules’ but are in rebellion against God. It is not just a rejection of God’s law; it is a rejection of God himself. The reason there is no forgiveness for such people is that, ultimately, they don’t want to be in such a restored relationship. In effect, those who commit ‘high-handed’ sin are not true believers and are thus beyond salvation until such time as they repent and lay down their rebellion against God.

This, however, led to a question. What do we say about those who fall away from the Lord? Are they saved or not? Can there be forgiveness for such people? Doesn’t Hebrews 10 suggest there is no way back for such people?

There are a series of truths that must be held in tension. First, there are the twin truths that true believers cannot lose their salvation (cf. John 10:28-30 cf. Rom 8:38f) and that real believers will persevere for Christ (Rom 11:29; Heb 3:14; 1 Jn 2:19, etc). However, we must also acknowledge the clear Biblical data that says those who continue in defiant sin are not true believers (1 Cor 6:9f; Gal 5:19-21; Heb 10:26f; 1 Jn 3:4-10).

We cannot answer this problem by suggesting such people were saved and have ‘lost’ their salvation. First, that would suggest salvation in some way depends upon our obedience. This has the twin effect of rooting our salvation in our behaviour and making our behaviour the determinate factor in God’s action. Scripture is clear that our salvation does not depend upon our behaviour (Eph 2:8f) but rests in the sovereign will of God (Rom 8:29f cf. Eph 1:3-14). Moreover, this leads inexorably down the road to Open Theism and Process Theology.

However, if we deny that and insist salvation is rooted in God’s will, the suggestion that we may lose our salvation leads us to the conclusion that God may change his mind, break his promises and capriciously grant and remove his salvation on a whim. Again, that stands against the weight of scriptural data. The entire Old Testament is the repeated story of God bearing with his people despite their sin. Numbers specifically addresses the truth that God will maintain his promises to his people and Israel remain his blessed people simply because he has sovereignly decreed and God does not change. The New Testament maintains this truth (cf. Rom 8:38f; Php 1:6; Jam 1:17f).

The obvious answer to the problem is that those who fall away were never true believers in the first place. They have not lost their salvation, they simply never had it to begin with. This maintains that salvation is rooted in the will of God and that he is unable to change, unable to lie and therefore unable to revoke his gift of faith and effectual calling (cf. Rom 11:29).

Three questions then arose: (1) what about those whom the Lord has greatly used and yet fall away – are these people saved? (2) Does this mean that those who fall away have no opportunity to repent and believe hereafter? (3) Are there such people who fall away yet remain saved and, if so, how do we tell the difference between them and those who were never saved at all?

The first question is remarkably straightforward. Yes, the Lord can greatly use people who are not saved. If we are committed to a proper view of God’s sovereignty, then nothing happens that is outside of God’s control. What is more, there are direct examples of this happening in scripture. Balaam – later on in Numbers 22 – is undoubtedly an unbeliever and yet is used by God to speak his words and deliver blessings on Israel. We could read a lot into that but, unless we want to argue his donkey – who also speaks God’s words later on – is a believer too, it suggests God can use whom he wills.

Likewise, Jesus makes exactly this point. Didn’t he say, in Matthew 7:21-23, that there will be all sorts of people claiming to have done all sorts of wonderful things in his name. Some cating out demons, others prophesying. The response is chilling: ‘depart from me, I never knew you’. In other words, there will be people claiming to have done all sorts of things in the name of Christ who were not in right relationship with him. Again, this tells us that it is possible to do things in the name of Jesus and yet know nothing of a true relationship with him. People doing works in the name of Christ, who later fall away, show that they were never saved at all. Their former works are not evidence of salvation; it is their current rejection of Christ and his commands that evidence their standing.

The second question is similarly straightforward. If we accept that those who fall away never knew Christ and had not been forgiven, their standing is the same as any other unbeliever. Yes, of course, the Lord judges us according to the light that we have. Jesus’ fiercest criticism during his earthly ministry was reserved for the religious leaders who ought to have known what the scriptures said about him. Nonetheless, the Bible is clear there is only one unforgivable sin (cf. Mk 3:28-30). It would be my contention that this is simply a defiant, purposeful rejection of Christ despite having full knowledge of who he is and what we ought to do as a result. This was the very sin of the Pharisees – they recognised the truth of Jesus and his teaching but purposed in their hearts to kill him because they did not want him. This is the only sin that is ultimately unforgivable. This means, with a work of God’s grace, an individual who has fallen away may yet be brought into right relationship with God through a work of his Holy Spirit as he directs in his sovereignty. Their position is the same – albeit with more light – as any other unbeliever.

The third question is more tricky. We must concede there is a fine line between those who have gone away from the Lord who were never saved at all and those who the Lord has saved and, though away from him for a time, he preserves. Nonetheless, the Bible never calls us to try and tell such people apart. Jesus tells us that we will know his disciples, and conversely those who don’t belong to him, ‘by their fruits’. That is, those who manifest the fruit of the Spirit and show a desire to glorify God in their obedience of him. What scripture does not do, is ask us to figure out the difference between a backslidden believer and one who never truly believed at all.

Behind that sort of question, of course, is another. How are we to treat the backslidden believer and the one who never truly believed at all? I would suggest we are to treat them both the same. The reality is, it is impossible for us to tell the difference between these two people. Instead, we have to do as Jesus commanded and deal with them according to the fruit we see before us. In the case of either the backslidden believer or the never-saved faller-away, we are presented with two people who are not living as true disciples of Christ. At that point in time, we can only deal with them as though they are not true believers in Christ. That means seeking to share the gospel with them, not encouraging them into things (like church membership, the Lord’s table, evangelism, etc) that are clearly reserved for those we can affirm (as far as we are ever able) as believers.

We can’t tell the backslidden believer from the never-saved faller-away. We can know the difference if the Lord, in his gracious mercy, chooses to bring them back into a right relationship with him. Even at this point, we cannot know whether this coming back is a matter of restoration or the true point of new birth. What we can do is continue to pray, share the gospel and give thanks for another soul – whether restored or reborn – saved from death.