Two ACG members have asked a series of similar questions concerning the topic of assurance in light of last Friday’s exposition, and so I make it my aim to answer all these as succinctly as I can in this article:
Question 1: In light of John 6:37, how do we make sense of those who once called themselves a Christian and lived like one, but eventually fell away? I would think they would fall into the category of “whoever comes to [Jesus]” but since they fell away, would that mean that they weren’t part of “all those the Father gives [Jesus]”? If so, why would they come to Jesus in the first place? On the flip side, how do we respond to a non-Christian who is seriously thinking about Christianity but is wrestling with the ideas of predestination in that they have doubts about whether they fall into the group of people called by God?
Question 2: From Elliot’s answer to Selina’s question, he mentioned about a six year old’s faith being truly genuine. Say that this child grows up and eventually denies the Christian faith as a teenager or a grown adult. How does salvation work for an apostate? Would Romans 8:35-39 still secure them?
Thanks for the questions guys! I’d strongly recommend you read my article on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and you will find that it will address a good chunk of the issues you are wrestling with! The link to the article is right here:
Nevertheless, I’ll briefly throw in my two-cents on the biblical understanding of assurance, because I know that countless Christians (and doubtless, a good number of our ACG members here) have their own doubts as to whether their faith in Christ is genuine. And their lack of assurance in their faith has led them to doubt whether they are even saved. Having no confidence that you are a saved child of God can breed unimaginable fear and turmoil.
1. Is it possible for true Christians to fall away?
The short answer is no! Let’s have a look at John 6:37-40 real quick, shall we?
37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:37-40 NIV)
With this brief exegesis on John 6:37-40, we clearly see that those that God the Father gives to Jesus “will” come to him, and whoever comes to Jesus “will” never be driven away.
What can that mean, other than the fact that those whom God the Father has chosen will most certainly respond in genuine repentance and faith to the gospel that Jesus preaches?
What can that mean, other than the fact that those who respond in genuine repentance and faith to Jesus’s gospel, will most certainly be secured of their salvation by Jesus on that very last day?
Through thick and thin, Jesus Christ will make sure that his people will never be led astray from him. As the Good Shepherd, he knows every sheep by name, gives them eternal life, and ensures his sheep that no one will be able to snatch them out of his hand (John 10:27-29). Paul placed all his eggs in God’s bucket by placing his utter confidence in Him when he says that no amount of adversity, or authority, or power is able to tear him apart from the saving protection of the Father (Romans 8:38-39).
So how are we to understand family members, friends, and acquaintances – those who once professed to be believers of the faith in the past – but who have now since renounced their faith and the church? Were they ever true Christians?
1. Not everyone who professes faith in Christ will possess true persevering faith.
There exists a biblical category for people who profess faith in Christ, but indeed do not possess true faith. Jesus makes it known that not everyone who says to him, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). The apostle John saw a number of people leaving the church and departing from the faith (1 John 2:19). He explains that these people professed faith in Christ and were active participants of the church community, but has shown by their apostasy and departure that they were never really part of God’s people to begin with. If they were true Christians, they would have continued to remain in fellowship with God and His people.
2. Nevertheless, true Christians can still doubt and temporarily drift away from God.
If a member of our church departs away from Christian fellowship, would that automatically mean their faith was not genuine at all? Is there really no room for them to express doubt in their faith during the course of their lifetime?
Of course not! We need to recognize that in the course of their life, every Christian will struggle with assurance and doubt in their faith to varying degrees. Christians will continue to sin, and some may even depart from the faith for a brief period.
We could list a couple of possible reasons for these temporary departures. Sometimes Satan tempts us to doubt God’s goodness and turn against Him (see Genesis 3:1-4). Sometimes the cravings of the flesh can overwhelm us and cause us to stumble into grievous sin (Romans 7:23; Galatians 5:19-21). And sometimes the many cares and worries of this world can distract us from what is truly important, which evidently chokes our relationship with God and prolong our state of spiritual infancy (Mark 4:18-19).
However, in the midst of their spiritual struggles, true believers will eventually be brought back into saving faith in the end. Their doubts and godless habits will be overcome by the gradual work of sanctification by the Spirit. What great assurance is that!
2. If these “ex-Christians” would eventually fall away from the faith, why would they come to Jesus in the first place?
Good question. I’m not really too sure! It is hard sometimes to pin-point the exact motivations in a person’s heart that would lead them to superficially profess Christ as Lord and join in fellowship with His church. But I suspect there are a number of significant reasons that would explain their behaviour and there are at least three big ones that I can think off the top of my head (and I’m sure you could think of many more as well).
A. These ex-Christians are children of true-believing parents
This might not answer the question directly, but I think this deserves a special mention – and this is a huge one. Often those who drift away from church are those who were born, baptised, and raised in Christian homes, where the gospel was taught to them in their formative years. Many of these children assume their Christian identity throughout their years of childhood and adolescence until they come of age where they need to make a decision on where they stand with their assumed beliefs about God and His gospel. Unfortunately, for a whole host of reasons, I’ve seen many of these children abandon their Christian faith and have chosen to live their lives independently from God.
B. The gospel offers a way to escape the punishment of hell
Many people, especially Westerners, are compulsive comfort-seekers and will believe and profess Christ out of mere convenience. To the minds of these consumers, they want to make sure they have covered all their bases: “I want to live a comfortable life here on earth, and I want to make sure I can also live a comfortable life in the afterlife!”
Many fear the prospect of hell and eternal punishment (even those who don’t believe in the existence of God, believe it or not!) and if professing faith eliminates the possibility that they might get sent there upon death, then people are perhaps more willing to comply by believing the Christian message, even if at heart they don’t really believe the message itself!
C. Church attracts people who feel lonely and need a community
Across the variety of churches that I’ve ever attended, I always come across international university students, middle-aged single people, single parents, mentally-ill patients and the like that have joined the Christian community for this sole reason – to alleviate their crippling loneliness and to seek out love and comfort in a community that accepts them and cares for their emotional needs.
Similarly, I know of all too many who misuse and abuse the mercy ministries that these churches run and organise. In a previous church I was a part of, there was a particular fellow who was a professing believer. He was unmarried and in his late fifties, and he would regularly attend our church dinner to grab his free weekly meal. He would stay around to chat and commune with us over dinner, but when service would start he would immediately pack his bags and off he left without a trace. This has been his routine at church for a lengthy amount of years since he came!
3. How do we respond to non-Christians who struggle with the doctrine of predestination?
Let me reiterate the question that our ACG member asked about this one:
On the flip side, how do we respond to a non-Christian who is seriously thinking about Christianity but is wrestling with the ideas of predestination in that they have doubts about whether they fall into the group of people called by God?
My response would be that non-Christians have no business whatsoever in pondering whether they belong to the people of God. No one knows with absolute certainty whether their name is written in the Book of Life (see Luke 10:20; Revelation 20:15). These are mysteries that are left to the decretive will of God and He is under no obligation to reveal to us who will be part of the eternal elect – those who are saved by God before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:5).
But I would also say this to the non-Christian who might be asking this: though God has not revealed to us who will be in this exclusive group, what He has revealed about membership to this exclusive group is crystal clear. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6) and that through him they can know God and have eternal life.
My words to them would be exactly this: “What you can be absolutely certain of is that if you place your faith in Christ, your sins will be forgiven. That truth isn’t dependent on how you feel; it is dependent upon the promises of God, who is utterly faithful to Himself and to us. If you repent of your sins and trust in Jesus in your Lord and Saviour, you will get to experience true blessing through a renewed relationship with God and through a new spiritual family of believers that you get to be a part of and will love you and care for you like no other!”