Is it possible to turn away from following Christ? Because so many people have been taught that you can’t lose your salvation, and because the answer to this question is so genuinely important to the destiny of each and every one of us, this is an issue that truly bears examination.
“For Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Timothy 4:10a NIV)
Because it is vitally important, and because our eternal destinies really do depend upon it, when confronted with controversial and significant issues we should follow the example of the Bereans who “…were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) We should let God’s Word speak for itself and “…[search] the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things…[are] so.” We should do this prayerfully, being careful to interpret passages correctly–not taking verses out of context to create an entirely new doctrine not taught elsewhere, looking up the individual translated words of significant passages, and using the other standard and customary ways of Biblical interpretation.
Demas is an example of someone who appeared to be a follower of Christ, but subsequently returned to the world. Initially, he was listed as one of Paul’s fellow laborers (“Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings, “ Colossians 4:14 NIV and “As do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers,” Philemon 1:24). Yet later on Paul writes, “For Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.” (2 Timothy 4:10a NIV) What caused his desertion? According to Paul, it was his love of this world, which strongly implies a desertion of not only Paul, but also of the teachings of Christ. Some have suggested that he only seemed to follow Christ–that he wasn’t genuinely born again, and perhaps that is so. Yet there are other passages that seem to suggest that it is possible to know Christ then voluntarily forsake Him because of a preference for a life of sin, and some of us know of people who seem to have done so. Regardless of the true nature of these situations, as we study the Word of God, we must not shy away from critically examining any passages, even those that are uncomfortable. So let’s take a look at some of them:
“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned. But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Hebrews 6:4-12 NKJV) Spiros Zodhiates, in The New Trstament Word Study Dictionary, offers a detailed explanation and says “laying again a foundation” in verse 1 “refers to the idea that if a Christian could lose his salvation, he would need to be regenerated again and again.” It goes on to say, “In laying the groundwork for the passage, there needs to be a proper understanding of the controversial section consisting of verses four through six. They key idea to consider is that the whole passage is hypothetical. For the sake of argument, one must accept the supposition that one can undergo the process of salvation, then “fall away” (vs. 6), or lose his salvation. The explanation in the following verses is designed to show the oddity of this idea.” It basically says verses 4-6 are hypothetical–if it were possible for someone to fall away, then it would be impossible to renew them again.
“For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.'” (2 Peter 2:20-22) Here Zodhiates notes, “The dog and pig may symbolize temporary external changes resulting from conformity to a false profession of faith. By contrast, a sheep is designated as the one representing a true believer with a living faith in Christ Jesus (John 10:1-21). This faith is indicated by the fruits of his faith.”
“…Because of unbelief they [the unbelieving Jews] were broken off, and you [the believing non-Jews] stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches [the Jews who rejected Christ], He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. (Romans 11:20-22) Note that this passage contains a conditional–an “If…otherwise”–phrase: “if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.”
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,
‘In just a little while,
he who is coming will come
and will not delay.’ And,
‘But my righteous one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back.’
But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.” (Hebrews 10:26-39 NIV)
This passage seems to be more directed toward those who hear the truth but reject it, yet it also speaks of persevering to receive what God has promised.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27, 28)
No one will snatch Jesus’ sheep–those who are His–out of His hand, but the ones who are Jesus’ sheep–those to whom He gives eternal life–are those who follow Him.
“And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” .” (I Corinthians 9:25-27)
“Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified.” (II Corinthians 13:5, 6)
So, can you voluntarily turn away from following Christ? Can you lose your salvation? Regardless of whether those who walk away were never Christians to begin with or whether they voluntarily chose the present world over following Christ, God warns us to persevere in our faithfulness to Him–an act that we personally control, and something no one can take away from us. Kay Arthur’s opinion (of Precept Upon Precept Ministries) is that those who persevere to the end are those who were born again, an assessment that appears to be correct. The “proof is in the pudding,” so to speak–the end result shows the reality of what was all along.
So how should we take the verses above? I believe that they are given to us as warnings. Those who are the saved will not leave Christ (and no one else can certainly pull them away from Him). I don’t believe you can lose your salvation in the sense of anything or anyone being able to snatch those who faithfully cling to Christ away from Him, and I don’t believe you have to spend your waking moments wondering whether you are saved today or not. What we do need to do is what God instructs us all to do–“to be faithful until death” so that Jesus “will give…[us] the crown of life.” We are to cling to His promises and persevere, rejecting sin in our lives through the power He provides and following Him faithfully on a daily basis as long as we live.
Thank You that no one can snatch those who belong to You out of Your hand. Help us to be faithful to You until our time one earth is over. Amen.