They went out from us...
Most followers of Jesus Christ have had a family member, friend, or acquaintance who seemed to be a believer, but who later renounced Christ. Occasionally, a prominent Christian leader declares himself/herself to no longer be a Christian. Theologically, what is occurring when someone who claimed to be a Christian, and appeared to be a Christian, departs from the faith?
There are, seemingly, three options:
(1) The person was, despite all appearances, never truly a Christian.
(2) The person is struggling with intense doubt and/or rebellion but is still a Christian.
(3) The person was a Christian but has now lost salvation.
Making matters more difficult, there are some verses in the Bible that seem to argue for the different options.
Second Timothy 2:12 says, “…if we deny Him, He also will deny us.” But then the very next verse reads, “if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny Himself.” There seems to be an important difference between struggling with a lack of faith and actively denying Christ.
Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to describe the possibility of believers falling away and losing salvation. In contrast, John 10:28-29 declares that no one can snatch one who has been given eternal life from God's hand. And Romans 8:38-39 states that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
In this discussion, I think 1 John 2:19 is key. It reads, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
In context, the discussion is regarding antichrists (false teachers). The principle applies, though, to anyone who departs from the faith. Anyone who departs from the faith is proclaiming a message that is not true, and is, in fact, opposed to Christ (the essence of the term antichrist).
To paraphrase 1 John 2:19: “If anyone departs from the faith, they are demonstrating that they were never truly in the faith, for if they have been of the faith, they would not have departed. The fact that they have departed from the faith explicitly demonstrates that they were never a part of the faith.”
Since I firmly hold to eternal security, option (3) is out of consideration. Option (2) is possible if the person is only struggling with “faithlessness,” but is not actively denying Christ (see 2 Timothy 2:12-13 above). According to 1 John 2:19, option (1) is the answer for anyone who previously seemed to be a follower of Jesus Christ but is now actively opposing historical/biblical Christianity.
This is difficult to accept when the person declaring himself/herself to no longer be a Christian is someone who has impacted you spiritually. Whether it is a family member, a pastor, a teacher, an author, or a friend; it is a struggle to realize that someone who previously seemed to have faith and exhibit the love of Christ was never truly a believer. This is especially true if he/she ministered to us in a powerful way, or possibly even was used of God to lead us to faith in Christ. The key is to remember that, ultimately, it was God doing the work in you, not the person who is now denying the faith. It was God who opened your eyes, softened your heart, and drew you to faith and trust in Him. It was the Holy Spirit who illumined God’s Word to you. Discovering that a person who ministered to you was not a believer should have zero impact on your relationship with God.
We must accept the fact that only God knows the heart. All our observations are based on incomplete information. Christ Himself warned us that there would be false messiahs and false prophets who would deceive many (Matthew 24:11).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this issue is that it does not matter how a person got to the point of denying Christ. We can disagree about the validity of his/her prior faith. We can argue about the loss of salvation. But, if the person is denying Christ, what he/she needs is the gospel.
So, we need to stop arguing about the prior status of someone who is now a Christ denier. Instead, we need to pray for him/her, show him/her the love of Christ, speak the truth in love, and be ready to give an answer with gentleness and respect (Ephesians 4:15; 1 Peter 3:15).
S. Michael Houdmann
They went out from us...