In five prior issues, I have been presenting the biblical rationale for the belief that once we are genuinely saved, we are saved forever. We call this belief the security of the believer. The five reasons presented to support belief in the security of the believer’s salvation are: we cannot lose our salvation: (1) because salvation is not ours to lose since God provides it, not we ourselves, (2) because it is based upon a life-changing salvation experience with God, (3) because eternal salvation is a Scriptural promise, and (4) because eternal salvation is a logical necessity., and (5) because it is based on the unchanging status of our relationship with God.
Can a Believer Fall Away?
The primary Scripture verses usually cited on behalf of those who believe you can lose your salvation include the idea of “falling away” from the faith in Heb. 6:1-6, or the mention of apostate believers who “fall away” or “err” from the faith (as in 1 Tim. 4:1, 6:10). The word translated “fall away” in Heb. 6:6 is the Greek word peripipto, which means to turn from or deviate from the correct path.
There are strong reasons, however, to believe that Hebrews 6 does not teach that true believers can lose their salvation. First, even in this same chapter the notion of eternal assurance is present. Following Heb. 6:1-6, the readers of this epistle receive the affirmation that this falling away did not pertain to them (Heb. 6:9), assurance that God had not forgotten them (Heb. 6:10), encouragement about their “full assurance of hope until the end” (Heb. 6:11, NKJV), and assurance of salvation by the promise of God, a promise made perfectly secure by God swearing by Himself (Heb. 6:12-20). It is clear, then, that Heb. 6:1-6 is not teaching that persons can lose their salvation, but is an exhortation to serious Christian discipleship. I believe that as a part of this exhortation the author of Hebrews was presenting this as a hypothetical or preposterous option, but he was not affirming it as a viable option.
The Greek word translated “erring” from the faith in 1 Tim. 6:10 is apeplanetesan We derive our English word for “planet” from its root word. From the perspective of earth, the planets appear to wander across the night sky. The word apeplanetasan, then, means to wander around like the planets. Other translations have rendered this phrase as “erred from the faith” (KJV), “wandered away from the faith” (HCSB, NASB, NRSV, Beck), “strayed from the faith” (NET), “led astray from the faith” (ASV), “wandered from the faith” (Williams, Amplified, TNIV), “seduced from their faith,” (Norlie), or “have been turned away from their faith” (NTBE).
Apeplanetasan also conveys the idea of a change of location or relationship. The choice to take a different path from the true faith implies that the errant beliefs are voluntary to some degree. Indeed, Paul describes these false believers as culpable for their doctrinal error because their greed made them susceptible to the false teachings, and because they allowed themselves to be deceived and led astray (1 Tim. 6:10). Unlike “falling,” however, “erring” is passive in the Greek language. Paul describes these people as falling into temptation, being caught in a snare, being seduced by lust, and sinking down to their own destruction (1 Tim. 6:9). Most people don’t set out looking for a cult or false religion; they are just people without a firm doctrinal foundation who find themselves drifting around until they are misled by false teachers, or they simply lose their way and stray off like ignorant sheep.
Those who fall away from the faith in 1 Tim. 4:1 and 6:10 were not genuine Christians, but were disciples of false teachers (1 Tim. 4:1-11, 1 Tim. 6:3-12). These false believers did not have the same faith as the orthodox church. The doctrinal error of these false teachers was evidenced by several notable characteristics: they were in error doctrinally (1 Tim. 4:1-7; 6:3-5, 10), ungodly in behavior (1 Tim. 4:2-8; 6:9-10), under demonic influence (1 Tim. 4:1), hypocrites with a seared conscience (1 Tim. 4:2), argumentative and divisive (1 Tim. 6:5-6), and motivated by greed (1 Tim. 6:6-10).
Jesus warned that everyone not everyone who claimed to be a believer was indeed a true believer (Matt. 7:23). These people did not lose their salvation; they were never authentically saved in the first place. As someone put it, “the faith that fizzles at the finish had a flaw from the first.” It is characteristic of a cult to add or delete something to the basic message of the gospel. The apostates that Paul mentioned apparently added requirements of good works for salvation rather than relying solely in the sufficiency of the grace of Jesus Christ for salvation (1 Tim. 4:3). The fact that these apostate believers may have been in some church meetings did not guarantee that they were genuine Christians. They may have been within the church building, but they were never within the true church (Acts 20:29-30). As John said of false believers in his day, “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us” (1 John 2:19, HCSB).
What is the Apostasy?
Scripture does speak of a greater incidence of apostasy at the end of time. The word often translated “falling away” or “apostasy” is apostasia, which appears in 2 Thess. 2:3, referring to the apostasy or falling away associated with the “man of sin” or “son of perdition.” This may refer to the events described in Revelation 13. As 1 Tim. 4:1 describes it, the Spirit expressly says that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1). Scripture consistently prophesies that many people will be misled and deceived by false teachers in the end times (Dan. 8:25; Matt. 24:10-11, 23-25; Mark 13:5-6, 21-23; Luke 21:8; 2 Thess. 2:3-4, 8-12; Rev. 12:9; 13:11-14; 19:20).
Various Bible translations have rendered apostasia as “depart from the faith” (KJV, HCSB, RSV), “abandon the faith” (Knox, TNIV), “fall away from the faith” (NASB), “turn away from the faith” (Williams, Beck, Amplified), “desert the faith” (NET), “renounce the faith” (NRSV), “rebel against the faith” (Moffatt), or “revolt from the faith” (Rotherham). The primary meaning of the word is a positional move to separate or withdraw oneself from a place or relationship.
This word suggests that the falling away is done consciously and voluntarily. Apostasy is not a momentary stumble, but is a life commitment to turn away from the orthodox Christian faith. However, the text states that those who fell away did not do so entirely on their own, but were under profound pressure from supernatural demonic forces to do so (1 Tim. 4:1). At some point, their seared consciences may have blurred the line between right and wrong (1 Tim. 4:2). However, the apostasy will not include the genuine Christians. As Jesus said when speaking about end times, the false teachers and false messiahs would be so convincing as to “deceive the elect – if that were possible” (Mark 13:22, NIV). Obviously, the elect being truly deceived is not a real possibility.
However, Paul had warned the Ephesian elders in his last meeting with them that false teachers would come from within the church who would lead people astray (Acts 20:28-30). The false teachers that Paul mentions in 1 Tim. 4:1 and 6:10 seem to be already present in the church. John addresses this “already/not yet” tension when he references that false messiahs would come at the end of time, but indeed some were already active (1 John 2:18-19). It would be most accurate, then, to say that there were already false teachers present in the church in Paul’s time, and that these false teachers represented a foretaste of the ultimate apostasy at the end of time.
Can a Genuine Christian Fall Away?
Numerous New Testament Scripture passages affirm that true believers can never lose their salvation. Salvation is not really ours to lose, since we did not obtain it by earning or deserving it (Eph. 1:4-5; 2:8-10). God not only provides for salvation, but He protects our salvation until the day that Jesus comes again (John 10:27-29; Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; Phil. 1:6; Jude 22-25). Salvation is guaranteed by Jesus, not lost by the believer.
Paul’s warning to Timothy about false teachers and apostate believers should be heeded not only in the Ephesian church, but in the 21st century church. We must always be on guard about false teachers and false believers who may infiltrate the church. Thankfully, falling away from the faith is not an option for a true believer in Jesus Christ. As Jude words it in the wonderful doxology that concludes his brief epistle, we can praise God because He “is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24, KJV).
Dr. Steve Lemke is Provost and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the last of six articles in the "Theological Thought" column in the [Louisiana] Baptist Message on this subject [vol. 125, no. 15 (July 22, 2010), 14].