The question of whether a believer can become an unbeliever usually arises in an attempt to explain puzzling situations involving people we know. Someone who at one time made a profession of faith denies the faith. By all outward appearances, he was a believer involved in church life and perhaps even in ministry. So what happened? Is this a case of a believer becoming an unbeliever?
There are a number of prominent skeptics who started out as professing believers. Dan Barker, atheist and president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, started out as a minister and Christian musician. Charles Templeton (now deceased) was an evangelist who at one time toured with Billy Graham but later became an outspoken agnostic. Bart Ehrman is a New York Times best-selling author and well-known skeptic who continually casts doubt upon the reliability of the New Testament. Ehrman describes himself as a former born-again fundamentalist. He studied at Moody Bible Institute and graduated from Wheaton College.
Aside from these high profile cases are the thousands, perhaps millions of people who have made professions of faith, often as children, but years later maintain no faith in Christ. Whether they call themselves atheistic, agnostic, or simply uninterested, they have left the faith. What are we to make of these people? Were they born-again believers at one time, but now they are unbelievers?
There are a number of possibilities that are often suggested.
The first possibility is to affirm that these people were and still are saved, born again, made part of the Body of Christ, and indwelt and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Since God’s salvation is irreversible, once a person has been saved, he will always be saved regardless of any future state of unbelief or disobedience. It seems that parents often take comfort in this idea, for, even though a child may be walking far from the Lord, the parent holds on to a specific time and place where the child “accepted Christ.”
The second possibility is to agree that these people were once true believers but that, when they stopped believing, they lost their salvation. All of God’s blessings have been reversed. The former believers have become unbelievers and unsaved.
The third possibility is that, although these people may have given outward signs of having genuine faith, their subsequent choices and statements reveal that they were never true believers. No matter what they say, they were never born again and sealed by the Spirit. True believers may experience times of doubt, uncertainty, disobedience, and momentary unbelief, but they will never renounce their faith. This idea is known as the perseverance of the saints—all who are truly saved will persevere (continue) in their faith, kept by the power of God. We can only know if a “decision for Christ” was genuine by the fruit that it produced. This is the approach that is most supported by Scripture.
Scripture and history are filled with examples of people who made an initial positive response to Christ only to fall away later. In the parable of the sower and the seed, some of the seed sprung up quickly, only to wither away or be choked out by weeds. “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:20–22). But the seed (the gospel) sown on good soil brings forth fruit for harvest. In the initial stages, it might be very difficult to tell which plants will make it or not. Time reveals the truth.
In John 6, Jesus calls himself the Bread from Heaven and makes some statements that were very hard to understand. Verse 66 says, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” There were people who had identified themselves as followers of Jesus, but they turned back when Jesus said something they disliked. It was not that they lost salvation; they never had it to begin with, and this incident is what showed their true colors.
Next in John 6, Jesus comments on Peter and Judas Iscariot. “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him” (verses 67–70). At the time Jesus spoke those words, Peter and Judas looked very much alike—both were disciples. On the night that Jesus was arrested, Peter and Judas looked very much alike—both denied the Lord. A few days later, however, they showed themselves to be very different. Judas, overcome with remorse, did not seek repentance and forgiveness but committed suicide (Matthew 27:5). Peter was filled with shame and wept (Matthew 26:75). Three days later Peter is still with the disciples and becomes an apostle of the Risen Lord.
Neither Judas nor Peter lost his salvation. Judas’ true nature was that of an unbeliever. He liked Jesus well enough and dabbled with faith for a while, but he never really believed—we might say he only pretended to be a believer. Judas was the treasurer for the disciples, and John 12:6 tells us that he was dipping into the money for himself. Peter, on the other hand, for a short period of time, “pretended” to be an unbeliever, but over the course of time his true, redeemed nature showed itself.
First John directly addresses the issue of professing believers who seem to become unbelievers. Some false teachers, who had appeared to be true believers at one time, were troubling the church. First John 2:19 explains, “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.” Although those who departed the faith had appeared to be genuine, John makes it clear that they had never actually been “of us”; one of the marks of a believer is that he “continues with us.” People may be able to “fake it” for a while, but they cannot sustain the part forever. The truth will eventually outlast their fakery. First John 3:9 says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” A genuine believer is kept from falling into continuous sin because he has been born of God—God keeps him safe.
A true believer may fall into disobedience and struggle with doubt, but a true believer will never renounce Christ. A person who has renounced Christ by his words or deeds has not lost salvation; rather, he is demonstrating that he never had genuine faith. This is one reason why church discipline is so important. In Matthew 18, Jesus outlines the steps. If a person in the church sins, he should be confronted and given the chance to repent. Once all the steps in the process have been followed and there is still no repentance, then the unrepentant sinner is to be put out of the church and treated as an unbeliever (verses 15–17). This process is designed to get the sinner off the fence. Either he will see the error of his ways and be brought to his senses, or he will decide that the church and the Christian life are not that important and walk away—either way, church discipline forces a person’s true nature to come out.
A genuine believer can never become an unbeliever because he or she has been born again by the Spirit of God. It is not one’s faith that keeps one safe but the power of God that enables continual faith.