Why Professing Christians Fall Away
by Rick Shrader
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. Jeremiah 8:20
We have all seen it and been grieved by it. Someone makes a profession of being saved, stays around for a little while, and then is gone. Correctly, we turn immediately to our discipleship efforts and critique ourselves. Did we do all we could to strengthen them in their new faith? But the problem is often deeper than that and believers cannot always blame themselves for the decision others make regarding their walk with the Lord. It is an increasingly difficult day to be a Christian. The temptations and reasons to abandon the faith multiply as the age continues toward its end. If Peter had to warn the believers at Pentecost to “save yourselves from this ontoward generation” (Acts 2:40), how much more must we? Isaiah warned of “hasty fruit” (Isa. 28:4), and Daniel likened believers in the end time to “chaff of the summer threshingfloors” which “the wind carried away” (Dan. 2:35).
Jim Vogel recently wrote, “Long gone are the days when we could expect the lost in our communities to come to us. We are no longer living in a church-going culture. Interest in spiritual things is waning. People stay away in droves.”1 This seems to be the case not only with the unchurched (as we call them) but also with the “churched.” I have been in church-related ministry of one sort or another since 1972. The game I have hated the most is what I call “hide and seek.” That is when someone, an individual or an entire family, simply quits attending the church without any explanation and you have to go find them. You always try to be fair and give absentees the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they have been ill or on an extended vacation, or maybe they just needed time away for some reason. You always hate to assume the worse: that they are upset about something, or that they have been offended by someone. Surely they would have told you if that were the case. Maybe they have fallen into some sin and are embarrassed to come to you for help. The sad thing is that in over forty years of ministry I cannot recall a single time when they came to the church rather than the church having to take the initiative to go find them. And that is all right, it is the church’s job to find the one sheep that has gone astray! But doesn’t that also say something about profession of the Christian faith in our generation?
When I have pondered the reasons for this phenomenon, I come to only two conclusions. Either the person is unsaved and therefore has gone back to his old life, or as Peter described it, “The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Pet. 2:22), or the person is truly saved but is, or has remained, in a carnal position and has lost interest in spiritual things. This is a man “overtaken in a fault” (Gal. 6:1); one who is saved “yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15); or as some who have “cast off their first faith” who are “already turned aside after Satan” (1 Tim. 5:12, 15). One of the sad results of these two conclusions is that we cannot always tell them apart, and their departure from the brethren leaves loved ones with doubt as to which is the real case. That is unless, of course, your final conversation with them uncovers the specific reason for their leaving. These two reasons may be caused by a number of underlying issues.
Reason 1: They are not truly saved
John said, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19). The verse that follows proclaims that “you” who have stayed among the brethren have the Holy Spirit, in contrast to the ones that have left. Jonathan Edwards said, “Sinners in Zion are all hypocrites. They make a profession of the true religion. . . But all is hypocrisy.”2 A.T. Robertson said, “Outward ceremonial ritualism may only cover a brood of scorpions in the heart.”3 Hypocrisy, at the bottom line, is unbelief. It is to profess to be saved but to possess no saving faith, and no Holy Spirit. What happened to create such a false decision?
Pressure by a soul winner. I believe in soul winning. “He that winneth souls is wise” (Prov. 11:30). But we have also seen a lot of people make false professions of faith due to pressure applied by a Christian for whatever reason. I must confess that I have had my share of my own converts who evidently were not the Lord’s converts! Tozer said, “Some of the unsaved with whom we deal on the ‘quick and easy’ basis have such little preparation and are so ignorant of the plan of salvation that they would be willing to bow their heads and ‘accept’ Buddha or Zoroaster if they thought they could get rid of us in that way.”4 How true that has often been.
Pressure by a church invitation. I believe in invitations also and give one after every sermon. But just as the soul winner can get carried away pressing for a decision, so can the preacher. I can remember invitations in which the speaker would not quit until everyone in the auditorium had indicated that they had made some kind of commitment. Grandma Jones finally got hungry enough for lunch that she made a commitment to love her mother! Perhaps the evangelist needed the 100% report for his next prayer letter. I have seen people singled out and pulled down the aisle (almost literally) to get saved.
These kind of converts create seed that is sown by the wayside. The wicked one comes quickly and takes away the seed sown in the heart (Matt. 13:4, 19). To be fair, let me say that this happens as well in proper invitations due to lack of understanding.
Pressure by follow-up programs. That may sound odd, but I am only saying that a lost person cannot last long around the teaching of the Word. Either he has to get saved or get out. No doubt multitudes have begun church discipleship programs who have never finished them. I don’t think the teacher should feel bad about this, it is inevitable. The verb tenses of Gal. 6:6 indicate that, “Let him that is [being] taught in the word communicate unto him that [is teaching] in all good things.” When there is no reciprocal communication by the student, the teacher can go no further.
Pressure by the situation. Sometimes people make a profession of faith because they are put in a situation where it is expected of them. I have begun premarital counseling with couples where one person is obviously not saved. The born again person is anxious for the other to get saved (for the wrong reasons of course) because he/she knows the marriage won’t take place unless both are believers. The unbeliever is usually primed for this situation and is ready to “make a profession of faith” for sake of the marriage.
On a similar note, sometimes a married spouse will get saved and very badly wants his/her spouse to be saved. The same pressure is then brought upon the counselor to “lead the person to the Lord.” After all, that is what the minister is there for, right? This is like the seed that fell in stony places that, although is was met with immediate joy, it only endures for a short while (Matt. 13:5-6, 20-21). I think Judas himself must have been put into a similar situation to make a profession of faith and be baptized by John because all the family was doing it.
Pressure by success and culture. The prosperity gospel has appealed to the lost world on the basis of success. If you will just receive Christ, all of your personal problems will be solved and you will begin to be successful in life. If that is really the case, why not try it? In many businesses it is a badge of integrity to be a Christian who applies biblical principles to business. There are many people looking for such businesses and being able to advertise that way is a great plus. Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8 was convinced that professing to be a Christian would bring him further success in his business. The sticky part is that business about getting saved and baptized and maybe joining an upscale church. But surely there is one out there that will accommodate me.
But the unbeliever cannot last long among spiritual things. The seed that fell among thorns first sprung up, but the cares of this world quickly choked it out (Matt. 13:7, 22). The flesh will always have a greater desire to please the cares of this world than the cares of lowly Christians. The bottom line is, if a person is truly not saved, no attempts to tie him to the church is going to (or should) work. Oil and water will not mix.
Reason 2: They are carnal Christians.
Carnality is a reality in the Christian life. The pull of the world can still be strong upon the immature believer and desire for the things of God usually grows slowly over a period of time. However, salvation cannot be made into a prolonged education process just because there are real hypocrites. No one can guarantee the sincerity of the convert other than God and the convert himself. But salvation comes as an instantaneous act of God by faith through grace. Spurgeon described his own conversion like this, “As, the moment before, there was none more wretched than I was, so, within that second, there was none more joyous. It did not take any longer than a flash of lightning. It was done, and never has it been undone.”5 Matthew Henry once advised those who doubt their salvation to remedy it in the following manner, “Are you in doubt about your spiritual state? Put the matter out of doubt by a present consent—if I never did, I do it now.”6 That being said, there are still reasons why true believers fall away due to carnality.
Lack of follow-up. A new convert is a babe in Christ and babies need to grow. But babies can’t do it all by themselves, they need adults to help them. This takes both the personal touch of a father or mother in the faith, and also a corporate touch of a family. The first steps need to be taken which are baptism and church life. There are dangers for little ones that can only be avoided by patient instruction. As a pastor I see the need for the safety of the church family in the life of a new believer. Church should not be something that the new convert someday grows into, it is a must, just like the traditional family is a must for all children at the earliest age.
Lack of expectations. Sadly, there may not be much expectation for godliness and growth in Christ in many churches today. If we are willing to admit that the spiritual level of the average church is alarmingly low, so will the role model be for the new believer. What expectation could there be for a new convert in the church of Laodicea? They thought they were mature and had “need of nothing” but in fact were “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:14-22).
Lack of encouragement. New believers begin their spiritual journey with their sins confessed and forgiven, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Their past is wiped clean by the blood of Christ and they have a new life spread out before them. Ironically, one of the dangers the new convert faces is rubbing shoulders with older believers. He is immediately pulled downward, not upward. His joyful expectations of his new life in Christ are sadly cooled by older believers who have settled into a more comfortable existence and don’t want a new zealot upsetting things. Even the penitent man in Corinth, after he had repented of sin and made things right with God, was in danger of being “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7) without the encouragement of the congregation.
Lack of teachers. The danger here is not so much a lack of people teaching good doctrine as the danger of falling among the many false teachers in the world today. This was a constant threat even in the first century even with the presence of apostles (see Acts 20:29-30; 2 Cor. 11:2-4; Gal. 1:6-9; Phil. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 1 John 4:1-6). Paul warned Timothy of Hymenaeus and Philetus whose false teaching was like gangrene and had already overthrown the faith of many (2 Tim. 2:16-18).
In this information age the threat is multiplied. The new convert does not know where to turn and who to trust. By the click of a mouse he may be infected already by false teaching that will spread in his soul like cancer. We have all seen such duped individuals fall away from the faith. A shepherd must constantly be on the alert.
Lack of example. A new convert knows almost no one in the church. Most likely, he/she will not take the initiative to make new Christian friends. This must be done by mature believers who see and understand this real need. Some years ago I wrote about what I called “hypocrite finders.” Even spiritual water seeks its own level. Hypocrites will find other hypocrites in the church. Spiritual immaturity will make friendship with spiritual immaturity, and this will happen quickly if other believers don’t step in first and befriend the helpless convert.
Teens and other younger ones are especially susceptible to this. I pastored a church with a balcony in which few ever sat because it was not needed to seat the Sunday crowd. I have watched young people who normally sat near the front on the main floor, bring a friend and sit with him on the back row of the balcony! I guess the church member didn’t want the visitor to think he was too spiritual. This is not new. Even Barnabas himself was “carried away” with Peter’s “dissimulation” (Gal. 2:13), the opposite of the needed “assimilation.”
Lack of strength. The bottom line for a new convert is that the world’s allurements are still strong, and without positive growth, saved flesh can become affected and act the same as unsaved flesh. This is a real danger that causes many believers to fall away from the Lord. When Demas forsook Paul in prison (2 Tim. 4:10), he left us wondering if he had fallen into carnality or was really unsaved. He had before been commended by Paul for his faithful work (Col. 4:14; Phile. 24). It is only out of sympathy that we still count him as a brother even though he fell away.
And so . . . .
There is a conundrum here that confronts us all. How can some fall away from the faith so easily? How is it that such ones can walk away from a faith so precious to the vast majority of believers? How can some be content to be saved by the skin of their teeth? How can some who profess to know Christ have little or no concern for the final destination of their souls?
Carl Trueman said the following concerning these things,
“Only those who have an overwhelming grasp of the transcendent holiness of God will ever struggle with lack of assurance. For those who think of God as, well, pretty much like themselves, or like some other common or garden god, or simply as a projection of their own sentimentality, there is no problem with assurance. If God is not that holy, then sin isn’t that awful, and I’m just not that bad. Thus, if your view of God’s holiness is shaped by the standards of your own mediocrity, then you are unlikely to worry too much about whether you’re going to be acceptable to Him. . . God will look after my reputation if needs be; He has given me other work to do.”7
1. Jim Vogel, “Guiding The Local Outreach Program,” The Pastor: A Guide for God’s Faithful Servant (Schaumburg: RBP, 2012) 161.
2. Quoted by Randall Pederson, Day by Day With Jonathan Edwards (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2005) 46.
3. A.T. Robertson, Paul and the Intellectuals (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959) 96.
4. A.W. Tozer, Mornings With Tozer (Camp Hill, PA: Wing Spread Publishers, 2008) May 3.
5. Charles Spurgeon, My Conversion (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1996) 42.
6. Allan Harman, Matthew Henry (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2012) 145.
7. Carl Trueman, Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear To Tread (P&R Publishing, 2012) 63.