Many Christian parents place a strong emphasis on getting an education, finding a good job, starting a family, and making good money. However, all of these things are morally neutral. They only have eternal value if they are part of a life lived in a growing relationship with God.


If you doubt this, imagine a child who does well in school, gets a respectable, high-paying job, gets married, has well-behaved children and grandchildren, and spends his adult life happy and successful. Then he dies and goes to hell, unable to ever escape. Would he not gladly switch places, including switching lifetimes on earth, with a man who spent his life in poverty and loneliness but knew the Lord? We don’t even have to speculate what the answer is. Jesus described a similar situation in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. 

My point is not to belittle the value of a career or a family, but that everything we do or have that doesn’t have Christ at the center ultimately has no eternal value. That is the tragedy of idolatry. It takes wonderful, beautiful things that God created to bless us, and turns them into worthless things that disappear forever. 


Making Converts Instead of Disciples

What would happen to a newborn baby if it didn’t have any parents, but was left in the wilderness to fend for itself? Of course, it would quickly die. This is exactly what happens to a large number of newborn Christian converts made in the home and in the church. There are no spiritual fathers and mothers present so new converts are not being shepherded to maturity.


When Jesus departed, He did not command the apostles to make converts, but to “make disciples… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). He also warned in Matthew 24:19, “But woe to those who… are nursing babies in those days,” which some have interpreted to mean, woe to those who allow their spiritual children to remain in immaturity. The overemphasis on making converts and under-emphasis on making disciples in families and churches is possibly the greatest tragedy of our generation.


The secularization of America has incredible momentum now. We can probably all think of multiple people in our lives, from teenagers to retirees, who once appeared to be strong believers, but have now either rejected the faith outright or have gradually adopted a worldview that disregards scripture. At the present rate, without revival, we are perhaps only a decade or two away from pure Christianity being overtly persecuted or even criminalized in America.


I believe this backslide is largely the result of false teaching that promises eternal security without repentance or perseverance. I wonder how many people falsely think they’re going to heaven because they responded to altar call many years ago? Or how many parents falsely believe their wayward young adult children are not in any real danger because they prayed the sinner’s pray as a child? Or worse still, how many people in the last few decades have breathed their last breath, slipped into eternity expecting to enter heaven, but instead found themselves in darkness and torment?


I remember talking to a man who had been a “cultural Christian” his whole life, having grown up in the church and in a Christian home. As best I as could tell from our conversation, he never spent time with the Lord, never read the Bible, and was not connected to any church body. He had been divorced for many years and had become quite solitary. He said his philosophy for living was to only look out for himself because you can never count on anyone else. When I asked him if he had any religious beliefs, he quickly responded, “Oh yes, Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. I accepted Him when I was young.”


God the Father

When I was in college, I interviewed for a summer job as a coach at a kids’ sports camp. One of the questions the interviewer asked me was, “What do you think is parents’ number one priority when they drop their children off at one of our camps?” I took a few guesses. Make new friends? Get exercise? Learn teamwork and character? Learn athletic skills? All wrong. Since I wasn’t yet a parent, I managed to overlook the obvious correct answer that every parent already knows. They wanted to know their children were safe. If that is true of human parents, how much more is it true of God the Father? There is nothing in the universe more important to God than the safety of His children.


How would you feel if your toddler wandered off in a crowded public area and suddenly was nowhere to be found? Imagine the panic! Imagine the fear! This is how God feels when one of his newborn children is in jeopardy of falling away. Several years ago, an international evangelistic crusade ministry estimated that about 80% of the people who gave their lives to Christ at one of their crusades were no longer walking with Him ten years later. This same phenomenon is happening to the majority of converts in American homes and churches. What on earth is happening?


Some would say those converts were once saved, but fell away and are now lost. Others would say they were never really saved to begin with – they were false converts. Others would say many are still saved without realizing it and they will return to conscious belief in time. What is the truth? Is it possible for a believer to fall away to the point of becoming lost or is a believer once saved always saved? What does the Bible say?


Every systematic theology book I’ve read at least acknowledges there are two perspectives on this issue. There are literally dozens of passages that can be interpreted to support each side. Let’s read a few from each side. First, here are some passages commonly used to support the view that it is possible for a person, once saved, to fall away from the Lord to the point of becoming lost again:


·         Peter said in 2 Peter 2:20, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” (The Greek word used for knowledge is frequently used in scripture for a mature, saving knowledge of Christ. Examples include 2 Peter 1:3, 8, Ephesians 4:13, and 1 Corinthians 13:12.)


·         The writer of Hebrews said in Hebrews 6:4-6, For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” (The Greek word used for repentance is almost always linked with saving faith in scripture. Examples include Matthew 3:2 and Acts 2:38.)


·         Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.”


·         James said in James 5:19-20, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death…”


·         Jesus said in Matthew 24:12-13, “Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” (This passage is referring to love for God, which unbelievers do not have to begin with.)


Additional passages used to support this view include:


a)      Salvation portrayed as depending on perseverance – Colossians 1:21-23, Romans 11:22, Hebrews 3:12-14, Hebrews 10:26-39, John 8:30–32, Revelation 3:5


b)      Parables depicting converts falling away unto eternal separation – Matthew 24:45-51, Matt 13:47-50, Matthew 13:20-21, John 15:5-6


c)      Statements made to believers warning against falling away unto spiritual death – 1 Timothy 4:16, Galatians 5:21, Philippians 2:12, Luke 12:4-12, Acts 20:28-30


By contrast, here are some passages commonly used to support the view that, once genuinely saved, a person can never be lost:


·         Jesus said in John 6:39, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.”


·         Jesus said in John 10:28, “I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand.”


·         Paul said in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, “Now He who establishes us with you and in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.”


·         Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”


·         Paul said in Ephesians 1:13, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise…”


·         Paul wrote in Romans 8:38-39, For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


I encourage you to prayerfully examine the wording of each of these passages for yourself, perhaps using an online lexicon to check the original meaning of keywords. I recommend using a word-for-word translation of the Bible such as NASB, KJ, or YLT since other phrase-for-phrase or thought-for-thought translations leave more room for translators to insert their own beliefs. I further encourage you not to assume your pastor or favorite author could not possibly be wrong on this issue since there are many reputable theologians on both sides. 


I’ll share my opinion. I believe the second set of passages emphasizes the faithfulness of God, while the first set emphasizes the free will of man. God’s power to keep us is greater than Satan’s power or the world’s power to overtake us. No matter how badly we stumble or how far we fall, God never gives up on us or stops pursuing us. He can recover us to His kingdom if we are willing to be recovered. However, we really do have a choice. God did not create robots. He will not force us to remain a part of His kingdom if we really insist on living for ourselves or rejecting His mercy.


Analogous to Marriage

This does not mean a believer’s salvation status waivers from one week to the next. Perhaps the most useful analogy for understanding our relationship with the Lord in this regard is marriage. A marriage can go through dry seasons. A marriage can even survive abuse, adultery, or separation. Even a marriage that ends in divorce can be reconciled if both partners are still alive. However, if a husband and wife divorce and then one of them dies, the marriage can never be restored. In the same way, if a believer falls away to the point that he effectively divorces from the Lord and then dies in that condition, he is lost forever.


Some people get married very young with no one to mentor them. They don’t have the maturity to persevere through trials. When things get hard they give up. This is like people who give their lives to the Lord because of the infatuation they experience in their early years with Him. However, they are not prepared to lay down their lives for Him so they leave when things become difficult.


Some marriages begin on a strong foundation but are ruined because of addictions or adultery. This is like people who begin strong in their spiritual journey but become entangled in idolatry or immorality and refuse to repent.


Some couples raise children together, but when the children leave they realize the marriage has become loveless and unfulfilling so they call it quits. This is like a believer who labors productively for many years caring for other believers or the lost, but loses his first love and ultimately turns away to live for himself.


Across the whole of Christendom, every imaginable combination has likely existed in terms of a believer’s age and circumstances of his conversion, the longevity and devotion of his Christian walk, and the age and circumstances of his falling away. Since God judges the heart, I don’t believe there is a clear-cut formula for determining at what point a believer crosses a line to become lost again. However, this does not mean such a line does not exist – it just means only God knows for sure when it has been crossed.


I think it is certainly possible for a Christian to seriously backslide or have major strongholds, yet still be saved. Likewise, I think it is possible for a person to intellectually believe all the right doctrines and have no glaring vices, but not really know God at all, perhaps because he unconsciously worships his own righteousness – like a modern Pharisee.


Some Once-Saved-Always-Saved advocates are fond of the expression, “You can’t lose what you didn’t earn.” This expression is irritating to me because it doesn’t even make sense as an illustration! Could you possibly lose something someone gives you, say, as a birthday present or a Christmas present? Of course. Whether something is earned, purchased, or given has no effect whatsoever on whether it can be lost. Likewise, in my assessment of scripture, while salvation can never be earned, it can be lost.


What to Say to New Converts

If there are two perspectives of this issue and each view can be well-supported by various scriptures, why is this so rarely taught in Christian homes or from the pulpit? What is more important than an accurate assessment of one’s standing with regard to salvation?


Do you remember the evangelistic crusade ministry I mentioned earlier? They routinely sent converts from their crusades to liberal churches, Roman Catholic churches, and even Jewish synagogues that did not even feign an appearance of sound biblical teaching or discipleship. Many of those new believers were doomed to fall away the day they got saved – like a newborn child left alone in the wilderness. 


Many church leaders and parents have committed a perilous error by oversimplifying the salvation issue. Just make a decision to receive Christ today and you can know you’re going to heaven. It’s simply untrue. Some hear the gospel, respond with joy and repentance for a season, and then get sucked back into the world a year or two later, never to return. Others walk with God for decades, then gradually drift into permanent sin or a completely different worldview.


What if, instead, new converts were told something like this?


God will never leave you and He will always pursue a closer relationship with you. However, it is still your responsibility to remain in His care by drawing near to Him every day in prayer and in learning His word.


God is much stronger than Satan, but realize that the enemy does not give up trying to destroy your soul even after you are saved. Sometimes he attacks you openly and aggressively with overt sin; sometimes he works patiently over many, many years to draw you after idols or unbiblical beliefs.


God is not intimidated by the enemy and neither should you be, but we are also commanded not to be unaware of his presence or ignorant of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11, Ephesians 6:11-12). And we are further commanded to stay sober-minded and be on the alert because he is always seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8).  


Realize that God did not intend for you to make your spiritual journey alone. You need community. You need help from teachers, mentors, and spiritual mothers and fathers who have successfully made the journey ahead of you and can show you the way.


How Can We Know We Are Saved

There is a tension in scripture between trusting in God’s keeping power and recognizing our vulnerability to be deceived and fall away. On one hand, John said he had written to those who believed in the name of the Son of God, “so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). But on the other hand, Paul told the Corinthians to “test yourselves to see if you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). He also told the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). And Peter told a group of believers to be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Peter 1:10).


Parents and pastors need to empower their people, as they mature, not to look primarily to them or to a formula for reassurance of their salvation, but to go to the Word and to the Lord Himself. Romans 8:16 says, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” In the end, it doesn’t matter whether our parents, pastor, or other believers tell us we are saved. Only God’s testimony matters.


If parents and pastors do this in the right way, exercising love and wisdom, the result may be that people will stop living in immaturity or false security. They may start seeking the Lord and His word for themselves to know whether they are saved. They may develop a richer relational history with Him that will become the basis for their confidence rather than human agreement or an over-simplified formula.



No one understands what the parent of a prodigal child experiences better than God. Scripture has some powerful words of wisdom and comfort for such parents. We will examine some of them in the next chapter.