Why do Disciples Fall Away?
How many of us have witnessed the disturbing departure of one who has perhaps for years professed faith in Jesus Christ? There are those cases in which we are not very surprised. The testimony of some from the beginning was very shaky. But what about those who gave evidence of a genuine work of the Spirit? They were faithful to interact with brethren and seemed to have a love for the things of God. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we see this "brother" returning to a life of unbelief, departing from the faith that he once so boldly proclaimed. Why does this happen?
Some would argue that "once saved always saved" means that once a person says a "sinner’s prayer" and makes a public profession, his salvation is certain and he can never be lost. When a person departs from a life of faith in Christ, or returns to a life of open sin, that person is said to either be backslidden or a "carnal Christian." This seems to be a very weak explanation, especially in light of the Scriptures which teach a changed life is to be expected in the life of a true disciple of Christ.
The Lord Jesus said to a crowd of folks following Him, And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. He also said to the same group, So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27,33). Jesus said in another place, My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (John 10: 27). A true disciple of Christ is one who listens to Christ and follows Him continually, not just for a brief season (John 8:31).
The Apostle Paul builds on the teaching of Jesus. As you read the epistles of Paul it is clear that the expectation for a true believer was a changed life. This expectation is clearly expressed in Romans 6. Consider the following expressions from this chapter: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin (vs. 6). And then the Apostle exhorts the Roman believers to not let sin reign in their body or to yield the members of their bodies as instruments to sin (vss. 11,12). Freedom from the curse of sin accompanies freedom from the service of sin in our lives. This freedom is due to the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives (Rom. 8:9).
In the Galatian letter, after listing a number of sins of the flesh, the Apostle wrote, And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:24). This antagonistic relationship toward the flesh is a result of the work of the Spirit within the believer. The true disciple, indwelt by the Spirit of God, fights against the lusts of the flesh as he walks in the Spirit.
It is possible for a true disciple to wander away after the flesh and the world for a season. The Scriptures speak of recovering such wanderers. James 5:19,20, Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins. The exhortation of Paul to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:25,26 indicates an activity of recovering one from the snare of the devil. The warnings of Hebrews to believers about the possibility of "departing from the living God" (3:12) and the exhortations to "hold firm to the end" (3:6) indicate that the true disciple may have the tendency to still follow the flesh. There is the need for every true disciple to be exhorted to press on and continue in the faith and endure to the end.
But what about those who don’t? We know that there are those who "give up their profession." Why?
It is possible that a true disciple would give up his profession for a season because of the overwhelming evidence that points to a lack of the Spirit of God in his life. Yet, when he is returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of his soul he realizes that he made a grave mistake: he abandoned his profession too quickly. Those who are true disciples will never ultimately abandon their profession of faith in Christ. In the end, they cannot deny Christ! In the end, they must have Him. This is true for every born again person. While they may have seasons of confusion, they must follow Him who gave Himself for them.
But there are those who hear the word of God and respond and for a time seem to have a relationship with the Lord who slide back and return to their "wallowing in the mire" (2 Peter 2:21,22; Luke 8:11-14). What are we to make of those who seem to be disciples for a time, but then in time fall away?
We know that every person who names the name of Christ is not His. In the judgment there will be those who make claim to Jesus being their Lord who will be cast away (Matthew 7:21-23). Not all that profess to be a disciple of Christ truly are. Time and testing in this life usually distinguish the true from the false. Faithful preaching of the gospel will typically expose the unregenerate professor of Christianity. It is an odd experience not to have those in a New Testament Church that fall away. It is only in the churches that do not preach the full breadth of the gospel that sinners are lulled into a false security of salvation.
The explanation of why someone who has been baptized would, or should, give up their profession may be summed up by the words of Jude: But beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; how that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit (vss. 17-19). Jude speaks of those who "separate themselves." These are former members of the church. These are those who were once a part of the flock. They have separated themselves from the visible body of Christ because they did not find the church able to satisfy their fleshly needs.
True believers are bound together primarily by a spiritual union. Each believer possesses the Spirit of God. He is the common bond of all believers (1 Corinthians 12:13). A person who merely carries a profession but does not possess the Spirit of Christ will eventually be very uncomfortable in an environment where much is made of Christ and His demands upon our lives. Jesus Christ will lead us contrary to the flesh. His emphasis is not "sensual." When a sinner is not given a new heart he continues to be "sensual." It is necessary that he be satisfied according to the flesh. When his flesh is not sufficiently appeased, he must find different company. True saints will never mix well with those who are living without the Spirit, according to the flesh.
Jude continues to exhort the true disciple to be occupied in that which will only be desirable to those who have the Spirit of God. But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. A ministry that continually emphasizes the need to increase and focus upon the matters named by Jude becomes very boring to the one not possessing the Spirit. The flesh is not interested in being built up in the most holy faith. The flesh is not interested in praying, especially in the Holy Ghost! The flesh is too weak to keep itself in the love of God and is not interested in contemplating its need for mercy. Such an emphasis will separate the temporary disciple from the one who is truly a disciple of Christ.
Why do disciples fall away? True ones don’t! True disciples press on through great difficulties and trials to follow Christ to the end. True disciples are distinguished from deceived ones, and deceivers, in that they prosper under faithful, soul-searching preaching. True disciples do not find the commandments of God grievous. True disciples do not find growth in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ laborious. True disciples may slip and may have seasons of straying, but their new heart given to them when they were born again will not allow them to continue to fall away to destruction.
Repentance is one of the primary distinguishing marks of a true disciple. A true disciple experiences what Peter experienced following his denial of Christ. Peter went out and wept bitterly. Peter did not cast away his profession, for he was a true disciple. Peter confessed and wept over his sin, not because he was fearful of destruction, but because he realized the awfulness of his sin against His Master. If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (I John 2:1). The true disciple will sin, but he is secure in Jesus Christ. He knows this. His confidence is not in his ability to live a sinless life, but in the ability of Christ to represent him successfully before the throne of Holiness. It is the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ that motivates him to obedience and leads to a sense of grief when he falls short.
If any of us make it to the end without falling away completely and are able to stand before God acceptable in His sight, it will be because of Jesus Christ! Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God, our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen (Jude 24,25). Praise the Lord for His amazing love and grace that sustains true disciples to eternal glory. If we are true disciples, we can rest assured that we will be granted an entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What a hope for those who do not fall away!
Kyle White, Pastor