What if you were never saved to begin with?

If you believe Christians can never quit Jesus—that it’s impossible to reject God’s salvation, probably ’cause you believe God’s grace is irresistible or something—how do you explain the existence of ex-Christians?

Because plenty of people identify themselves as former Christians. Grew up in church, said the sinner’s prayer, signed off on everything in their church’s faith statement, got baptized, got born again. Believed in Jesus with all their heart, same as you or I or any true Christian does. Even had God-experiences, saw miracles, did miracles. But now they’re no longer Christian. They left.

So how do those who believe once saved always saved, reconcile their belief with people who say they were once saved and now aren’t saved? One of two ways:

  • Those people only think they used to be Christian. But they never truly were.
  • Those people only think they quit Jesus. In reality they’re still his; he’s still gonna save them. They’re just going through a period of rebellion. Give ’em time. They’ll snap out of it eventually. He who began a good work in them will be faithful to complete it. Pp 1.6

So, y’know, denial.

I once attended the funeral of my roommate’s ex-girlfriend. She grew up Christian, but abandoned Jesus in college. I had recently helped lead him back to Jesus, and in his new-believer zeal he naturally wanted to lead her back to Jesus. But she was uninterested and dismissive. A few months later she died. We attended her funeral. It was awful. Friends and family, one after another, got up to eulogize her, to talk about what a good Christian she was, and how she’s certainly with Jesus… yet both her ex and I had personally heard her say she quit Jesus. We hoped to goodness she had a last-second change of heart. (Hey, you never know!) But… well, you can see why Christians far prefer denial. I get it. Believing otherwise sucks.

But when you believe ex-Christians were never truly Christian to begin with, this belief leads us to a really heinous logical conclusion. One which actually plagues many Christians. It’s simply this: How do you know you’re truly Christian?

Assurance. Or not.

It’s the subject of a lot of sermons and articles: Christians who wanna know they’re saved. They want promises, guarantees, confirmation… and they don’t feel they have it.

Most of the preachers point these anxious Christians to a whole slew of bible verses. Usually the bits in Romans and Ephesians which describe what happened once we turned to Jesus, and how God made us a new creation in Christ Jesus, and adopted us and sealed us with the Spirit and all that jazz. It’s good stuff. But I’ve found it just doesn’t do squat for most doubters. Yeah, yeah, “the bible says”—but they’re new to this whole faith business, and are struggling to trust God, and now we want ’em to trust the bible too? You don’t think they likewise have doubts about the bible?

We gotta give ’em something they consider solid. Usually they trust their personal experiences, which is why I regularly point newbies back to their God-experiences: So… what happened when you first believed? When you spoke with God, what’d he tell you?—or were you not listening? What miracles have you seen? What prayer requests has God answered? What are the hard concrete things God’s done in your life? If newbies can’t think of any, I tell them to go get these God-experiences, and don’t stop asking, seeking, and knocking till they get what they need from him.

And bear in mind God’s not gonna interact with us in these ways, nor encourage us to pursue him and find him, unless he wants to and intends to save us. He’s not a tease, dangling the piñata of his kingdom over us only to yank it away when we lunge at it, giggling, “Ha-ha, you’re not really one of the elect.” God wants to save everybody, and he’s generously made his salvation available to us too. Take it!

Those who doubt their salvation, who have no confidence that God really wants them, who have no assurance he’ll be with them no matter what, don’t believe this. Sometimes because every other person they know hasn’t loved them this much, and they expect God isn’t much different. Sometimes because dark Christians have taught ’em God isn’t this way, and will rescind salvation at the slightest displeasure. And sometimes because certain Christians believe God doesn’t wanna save everyone… which always leaves open the possibility God doesn’t want you, and will toss you out like the king did to the underdressed guest in the Wedding Banquet Story. Mt 22.11-14

So when such Christians doubt God really wants them, they’re naturally gonna doubt their salvation. And look for any proof they can find of it.

Sometimes with experiences—miraculous or not. The non-miraculous stuff will include the time they said the sinner’s prayer, their baptisms, their beliefs and practices, their Christian lifestyles. The miraculous stuff will be their fruit, ’cause we won’t exhibit those levels of love, peace, and patience without the Holy Spirit’s help! Or evidence of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them—and some of ’em might even claim they felt him knocking around in there. (I know; I know.) They’ll point to testimonies of stuff God did in their lives. Again, it’s all good stuff.

Will these things assure them they’re saved? Often yes. But sometimes our doubts are mighty strong, and hard to defeat. Bad theology can really mess us up, y’know.

Ex-Christians with these same assurances.

Here’s the catch: Ex-Christians can point to all these very same assurances they were saved.

Seriously. The very same. They did all that. Some of ’em were even asked, at one time, “How do you know you’re Christian?” and pointed to these same things, and even some things I didn’t list. They lived a full-on authentic Christian experience. For years; even decades. They had close personal relationships with real Christians, who never once identified ’em as phonies or hypocrites. But now, you ask ’em if they’re still Christian, and they’ll tell you no. They were Christian. They’ve since quit Jesus.

Now even when you accept the fact we can quit Jesus, this is still a hard idea to wrap one’s mind around. People really, truly knew Jesus, really knew God’s love… and left him? How? What happened to them? Something must’ve seriously messed them up. Some kind of twisted thinking. Some sin they absolutely couldn’t give up for Jesus’s sake. Some really badly-behaved Christians who seriously slandered who God is, and not only did they reject that false idea of God; they rejected the real God too.

When you understand apostasy is possible, it may be hard to fathom why people commit it, but we can still accept the idea these people used to be Christian and quit. For the once-saved-always-saved crowd, they really can’t accept the idea, so we’re back to their only two acceptable explanations: They were never really saved at all; or they’re still saved and’ll come back to God someday.

And if they were never really saved at all… well, their descriptions of what they believed and experienced as Christians, their assurances they were really and truly Christian, are mighty disturbing. Because it looks like God let them believe they were saved. Didn’t just let them pull the wool over their own eyes: He did nothing to convince them they were wrong. He talked to them. Even did miracles through them.

Saul ben Kish, first king of Israel, is an obvious example of this. He had the Holy Spirit. He prophesied. 1Sa 19.23 Yep, prophesied. It’s in the bible, and still confounds Christians to this day: What, God did that through him? (It confounded Saul’s contemporaries too. 1Sa 10.11 Dude wasn’t known for his piety.) The mad king who tried to put a spear through David ben Jesse on multiple occasions? Yep, him. He followed the LORD once. And quit.

Some Christians figure back in Saul’s day you could quit God, ’cause the LORD had a different plan of salvation back then. (No he didn’t, but let’s not get into that now.) Others figure, same as they still figure, Saul was never really saved. God interacted with him and did stuff through him, but it was all a ruse; God never really intended to save Saul, and always really meant to destroy him in favor of his best buddy David. Because God’s manipulative and psycho like that.

And if God was that way with Saul, what’s to stop him from still being that way with us? What’s to stop him from seriously tricking us into believing we’re Christian, but we’re not really? All so he could get others saved, to get his chosen favorites into his kingdom… but the rest of us are just pawns and hellfodder, and at the End we’ll scream out at him, “But Lord!” and he’ll respond, “Oh, I never knew you. Mt 7.23 Even though I totally pretended to.”

Yeah, there’s a demented spin on that verse. But that’s what it means if there’s such no such thing as a true ex-Christian: Right this minute, right in our own churches, we’ve got people who only think they’re in the kingdom. Not just because they’re fooling themselves: For his own personal reasons, God’s permitted them to have every assurance they’re legitimately his children. And they’re not. And you could be one of them.

So if you’re figuring “once saved, always saved” is a rock-solid confirmation that you’re definitely going to heaven… well, maybe you’d better talk to those Christians who totally believe this too, yet are in constant agony that maybe they aren’t saved. Because if God let these ex-Christians think they were saved and they never were, what assurances do they have? Or, really, you?

Apostasy.