Eternal life is promised to those that believe, but what happens if they stop believing? What about someone that believes but struggles with sin? Is there a difference?
No human is perfect so God doesn’t take away a person’s salvation status for sinning, so a person doesn’t need to keep getting saved over and over again. However, a person can walk away from the offering of eternal life if they no longer believe since the promise of eternal life is based on faith. They may have believed once but they stopped and rejected Christ. Just as non-believers have a right to reject the gospel and eternal life, believers have the right to walk away and do the same. God does not force people into his covenant. Someone that leaves can always come back if they want to reconcile.
Culture Christians are people who casually live in sin without a care in the world and they practice a religion that looks like Christianity but they don’t believe what the Bible teaches. They believe they can earn salvation by “good works” even though the bible says no one is truly good (Matt 19:16-17, Rom 3:9-20). They may believe that there are multiple ways to be saved, essentially saying Jesus died for nothing. Why would God let his son die if there were other ways? In other words, some “Christians” are actually agnostic or syncretize Christianity with other religions, since they reject the full teachings of the bible. This makes them unbelievers since anyone who believes the bible would not reject what the bible teaches or mix its teachings with alternative theology. Believers can end up on the wrong side of judgment day if they reject what the bible says, walk away from God, or become false teachers.
Notice some people Jesus rejected on judgment day did signs and wonders in his name which means these were believers who even operated in spiritual gifts:
Matt 7:21 “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. 22 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ 23 But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’
Getting saved means we are in covenant, but people can break the covenant and reject faith in Christ. There is a distinction between absolute rebellion and struggling with sin. Someone who struggles with sins but agrees with God that sin is bad and the bible is true is not a rebel. However, the consequences of sin don’t go away, and good works don’t negate sinful actions (Ez 18:23-24, 1 Peter 1:13-25). One example of consequences is when Ananias and Saphira broke a promise to give a specific amount to the church and they both died (Acts ch. 5). They were saved and had eternal life but they died early because of their sins. There’s a principle for this in 1 Cor 11:27-30 which says that church members can die early. 1 John 1:9 says if we confess our sins to God we will be forgiven. In Hebrew 4:16, Paul says we can come boldly to the throne of grace to obtain mercy, mercy is for those that come to God.
Essentially, someone who struggles with their faith but maintains trust in Jesus and what the Bible teaches is different from someone that vows to reject God forever. If someone walks away and doesn’t come back to God before they die then they die an unbeliever. No one is permanently banned, but they must return to faith, and reconcile while alive. In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), he came back to his father after leaving and squandering his inheritance. If he didn’t come home he would have died living in sin.
In Revelation 13:11-18, the false messiah (antichrist), will deceive people into worshipping a false god and threatens those who don’t submit with death. Jesus said those who deny him on earth would be denied in heaven (Matt 10:33). Rev 20:4-6 says those who did not worship the antichrist get eternal life. Therefore walking away from Jesus Christ to side with the antichrist means a person is an unbeliever (1 John 2:18-23). Leaving Christ for another religion is rejecting Christ and Christians that do this are no longer believers in Christ, so they won’t get the promise attached to the belief required in John 3:16-21. When Jesus talks about Judgment day in Matthew 7:21-23 and Matt 25:31-46, he is talking to everyone since Judgment Day is in the future so this is not something for the pre-crucifixion era Jews only. Judgment Day is described in Revelation ch. 20, and people that scoff at God’s word will not be a part of the Kingdom.
Take a look at Judas and Peter. Peter denied Jesus three times and wasn’t even around for the crucifixion but Jesus came to him on the boat while he was fishing with the others in John 21 and encouraged him so he could lead the apostles to evangelize the world. Meanwhile, Judas also did miracles in Jesus’ name just like the others (Matt ch. 10) but he betrayed Jesus and never repented. Judas could have come back like Peter but instead, he chose suicide. Judas is an example of someone who became anti-christ and never came back so he was replaced (Acts 1:16-20).
Israel’s land was an inheritance, promised to them through Abraham. In Deut 9:4-6, God makes it clear they didn’t earn it with righteous acts. However, it was given under certain conditions and God said they would be exiled from it if they fail to keep the laws (Lev 18:24-28, Lev 20:22, Deut 28:63-68). You can’t lose something you earn but you can lose conditional gifts by breaking the conditions. If people earned salvation then it would be permanent because you can’t undo a work of the past. Wages that are earned belong to those who worked for them no matter what (Deut 24:15, Matt 20:1-16). However we don’t earn salvation since Jesus paid for it, and it is given based on the condition of our faith according to John 3:16-21.
Just because a gift was initially received doesn’t mean it can’t be thrown away afterward. If someone breaks a marriage covenant then the other party has a right to divorce. Once a couple has divorced there are no conjugal benefits because the marriage is over. Israel lost their land in exile because they broke the covenant (marriage) with God and that land was conditional on them keeping that covenant. Christian salvation is based on a marriage-like covenant with the messiah since the church is the “bride of Christ”, so likewise one can abandon their covenant with God. However, Israel was restored because even divorce can be reversed (Deut 24:1-4, Jer 29:4-14), likewise, apostate ex-Christians can return to God.
The option of salvation is available to everyone (1 Tim 2:4), but only those who meet the qualifications will actually have it (John 3:16-21). John 3:16-21 is an if/then statement, therefore our salvation is conditional based on faith. Faith is synonymous with trust, so if someone doesn’t trust God’s word, then that person doesn’t believe in Jesus since the proof he is the messiah is the bible itself. We don’t work for our salvation as other religions teach (Ep 2:8-9), but the condition for salvation is faith, and we must meet the conditions to receive the promise. In any, if/then statement changes in the condition affect the outcome, so people can lose faith and walk away from God. This means they cannot inherit eternal life because they are not operating in the faith that is required to receive eternal life. This is a deliberate choice, and not because of sin. Everyone struggles with sin but believers will always turn to God in those struggles. Obedience to God’s word is not possible without faith because people aren’t going to submit to something they don’t believe in. Those who love God wouldn’t want to stay in a sinful lifestyle, this distinguishes them from an unbeliever. Jesus reveals that not everyone will be saved in The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20), the Parable of Wheat and Weeds (Matt 13:24-43), and in the Parable of the Great Feast (Matt 22:1-14). Some people will reject him even after initially receiving him.
The Parable of the Sower (Matt 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, & Luke 8:4-15) is when Jesus distinguishes four kinds of people: Those that reject the gospel, those that fall away, those that live in sin, and those that live by the spirit and produce fruit. Sowing into the spirit leads to eternal life (Gal 6:8) because this produces the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22-23). People who are “bad ground” are people who reject the gospel, or they follow a false religious copy of Christianity, and therefore won’t receive eternal life. A deeper look at this parable here.
In Matt 22:14, Jesus says many are called but few are chosen. When reading the 13 verses before it we can see the full context. Jesus describes the offer of salvation through the new covenant as a wedding invitation, which is first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (Rom 1:16). The Israelites (Jews) are the first invited guest, but many of them rejected the offer. However, God extends the offer they rejected to the Gentiles. Many Gentiles come but one comes in the wrong attire (Matt 22:11).
Matt 22:11 (NLT) “But when the king came in to meet the guests, he noticed a man who wasn’t wearing the proper clothes for a wedding. 12 ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how is it that you are here without wedding clothes?’ But the man had no reply. 13 Then the king said to his aides, ‘Bind his hands and feet and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The proper attire is in reference to the holy spirit which in the new testament is associated with putting on clothes, or armor. This describes people who believe in Jesus, but don’t follow Jesus and the holy spirit and instead live according to their sinful nature. Following the spirit instead of the flesh is a sign of a true believer (Gal 5:16, Gal 6:8). Wearing the right clothes is a reference to having a truly repentant heart and a renewed mind (Rom 12:1-2). Paul says in Rom 8:9-17, that those who don’t have the holy spirit don’t belong to God. Only those who live by the Spirit are children of God. Spirit-filled people have put away their sinful nature. Paul and Peter make a similar analogy to wearing righteousness, like clothing, in Rom 13:14, Ep 4:24, Gal 3:27, 1 Pt 5:5-6, Col 3:12-14, etc. Also Rev 7:14, and 22:14 showcase the saints wearing the robes of righteousness. Lastly, Jesus is the first to use this analogy in Luke 24:49 when talking about being clothed or endued by the holy spirit.
The greek word enduo (ἐνδύσησθε) means “to be clothed with” and is used in many of the other scriptures from above including Matt 22:11. This means some people will think they are saved but will be rejected on judgment day (Matt 7:21-23). This is because they refuse to have faith in Jesus and receive the spirit of God and let him transform their hearts. Thus they will not qualify as the elect or chosen (Rom 8:30, 2 Tim 1:9). Even though they seem interested in the call, they didn’t put on (received) the holy spirit which helps us overcome sinful nature, so they will be cast out like those they rejected the invitation.
Righteousness doesn’t mean perfection, instead, it means a person trusts God’s ways and rejects sinful ideologies, and follows the holy spirit’s direction to live right. Jesus has a parable using Wheat and Weeds as an analogy in Matt 13:24-30. This parable is about a farmer planting wheat and his enemy planting weeds (tares). The farmer’s servants alert the farmer that weeds have been planted in his field and offer to dig them up immediately. However, the farmer tells his servants to let them grow up first because digging up the weeds will also dig up the weeds (wheat and tares look similar in the early stages). So they wait until harvest time and harvest them both and separate them, then store the wheat and burn the weeds. Jesus then explains the parable in Matt 13:36-43, saying that the wheat is God’s people who are filled with his spirit and live by his commands, and the weeds are those who reject the gospel and kingdom. Judgment Day is the harvest when they are separated and the wicked are burned in the Lake of Fire while the righteous are given Eternal Life.
In Revelation ch. 20, Satan is bound for 1000 years and Jesus reigns on earth for that time. While Satan is bound Jesus rules so that means everyone believes in Jesus, however, when Satan is freed it says that he will deceive the nations and he will draw out a remnant that rebels against Jesus. These people are believers by definition since there is no other religion for them to follow but Jesus. However, like with Adam and Even in the garden, Satan will trick them into believing his lies and they will rebel against God. I explore this specific event more in two other articles. One on distinguishing the Kingdom from a democracy, you can read that here. The other is on the process of salvation regarding whether or not proving God exists and the bible is true is enough to get someone saved, which can be read here.
False teachers were once believers but they got corrupted and started teaching heresy. These people lost faith in what is written and deliberately started deceiving others. 1 John 4 defines a false teacher/prophet as someone that rejects Jesus as messiah. Peter talks about this in 2 Peter ch. 2, saying that they “deny the Master who bought them” in reference to how Christ paid for their sins. Peter further says that these people were better off not knowing Christ in verses 20-22. Paul mentions some as well in 1 Tim 1:20, 2 Tim 2:17, and 2 Cor 11:1-15. Jesus refers to a woman called “Jezebel” in Rev 2:20. If they repented they will enter the kingdom but if they didn’t then they will be rejected as described in Matt 7:21-22.
Revelation 2:20 “But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman—that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet—to lead my servants astray. She teaches them to commit sexual sin and to eat food offered to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she does not want to turn away from her immorality. 22 “Therefore, I will throw her on a bed of suffering, and those who commit adultery with her will suffer greatly unless they repent and turn away from her evil deeds. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am the one who searches out the thoughts and intentions of every person. And I will give to each of you whatever you deserve.
Jesus warns about false prophets and teachers in his sermon on the mount and says we can discern them by their fruit. These people don’t count as believers.
Matt 7:15 “Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. 16 You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. 19 So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. 20 Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
James picks up Jesus’ point about a person’s actions (fruit) representing whether or not they truly believe.
James 2:18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” 19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20 How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? 21 Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. 23 And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. 24 So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone. 25 Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. 26 Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.
The point James is making is that true faith leads to action and keeping God’s commands is a product of our faith in God. We can’t ignore people in need or mistreat people and say we have faith in God that transformed us to be like him. When Christians sin, they are supposed to make things right because that is an act of love towards God and man. There are many people who believe God exists but that is not the same as receiving Christ and living by the spirit. James says “even demons believe in God” but that doesn’t make them saved. If a Christian losses faith in God’s word and rejects it, then they are an unbeliever. Faith is required to receive salvation (John 3:16-21) and it is required to please God (Heb 11:6), and inherit his kingdom. Paul, says unbelievers will NOT inherit the kingdom (Gal 5:16-26, Ep 5:1-20,1 Cor 6:9-20, 1 Tim 1:8-11), and Paul urges believers to live by the spirit (Gal 5:24-26, Ep 4:17-32). In addition, Peter urges in 2 Peter 1:3-11 that believers must develop into maturity with their walk with God or else they will risk falling away. Romans 11:22-23 contrasts unbelieving Jews with Christian Gentiles saying that Jews will be cut off from their covenant for rejecting Jesus, while Gentiles are grafted in. However, Jews can be put back if they believe in Christ. It also warns Gentiles that even though they were grafted in because of their faith, they can be removed if they fall away and stop believing.
Phil 2:12-13 says that Christians are to work at showing the results of their salvation as God’s spirit gives them the desire to follow God’s instructions, and the Spirit is only available to those who accept Jesus as Lord (Rom 8:5-17). Rom 8:1-2 even says there is no condemnation for those who walk in the Spirit rather than the flesh. That means people who live by their flesh will have condemnation while those who follow the spirit will get eternal life. This is backed up by Romans ch. 6 and Gal 6:7-8. The holy spirit is what renews a person’s mind so they no longer think like the world (Rom 12:1-2). This person agrees with the bible’s teachings and believes that Jesus paid for salvation from slavery to sin, so if they do make a mistake they can trust in faith that they are forgiven and the spirit will help them overcome it. Jesus tells people multiple times “go and sin no more” (John 5:14, John 8:11) so he never endorsed sin (John 5:30, John 12:48) and that is why he is against false teachers.
People can be believers at one point but then abandon God. If people rebel against God by walking away, have been practicing religion but never truly believed in Christ, or started teaching heresy like “all religions lead to God” or “being good by human standards is enough”, then they don’t actually believe what Jesus taught. Jesus said trusting what he did on the cross is the only way to be saved, and the covenant promise of eternal life that only he offers requires faith in what the Bible teaches. If a believer stops believing and dies in that state, then that person dies as an unbeliever, which means they don’t get eternal life. Denying the king is rejecting the kingdom (Matt 10:32-42), however, everyone is welcome to change their mind while they are alive.
Scriptures to review:
Matt 10:32 “Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.
Gal 6:7 Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. 8 Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit.
Philippians 2:12 Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. 13 For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.
Romans 11:17 But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in. So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. 18 But you must not brag about being grafted in to replace the branches that were broken off. You are just a branch, not the root. 19 “Well,” you may say, “those branches were broken off to make room for me.” 20 Yes, but remember—those branches were broken off because they didn’t believe in Christ, and you are there because you do believe. So don’t think highly of yourself, but fear what could happen. 21 For if God did not spare the original branches, he won’t spare you either. 22 Notice how God is both kind and severe. He is severe toward those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness. But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off. 23 And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree. 24 You, by nature, were a branch cut from a wild olive tree. So if God was willing to do something contrary to nature by grafting you into his cultivated tree, he will be far more eager to graft the original branches back into the tree where they belong.
1 John 2:18 Dear children, the last hour is here. You have heard that the Antichrist is coming, and already many such antichrists have appeared. From this we know that the last hour has come. 19 These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us. 20 But you are not like that, for the Holy One has given you his Spirit, and all of you know the truth. 21 So I am writing to you not because you don’t know the truth but because you know the difference between truth and lies. 22 And who is a liar? Anyone who says that Jesus is not the Christ. Anyone who denies the Father and the Son is an antichrist. 23 Anyone who denies the Son doesn’t have the Father, either. But anyone who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
1 John 4:1 Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world. 2 This is how we know if they have the Spirit of God: If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God. 3 But if someone claims to be a prophet and does not acknowledge the truth about Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist, which you heard is coming into the world and indeed is already here. 4 But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won a victory over those people, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world. 5 Those people belong to this world, so they speak from the world’s viewpoint, and the world listens to them. 6 But we belong to God, and those who know God listen to us. If they do not belong to God, they do not listen to us. That is how we know if someone has the Spirit of truth or the spirit of deception.
1 John 4:13 And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. 14 Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. 16 We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. 18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other because he loved us first. 20 If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? 21 And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers.
Jude 1:3 Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. 4 I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 6:4 For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened—those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come— 6 and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame. 7 When the ground soaks up the falling rain and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has God’s blessing. 8 But if a field bears thorns and thistles, it is useless. The farmer will soon condemn that field and burn it.
2 Peter 2:17 These people [false teachers] are as useless as dried-up springs or as mist blown away by the wind. They are doomed to blackest darkness. 18 They brag about themselves with empty, foolish boasting. With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception. 19 They promise freedom, but they themselves are slaves of sin and corruption. For you are a slave to whatever controls you. 20 And when people escape from the wickedness of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then get tangled up and enslaved by sin again, they are worse off than before. 21 It would be better if they had never known the way to righteousness than to know it and then reject the command they were given to live a holy life. 22 They prove the truth of this proverb: “A dog returns to its vomit.” And another says, “A washed pig returns to the mud.”