Home Outreach Leaders Articles for Outreach & Missions Can a Genuine Christian Backslide?

Can a Genuine Christian Backslide?

In his 1801 work, The Backslider: His Nature, Symptoms and Recovery, Andrew Fuller distinguished between two different types of backsliders, a Judas and a Peter. The Parable of the Sower helps distinguish them:

Like the blossoms of spring, they for a time excited our hopes; but a blight has succeeded; the blossom has gone up as the dust, and the root in many cases appears to be rottenness.

Fuller encouraged pastors to strengthen the diseased and to bind up the broken and preach and teach in such a way to deepen the roots of the seed that has taken root in shallow soil. He said there are different types of backsliders, some, like Judas, were never saved, others, like Peter, will return. Gratefully, I was like Peter. As Fuller writes, God used my own wickedness to strike terror into my heart and used it as a means of drawing me back to himself.

All backsliding from God originates in a departure of heart from him… Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee. Know, therefore, and see, that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou has forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord of hosts. But the degrees of this sin, and the modes in which it operates, are various.

But how can it be that a disciple of Christ can fall prey to any of the members of the unholy trinity Scripture sets forth as the world, the flesh and the devil? Luther’s famous theological formulation simul justus et peccator—simultaneously a saint and a sinner—is pertinent here. The Christian is just that—a redeemed sinner, who remains in a struggle with indwelling sin until death or the return of Christ. But a genuine follower of Christ will persevere to the end, even if his or her walk with Christ takes a side road for a season.

Final Apostasy—Big Deal or Not?

What about the doctrine of the final apostasy of genuine believers? Is it a secondary doctrine on which Christians may “agree to disagree” without much being lost in the details? It is far more dangerous to reject this doctrine than perhaps first meets the eye. Like the house that sits on an old, crumbling foundation, rejection of perseverance renders unstable many other critical doctrines that rely on it as a solid foundation.

If genuine believers can lose their salvation and be cast away forever, consider the collateral damage to other biblical doctrines:

Election and Predestination

If God chose His people in Christ before the foundation of the world, is it possible for those same people to then “unchoose” themselves? No matter one’s view of election, final apostasy seems to render meaningless Scripture’s teaching on God’s eternal predestining of a people. Even if one holds to election based solely on foreknowledge, final apostasy seems to make God unreliable at best.


According to Mark 10:45, Christ gave His life as a ransom for many. Jesus bore God’s wrath we deserved so He could buy us back from the curse of the law. If a ransomed one can be finally lost, doesn’t that then mean that the ransom price paid was not enough to actually purchase its intended product—the eternal salvation of God’s people? Final apostasy also seems to undermine the substitutionary nature of the atonement, since Christ was condemned in the place of His people. This view would seem to indicate that due to an exercise of their free will some of God’s people have once again fallen under condemnation with their sins no longer covered by the sacrifice of the substitute—even though they were once covered through the blood of Christ.

Justification by Faith

Justification is a legal declaration that says because of faith in Christ’s work on the cross, one is no longer guilty, positionally or legally, before God. Final apostasy seems to undermine God’s verdict and re-establish guilty charges against those who were exonerated by faith in Christ. This view mangles the foundational Reformation truth of sola fide.

Indwelling (or Sealing) of the Holy Spirit

In Ephesians 1:13-14, Paul describes believers as those who have been “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” It seems that a doctrine of final apostasy undermines Paul’s teaching of the Spirit given as a down payment guaranteeing salvation. If salvation can be lost, then the guarantee is meaningless, as is the down payment. And yes, we can grieve the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), but can we evict him? Scripture never says that.

Promises of God

In John 10, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish and no one will snatch them out of my hand…and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” Also, Philippians 1:6 promises that God will complete the work He begins in His people, and the glorious passage in Romans 8:31-39 promises that nothing can separate the believer from the love of God. But how comforting are these promises if we can, as some argue, remove ourselves from Christ’s hand or circumvent the work God has begun in us? In what way do they remain as promises? If these promises are not true, doesn’t that undermine the very Word of God? Can we trust a God who is unable to keep His promises from being undone by the power of human choice? Is the will of man stronger than the will of God?

Intercessory Work of Christ

If Christ lives to intercede for us as Hebrews and Romans 8 contend and as John 17 and Luke 22 demonstrate, then in what meaningful way can we trust His prayers if He does not get what he prays for? If Christ prays that we will be kept as in John 17 and those prayers are frustrated, then it would seem to undermine both His intercessory work and His infallibility—Christ prays and then hopes His prayers will be answered and that we will remain in the faith, but our future salvation remains uncertain.

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Jeff is a senior editor for The Gospel Coalition. A native of Blairsville, Ga., Jeff holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The University of Georgia, a Master of Divinity in biblical and theological studies and a Ph.D. in historical theology with an emphasis on Baptist history from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. He is pastor of New City Church in Louisville, KY. Jeff and his wife Lisa have been married for 19 years and have four children.