Sadness and terror simultaneously fill my heart when I think about all the departures from the Christian faith I’ve witnessed in my short six years of following Jesus. I have seen so many friends experience what seemed to be a legitimate conversion only to then prove its illegitimacy by despising the gospel they once supposedly cherished. One moment they appeared to be joyfully walking with God, and then out of nowhere—to my shock and horror—they began trampling all over his Son (Hebrews 10:29). I’m not talking about just a little backsliding or a bit of stumbling. These guys and gals flat out rejected Jesus. Today, they proudly admit that they couldn’t care less about the biblical realities of sin, judgment, or God’s gracious offer of redemption. They are utterly finished with Christianity.
Watching people you love turn from Jesus and strut toward eternal destruction is obviously a somber experience. But it doesn’t just grieve me—it also scares the mess out of me. My friends so convincingly appeared to be born again! I was involved in many of their journeys toward a decision to follow Christ, and you could not have persuaded me that they had become anything less than bona fide believers. Their transformations looked just like mine. They walked, talked, prayed, and praised just like me. If they could so easily fall away, how can I assume I won’t eventually do the same?
Matthew’s gospel offers us some scary yet potentially life-saving insight. If you aren’t familiar with Jesus’ parable about The Sower, please check out the entire passage here. For length’s sake, I’m only going to paste the section I want to focus on in this post:
“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away . . . As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” – Matthew 13:5-6, 20-21
Sadly, my friends who fell away were “rocky ground” kind of people. There was something inside of them that initially found the gospel appealing, but it wasn’t enough to sustain faith and repentance. Maybe the dominant motivation of their heart was to sail smoothly and happily through this life, and they thought Christianity would give them that? Maybe desperation to find good friends or a decent spouse drove them to Jesus and his church? Maybe they were just afraid of Hell? I can’t know what was going on in their hearts, but I can know—because they now reject the gospel—that 1) they didn’t long to be rescued from the penalty and power of sin, and 2) they didn’t see a relationship with Jesus as the most valuable treasure they could ever possess. As soon as life wasn’t running smoothly, church friendships weren’t as dreamy as anticipated, potential spouses were scarce, and the paralyzing fear of God’s fiery wrath wore off a little, they bailed. Gratitude and love weren’t tethering these folks to Jesus. Something else—something incapable of sustaining the Christian life—was keeping their fake-faith afloat.
I don’t know about you guys, but at all costs I want to avoid being rocky ground. I want my heart to be the good soil that Jesus speaks of in his parable:
“Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty . . . As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” – Matthew 13:8, 23
How do we ensure the “soil” of our hearts is suitable for the survival of our faith? Well, the Holy Spirit is the one who possesses heart-transforming power—not us. He has to make our hearts into good soil—we can’t. However, Paul does instruct professing believers to test themselves to see if they are following Jesus for the right reasons (2 Corinthians 13:5). The author of Hebrews does the same (Hebrews 3:12) and encourages his readers to draw near to the throne of grace for mercy and help (Hebrews 4: 16). In many different words, the Bible exhorts us over and over again to keep watch over our hearts (Proverbs 4:23) and to stick close to the God who helps those who trust in him (Psalm 37:39-40). Therefore, I think we have two big roles in perseverance:
1) We need to regularly survey our hearts, asking ourselves hard questions and answering them honestly: Why am I really following Jesus? Do I see how desperate my need is for salvation? Do I love Jesus or is there something else motivating me to follow him? Am I in this for temporary blessings? Do I just want my best life now?
2) We must continually draw near to God and ask him to do what only he can do: Lord, soften my heart! Uproot my faulty motivations and impure intentions! Protect me from the heart-darkening deceitfulness of sin! Keep me from the Evil One! Give me eyes to see and ears to hear! Sustain me!
There is both bad and good news for every single one of us today. The bad news is that we are all going to find scary things lurking about in our hearts. Most of us will discover genuine affection for God and a desire to obey him simply because he is worthy. But we are also going to see less-than-godly motivations mingled in there as well. Such is the struggle of being wholly forgiven but only partially redeemed (for now) people! However, the fantastic news is that God doesn’t withhold good gifts—like the empowering presence of his Spirit—from those who love him. God is happy to display the marvelous power of his grace by refusing to allow our sinful desires to get dominion over us and lure us away from his saving love. If we want to hold tightly to Jesus, God is faithful to strengthen our grip. If we want to stand firm in the grace of the gospel, God is faithful to plant our feet. Simply wanting these things indicates that he is already keeping us in a good-soil state!
Watching people fall away from the faith is terrifying. It should motivate us to examine our own hearts and repent as needed, lest we find ourselves in the same position one day. But if today we are trusting solely and wholly in Jesus, we have all the reason in the world to be confident that God will see us through to the very end! We must be watchful and prayerful, but we can also rest in the truth that God is not willing to let those whom he has foreknown, predestined, called, and justified fall away before they reach glory (Romans 8: 29-30). If we are in Christ, we are secure in the sovereign Father’s hand—no one will snatch us from him (John 10:29).