When a mentor you have looked up to walks away from Christianity—especially when sin is involved—the result can be grief, confusion, doubt, and even fear that it could happen to you. After all, it’s hard not to think, “If that person who seemed to have it all together walked away from Christ, what hope do I have?”
Based on questions I’ve been receiving, I can see that many people have been unsettled by Joshua Harris’s announcement that he is no longer a Christian. How should we think about his leaving Christianity? How could this happen? Could it happen to me?
The person whose life moved me to want to become a Christian left the faith several years ago, so I understand how disorienting this can be. The truth is that we can’t know what’s in a person’s heart—what he believes and why. It’s easy to assume that everyone at your church is a Christian, but there are those who are part of Christian congregations—and sometimes even leaders—who are there for other reasons. Maybe that’s all they’ve known, and it’s just what they’ve learned to do. Maybe it’s a cultural lifestyle for them. Maybe they want to fit in, please their parents, or feel good about themselves. As Hebrews 3–6 points out, even those who were in the Exodus, who saw God’s dramatic miracles, died in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land because they didn’t unite what they saw of God with trust (i.e., faith) in Him.
In the same way today, there are tares growing among the wheat even in the church—people who aren’t really trusting in God, even if they know all the right things to say. But eventually, any person who doesn’t have true faith will fall away. No one can keep up a Christian lifestyle who isn’t fully loving God and trusting in His work of grace for us. Pressure to be holy and the weight of guilt will become too much if one doesn’t fully believe the gospel of grace. And pressure from the culture will become too much if one doesn’t love God enough to withstand the culture’s constant demands that we conform to its values.
I’ve found that when a person goes through intense suffering (whether from tragedy, guilt, or cultural pressure), the suffering will push him decisively to one corner or the other—either away from God or towards Him. (My friend left shortly after the death of a child. I’ve seen divorce accomplish the same.) I wrote a little about this idea of suffering bringing out the true condition of our hearts here. At the point of intense suffering, we either discover that we really do believe what God says and trust Him (even when we don’t understand why He didn’t prevent the suffering), or we decide He isn’t really there (or doesn’t care about us) and walk away.
I truly believe no one loses his salvation. This is why 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.” Personal guilt, pressure from the culture, and suffering will not cause a person to lose his salvation; they will merely bring out the truth about his heart. Time will tell if faith and salvation are genuine.
We see both aspects of this—that we will not lose our salvation, and that suffering reveals the truth of our salvation—in 1 Peter 1:3–9. First, because of “His great mercy,”
[God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In other words, salvation has been reserved for those who are born again. This is because not only has God caused us to be born again, but He is also protecting that salvation by His power—the kind of power that raises people from the dead. God’s power is at the root of our salvation and rebirth, and His power ensures our perseverance. Thank God (and I mean that literally) our salvation doesn’t depend on us, weak as we are!
Second, continuing in 1 Peter 1, we see that suffering reveals the value and imperishable nature of our salvation:
In this [i.e., Peter’s words about the salvation reserved for us] you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls.
We persevere because of our love for Christ, and we have love for Christ because of the power of God. The perseverance of our love shows the world that His value far exceeds any suffering we’re going through, and it proves we love and trust Him above all else. This brings God glory.
Now, God calls us to persevere as well as tells that we will. This is because He uses means to keep us in Him. It’s good to think through your understanding of suffering before you go through suffering. It’s good to spend time communing with God and learning about who He is through prayer and reading His words. It’s good to resist temptations, confess sins, and embrace God’s gracious forgiveness. It’s good to work at increasing and exercising your trust in God. It’s good to confront your doubts and look for answers to your questions. And it’s good to spend time in worship and fellowship with other believers. These are the things God has called us to, the means He uses to mature us, strengthen us, and enable our perseverance. But in all these things, we rest in God’s grace and power, knowing that “no one will snatch [us] out of [His] hand” (John 10:28).
As for what we learned from our mentors before they left Christ, even an unsaved person can tell others true things, including wisdom from the Bible and even the gospel (see Philippians 1:15–18, for example). The fact that a respected mentor has walked away from Christianity shouldn’t automatically cause us to reject the things he taught. We should consider whether or not his teachings were true, and this we do by measuring the teachings themselves rather than the person who taught them to us. Don’t let this discourage you. It’s a testimony to God’s power, and it’s to His glory, that He uses all sorts of people in our lives for His purposes, regardless of their motivations.