What about ‘defeated’ or ‘broken’ Christians; is there even such a category? I want to briefly touch upon this, because I see it as a real and present question that continues to confront us in the broader evangelical church. With the departure of Josh Harris, and now one of the lead writers for Hillsong music, Marty Sampson, we hear Calvinist proponents appealing to I John 2.19 in order to categorically cognize a way for thinking of people like this. But I want to push this beyond these sorts of departures; I want to broaden this out to include a consideration of Christian people who are so broken down by the circumstances of life that they may no longer even “evidence” a genuine justification in their lives. I want to think about people who still would profess Christ, but who have so capitulated to the seductions of their sinful-selves that for all intents-and-purposes they do not appear in any meaningful way to be a Christian. In fact per the Calvinist view they would appear to be part of the mass of people ‘who went from us because they never were one of us.’
In order to sharpen the above a little more finely let’s see how popular Calvinist, R.C. Sproul explicates I Jn. 2.19, and respond therefrom:
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19a).
Within the Protestant tradition, there have been two major concepts of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation): the Reformed view and the Arminian view. The doctrine of salvation taught by each system contains many points, of which we do not have the space to consider today. We will, however, discuss the security of the believer’s salvation, since today’s passage offers insight into this subject.
When we speak of the security of salvation we are trying to answer the question: “will the one with faith in Christ maintain this faith, or, is it possible for someone with faith to abandon Christ and lose his salvation?” Generally speaking, Arminian theology teaches it is possible to be converted genuinely and then later fall away from faith permanently. Reformed theology, on the other hand, teaches that all those with saving faith will persevere and never lose their salvation. Believers might waver in their profession, but over the course of their lives they will persist in the good works that evidence justification and finally be glorified.
Some profess Christ and later fall away, persuading many of the Arminian view. Verse 19 of today’s passage, however, tells us that when someone falls away, he never possessed saving faith. As we observed in 1 John 2:12–14, it was John’s audience that had true faith. It was this audience that believed in the incarnation, personal holiness, and love for other Christians. Had those who left the community truly been a part of it, they would have remained in this orthodox confession. They had but a transitory faith and did not hold to their confession. Thus their membership and conversion were false. All of those who abandon Christianity never knew Jesus in the first place. John Calvin comments on these verses that “they who fall away had never been thoroughly imbued with the knowledge of Christ, but had only a light and a transient taste of it.”
Some who call Jesus “Lord” are not true believers (Matt. 7:21). Faith-professers (the visible church) are not necessarily faith-possessers (the invisible church). Those who fall away finally never really knew Jesus in the first place.
This represents a typical Calvinist gloss on I Jn. 2.19a when applied to the question of ‘eternal security,’ or more broadly, soteriological concerns. This approach seems rather cut-and-dry. Since Harris and Sampson have renounced their Christian confession they clearly were never ‘one of us.’ To extrapolate out further: the Calvinist could equally look at someone so overburdened by sin that they would in most circumstances conclude that such people, likewise, were never of us. In a reduced way, if people appear to have no actual Holy Spirit resurrection power in their lives; if they succumb to a lifestyle and pattern of sin; they clearly, so the Calvinist reading of I Jn goes, were never one of us. But why would a Calvinist think this way; aren’t there other ways to frame and understand I Jn’s referent contextually?
As with all exegesis, the Calvinist interpretation of I Jn 2.19 flows from their prior commitment to a particular doctrine of God. For the classical Calvinist God’s Sovereignty, understood in a particular brute and determinist and logico-causal necessitarian way, is the very fundamentum (or foundation) of all that matters. God’s Sovereignty, His brute Creator Power is at stake in the question of I Jn. 2’s meaning. For example if we offered an alternative reading of I Jn 2 in contradistinction to the Calvinist reading, the Calvinist fears that God’s sovereignty has been undercut by subjection to our wills. This is why they cannot countenance the idea that anyone who ever has confessed Christ, then denied Christ, either in word or action, could have ever been of Christ. This indicates to them, if allowed, that God’s salvation, fully actualized or imposed upon the “elect” could have failed; as a consequence, then, God’s sovereign will has then been challenged and overcome. So, the Calvinist reads this understanding of God’s sovereignty into its exegesis of I Jn. 2.19a; as we see Sproul illustrating for us. But, this is why: there is an a priori theological commitment that stands behind and thus informs the exegesis.
However, if we reject the Calvinist, and more broadly, the substance metaphysics that the Calvinist doctrine of God arises from, we do not have to view people like Harris, Sampson, or defeated Christians as ‘never of us.’ Is it possible that someone has been covertly operating with a pseudo-confession of Christ all along? Yes. But this should not be, nor needs be the necessary conclusion every time we come across someone who has denied Christ in word or deed. There are other possibilities. It is possible for Christians to become so beat down by life’s circumstances that they end up veering off into idolatrous calamity to the point that they no longer “appear” to be Christian; however that is supposed to appear. Hear me though; I am not suggesting that there is no expectation of holiness, transformation, and maturation in the Christian’s life. What I am suggesting is that just because someone ‘goes out from us,’ does not of necessity mean ‘they were never of us;” or that they aren’t still of us.
My suggestion operates from a view of God’s sovereignty that is shaped by a God who is Father rather than Supreme Jurist. My view of God intentionally works from the Triune-logic that understands the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the shape of Who God is. And thus God’s act is in correspondence to who He is as Lover-in-Chief. In this view God is full of Grace towards us; most notably exemplified by His free choice to be for us with an irresistible drive to not lose us as ‘He became what we are that we might become what He is.’ It is within this frame that the category of ‘defeated and broken’ Christian makes sense; it is within this vista that a ‘confused’ or ‘searching’ Christian has some sort of purchase. The space provided for by this frame is a relational one, and understands that God’s timing with and for us is determined by His new-time that He has presented us with in the new creation of resurrection. It is within this expanse of new-time that there is space for Christians to be broken, even remain broken until God takes them home. They will be suffering consequences that He would like them to avoid, but He has promised to remain faithful even when they are faithless; and His enduring and indestructible humanity in Christ ensures this sort of broad space for His children to grow and even act unruly.
This whole discussion is a rather negative one, but I still think it needs to be had. When I go through seasons of brokenness, or when I have family members go through long seasons of defeat, I remain confident that because of Who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ they remain His children; often despite their best efforts to rupture that relationship. I write this from a first person perspective; I constantly SIN. I am aware of this reality, and can admit it by the Grace of Christ. I am always already simultaneously sinner and justified, and I live that simul out every day. This is what I don’t understand about the Calvinist exegesis, at an applied level. It is incoherent with lived experience. At a certain point the theologian has to come to terms with the reality that lived reality and theology have some level of mutual implication. Such that if the theology itself is so out of sync with what is lived, that there might well be something very wrong with the theology. If God’s sovereignty can be understood in a way that fits better with lived cruciform reality, then I think it behooves the theologian to repent of any prior theologies that conflict and that are less proximate with that sort of reality. The theology of the cross doesn’t shrug off the lived experience; it penetrates deep into its blood saturated soil and springs new life in the very midst of its brokenness. It provides a new way to be free before God, but it also does not ignore that the old way can leach people in ways that might make them appear to be ultimately lost; when in fact they are simply pen-ultimately broken, defeated, or confused.