Can a Christian Fall Away & Return to God?

Question from a Site Viewer
Initially, I joined a Baptist church, and believed to accept Jesus in seventh grade and was baptized. For a couple years I was really involved. But then I fell away. I prayed at times and felt I could live in a worldly fashion–greedy for money, hungry for lust, etc.–then just ask for forgiveness and be safe. I grew in anger and hostility to religion. I really fell away and turned and said things I now regret.

I am now 29. Recently, all of a sudden I have had this burning and overwhelming desire to read the Bible and search for meaning. I have become hardened over time, and I do struggle with temptations and wrongful thoughts. But now the Gospel is hitting me and I know I have erred.

I am deeply troubled however by Hebrews 6:4-6 and 2 Peter 2:20-22 and Hebrews 10:26. Is it not possible for someone to return to repentance after having denied God earlier? Can a person who goes through the motions, then goes his own way, come to repentance? Or have I crossed a point of no return? Is it impossible to truly follow Jesus Christ again and be saved as these verses seem to indicate? Or is falling away a consistent state that can be broken? 1 Timothy 1:13 is troubling as well. What if one willfully sins after having knowledge? Can a Christian fall away and ever receive God’s mercy again? I am really struggling with these sorts of chapters dealing with apostasy. I just feel like I am lost. Please help!

Tim’s Answer
First, I would commend to you the article Does God Want Me Back, where we address your question as it relates to Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26. God is the God Jesus told us about in Luke 15. He always welcomes the sinner back. No matter how badly His people have sinned, His desire is their return. If you fall away and return, the Father will welcome you with open arms. If you have trouble believing this, I challenge you sometime to begin with Isaiah and read through all of the prophets and mark how badly they had sinned and how many times God continued to call them to repent. And even when they ultimately did not repent, and God brought judgment, God promised to go with them into captivity and to bring them back. As He says in Ezekiel 18, He has no pleasure in the death of those who fall away, but rather wants them to repent. He is the Father who has more joy over one sinner who repents than over 99 sheep who need no repentance. From Abraham to Peter, we have a long history of God’s people falling away and the Father welcoming them back when they turn to Him. So, I can say with confidence that even if you fall away, if you seek God, you will find Him and in your finding your heart will be delighted.

You ask about 2 Peter 2:20-22. The character of false teachers is that they have no desire to repent. They desire the pigpen, the vomit. The point is that they never knew Christ, but were always pigs and dogs. They were never sheep. They did not fall away. The 2 Peter passage does not speak to the issue of those who desire to repent. For such people, God’s arms are always open. He delights in our return. Is this not the entire point of the parable of the prodigal son?

And if he did not delight in our return, there would not be a person on earth that would have any hope. While you may have fallen away like the prodigal son and others may be like the elder son, both needed to have a father who was willing to forgive them. Each of us have sinned. We may think some sins are big and some are small, but the point is that we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. And, we all have sinned willfully. Those who think otherwise are deceiving themselves. If the Father did not forgive our sins, none of us would have any hope. But His great desire is to have His creation be in fellowship with Him.

You ask about 1 Timothy 1:13, where Paul found mercy because he sinned ignorantly in unbelief. That passage is an interesting passage. Translated woodenly, the passage reads “because being ignorant I did [it] in unbelief.” The focus is that the mercy was extended, not because of ignorance, but because of unbelief. Mercy is always needed for unbelief. It is not needed for belief. Mercy did not come because of ignorance, but because of unbelief. As A.T. Robertson points out in his tome A Grammar of the New Testament, the participle “being ignorant” carries a “manner” meaning rather than a “causal” meaning. Stated in another way, Paul lived and did all of these things in the state of unbelief, while he was ignorant. God’s mercy was extended because of Paul’s unbelief, not because of Paul’s ignorance. Paul’s ignorance was an accompanying manner or characteristic of his unbelief, but it was not the reason for the mercy. The mercy came because of the unbelief, which is why we all need mercy.

The context also draws us to this reading. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul states that he was the chief of sinners. There are no sinners greater than Paul was. God is not saying, and Paul is not saying, that there are certain sinners who act ignorantly and on these God will have mercy but for the greater sinners who act deliberately God will not have mercy. Such a reading would do violence to the text. How can Paul be the worst of sinners if he only sinned ignorantly while others sin intentionally? This makes no sense. And if Paul is making a distinction between willful and ignorant sins, then how could God ever show all longsuffering to Paul as a pattern for the rest of us? None of the rest of us can claim that we have never sinned willfully. The passage should not be read to state that God used Paul as this great example to us but actually there is no hope for the rest of us because Paul’s example does not fit us. Such would turn the passage on its head.

Moreover, all of Scripture is filled with examples of intentional sins. Abraham asked Sarah to lie for him; David murdered Uriah; Manasseh did more evil than all the kings before him; Peter denied Christ, the prodigal son left his family for an intentional life of sin . . . If we take the position that intentional sins are not forgiven, then are we consigning Abraham, David, Manasseh, and Peter to hell? Did not all these believers fall away? Did Jesus misspeak when He told about the reception of the prodigal son?

I read 1 Timothy 1:13 as saying that God extended mercy precisely because of the need for mercy in Paul. Paul was acting in unbelief and was ignorant, and needed mercy. That is the condition of us all before we come to Christ (see Ephesians 4:18). We are ignorant and are in unbelief.

In any event, Paul in 1 Timothy 1:13 is talking about his conversion to Christ. He is not talking about the forgiveness of sins and restoration of fellowship for believers. To those who are believers and err, Paul admonishes the church to restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1). There is forgiveness with God. It is His nature and delight to forgive, restore, and renew hearts.

My encouragement to you is to seek God. I have long thought that even if Scripture said there was no hope, the proper response of us all would be to petition heaven and seek to serve God, understanding like the Ninevites of old that perhaps God will change His mind (Jonah 3:7-9; see also David in 2 Samuel 12:22). God may be gracious even as He was to Israel after He told them they had gone too far and He was through with them (Judges 10:13, 16; 11:32). But we do not face such a situation. Rather, we have a God who pleads with us to return to Him. As Isaiah 55:6-7 so eloquently states:

Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord and He will have mercy on him and to our God for He will abundantly pardon.

If you will spend your lifetime seeking and serving God in mercy, truth, and love, you will come to the end of life a happy man. You will be surprised how through the years your life is transformed into the image of His Son, Jesus. Instead of hatred, there will be love; instead of irritation, there will be longsuffering. Instead of sadness, there will be joy. Instead of anxiety, there will be peace. Instead of being controlled by one’s emotions, there will be self-control so that the emotions serve you and do not imprison you. You will experience some of heaven on this earth, as you experience the Holy Spirit in the life of following Christ.

And though it may take some time to reform your mind to get rid of the things you have placed in there, through memorization of the Word, prayer, and focus, you can win that battle and look back with thanksgiving and gratitude to God for a mind, heart, and life that feels clean and pure.

May the Lord Jesus be the brother besides you, the companion within you, and the joy before you.

a fellow pilgrim,

tim

21 thoughts on “Can a Christian Fall Away & Return to God?

  1. vehoae

    I’m a child of God, a believer & follower of Jesus Christ, my Lord, Savior, King. My first baptism at 13 was to keep my best friend company in the baptistry. After 18, my life was mostly spent in extreme disobedience of God. In my late 50s, I began studying scriptures to determine what they say to me, not what church elders say they mean. My life changed. Was baptized for the right reason at local Baptist congregation. Really baptized….for the right reason. There’ve even been times since then when I’ve disobeyed God. Much confusion has resulted about repentance and forgiveness after turning away from Truth. This article has been of such relief & blessing to this 68-year-old woman.

    Reply
  2. Desi

    May God bless you for this Tim. I hope there are more people who truly repent and search for God’s mercy reading this.

    Reply
  3. Samuel

    I am in the case of a truly born again Christian who has fallen away about one year ago. Back then I felt the Holy Spirit leave me and I got more and more aware of God’s wrath on me. I asked God for forgiveness hundreds of times, sincerely asking him to come back into my life but all I have had for answer is emptiness in my soul. There is no more love in my heart; I am alive but dead inside. I don’t know where to walk anymore; I feel completely lost, with no more purpose. God is condemning me. I feel cursed and abandoned with no more hope of ever receiving his mercy again. I have become heavily depressed. What should I do?

    Reply
    1. Hope

      God will never forsake you. He forgives when you ask for forgiveness. He loves you so much, so much more than I can possibly explain. It is our own hearts that make us feel empty and condemned, even after we ask for forgiveness. Our Lord is a gracious God who does forgive, and who is aching now for the pain you feel. Your life is precious, to Him and to your friends and family – even to me. The Lord loves you and is there for you, even if you cannot currently feel Him.

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    2. Stephanie

      Thank you! I’ve found myself also giving myself a pep talk when I felt downtrodden, but I’m only human. I can do nothing without God.

      Reply
  4. Ken Collins

    Tim,

    Thank you for allowing the LORD to use you in sharing this information. My situation is similar to the young man who posed the question, as well as to vehoae. I am 49 years old soon to be 50. This post has helped to realize that there is hope to my own situation, as I love the LORD and I want to live his way. Thanks so much!!

    Reply
  5. C. J.

    Jesus said once that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. When asked about this further Jesus said that all things are possible with GOD. Whether you are rich or have truly fallen away or whatever, never stop seeking him for he is the GOD of love and mercy. If you seek HIM you will find HIM with HIS arms wide open running to meet you again.

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      1. Alex

        Stop believing that mortal sin catholic heresy. We will sin until the day we die; lots of people struggle with wrongful and sinful thoughts, myself included. 1 John 1:9 says,

        If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

        He died for those evil thoughts; don’t condemn yourself, but don’t dwell in sinful thought either. You do not need to go to a priest for your sins to be forgiven. That’s ridiculous! Go and confess it straight to the Lord and ask for his help with the sins you struggle with. And this does NOT mean go on in your sin willfully. Jesus told us to pick up our cross and deny ourselves, and in Romans it says — shall we sin that grace may abound? GOD FORBID!

        Reply
  6. Michael

    I have walked in similar footsteps. I was baptized in 2013 after which I turned back to a lifestyle that was exceedingly sinful. Drugs, alcoholism, fornication, deep hatred of self and others. Toward the end of 2014 I came home to our heavenly father. It has been a healing process and a process of removing these addictions. Spend time praying and reading your Bible. God is faithful to forgive. You need to give these feelings to God and continually seek him. Repent of sins and don’t look back (stop thinking about them). A good father never leaves his children. Jesus said “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

    Reply
  7. Steph

    Tim’s response made me weep. I had a falling away roughly over a three-year period. But God, who is rich in mercy, graciously brought me back to repentance. Upon being brought back I was struggling with some issues. I was questioning my salvation and wondering if I was ever even really saved. I looked worse than an unbeliever in my falling away. I love that God doesn’t allow His children to be truly happy or have that inner peace that surpasses all understanding when we fall away. I opened my Bible and read Luke 15:4-7 (The Parable of the Lost Sheep). I realized that was me. And there really was joy in heaven over my return. I bawled some heavy tears of repentance and joy!

    Reply
  8. Steph

    What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!” I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
    Luke 15:4-7

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  9. Charlene

    Every day we get up and choose to honor God with thanksgiving. We are building up the Kingdom of God that lives in us and taking back what the devil has stolen. We may not see it in our natural eyes or feel it all the time. By faith, knowing His word is true, we walk on towards the goal. Jesus Himself was able to go through the torment of crucifixion keeping His eyes on the hope that was set before Him.

    . . .the suffering of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us.
    Romans 8:18

    Jesus did the hard part for us. All we need to do is choose to walk in His glory, knowing that we are forgiven, being thankful for the gift of salvation that has been “freely” given.

    Reply
  10. Quintin

    I want you all to know how incredibly encouraging it is to know I am not the only one who battles with the feelings of condemnation. I was truly born again two years ago after being baptized a week earlier. The presence of the spirit of Christ was overwhelming for a period of time. Over time I began to fall away back into the flesh and the old person I was. Now I don’t recognize the spirit like I once did. Now the condemnation is overwhelming at times. I am thankful however I am not the only one. The devil has a way of isolating us and making us feel like we’re all alone with nowhere to go. You are not alone. You are loved.

    Reply
    1. Kat

      As far as the east is from the west so our Lord will remove and forgive our sins. If we repent, confess all and walk in righteousness we have redemption according to the riches of his grace! Ask for grace and draw near to Him . . . God’s grace is abundant and we are saved for an eternity by grace!

      Reply
  11. Kat

    Talk to the lord ask him to turn your fear into faith and fill you with the Holy Spirit read his word and pray daily for grace he will meet you where you are! Pray confess he will redeem you! God bless

    Reply
  12. Theodore Hyczko

    James 5 if a person wanders from the truth and somebody brings him back love covers over a multiude of sin

    Reply

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