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Does 1 John 2:19 Prove That Genuine Christians Never Fall Away and Lose Salvation?

by Max Aplin  
10/22/2018 / Salvation


One area of disagreement among Christians concerns falling away from the faith, also known as apostasy. Some say that God will never allow a born-again believer to apostatize and finally end up in hell. Others say that this does sometimes happen. 

Personally, I much prefer the view that genuine Christians do sometimes apostatize. I think this view fits best with the overall teaching of the Bible. 

A SUPPOSED PROOF TEXT 

One verse that is often said to prove that God never allows apostasy is 1 John 2:19. Here John states: 

“They left us, but they did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they left, so that it would be made clear that none of them belong to us.” 

Those who say that God never allows genuine Christians to apostatize often argue in the following way about this verse: 

John is referring here to a recent split in his Christian circle, when some left the circle. He says that those who left would have remained if they had genuinely belonged to the circle. This shows that those who left were never genuine, born-again Christians. And, by implication, it shows that anyone who is a genuine Christian will certainly remain in the faith. Therefore, God will never allow a genuine, born-again believer to fall away and lose salvation. 

POTENTIAL WAYS OF INTERPRETING JOHN’S WORDS 

It is true that in this verse John is referring to a recent split in his Christian circle, when some false believers left. And it is true too that he is saying that those who left would have remained if they had genuinely belonged. 

Nevertheless, the above interpretation is not the only way the words can be taken. In fact, there are two potential ways of interpreting this verse. 

Interpretation 1 

Firstly, there is the interpretation given above, of those who say that the verse shows that God never allows the apostasy of genuine believers. We can call this interpretation 1. 

Under this interpretation, when John says, “they did not belong to us,” he means that they were never genuine believers. We could use additions in square brackets to show what John means under this interpretation: 

“They left us, but they did not belong to us [at any point in time]. For if they had belonged to us [at any point in time], they would have remained with us. But they left, so that it would be made clear that none of them belong to us.” 

In interpretation 1, John is doing the following: 

(a) He is telling his readers that the people who left his circle were false Christians at the time they left. 

(b) He is telling his readers that these people are still false Christians. 

(c) He is telling his readers that these people were always false Christians. 

(d) He is implying that genuine Christians do not fall away from the faith. 

Interpretation 2 

Secondly, there is the interpretation of this verse that I take. We can call this interpretation 2. 

Under this interpretation, when John says, “they did not belong to us,” he isn’t saying that these people were never genuine believers. Rather, he just means that they were not genuine believers at the time they left. We could use additions in square brackets to show what John means under this interpretation: 

“They left us, but they did not belong to us [at the time they left]. For if they had belonged to us [at the time they left], they would have remained with us. But they left, so that it would be made clear that none of them belong to us.” 

In interpretation 2, John is doing the same as (a) and (b) above: 

(a) He is telling his readers that the people who left his circle were false Christians at the time they left. 

(b) He is telling his readers that these people are still false Christians. 

However, in this interpretation John is not doing (c) or (d). He is not saying anything about whether or not those who left his circle were ever genuine believers. And he is not implying anything about whether or not God ever allows genuine believers to apostatize. 

WEIGHING UP THESE INTERPRETATIONS 

So which of these interpretations is the right one? Is John telling his readers that those who left never genuinely belonged to his circle, as in interpretation 1? Or is he telling them that those who left didn’t genuinely belong to his circle at the time they left, as in interpretation 2? 

Answering an objection to interpretation 2 

To begin with, I am sure that many would want to object to interpretation 2 in this way: 

When John says of those who left, “they did not belong to us,” he means that they were not genuine Christians. And for him to tell his readers that these people were not genuine Christians at the time they left, as in interpretation 2, is too obvious to bother mentioning. So he must be telling his readers that these people had never been genuine Christians, as in interpretation 1. 

It is true that when John says of those who left, “they did not belong to us,” he means that they were not genuine Christians. But I would suggest that it does make sense to think that he would have bothered to tell his readers that those who left were not genuine believers at the time they left: 

One of John’s aims in this letter seems to be to warn his readers about how bad those who left really were and are. Reading between the lines, it seems that his readers may well have thought that those who left were genuine Christians who had some moderately significant disagreements with those they left behind, but nothing more serious than that. However, in reality those who left were nothing other than heretics. So John wants to make his readers aware of how seriously wrong these people really were and still are (1 John 2:18, 22-23, 26; 4:1-6). 

I think we could paraphrase the verse in this way: 

“You need to understand the truth about those who left us. Don’t go thinking that they are genuine brothers and sisters in Christ, and that we are really on the same side. They left because they believe heresy. These are bad people. They are false Christians. If they were genuine brothers and sisters, they wouldn’t have left us for the reasons they did.” 

I think this is the information that John is aiming to convey in this verse. And if it is, it makes perfect sense that he would tell his readers that those who left were not genuine believers at the time they left, as in interpretation 2. 

Please note that I am not arguing here that interpretation 2 should be preferred over interpretation 1. I am simply arguing that the above objection to interpretation 2 can quite easily be answered. 

Nothing else strongly supports interpretation 1 or 2 

There is nothing else in the verse itself or its immediate context that counts as significant support for interpretation 1 or interpretation 2. 

There is one point that perhaps counts as slight support for interpretation 1. Under interpretation 2, we have to understand the unexpressed time restriction “at the time they left” to apply to “they did not belong to us.” Under interpretation 1, however, there is no unexpressed time restriction that needs to be understood. It is possibly slightly easier not to have to understand an unexpressed time restriction. 

On the other hand, there is one point that perhaps counts as slight support for interpretation 2. Under interpretation 1, part of what John is doing is making a comment on the status of those who left at a time before they left. However, we might have expected him more probably to have limited his focus to the time they left and after then. 

These, however, are minor points. And in any case, they seem to cancel each other out. 

CONCLUSION 

Basically, if we take account only of the verse itself and its immediate context, 1 John 2:19 can easily be read either according to interpretation 1 or according to interpretation 2. John could potentially, as in interpretation 1, be implying that it is not possible for a genuine believer to fall away and be lost. Or he could potentially, as in interpretation 2, be simply saying that those who left his circle were not genuine Christians at the time they left. 

Furthermore, even if we take interpretation 2, and understand John to be focusing on the time the heretics left, this says nothing about whether or not God ever allows genuine believers to fall away and lose salvation. 

To reach a firm conclusion about whether 1 John as a whole teaches that God ever allows genuine Christians to apostatize, we would need to take all the letter into account. But I don’t intend to do that in this article. 

My aim in the article has been very limited and very simple. All I have been trying to do is show that in itself, and before taking other passages into account, 1 John 2:19 is inconclusive on whether God allows genuine Christians to fall away and lose salvation. 

As I have noted, there are many who use this verse as a proof text for the view that He never allows apostasy. This, however, is a big mistake. The verse does not even come close to proving this.

 

For a broader discussion of this topic, see my article: 

Does God Ever Allow Born-Again Christians to Fall Away and Lose Salvation? 

 

See also my articles: 

Does Romans 8:29-30 Prove That Genuine Christians Never Fall Away and Lose Salvation? 

Biblical Warnings against Losing Salvation 

Christian Teachers and Evangelists Should Speak Often about Hell

I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com

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