How Do We Respond When a Pastor Leaves the Faith?
Pastor John and I recently recorded a few episodes live in Nashville in front of about 2,500 friends who joined us early in the morning for the recording. There we addressed one of the most common questions you’ve been asking. Have a listen.
As I read the emails that come in and hear from podcast listeners, there’s nothing that dominates the conversation right now more than the fact that a very prominent leader within our circles has “de-converted.” He’s calling it a “de-conversion.” You know him, and he was my pastor for four years — a beloved pastor. A lot of people just don’t know how to handle the news. Online, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing: Is this big American evangelical celebrity culture gone wrong? Is this the consequence of huge Reformed conferences even like this one? Is this the backlash of the “repressive purity movement” gone wrong? Is this a leader who was given too much responsibility too young? On and on. There’s lots of finger-pointing.
But I’ve noticed a different tone among self-reflective leaders. They realize, “This could be me. If he could fall, this could be me.” So what would you say to those of us in this room who have a healthy distrust of our own hearts, who look at this man who has now walked away from the gospel, and we say, “Could this happen to me too? Could I one day walk away from the gospel, walk away from my spouse, walk away from Christ?” What would you say?
The short answer is yes. And the interesting thing about that answer is that, for a lot of people, it seems to call into question the doctrine of eternal security, which I believe. It shouldn’t call into question the doctrine of eternal security to say, “Yes, I could commit apostasy this afternoon and go to hell.” I wonder if that’s a jarring juxtaposition for you: I believe in the doctrine of eternal security, and I could go to hell this afternoon. Let me give some background and then try to maybe say one or two helpful things about our present situation.
‘Hold On to Me, God’
I just finished writing a book on providence and am just brimming with the sovereignty of God. I love the sovereignty of God. I see it on almost every page in the Bible. It is a precious doctrine to me, and one of the ways to say it is this: Nothing you do originates the decisive act or impulse that saves you. I think that’s the wording I would use. Nothing you feel, nothing you think, nothing you will, nothing you do originates the act of the soul or the act of the body that causes God to elect you, predestine you, call you, keep you, or glorify you. All of it is a free gift.
“You are secure in Christ, but your security is totally in the hands of God.”TweetShare on Facebook
So, nobody should have the mindset, “I can keep this from happening. I can.” No, you can’t. God can. Now, once you say that, it can throw you really off-balance. If you think you’re in charge of your salvation, and you hear somebody say, “You’re not; God is,” it can make you feel unstable. To replace your sense of self-stability with God’s stability requires some Bible knowledge and some prayer and some deep soul work. You need to go to texts like this one:
Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29–30)
Nobody falls out. That’s why I believe in eternal security. Between foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification, nobody will be missing — none. That’s rock-solid security and assurance. And there are more texts:
“He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). He will.
“He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
“[He] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
Over and over, we find these statements: You are secure in Christ, but your security is totally in the hands of God. If God is faithful to you, you will make it. If you don’t make it, he didn’t cause you to make it. So, that’s the foundation to what I believe and think.
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25)
Why that tremendous celebration of God’s keeping power? Because I’ll never make it. I will never make it. At 73, I go to my knees almost every day and say, “Hold on to me.” The remaining corruption in every human being’s soul is enough to make money more precious than God at age 74 with 67 years in the faith. It is. Sin is that powerful if you leave God out of the picture. God keeps John Piper, and if God doesn’t keep me, if he takes his hand off me this afternoon, I will commit apostasy. So, it depends on him, not on me.
Press On in Faith
Now, here’s the second piece of it after that massive truth about God. Alongside “those whom he justified he also glorified,” there is a whole range of commands for us to persevere. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). So, be about it, Piper. Get this book open, get on your knees, cry out for keeping, and immerse yourself in God’s word. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” — every day, not just at the front end of the Christian life (Romans 10:17). If I’m going to believe, I got to have God’s word. That’s how he keeps me.
Or we have a passage in Philippians 3:12 that I love so much: “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Isn’t that great? That’s the way we think about the Christian life: that there’s this massive, sovereign God, who has chosen us before the foundation of the world, who has called us to himself, who will keep us, and the evidence that that has happened is, “Are you pressing on?”
“Unless you commit yourself to a life of perseverance and repentance, you too will commit apostasy.”TweetShare on Facebook
And then there are verses that explain the pastors who don’t press on. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). I mean, there couldn’t be a clearer verse in the Bible on apostasy than that. Or Hebrews 3:14: “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” We have shared if we continue. It’s not that we will share; we have shared — if we continue.
Nothing New Here
So I’ve been thinking recently, in view of the present situation — which happens all the time; this one just happens to be a little more public — that Jesus addressed physical calamities very clearly in Luke 13. And I just wondered to myself whether it applies properly to spiritual calamities. Apostasy is a calamity — worse than a tsunami, right? Worse than a shooting in Texas or Ohio is spiritual lostness.
People come to Jesus and ask about the people that Pilate slaughtered in the temple. And they ask about the people on whom the tower in Siloam fell. Eighteen innocent people were just walking along, and the tower fell on them, and they all die. They wanted to know what Jesus thought about that. And Jesus’s response was amazing. He said,
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:2–5)
That’s not what we expect Jesus to say. I wonder now: Can you take that text and lay it on top of spiritual calamity? Somebody comes to me and says, “Have you heard of the pastor who committed apostasy? Have you heard of all those people who were swept away by the false teacher?” Or in Jesus’s day, “Have you heard about Judas? Do you know what Judas did? Judas had been with us three years. He had committed all kinds of beautiful things with his partner in ministry. He sent us out two by two. Judas healed the sick. Judas preached the gospel. Did you hear what he just did?”
There’s nothing new here. And Jesus, I think, would say, “Do you think Judas or any given pastor was a worse sinner than the rest of us? But unless you commit yourself to a life of perseverance and repentance, you too will commit apostasy.” So, that brings us back to my first answer: yes.
Life Is Not Over
The one other thing I would say — and, really, it’s the first thing I thought when I heard this — is that life is not over. Life is not over. And the reason that is not just obviously true to me but poignantly true to me is this: My dad, Bill, was the youngest of three boys in his family. He had a brother named Elmer and a brother named Harold. Bill and Elmer, my father and my uncle, were lifelong, faithful evangelists all the way to the end.
“It’s not over, folks. If you have a kid who has walked away from the Lord, it’s not over.”TweetShare on Facebook
But Harold made shipwreck at the front end. Divorced. Ruined a lot of things. And for at least thirty years, he was away from the family. I hardly ever saw him. I saw Elmer all the time, but not uncle Harold. And in my college days, when my grandfather was dying, Harold came back to the Lord. It was the happiest day of my father’s life, I think. And I’ve got pictures. My wife and I were looking at them the other night — pictures of Bill and Elmer and Harold and a dying father, reconciled.
It’s not over, folks. If you have a kid who has walked away from the Lord, it’s not over. The prodigal son is a parable about leaving and returning.