This is not a hard question to answer because it happened in the Bible. The consequences of going astray are well-documented.
Yet the question is worth asking because many don’t know the answer. Or, rather, they have the wrong answer, which is this:
What happens when Christians stray? Why, they fall from grace prompting a loving God to discipline them with punishment. If they don’t repent they’ll lose their salvation and be eternally condemned.
The bit about falling from grace is true but the rest is a big fat lie. Your heavenly Father’s discipline never takes the form of punishment – that’s old covenant thinking – and those who have been found by Jesus cannot be lost by Jesus (John 6:39).
Joseph Goebbels once said, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
The reason most Christians believe they can lose their salvation if they stray is because they have heard it over and over again. But it’s not actually in the Bible. It is an extra-Biblical fabrication parroted by those who would distract you from Christ and his perfect work of redemption. It is a lie that will cause you to trust yourself and your staying power instead of standing on Jesus and the eternally unshakeable foundation of his love and grace.
I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but it’s not nearly as harsh as telling your brothers and sisters they are in danger of hellfire. And it’s not nearly as harsh as speaking guilt and condemnation over those whom Christ has justified.
As I said in my first post in this series on eternal security, reading scripture through hellfire-tinted lenses is a hallmark of the insecure believer. Such a person reveals their faith to be in themselves and their performance rather than in God and his unbreakable promises.
“So what will happen to me if I stray from the Lord?” Well, hopefully you won’t stray, but if you do, you won’t lose your salvation. It’s just not possible. But that doesn’t mean you won’t reap awful consequences.
The Bible identifies at least fourteen bad things that may happen to those who are distracted, seduced, deceived, or led astray. Each outcome is a tragedy. Each is something to avoid. I don’t want to rush through these tragic consequences so we’ll look at seven in today’s post and seven in the next.
Seven bad things that happen to Christians who stray
1. We lose sight of God’s love for us (Rev 2:4)
Jesus told the Ephesian Christians, “You have left your protos agape,” or your primary love. What is our protos agape? It is not our love for him; it is a revelation of his love for us:
- Love comes from God. (1 John 4:7)
- This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us… (1 John 4:10)
- We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
Why would Paul pray that we would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:18-19)? Because there is a danger we might not know – that we might forget it or leave it. And that’s the thin edge of a bad wedge. God’s love is like air for us. We can’t live without it. When we fall from the high place of his love…
2. Things become complicated – our minds become corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Cor 11:3)
The gospel is simple but lose sight of God’s love and everything becomes murky. I know God loves me but…
Suddenly the good news is not so good. It needs qualifying. We feel an unholy need to balance his grace needs with our works. We start thinking there’s more than one side to every scripture, the Bible is full of paradoxes, and God is a mystery.
Next thing you know, you need a divinity degree to be saved and you’re trusting the guy who can recognize Greek words and aorist verbs more than you’re trusting the Holy Spirit. Not good.
3. We start striving to keep the rules (Gal 3:3, Col 2:20)
We never call it legalism, for that would alert us to the danger. Instead, we call it “Christian responsibility” or duty or “doing our part.” God has done his part, now it’s up to me to finish what he started. I have to work out my salvation and prove my repentance.
We worry about cheap grace (there’s no such thing) and invest in a little works-insurance (there’s no such thing). We tell ourselves, I gotta pray more, fast more, attend more. I gotta witness to two people this week. I gotta be a good Christian for Jesus. This sort of thinking appeals to our religious flesh but it’s not long before…
4. We feel unworthy and unqualified (Col 2:18, AMP)
The New International Version says, “Do not let anyone… disqualify you for the prize,” as if anyone could disqualify those whom God qualifies (Col 1:12)!
The point is not that we can disqualify ourselves, but when we get distracted from Christ and his perfect work – when we begin to trust in our own performance, our self-denial, our rule-keeping – we start to feel disqualified. Although Christ makes us worthy, we feel unworthy. And when that happens…
5. Our consciences condemn us and shipwreck our faith (1 Tim 1:18-19)
As I have explained elsewhere, “shipwrecked faith” does not equal “Christian burning in hell.” But it’s still a bad idea to thrust aside your good conscience.
Paul repeatedly warns about the need to hold “onto faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim 3:9, Acts 24:16). He’s not saying, “Avoid sin to keep your conscience clear.” He’s saying, “Treasure what Christ has done for you. He has cleansed you 100%” (Heb 10:22). If we don’t value what Christ has done, it won’t be long before…
6. We lose our freedom (Gal 5:1, Col 2:8)
The Galatian Christians famously lost their liberty by enslaving themselves to law. The Colossian Christians were in danger of enslaving themselves to worldly philosophy. We repeat their mistakes whenever we take on the yokes of performance-based Christianity and manmade expectations. When that happens…
7. We fall from grace and cut ourselves off from Christ (Gal 5:2-4)
Falling from grace does not mean falling out of the kingdom. We fall from the high place of grace and favor when we try to merit what God has freely given us. This can happen when we put ourselves under the old law that says, “do good, get good; do bad, get bad.” If you think you have to work before God will bless you, you have made Christ of no value.
Christ died to set you free. But if you enslave yourself to religious expectations, then what was the point? Christ won’t cut you off – he’s utterly faithful – but you can cut yourself off from his love and grace.
Lessons from church history
Most of the Christians who went astray in the Bible did so with pure motives but misguided zeal. The Ephesians were working hard for the Lord, the Galatians honored the law, and the Colossians were very religious, yet all three groups needed correction. All of them went astray to one degree or another.
Perhaps you have strayed from the faith. If so, how do you get back on track? The best remedy is the one Jesus gave to the Ephesians:
Remember the height from which you’ve fallen! Repent, and do what you did at first. (Rev 2:5).
Remember! What a simple yet powerful solution. What did you do when you first came to Christ? Can you remember? You probably didn’t do much at all other than receive the love and favor of heaven. Jesus is saying, “Repent. Stop what you are doing now and do that! Keep receiving from me. Stop trying to impress me. Let me impress you!”
You may ask, “But Lord, am I not supposed to work for you as well?” And Jesus replies…
If you need the assurance of dead works then you are operating in unbelief. It’s faith in me from first to last. I am the Alpha and Omega, the Author and Finisher. Fix your eyes on me alone and walk in the sunlight of my love! Rest in me and stop worrying about what you’re doing or not doing. The ‘works’ will take care of themselves. Trust me, when you’re walking in the unforced rhythms of my grace, it won’t even feel like work. It’ll feel like fun.
It’s so simple, yet we can miss it and go astray. In the next post I will look at 7 more things that happen to Christians who stray.