Just today I was listening to a tape presented at a pastor’s conference this year.1 The speaker, a pastor of children’s ministry, cited 1 John 2:19 as proving that children who make a profession of faith and later fall into serious sin prove they were never born again in the first place.
The pastor began his intro by telling about a camp that he attended ten years ago where many young girls indicated they had given their lives to Christ. Then he returned to the present to look at the life of one of those girls.
“Ten years later, I’m counseling with her and her parents about her immoralities as a high schooler as she is sleeping around with guys in her high school department, still thinking she is a Christian.” He reminded her that even at that camp ten years ago he had said, “When you did that [gave your life to Christ] I told you that you may not be a Christian, but you are making the right kinds of steps. These are good things to do. Continue to stay faithful to that…This does not confirm that you are a Christian…She is still not a Christian. She is still not a believer.”
He then went on to talk about ministries that evangelize children that have had the same flawed result that he has experienced. Many children who have professed that they had become Christians in children’s ministries later fell into sinful lifestyles as teens. In his view that shows that they had never really been born again in the first place. To prove this point he cited 1 John 2:19. He said, “So if children are giving themselves to the Savior as young ones, what happens when they get older? Do they just not catch it, or did it not stick, or do they lose their salvation? Do they not have eternal security? Well, I read the Scripture and it tells me that they have eternal security. First John 2:19, ‘They went out from us because they were not of us.’ And they went out from us because we needed to find out that they weren’t of us. And that’s the way I read that—they were really never of us. And so we can’t continue to make these large ministries have kids come forward, tell them they’re saved, and then send them to hell.”
Here’s what 1 John 2:19 says:
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 they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.
Does that verse mean that those who experience a moral failure prove that they never had been born again in the first place? That’s how some, like the children’s pastor on the tape, use it. But is that a valid application of the verse?
The Error Is Doctrinal, Not Moral
Many people apply this text to moral defection. Yet John was referring to false teachers whom he calls antichrists (v 18). They originally had been part of the church in Jerusalem (“they went out from us” = from the Jerusalem church; see Hodges, The Epistles of John, pp. 108-110). These traveling teachers were going to churches and trying to win them over to their faulty beliefs. The expression “they were not of us” clearly means they were not of us in terms of their beliefs. The reason they no longer continued with the church in Jerusalem was doctrinal.
Nothing in the context of 2:18-23 deals with moral defection. The issue is stated clearly in v 22: “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son.” We do not know precisely in what way these antichrists denied that Jesus was the Christ. Some evidently denied that Jesus Himself was Christ in the flesh. They may have held that the Christ came upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him at the cross. Whatever the heresy, the issue was doctrinal, not moral.
We cannot apply 1 John 2:19 to those who experience moral failure since it isn’t talking about moral failure at all.
The Principle Applies to
Believers and Unbelievers
It is not clear from John’s epistle that these false teachers were unregenerate. Certainly that is possible. (See Hodges, The Epistles of John, pp. 113-14.) In any case, since believers can experience doctrinal failure on even fundamental truths, we cannot rule out the possibility that a born again person might come to believe and teach what these false teachers did. That is, we might have people today who, after a time in our church, leave over a key doctrinal issue. In that case, 1 John 2:19 would apply, whether or not they were believers.
Now the Jerusalem church was doctrinally sound. Thus anyone leaving it for doctrinal reasons was proving to be unorthodox. We can apply that to today. Anyone who leaves a doctrinally sound church over a major point of doctrine proves himself to be heterodox.
Assurance Is the Victim of a Faulty Understanding of 1 John 2:19
Assurance becomes impossible if 1 John 2:19 indeed teaches that anyone who experiences doctrinal or moral failure proves to be unregenerate. For who among us can be sure he will not one day in the future fail morally or even doctrinally?
In a church that promotes this view of 1 John 2:19, it is likely people would be constantly judging each other. Naturally, people would question whether others in the church, and even in their own families, were really regenerate. Works would then become the basis for evaluating the justification of others—and even one’s own self. Yet it can be questioned whether this produces true holiness. Paul indicates that type of thinking promotes backbiting, discouragement, and legalistic wranglings (Gal 5:13-15, 26).
It’s great to be sure we have eternal life by faith alone in Christ alone. First John 2:19 in no way undermines assurance. Only a faulty understanding of it can do that.
First John 2:19 does not deal with moral failure in the Christian life. For that we should go to passages like Matthew 24:45-51, Luke 15:11-32, 1 Corinthians 11:30, and James 5:19-20. Those passages make it clear that regenerate people are not immune to moral failure. They may repent and come back to fellowship with God, as the prodigal son did. However, even if they do not, they remain children of God. Our behavior is not a proof we are regenerate or unregenerate. We know someone’s spiritual condition by looking at the root, not the fruit. That’s why a popular evangelistic question is this: “Why should God let you into His kingdom?”
Even doctrinal error does not necessarily prove one is unregenerate. All it does prove is that the person in question is not “of us” now. He isn’t orthodox. We should not fellowship with such people in our churches. Doctrine matters. However, if a person ever came to faith in Jesus for eternal life, then he is still regenerate.
We are not justified because we have unfailing faith. We are justified because we have come to faith in an unfailing Savior (John 6:35-40). He never will fail to fulfill His promise that “he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). As the parable of the four soils shows, even the believer who ceases believing remains a child of God (compare Luke 8:12 with 8:13; see also 2 Timothy 2:13). Eternal life is eternal.
So, the next time you hear someone misuse 1 John 2:19, get out your Bible and read the verse in context. You’ll see that the issue isn’t moral failure or assurance of salvation at all. Don’t let faulty interpretations of texts rob you of the certainty God wishes all His children to have. Assurance is the foundation of a successful Christian life.
1The message was called “Are Children Safe?” and was given at the 2003 Shepherd’s Conference by Pastor Bill Shannon, the children’s pastor at Grace Community Church.