The Answer Is Not As Obvious As It Seems
While working on my new book, The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible, I learned an important lesson. Well, some might say I strayed off the path of orthodoxy again, but I prefer to think of it as finding truth in Scripture that just happens to go against the grain of modern Christianese.
When we actually go to the Scriptures and see how the word lost is used, we find out it rarely if ever refers to those who lack everlasting life. The word lost in Scripture means what it means outside of Scripture. It means lost, either literally or figuratively.
Today we speak of lost children, a lost generation, long lost relatives, the lost sheep in the family, and so on. We aren’t talking about who is regenerate and who is not when we use those expressions. That is true in the Bible as well.
Lost People in the Old Testament
The word lost occurs seventeen times in the OT. Most refer to people or things which are not to be found (cf. Exod 22:9; Lev 6:3-4; Deut 22:3; 1 Sam 9:3, 20). However, sometimes the word is used figuratively, as in Ps 119:176, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” Similarly Jeremiah laments, “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray…” (Jer 50:6).
There is not a single example anywhere in the OT where lost refers to people who lack everlasting life. If that is a Biblical concept, then we will find it in the NT.
Lost People in the Gospels
If the teaching of the Lord is related to the OT, then we would expect to find Him using the word lost in the same way it is used in the OT. He might, of course, use words differently than they were used in the OT. But context will make that clear. Absent contextual clues, we are on solid footing to expect a continuation of themes raised earlier by God in the OT. After all, Jesus’ listeners would have been quite familiar with OT words and OT themes.
With but one possible exception, that is, in fact, what we find.
Luke 15:4, 6. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep the Lord told of a shepherd with 100 sheep who “loses one of them.” The shepherd then will “go after the one which is lost until he finds it.” According to the next verse, when he finds it alive he puts it on his shoulders rejoicing and brings it back to the fold. A sheep which has literally become lost is in view in these two uses of apollumi in this verse, as well as the one use in verse 6, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.” Of course, the lost sheep in the parable refers to a believer who strayed away from the Lord. This is evident in that the sheep which was lost was not lost to start with. It was one of the 100 sheep in the fold.
Luke 15:8, 9. In the Parable of the Lost Coin, a woman “loses one coin.” Then after she finds it she says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which was lost.” These two uses once again refer literally to something which was misplaced or lost. Once again, the parable refers to a believer who strays from the Lord. The coin which was lost was not lost in the beginning of the parable. It was one of the ten coins on the bracelet.
Luke 15:24, 32. The father of the prodigal rejoices when his son returns, saying, “Let us eat and be merry; for this my son was lost and is found.” He repeats this saying again at the end of the account to the older brother (v 32). There is no doubt that the Lord Jesus in this parable is speaking of the same kind of lostness as in the first two parables of Luke 15. The lost sheep was literally lost. So was the lost coin. In a figurative sense, so too was the lost son. He was lost to his father in the sense that his father no longer saw him each day and no longer experienced fellowship with him each day.
The son did not become a son by returning. He was a son before he departed, while he was in the far country, and when he returned. His temporary lostness did not refer to an unregenerate status. (Even if he had died in the far country, he would have remained regenerate. He simply would have died in a lost state—that is, out of fellowship with his father.)
Is John 17:12 an exception? The lone possible exception is when Jesus prayed and said, “Those whom You have given Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” That sounds like He is saying that Judas is unregenerate.
We have help understanding what He meant since that same saying is repeated by John in John 18 when Jesus was arrested. After Jesus said, “Let these [His disciples] go their way” (John 18:8), then John added, “that the saying might be fulfilled which He spoke, ‘Of those whom You gave Me I have lost none'” (John 18:9). The fact that the disciples were not arrested in some sense fulfilled what Jesus had said about them not being lost. The point seems to be that Jesus kept His disciples (John 17:12), in this case, safe from arrest and execution at that time, but He did not keep Judas safe. He let Judas betray Him and He ultimately let Judas go out and hang himself.
A leading commentator on John, J. Ramsey Michaels writes, “The temporary safety of the disciples stands as a sign of what has come to be called their ‘eternal security,’ that is, their assurance of eternal life” (The Gospel of John, NICNT, p. 892). Thus in a loose sense the fact that Jesus does not refer to Judas here, but leaves him on the side of the arresting party, implies that Judas is not eternally secure.
John 17:12 (repeated in John 18:9) is thus the lone place the Lord uses the word lost to refer to the unregenerate (though see John 10:28, which is uniformly translated by the leading English versions, “they shall never perish,” but which could also be translated they shall never be lost).
Lost People in the Epistles
There is not one place in the epistles where the term lost occurs in English translations (with the lone exception of 2 Cor 4:3 in the KJV which is translated “them that are lost,” whereas other translations have “those who are perishing”). There are a handful of places where Paul refers to “those who are perishing” (1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15; and 2 Thess 2:10).
My point is that not only is it uncommon for the Apostles to speak of lost people in their epistles, they never do so.
Lost People Are People, Often Believers, Who’ve Lost Their Way
Our Evangelical tradition tells us that people who do not have eternal life are to be called lost. Yet that doesn’t match up with the OT or the NT uses of the word lost.
The word lost, when used of people in a figurative sense, refers primarily to believers who have strayed away from the Lord. This is a relatively rare usage of apollumi. Most of the time it simply refers to people or animals or things which are literally lost.
I think it is high time we stopped referring to unbelievers as the lost. If neither the Lord nor His apostles ever did that (remember, Jesus only referred to one person, Judas, as lost), why should we? The Lord taught that if a believer is out of fellowship with God, then that believer is lost. He is born again, but lost in terms of his walk with God.
The practical benefit of this change would be that we understand the Bible better and we come to realize that any time we are out of fellowship with God, we are lost people. Our concern should be that we not become lost. There is no guarantee that we will stay in fellowship with Christ. But if we become lost, then we, like the prodigal son, will find famine and loss, and that should certainly lead us to come to our senses, like he did, and return to the Father. It always pays to stay in fellowship with God.