Can Christians fall away? The examples of Bentley and Obama

Every time I write about Todd Bentley, as I did on Monday, there is a huge jump in traffic to this blog. So I feel justified in writing on a subject in which there is a lot of interest. Or is this just tickling my ego? Whichever may be true, here is another post about him, and about Barack Obama. To be more precise, it is about the way we evangelical Christians react to people like these two.

What do these two have in common? It is that they were both at one time doing what good evangelical Christians should do, and now neither of them is doing. Obama responded to an altar call and had what I have called “a clear evangelical conversion experience”. Bentley started with this and went on to become an international evangelist with a major (but controversial) healing ministry. Obama, at least to some extent, rejected evangelical theology and became something of a universalist. Bentley’s rejection was in a different direction, a fall into sin from which he has not yet repented.

As an evangelical I might say that these two have fallen away from the true faith, in very different ways. But can a true Christian do this? Jeremy Pierce seems to deny it, when he writes, in a comment here concerning what I called Obama’s conversion experience, that

Obama seems to me not to have had such an experience, and if he had then I think he would have a very different attitude toward scripture (for one thing, actually believing it and following it when his inclination is to reject it as making God too cruel).

In other words, Jeremy seems to be claiming that Obama’s low view of Scripture and generally liberal theology is proof that he never had been a genuine evangelical Christian. I find this an astonishing claim, in the light of the evidence that many former evangelicals have drifted into liberal theology.

Let’s first detach this claim from the issue of whether such people will ultimately be saved, which I have discussed here before – something which cannot be known in the present, especially as there presumably remains a possibility of them repenting of liberal ideas and fully returning to the evangelical fold.

But what are the implications of Jeremy’s claim? If tomorrow the pastor under whose ministry I was converted, or who baptised me, or from whom I regularly receive communion, turns away from his faith and professes liberal ideas, where does that leave me?

I can’t help wondering if Jeremy would also hold that Bentley’s persistence, for the moment, in sin is proof that he too never had been a genuine evangelical Christian. There are certainly plenty of people around who cite this sin as evidence that his ministry was never genuine and the whole Lakeland outpouring was some kind of fraud. But does such reasoning make sense? I don’t think so.

Let’s remind ourselves that the church rejected Donatism, the sectarian teaching that ministers of the gospel who denied the faith could not be restored, that their repentance could not be accepted. My own Church of England clearly teaches, in Article XXVI, that the ministry of even the most sinful ministers is valid. This article directly contradicts any suggestion that baptism by an apostate or backsliding pastor or exercise of spiritual gifts by a sinning Todd Bentley is invalid. It even more clearly rules out any conclusion that baptism by a pastor who later becomes an apostate or backslider or exercise of spiritual gifts by Todd Bentley before he fell into sin is invalid.

So how should we relate to a Bentley or an Obama? Both apparently started well but then went astray. There are plenty of biblical examples of this, such as: King David, at the time of his adultery; King Solomon; the Galatians as addressed in Galatians 3:1-5; Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy 1:19-20. In none of these cases is there any suggestion that these people were not at first genuinely following God’s way. Now I admit that that suggestion is made about the “antichrists” of 1 John 2:18-19; but I hope no one is going to suggest that either Obama or Bentley is the Antichrist! The biblical response to such people is not to condemn them or write them off. It is, as demonstrated by Nathan and by Paul, to call the backslider to repentance, which may involve what Paul calls being “handed over to Satan”.

At least in the case of King David this process actually led to repentance. So this can happen. My pastor told a story of how he was visited by a pastor who had been suspended from ministry for an adulterous relationship, together with his lady friend, also a Christian. They maintained to my pastor that their relationship felt so right that it must be good and holy. He asked them if they prayed together. They, with some embarrassment, said “no”, exposing to themselves that they still felt shame about their relationship. He suggested they should pray together. Shortly afterwards they realised that their relationship was wrong and repented, and the man was eventually restored to ministry.

So this restoration can happen. Let’s continue to pray that it happens with Todd Bentley, and quickly. As for Barack Obama, we can pray that his eyes will be opened to more of the truth of the gospel, and of course, in line with the verses immediately following the ones about Hymenaeus and Alexander, that he will turn out to be a good President who will make it possible for his nation and the world to “live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness”.

0 thoughts on “Can Christians fall away? The examples of Bentley and Obama

  1. I never said anything about proof. I said that I think he’d have a better attitude to scripture if he genuinely had the Holy Spirit working in him to cause him to love God’s word. I didn’t say that views like his are proof of anything.

    For the record, though, I do think that a genuine work of salvation is irrevocable. I don’t hold that most evidence of falling away is proof of genuine, permanent falling away. I don’t hold that most evidence of faith is proof of a genuine, irrevocable work of God leading to salvation. We have fallible access to whether someone is saved, even if the work of God that brings salvation does so infallibly.

    Also, I did say that if I had a chance to be an influence in Obama’s life I’d do my best to steer him toward growing in genuine faith in Christ, rather than simply condemning him for anything I disagree with him on. I just think there’s strong evidence that the faith he espouses (or at least espoused in 2004) may not even be distinctively Christian but may be more like what you find in Unitarian Universalism.

  2. Jeremy, I’m sorry if I used too strong a word with “proof”. But you did seem to use Obama’s current theology as an argument that he had never truly been converted. Perhaps “suggestive evidence” would be a better way to express what you said. I agree that we can never be sure whether someone is truly saved.

  3. I only checked back (since my departure last August) to see if Peter has seen any light in regards to the false prophet Bentley. Alas it does not appear to be so.

    To both Jeremy and Peter in regards to this subject:

    Mat 24.24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.

    John 10. 28,29 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.

    1Jhn 2.19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

    Phl 1.6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:

    James 1.18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

    It is obvious in the Word of God that one truly converted will never perish. It is a work of God and that will be seen through to completion. Were it of man’s so-called freewill, then it could be altered. And to those of you who trust in your decision, you have built your house on the sand. That faith you think you have is a false hope. Believe what you like, but the Bible is clear. In fact that a person believes that one saved could be lost shows they have a works gospel, which is another gospel, and therefore false. They believe in their work of faith to get themselves saved, and therefore they believe that they can unwork themselves out of salvation. God to them is no God, just a powerless bystander, unable to perform all He desires. That is not the God of the Bible and that is not my God. It is, though the god of the freewillist, and it is a false god.

    Besides false “conversions” happen all the time, for a variety of reasons.

    Mat 15.8,9 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (like the Church of England)

    Many will have God on their lips, but their heart (seen by their works) is far from God.

    Rom 11.5 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.

    2Ptr 2.1,2 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.

    Luk 18.8 …when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?

    There is, and always was, only a remnant. The rest are just playing religion. Like the parable of the mustard seed, which the fowls come to. Like the false prophets and false teachers they have smooth words for the people (Ish 30.10). Nothing too harsh, always gentle in an attempt to create a veneer of religious peace, but it hides the stench of death, though it spews from their mouths (and keyboards). Apostle Peter says many shall follow the false prophets pernicious ways. And in the end, many false christs will arise and deceive many so that if it were possible (it is not) they should deceive even the very elect. In the last times perilous times shall come, and also “God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.”

    The only truly saved person is those that have been given eternal life by God. They will have these characteristics:

    Act 16.31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.

    1Jhn 1.9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.

    They will believe and abide in the doctrine of Christ and no other doctrine (not traditions, church fathers, sensual religious experiences etc.) Anyone who believes the doctrines of something beside God’s Word the Bible is lost.

    Rev 2.26 And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations:

    They will persevere unto the end.

  4. Great post, Peter!

    These two examples come down to deep theological issues. What undergirds our soteriology? If I’m a well-bred Calvinist, then neither Obama nor Bentley has made a saving profession of faith.

    But if I’m a non-Calvinist, then a true believer may lose his/her salvation, after making a true profession of faith.

    Scripture seems to support both.

  5. TC, surely if you are a well-bred Calvinist you must accept that we don’t know if Bentley or Obama are among the elect. As salvation is not by works, and mental assent to a doctrine is a work, the false doctrine of one and the sin of the other cannot disqualify them from salvation. It may well be that at some time in the future they will both change their ways and become card-carrying TULIP-waving Calvinist evangelicals. According to your well-bred Calvinism, when did they make a saving confession of faith, at the past time when they responded to altar calls or at the future time when they change their ways? Indeed, is that actually a meaningful thing to ask?

  6. Peter, true, we may never really never know. I guess the best thing would be to suspend our human judgment on their faith/fate.

    The Reformers had a saying, which I think is biblically supported by James (2:14-26): “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone.”

    But you may not agree with this line of argument. Do you believe in the eternal security of the believer?

  7. I would add that it also doesn’t follow from non-Calvinism that someone can lose a genuine status of salvation. A very large percentage of those who deny Calvinism believes in eternal security of the genuinely saved. The majority of non-Calvinist Southern Baptists, for instance, accepts eternal security. I would say that such people deny the full extent of what Calvinist mean by total depravity, and they deny outright unconditional election and irresistible grace. (Limited atonement is trickier, depending on what you mean by it. If you mean what I mean, then only universalists deny it. If you mean what a particular segment of Southern Baptists who say they deny it mean and what some people I consider to be hyper-Calvinists mean, then only Calvinists or maybe even only hyper-Calvinists accept it.) But it seems to me that you can consistently accept somewhere between one and three points of Calvinism, with one of them being perseverance of the saints. So there’s no reason to accept that only Calvinists believe in the doctrine. In fact it’s not true, and in theory there’s no reason it should be true.

  8. Jeremy, thanks for correcting things on that one. You’re so correct. I don’t know how I missed that one.

    Yes, a Charles Stanley would be a perfect example of what you’re getting at.

    Yes, the L always becomes the problem.

  9. TC, I believe that a genuine believer is secure for eternity unless he or she makes a deliberate decision to renounce that security. I don’t mean sin, I mean a clear decision to reject the work of Jesus and the benefits of it. I think I explained my position further in this post. As for limited atonement, I agree with Jeremy. I think the definition he rejects is how this is more commonly understood, but then I know too many Calvinists who on his definitions border on hyper-Calvinism and make me want to deny any hint of Calvinism.

  10. TC, I’m not sure what you are getting at, but isn’t my previous answer clear? Suppose you promised to give someone you love a wonderful gift. You would not let any third party stop you giving it. If you were as faithful as God is, even if the intended recipient does all kinds of wrong things and really upsets you, you would still give the gift. But if that person comes to you and says they don’t want the gift, and they clearly really mean it, you would be released from your promise, and indeed it would be wrong of you to force on them the unwanted gift. That is how God treats us concerning the gift of eternal salvation. Is your loved one secured of receiving the gift? That’s a matter of words.

  11. Peter, with the eternal security of the believer, once the gift is received, it is forever in the possession of the recipient. That’s how I’ve always understood the issue.

    The recipient is forever sealed by the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14).

    Either the gift is eternal or it is not. It cannot be both eternal and non-eternal, per your 158088 comment.

    Maybe I misunderstood you.

  12. TC, I disagree with your implication that the gift has already been received. What has been received is the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that the gift will be received. But the guarantee needs to be invoked. I’m not quite sure what it means to be sealed with the Holy Spirit, but I suspect that it is an image of the guarantee mentioned in the following verse, the Holy Spirit being like a signet ring which has made an impression in the believer’s heart. But this impression is the promise, not the reality already received. As in so many things, there is a tension here between the already and the not yet.

  13. Peter, Have you ever explored Eph 1:13-14 and the meaning behind the Spirit as “a seal” and “a down payment”?

    A “seal” was for the purpose of ownership, authentication, and protection. The signet ring idea is not there behind the Holy Spirit as a seal.

    The Holy Spirit is the promise and as such, the down payment, the arrabwn (in modern Greece for an engagement ring)of what is to come.

    John says that we have eternal life now (1 John 5:13).

    I don’t see the tension you see. The already/not yet is all about eschatology, not our security in Christ. That’s a done deal.

  14. TC, I don’t fully agree with you. What is a signet ring for if not “for the purpose of ownership, authentication, and protection”. Compare Haggai 2:23. But this is not the place to get into the details.

  15. Hi Peter

    I am responding to your comment “one can never be sure whether someone is truly saved”. Maybe we can never be 100% sure, but the way people act – whether they live a righteous life – should be a clear indication of the state of their soul. “No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him” – 1 John 3:6 is for me a clear indication that sin is a major factor which distinguishes the godly from the undogly,and the true Christian from the “fake” Christian. Futhermore,in 2 John verse 9 “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”.

    Obviously I would refrain from making a judgement on Barrack Obama’s faith or lack thereof. What would concern me is how western democracies have legitimised sinful practises like abortion and sexual immorality, seemingly leading even Christians to have unclear opinions on not only issues such as these, but even to extent of starting to doubt the divinity of Christ.

    Our fruit will indicate where our roots lie. If we are in Christ, we will bear good fruit. Unfortunately,as Christians, we often – hopefully in decreasing manner – bear bad fruit as we lose our tempers, lust after wordly things and grow cold concerning the things of Christ. Fortunately in Christ, God’s grace is bigger than our ability to sin.

    However, we are supposed to be the light of the world (Matt 5:16). How can I be unsure whether someone is a light or not? He either gives off the light of Christ, or he doesn’t. He may speak as if he has the light of Christ, and have certain actions (even miracles) as if he has the light of Christ, but the beauty of fruit is that it is lasting. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit (Matt 7:18).

    Some food for thought would be to turn the question around – “what in our behaviour / fruit would indicate to unbelievers that we are saved?”

    I just get so frustrated that Christians and non-Christians seem so alike in our time. I am looking forward to the time when “you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not”. Mal 3:18.

  16. Pieter, thank you for your comment. And welcome to this blog – I think I know how you found it.

    I would certainly agree with you that in principle we ought to be able to tell the difference between Christians and others. I certainly don’t mean to allow this as an excuse for Christians to avoid giving a distinctive witness. But I see another side to this:

    First, we can never presume to say someone is not saved because we know neither their past nor their future. Someone may now not be living a Christian life at all, but in the past they may have made a genuine Christian commitment and in the future they may entirely repent and start to live an exemplary Christian life. Such a person certainly will be saved, and I am not sure that it meaningful to say whether or not they are in the present saved.

    Second, we can never say with certainty that someone is saved for two possible reasons. The first is controversial although I believe it, that in the future that person may make a deliberate decision to reject the Christian faith and thereby lose their salvation. The second is that their Christian faith and witness might all be a clever act. I don’t think that, at least apart from divine revelation, we can ever be sure that an apparent Christian is not in fact a clever actor. I suppose there would be no lasting fruit, but it is hard to be specific about such matters. One might wonder why anyone would want to act out this part – but in fact I can think of a number of reasons why they might do, sadly including that they might be pastors whose career and livelihood depends on this act.

    Indeed I want my behaviour to clearly indicate to unbelievers, as well as fellow believers, that I have an eternal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

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