The Barnabas Ministry

Unfaithfulness and Restoration
This article discusses the topics of unfaithfulness and restoration from the New Testament. This study will examine the New Testament to understand the processes that are involved and areas of life that are affected in unfaithfulness. It will then consider specific ministry actions in accordance with the biblical teachings on these topics.

One of the difficulties involved in understanding this topic from a biblical perspective is the “terminology gap.” There is no single, unambiguous technical term for those who leave the church in the New Testament. (This is in contrast to other topics (like baptism, for instance) that have a special technical term and can be well understood simply by considering all the instances where that technical term is used. Further, not all of the terms involved can be translated into English in ways that maintain their distinction in the Koine Greek.) Instead, the New Testament uses over twenty different terms  in figurative ways to describe this action.  This may seem to complicate matters, but in reality it defines and illuminates each of the various aspects of a complex topic. This is similar to other topics in the New Testament. For example, members of the first century church were known by several terms, including “disciple,” “believer,” “Christian,” “brother,”  “saint,” and by other terms as well.  Each of these placed an emphasis on a particular aspect of the identity of the follower of Jesus. As a result, one can gain great insight into what goes on in the hearts and minds of those who become unfaithful to God and leave the church.

Many of these terms are used with a wide range of meanings. What is in view in an instance of any particular term could range from a minor sin (that would not necessarily pose any immediate threat to salvation) to a major departure from the faith. In addition, the various terms are often used interchangeably or nearly synonymously.

Fortunately, these terms tend to fall into one of four broad, general groupings; each of these broad categories will be discussed below.
  1. Those where destruction of faith or righteousness is in view
  2. Those where departure from that which is right is in view
  3. Those where denial is in view
  4. Those where deception is in view
Another difficulty in this topic is the question of an individual leaving one local congregation or denomination/movement and going to another. Likewise, one could remain a Christian but not be a "member" of an institutional, formal local church but simply meet in a house church with others. Certainly people belonging to a particular congregation, denomination or movement feel a loyalty to it, but it is problematic and scripturally unprecedented to think that leaving one such group for another constitutes unfaithfulness. (See the Barnabas Ministry article Scriptural Reasons for Leaving a Church for more on this topic.)


The main idea of the terms in this group is that the faith or salvation of a Christian is destroyed by some action. Here are the terms in this word group:
The main idea of the terms in this group is a departure from right action or faith. Here are the terms in this word group:
The main idea of the words in this group is the denial of faith or of Jesus himself. Here are the terms in this word group:
The main idea of the terms in this group is that some course of action is taken that one thinks is right, but it is not. These words may seem like they belong in the “departure” group, but the critical element of these words is deception. Here are the terms in this word group:
Area of Life
Considering the process (destruction, departure, denial or deception) is only part of the picture of unfaithfulness as discussed in the New Testament; the area of life that is affected also is discussed. Any of the following areas of life can be in view when someone becomes unfaithful.
  1. Personal Righteousness
  2. Relationship with God
  3. False Religion
Let us examine New Testament references for unfaithfulness in each of these areas of life, with attention to which process (destruction, departure, denial or deception) was operative. This gives us twelve categories to consider.

Personal Righteousness

But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away (skandalidzo) (Matthew 13:21).
No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified (adokimos) for the prize (1 Corinthians 9:27).
…holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked (naugeo) their faith (1 Timothy 1:19).
"Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away  (aphistemi) (Luke 8:13).
We all stumble (ptaio) in many ways. If anyone is never at fault (ptaio) in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check (James 3:2).
“But my righteous one will live by faith.  And if he shrinks back (hupostello), I will not be pleased with him.” But we are not of those who shrink back (hupostole) and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved (Hebrews 10:38-9).
It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs (hupostrepho) on the sacred command that was passed on to them (2 Peter 2:21).
If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied (arneomai) the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).

They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny (arneomai) him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good (Titus 1:16).
...if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown (arneomai) him, he will also disown (arneomai) us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown (arneomai) himself (2 Timothy 2:12-13).
My brothers, if one of you should wander (planao) from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error (plane) of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered (apoplanao) from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:10).
Relationship with God
If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy (apollumi) your brother for whom Christ died (Romans 14:15).
If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed (analoo) by each other (Galatians 5:15).
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from (aphistemi) the living God. (Hebrews 3:12).

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from (apostrepho) him who warns us from heaven (Hebrews 12:25)?
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken (aphiemi) your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen (pipto)! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:4-5).
But whoever disowns (arneomai) me before men, I will disown (arneomai) him before my Father in heaven (Matthew 10:33).
False Religion
They must be silenced, because they are ruining (anatrepo) whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach--and that for the sake of dishonest gain (Titus 1:11).
The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon (aphistemi) the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons (1 Timothy 4:1).
Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall (ekpipto) from your secure position (2 Peter 3:17).
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying (arneomai) the sovereign Lord who bought them--bringing swift destruction on themselves (2 Peter 2:1).
For many will come in my name, claiming, `I am the Christ, ' and will deceive (planao) many (Matthew 24:5).
The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads (planao) the whole world astray (planao). He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Revelation 12:9).
Preventing Unfaithfulness
Having seen New Testament evidence for the various processes and areas of life involved in unfaithfulness, we now direct our attention to Scriptural evidences concerning the prevention of unfaithfulness.

All this I have told you so that you will not go astray (skandalidzo)  (John 16:1).
So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall (pipto) (1 Corinthians 10:12)!
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away (parareo) (Hebrews 2:1).
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from (aphistemi) the living God.  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:12-13).
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall (ptaio), and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-11).
…if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown (arneomai) him, he will also disown (arneomai) us; if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown (arneomai) himself (2 Timothy 2:12-13).
See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.  And this is what he promised us--even eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray  (planao) (1 John 2:24-26).

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray (planao). He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous (1 John 3:6-7).
Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error (plane) of lawless men and fall from your secure position (2 Peter 3:17).
To him who is able to keep you from falling (aptaistos) and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy-- to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen (Jude 1:24-25).
Putting all of these ideas in these scriptures together, we may identify some of the ways to address the issue of unfaithfulness from a ministry perspective.

1. Teaching Focus
The scriptures show the need to talk about unfaithfulness to God and leaving the church. Jesus talked about it, Paul talked about it, Peter talked about it, and John talked about it. Jesus and the apostles intended their hearers to understand the threats to their salvation and to be equipped to prevail in the struggle through knowledge and warning. Neither the first words nor the loudest words a followers of Christ should hear about leaving the church should come from Satan. Since Jesus, Paul, Peter and John talked about unfaithfulness regularly, these supporting scriptures show that it more than deserves a continuing place in the teaching ministry and general dialog of the church.

Christians should clearly understand the processes (destruction, departure, denial and deception) and areas of life (personal righteousness, relationship with God and false religion) where he could become unfaithful as defined by the scriptures.  This will enable the individual to develop a plan for faithfulness against these threats when they arise.

2. A plan to stay faithful
The types of unfaithfulness and areas of life affected, together with the characteristics of the individual (his strengths and weaknesses), should be carefully evaluated. The objective of this evaluation should be some plan for continued faithfulness for each person.

While the standards of righteousness are the same for all disciples, how people grow to attain maturity is unique for each individual. This plan could be individually customized to include things such as personal study topics, special studies, and situations or issues that should be discussed on a regular basis. Jesus, Paul, Peter and John all had a clear plan to keep Christians strong in the faith so they would not become unfaithful. This biblical pattern could be followed today.

3. Pay attention to the early signs
Very few people become unfaithful instantly, as though doing great one minute and being unfaithful the next. Instead, the final departure from the church is usually the last step in a process that goes on for days, weeks, months or even years.

One needs the vision and insight to see how people are doing spiritually before they become unfaithful to God. Many signs can be evident and helpful in this: Is the person growing and changing, or are there troubles or sins that constantly drag him down? Is he content or restless? Happy or sad? Hopeful for the future? Involved in helping others or self-focused? These can be the warning signs of fundamental spiritual problems. These types of issues must be identified and addressed before failures, discouragements and temptations grow into more advanced problems.

It is difficult to find any undeniable examples in the New Testament where someone has been unfaithful and where they were restored. Yet there are some passages that address this question.

A good example of specific direction that Jesus gave for repentance is the churches of Ephesus and Laodicea in Revelation. Jesus gave both of these churches very specific direction in order to keep their relationship with God. Let us consider the text of these passages:

Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:5).

You say, `I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see (Revelation 3:17-18).
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20).
Based upon the examples in Revelation cited above, it would seem that restoration should include a re-focus on discipleship, and (even more importantly) a discussion and resolution of all of the specific factors that caused someone to become unfaithful in the first place.  From these examples we can see the critical aspects of restoration:
  1. The identification of the specific sins (Revelation 2:5, 3:17-18) that were operative in the unfaithfulness.
  2. A specific plan of repentance from these specific sins (Revelation 2:5, 3:17-18).
  3. A desire to be restored to a personal relationship with Jesus (Revelation 3:20).  
  4. Renewed discipleship (Revelation 2:5).
Another set of passages that touch on the topic of restoration is Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-29:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away (parapipto), to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.  Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
The subjects of the Hebrew writer were unfaithful to the point that repentance was not possible. Instead of the possibility of restoration, those referred to have an expectation of judgment. Consider the terms that describe these people: Though the specific behaviors that led to this condition are not clear, the existence of the condition and the impossibility of repentance from it are clear. As this article has used "unfaithful" to signify those who can be restored, a new technical term could be introduced for those unfaithful who are beyond repentance, such as "apostate." But there is an important consideration that should be made.

We don't know exactly who the Hebrew writer is referring to in 6:4-6.
This text may be referring to those who had received miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (ref. Hebrew 2:4). Or it could be some others we don't know about. But one thing we know for sure- we know it wasn't his readers. The entire New Testament addresses the sins and failings of Christians, and some of them are quite severe to our way of thinking. Yet repentance and restoration (where needed) is not only allowed but expected. So it is clear that the people the Hebrew writer has in mind are not the same people to whom he is writing, people more or less desiring to be faithful to the Lord.

It follows then, that if some are indeed beyond repentance, they would not be caring what the Hebrew writer is saying. They would not be repenting. So anyone attempting to be restored can and should be accepted on the basis of their repentance and God's grace. Their desire to be restored from whatever unfaithfulness there has been proves that they are not among those discussed in Hebrews 6:4-6.

In the end, only God would knows which unfaithful people are beyond repentance. It is exceedingly difficult for men to make that determination with any objective standard, and it is more or less futile to attempt it. Rather, our efforts and concern should be to prevent unfaithfulness from happening in the first place, and to accept those desiring restoration just like the shepherd seeking the lost sheep (Matthew 18:13) or the father accepting the prodigal son (Luke 15:22).

The topic of unfaithfulness requires a clear understanding of the terms and processes involved. While this article has used the term “unfaithfulness”, it has also illustrated a variety of other biblical terms as well. As a result, one can be equipped to use these terms in accordance with their usage in the New Testament.

Having seen the attention that biblical writers paid to this topic, leaders can imitate them and equip disciples of Christ to deal with the threats that could make them become unfaithful. This could include teaching this topic from a biblical perspective, and making sure Christians are growing and staying clear of the obstacles that could cause them to become unfaithful. It should also include a plan to perceive the early warning signs of these various problems and a plan to deal with these issues before the problems escalate.

Some people who become unfaithful cannot be restored, but some can and will be restored. The process of restoration should include a focus on the basics of discipleship as well as an investigation and resolution of the issues that led to becoming unfaithful originally.


Getting Practical: A Study on Unfaithfulness
Introduction: This study discusses the topic of unfaithfulness: what it is, how it can happen, and what can be done to prevent it. It is suitable for presentation to a group or for use as a “follow-up” study after someone has been baptized.

A.    Introduction

1.    What is unfaithfulness?
2.    It means to abandon your relationship with Jesus and forfeit your salvation- John 15:5-6.

B.    A disciple can become unfaithful
1.    As a “good” church member- Galatians 5:2-4, Revelation 2:1-6, 3:1-5
2.    There are three specific areas of life to be concerned about
a)    Personal Righteousness
(1)    Personal righteousness- 1 Corinthians 9:27
(a)    Sincere heart, clear conscience- 1 Timothy 1:5-6
(b)    Materialism- 1 Timothy 6:10
(2)    Hard times- Luke 8:13
(a)    Changes in leadership or persecution- 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:10
(b)    People in the church may hurt you- Romans 14:15, Matthew 18:15-17, 34-35
(c)    Singles: dating disciples only! – 2  Corinthians 6:14, 1 Corinthians 7:39, 1 Kings 11:1-4
b)    Relationship with God
(1)    Denying God- Matthew 10:33, Titus 1:6
(2)    Turning from God- Hebrews 3:12
c)    False Religion
(1)    The draw of false religion- 2 Timothy 4:3-4, 2 Corinthians 11:3-4
(2)    The role of Satan- Revelation 12:9, 1 Peter 5:8-9
C.    Self-assessment:
1.    It is important to be aware of the risks- 1 Corinthians 10:12
2.    What are the risks that I will face that could pull me down?

D.    The warning not to fall away
1.    Ridicule by those who see you quit- Luke 14:28-30
2.    Worse off at the end than at the beginning- 2 Peter 2:20-22
3.    Expectation of judgment- Hebrews 10:26-31

E. Conclusion: Prevention
1.    Becoming unfaithful starts with discouragement, weariness or spiritual failure of some kind, but results in being lost, possibly beyond repair. It could happen to you!- 2 Peter 3:17
2.    Be a growing, faithful disciple- 2 Peter 1:5-10
3.    Hold to what you have learned- 1 John 2:24-26
4.    Be close and open with others- Hebrews 3:12-13
5.    Persevere through hardships, discouragements and trials- Galatians 6:7-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4
6.    Jesus can keep you from falling as you rely upon him- Jude 1:24-25

Copyright © 1997 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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