What do these Christian "deconversion" stories mean for the rest of us?

Exvangelicalism

The news that Rhett and Link had deconverted from Christianity came as a shock to those of us who knew them first as Christian missionaries with CRU. But those who knew them first as entertainers were shocked that they ever claimed to be Christians in the first place.

Since I used to work with Rhett and Link when we were on staff with CRU together, I wrote a few reflections about it, as did many others. A few days later, Rhett and Link responded. When I posted my article on Facebook, one of my friends and fellow pastors commented with a great question that is relevant for all of us. I’ve reproduced some of that thread, with further thoughts below.

“What would you say to somebody who reads your article and asks, “So how do I know ‘right now’ if I have true faith or just the appearance of true faith? How can I be sure I’m a real Christian and not just somebody who appears to be a real Christian for a very long time, but doesn’t really have true faith?…”

Is it possible that there was ever a time in Rhett and Link‘s life that they read 1 John, and based on what they could discern of their life and their desires, they experienced assurance that they were Christians. And yet, now that they’ve walked away from the faith, we would say that they were never actually Christians. So my question is, given that phenomenon, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away., And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they actually have assurance that they are in fact Christians?

– Pastor Andy Barlow, Fellowship Church, Louisville, KY

In my response to Andy, I said the scripture itself presents this tension. The scripture offers us assurance and also warns us against falling away. Assurance is not the same thing as a rock-solid guarantee that we never would nor could fall away. If it were, the warnings would be meaningless. We are told to walk by faith and not by sight, which means we go through life trusting in God even when we don’t have the answers. Yet the scriptures also teach that those who are truly in Christ will indeed persevere in the faith to the end (Phil 1:6). This is a paradox, and we live in the tension. We cling to Christ and his promises, trusting that we are his and that no one can take us away from him (John 10:27-30). And we are also sobered by Jesus’ warning that false converts and even false prophets will arise within the church, so we should be alert (Acts 20:28-30). If we cannot be satisfied within this tension, then we are looking for something beyond faith.

Saving Faith

Ephesians 2:8-9 says “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Hebrews 11:1 says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

We are saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9). The object of our faith is very real, but lies beyond what we can see with our eyes (Heb 11:1). In the Christian life, we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).

It is like being blindfolded while being led by the hand through a crowded and dangerous area by someone we trust. They’d say, “watch out, there’s a step here.” Or, “duck down, there’s a low ceiling ahead.” The obstacles are there and are very real, but we have to rely on a trustworthy friend to tell us about the things we can’t see. That’s what walking by faith is like.

The spiritual world is very real, and we can’t see it, but God can (2 Cor 4:4). When we become Christians, God enables us to perceive the beauty of Christ by faith, but much remains hidden. So he takes us by the hand, and tells us where to step.

Saving faith produces a conviction in our hearts that Jesus is real, that he has saved us from our sins, that he will return in power and glory, and that our lives should be ordered accordingly.

But sometimes we stumble.

Faith and Doubt

Many true Christians experience seasons of doubt. Their faith is shaken. Thomas famously doubted the resurrection until he had seen it with his own eyes. He wasn’t content with faith; he needed sight before he’d believe. When Jesus appeared to him, he said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). We are more blessed than Thomas.

Just before Jesus gave the Great Commission, Jesus gathered his disciples together on a mountain. Matt 28:16 says, “And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Written decades later, Jude 22 says “have mercy on those who doubt.” He’s referring to people who truly love Jesus yet are afflicted by nagging, unresolved questions that shake their confidence. Their faith is weak.

The smallest degree of true faith in a perfect savior is sufficient to save (Matt 17:20). But the soul of that truly saved person may not be at peace. He or she will be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14). Doubt disturbs the tranquility of the soul.

I’ve experienced this many times in my life, especially during my college years. I was ill equipped to face the ridicule of unbelieving professors who took pleasure in mocking Christianity. I once met with a well known student atheist on campus to share the gospel with him, and found myself unable to answer his objections to Christianity. I almost lost it. Almost.

Faith and Assurance

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 20:27). Jesus promises to give us inner peace in this life, which anticipates the perfect peace of eternity with Him. Assurance is the state of the soul that is not doubting but is resting in Christ. God desires this sort of assurance for us (1 John 5:13). Assurance is a fruit that grows on the tree of vibrant and growing faith.

Faith describes how we are saved. Assurance describes how we feel. No one is saved by their feelings, however sincere those feelings may be. Only faith in Christ has saving power. Our fickle feelings are unreliable guides to eternal truth. They are not to be trusted with such important matters.

If you are blindfolded and you have confidence in your guide, you can walk confidently and without fear. But if you are not confident in your guide, you will move more slowly and cautiously. You doubt whether you are truly safe. You may wonder if you have the right guide in the first place.

It has been said that “It is not the strength of your faith but the object of your faith that actually saves you.” Someone with saving faith may experience doubt or assurance, depending on the strength of his faith. When his faith is strong, he enjoys God’s peace and assurance. When his faith is weak, he questions his salvation and experiences doubt. The true Christian may experience both at different times.

Counterfeit Faith and False Assurance

My friend Andy pressed the question further, asking if it were possible for a person to experience assurance of salvation at one time, only to later reject the faith and prove themselves to have never been converted? He asks, how can any professing Christian be certain that they won’t one day fall away? And if they are not certain that they won’t one day fall away, how can they ever have real assurance that they are in fact Christians?

We have to recognize that the scriptures speak to different people in different situations. True Christians need to grow in their confidence that Christ has saved them and will preserve them in the faith. Cultural Christians, who lack true faith, should not feel assured of a salvation he does not possess. False assurance emboldens people in unbelief, which is exactly what cultural Christianity does. It makes unsaved people feel saved, which is the worst sort of unbelief. People in this condition need to hear the warnings about falling away.

Many who have deconverted from Christianity will say that they experienced a form assurance at one time. How can this be? How can they be assured that they possess something they never truly possessed?

The distinction between faith and assurance is again helpful. We humans are masters of self-deception. Cultural Christianity excels at self-deception. Cultural Christians eagerly proclaim how much God is pleased with them. Their self-righteousness is the perfect mate for their self-deception.

First John says that we should expect this sort of thing. After all, these are the last days which are marked by the spirit of antichrist. This is where people profess Christ and yet deny him. “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). As for those who deconverted from Christianity, John 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 it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

Jesus tells the same story: “Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Matt 7:21-23).” Jesus does not say, “I no longer know you,” but “I never knew you.

I do not question that Rhett and Link at one time thought themselves to be committed Christians. But their deconversion reveals that they were actually committed to something other than true Christianity. Their hope, commitment, and assurance was in some other gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). They may have had an experience of assurance, but it was a lie. They never truly knew Jesus. He said so himself.

Simply put: those who end up denying Jesus never knew him in the first place, no matter how much assurance they felt at the time. They were self-deceived. At least now they’re honest. “Former Christian” is the cultural Christian’s way of reconciling outer identity with their inner unbelief. They never knew Jesus. They hold him in contempt (Heb 6:4-6). Their unbelief is now consistent, inside and out.

Conclusion

These are the paradoxes we see in scripture: a person can be saved but not feel saved. And a person might feel saved but not be saved. If our faith is genuine, our feeling on the matter will be a great blessing and comfort. But if it isn’t true, our feelings will be our greatest source of self-deception. As cultural Christianity continues its decline, these “ex-vangelical” stories will also continue. So, what should we do in respond to this paradox of faith, doubt, and assurance?

First, don’t rely on feelings. The substance of our faith is Christ, not our feelings.

Second, examine yourself. This is a healthy practice, in moderate doses. It sobers the soul because it acknowledges our capacity for self-deception. Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Third, remember that we are all saved the same way: by grace through faith. In my church, the most common salvation testimonies we hear is from cultural Christians who came to our church, heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and responded to him in faith. Many were raised in church but later realized they never truly believed. When they came face to face with the truth of the gospel, they searched their hearts, repented of their sins, and embraced Christ by faith. This is quite common.

Fourth, build your faith through regular intake of scripture. To understand assurance better, a great place to start is the book of 1st John. John weaves the paradoxical themes of assurance and warning throughout the letter. And he teaches that the evidence of saving faith is to know, love, and obey Jesus as Lord (1 John 5:2).

Finally, pray that you will richly enjoy God’s peace and assurance in your life. Christ is your life and your salvation, and he is committed to keep your feet from stumbling. Do not obsess over whether or not you’re saved, but focus your attention and your prayers on enjoying the salvation you have. A good place to start is to pray the doxology at the end of Jude, claiming God’s promises for your life:

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25

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The Deconversion of Rhett and Link

The Deconversion of Rhett and Link