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Was The Christian-Turned-Atheist Never Saved?

I got this comment from an anonymous reader. 

‘…when he and I were talking about your site and the Christian turned atheist question on your blog. His argument was that someone who completely proclaims atheism and denies god would not have ever been filled with the holy spirit in the first place. ’

Let’s look at how we get the Holy Spirit.



Although some Christians report having an emotional experience, that’s not what happened for me. I remember standing next to my Dad’s drawing table, and listening as he explained that I could have eternal life for free. I became a believer in that moment. There were no tears or shouts of exuberance. I didn’t really know until later that something had changed in me.   

The same second that I believed in Jesus for eternal life, I was born again by the spirit. (John 3:3, 5) In that instant the Holy Spirit took up residence in me. The crazy thing is, I didn’t even know it. The Spirit arrived quietly, almost as if coming in unannounced by a side door. I only know that the Holy Spirit entered because the bible tells me it does for all believers. (Ephesians 1:13, 1 Corinthians 12:13, John 3:5, 2 Corinthians 1:22, Romans 8:9, Galatians 4:6)   Further the New Testament teaches that believers have the spirt living in them perpetually. (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19, 2 Timothy 1:14) Although the bible is full of situations where the Holy Spirit did great and powerful things, for the most part, The Spirit has been pretty quiet in my life. It has so seamlessly integrated into my life that I could hardly point to it’s influence. So saying “I never got the Holy spirit” is equivalent to saying, “I didn’t believe in Jesus in the first place.” or in other words, “I was never a Christian.” The implication is:   “If someone has the Holy Spirit then they will automatically obey Jesus, and will be unable to deny him.”   IT SEEMED REASONABLE AT THE TIME.   Yet, it was this very idea that lead me to a crisis in my own faith. I believed that discipleship would happen automatically. I believed, because I was told, that all Christians will grow in their faith. I was told and believed that if a Christian wasn’t “bearing fruit”, a church word for obeying Jesus, then they must not have ever actually become a Christian in the first place. Legalistic teachers poured the idea into my head that obeying Christ is something that the Holy Spirit will Force me to do. If I don’t obey Christ then I must not have the Spirit, which means I was never saved. This lead to multiple emotional meetings where I and friends were convinced that we needed to get saved again because it didn’t stick the first time… Or the first five times. I remember, as a kid, laying in bed every night begging for forgiveness of my sins because some legalist had filled me with the notion that if I continued in sin, I must not be saved.   

I, therefore, couldn’t understand how a Christian could abandon the faith other than to say, “they must not have been Christians in the first place, because Christians will endure until the end.”   

That, however, is not what I found in real life. What I found in real life was that there are believers, who choose to disobey Christ, even though they have the Holy Spirit. There were a number of people I went to High School with, who clearly believed in Jesus as the giver of eternal life. I talked with them about the Lord. We shared our Christian walk. We were co-workers in the faith. I’m absolutely confident that they believed in Jesus alone for salvation. However, years later many of them have turned away from Jesus. Only a few remain committed to their Christian lifestyle.   

The traditional definition for “believe” didn’t seem to work in the real world. I was confident that those people had believed and even promised to make a life-long commitment… but it didn’t pan out. Could I really say, they never believed in the first place? They absolutely had believed in Jesus, but what went wrong?


  I reasoned that when the book of John says “those who believe have eternal life,” it really didn’t mean it. It couldn’t mean “believe” when it uses the word “believe.” So I allowed myself to be influenced by theologians who turned the word “believe” into some mysterious transaction. I listened to teachers who bent the word “Believe” until it no longer meant the same thing. The definition had morphed. It originally meant “convinced something is true.” However, pressured by logic, and more legalistic teachers, I had to shift my definition for “believe” to mean: “a life-long commitment.”  Even though the bible DOES NOT teach that “Believe” means “a life-long commitment,” It was the only logical outcome I could consider. I had assumed that Discipleship was the automatic work of the Holy Spirit, therefore if someone abandoned discipleship, then they must not have believed. 


Not only did I have real-world experience that seemed to contradict what the Bible was saying. It seemed so inconsistent that I had begun to think the bible might not be true. One second it seemed like Jesus was saying, “it’s a free gift,” the next if felt like he was, “saying you have to earn it.” Was this guy bipolar or what?   I had suffered years of frustration, and many hours spent in prayer, trying to sort it all out. And all this while being a minister. I remember sitting in my big office at the largest church in town thinking to myself, “What’s my role in my salvation?” Just in case you’re wondering, that’s not good for your minister to be asking himself on a Monday afternoon. It should have been clear to me, but something was missing. Even though I was confused, basically I just faked it. I taught in churches and even traveled around speaking at regional events… But I had a dirty secret.   

I wasn’t sure what my role in salvation was. I wasn’t actually sure what I was supposed to do to be sure I was saved. Not for lack of trying to understand. I have a high reading comprehension level, but I would stare at verses like John 3:16 and feel confused. The verse is really quite simple, but I had my head so full of the words of legalist teachers that I couldn’t read the verse without seeing it through their lens.   

I hid my lack of understanding by simply repeating what I heard other pastors saying. I knew in my heart though, that something wasn’t right. I could sense the illogical nature of what I was saying.  I was repeating statements like this.    It’s a free gift, but it will cost you everything. 

Even at the time, I thought, “that sounds like a pretty crappy gift.” Yet, it sounded profound so I used it.   

I held this idea until a meteor struck me right in the brain. It happened in a conversation with my wife when we were still dating. She asked me to explain the gospel. I thought, “oh I’m a Bible scholar, so I’ll teach her a thing or two.” I rambled on for about five minutes about what I thought the gospel meant. It was muddy and convoluted I’m sure, but it sounded academic, at least to me. After I got done with my speech, I asked her what she thought. 


Long pause. Stomach in my throat. “The bible teaches that there is a difference between being a believer and being a disciple…” Another long silence. She had seen the crack in my gospel presentation without even trying. I panicked. I had been quietly struggling for years to see the broken piece of my gospel machine… She spotted it in five seconds.   

What?!!! I thought at first. That couldn’t be… Although, I sensed something deep in her words. I was familiar enough with the bible to test the theory out in my mind. I resisted it, because of my reform upbringing, at first. The more I workshopped it, the more I realized this simple truth. And as Jesus said, truth will set you free. 


Despite her words, I was still holding on by my fingernails. That’s partially because I couldn’t quite comprehend the full implications of her statement. It kept ringing in my head, “there is a difference between believers and disciples.” I had silently been considering it for months, that “not all believers are disciples.” That “Discipleship is not automatic or obligatory.” However, I had heard so many southern pastors say, “if someone is able to turn away from God, then they never believed in the first place.” that I was having a hard time letting the idea go.   My previous frustration had grown to overwhelm me so I was ready to try anything. I had stopped pursuing speaking engagements and had left the ministry altogether. As a minister, I felt like a tire. I had been installed into the church, they peeled rubber for six years, and then removed and replaced me. I was bitter and tired. I couldn’t make my theology work and had this creeping fear that it all was a false idea.   

Because I wanted to prove I could be on the same page as my girlfriend, I agreed to attend a bible conference in Dallas with her. I heard some great talks that day, but one stood out to me in particular. A theologian dude got up and talked about the distinction between believers and disciples. I could hardly stay in my seat. As soon as he was done I jetted to the front to ask him a question. I asked him this, which summed up the entire dilemma.   

“Can a Christian be saved, but not love Jesus?” The theologian answered simply, “yes.”   

As soon as he said it, I knew it was true. I had already been convinced, but I just wanted to confirm my what I had suspected. I didn’t accept it only because he said it. I accepted it because it was only natural conclusion. It meant that, no matter what happened after a person becomes a Believer, they have eternal life. (1 John 5:13) Even if they don’t obey, or love Jesus.   

I excused myself and ran to a bathroom stall. I cried. It was joy and it was pain. Joy because suddenly the New Testament made sense. It was painful, because I had taught so many people, a very muddy gospel. I had manipulated people into having emotional experiences, thinking that’s what it took to save them. The reality was heavy and liberating at the same moment. So here is what I’ve come to understand by scripture since then.   

Notice these words of Jesus He that believes has eternal life. (John 6:47) If you love me, keep my commands. (John 14:15)


As soon as I embraced “Once save always saved.” The bible suddenly started making sense.   

Understanding that Believers did not automatically become disciples left me with the most natural and elegant conclusion. Believers are saved no matter what. Hence, “once saved always saved.” It was like the bible was an engine that had not been working for me in years. I had been grinding the gears and cranking the key, but it just wouldn’t turn over. Suddenly, when I realized the truth, it sputtered and jumped to life.   

I was suddenly able to return to the obvious definition of the word “believe.” It’s a Greek word that means… Believe. Believe is simply being convinced that Jesus is the giver of Eternal life, and that has given it to me because I believed in him for it.   

What made the gears fit together for me was the idea that Being a “believer” and being a “disciple” are two different things.   

So I amended this statement, “It’s a free gift, but it will cost you everything.” I changed it to this, "Eternal Life is a free gift, but discipleship will earn you great rewards in Heaven… It’s not as enigmatic, but it makes much more sense.   

One of the biggest surprises was when I saw that Jesus’ words, “follow me” were not a call to believe, but a call to discipleship. How do I know this? 


He’s talking to Christians when he says “follow me.” that means that Believers can either, follow him (be disciples) or not follow him. What’s even more interesting is that he gives different outcomes for “following” than he does for “believing.”   

Believers get Eternal life (John 3:36) Followers (Disciples) get abundant life (John 10:10) Sit on thrones in the Kingdom (19:28) Treasure in Heaven (Luke 18:22) Never walk in darkness (John 8:12) worthiness (Matt 10:38) commended by Jesus before God (Luke 9:26) and many more things.  So all Followers of Christ must first be believers, but all believers are not followers. 


The confusion for most people is, they mix BELIEVE and BEHAVE up. John 3:16 tells us we will be saved because we BELIEVE in Jesus not because we BEHAVE in Jesus. We BEHAVE to gain rewards in Heaven, we BELIEVE to get to heaven in the first place.  You could think of it this way. BELIEVERS believe. Disciples BEHAVE. Therefore BELIEVERS are saved but DISCIPLES are saved and rewarded.


It’s like this. I graduated from high school. I was ranked 31 out of about 250. I could have worked harder to get a better grade, but I was content with what I had. My friend Matt graduated as the valedictorian. He got little tassels and a colorful thing to go around his neck. He got to give a speech to 1000 people. He got special honors at graduation. He got free college out of the deal too. I, on the other hand, got a diploma and a handshake.  He graduated with honors, I just graduated.   

The same could be said of the Kingdom of Heaven.    I want to be both a believer and a disciple. I want more than to just be let into Heaven, I want to be rewarded when we get there.  All believers have the opportunity to grow as disciples. However, discipleship isn’t easy. That’s why there’s a reward for those who do it. 


If Discipleship was AUTOMATIC, then why would Jesus need to instruct people on how to be disciples? Why would Jesus waste time instructing us to become disciples if the Holy Spirit was just going to force us into it anyway?   

We know from the bible that Christians are able to be ashamed of Christ. (Mark 8:38) For the Christian who is Ashamed of Jesus, Jesus will be ashamed of him when he enters Heaven. Notice that even though the Christian is ashamed of Jesus the verse doesn’t say he loses his eternal life.  Jesus also warns Christians of the sad consequences for those who deny Jesus publicly. Jesus will publicly deny the denounce that Christian in front of God and the Angels. (Matthew 10:33) Notice that the consequence of denying Jesus is not loss of eternal life. Instead, it’s public SHAME when entering Heaven.    These verses show us that it’s possible for a Christian to deny, disown, or be ashamed of Jesus. Sheesh, can you imagine on arriving in Heaven, Jesus points you out and says in front of God and the Angels, “you really disappointed me. You’re a real shame.”   

I have a Christian-turned-atheist friend who claimed he’s not “ashamed” of Christ. I asked if he’d be willing to wear a t-shirt that praises Jesus. He said he’d be willing to wear a t-shirt with Jesus popping a sick wheelie on a bike.    It’s my premise that the Christian-turned-atheist is fundamentally ashamed of Christ. Verses like these which talk to Christians who publicly deny Christ, I believe, are talking about the Christian-turned-atheist. Although I’d be interested in getting input on this from other atheist friends. 


Before I was introduced to this idea, I had fallen into the notion that everyone’s experience was going to be equal in Heaven. I had assumed that we all would be doing basically the same thing. Something having to do with clouds, harps, and robes. This new understanding of the non-automatic discipleship began to crumble that mental image.    I continued to wrestle with the idea that not all believers were disciples. In that search for the truth, I came across verses like this. (1 Corinthians 3:10–15) It paints the picture of a Christian who is eternally saved but has done few-to-no good works. In other words, he’s not a disciple, but only a believer. He gets into Heaven, but he suffers loss… in Heaven. A crazy idea compared to what I was taught through my childhood.    This was more evidence that Christians can resist Discipleship. I found further evidence in Ephesians. The Spirit Lives in us when we believe in Jesus, but Paul says we can “Grieve The Spirit.” (Ephesians 4:30) That means that a Christian can disobey what the spirit is telling him to do.  A great example of this idea shows up later in the book of Ephesians. Paul says, "do not get drunk with wine, for that is reckless living, but be filled with the Spirit, (Ephesians 5:18).   This verse shows us that there are ways to squeeze the Holy Spirit’s influence out of our lives. If we engage in reckless living, it squelches the influence of the Spirit.   THE HOLY SPIRIT IS A GUIDE, NOT A SLAVE OWNER.   The role of the Holy Spirit is as a guide. (John 16:13) Is it possible to disregard where a guide is leading you? Of course, in fact, I’ve done it. A tour guide points you in the right direction, but it’s your choice to either follow or strike out on your own. John also says that the Holy Spirit will teach and remind us of the truth of Jesus. (John 14:26) In a similar way, the Spirit doesn’t force itself on us but instead acts as a reminder of what we should do. 


If someone disobeys for long enough, God “turns him over to his evil desires.” (1 Corinthians 5:5, Romans 1:24, Psalm 81:12) So in this case, the person is a Christians, who is eternally saved, but has decided not to obey God in their mortal life. When this behavior lasts for long enough, God allows them to follow their sin, and suffer the physical consequences. This can even end in physical death however, they will be saved eternally. 

It makes me think of my daughter. She’s 1 year old. Walking is new to her. She saw a shiny slide at the playground the other day. I put my hands on her and helped her as she walked back up the slide. One step into her daring attempt, and she was trying to shove my hands away. She wanted to do it herself. At this point in her life, being that she can’t take care of herself, there’s nothing she could do to convince me to take my hands away and let her suffer the consequences. HOWEVER, as she develops into an adult, at some point, I have to allow her freedom. If she chooses reckless living and insists that I not interfere, there will come a time that I have to allow that. It would hurt to do it, but I’d be obligated to let her.   

Regardless, there is nothing she can do to stop being my daughter. I may have to allow her to suffer the consequences of her own decisions one day, I may have to discipline her, but no matter what she’s my child.    It’s the same way with us and God. If we’ve believed in Jesus for eternal life, there’s nothing we can do to stop being his child. (John 10:25) We will be saved. However, there is something we can do to force God to “turn us over to our evil desires.” We can pursue a sinful lifestyle full time. 


believe in Jesus and gain eternal life. (John 3:16)   Then   Believers can begin to grow by obeying Christ. (John 15:4) John calls it “abide in Christ and bear fruit.”  Alternatively, Christians can disobey Christ. A Christian can resist bearing fruit. (John 15:1–2) That doesn’t mean their eternal life is taken away, it just means they are disobeying Jesus, which will have consequences.    Then   When the Kingdom comes, all who have believed in Jesus will be saved (John 3:15). However, there will be a reward ceremony in heaven. All Christians will be given rewards based on their obedience to Christ. (Matthew 6:19–21, Matthew 16:27, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 22:12) Believers who have resisted discipleship and disobeyed Christ will still be in Heaven but will suffer loss of rewards. (1 Cor 3:15) They’ll be saved but not rewarded. Rewards will be things like Ruling with Christ (2 Timothy 2:12), Crowns (1 Peter 5:4, Revelation 2:10, 2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Corinthians 9:24–25) A closer friendship with King Jesus (John 15:4), having a place at the Royal banquet table, (Luke 13:29, Revelation 3:20)  


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