In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus described a group of people who are quick to respond to Him, but are just as quick to ”fall away” when trouble or persecution comes along.  I have heard the term fall away used before in various ways, depending on who was using it.  In The Jesus Said Project, we only care about how Jesus used it.  What did Jesus mean when He used the term ”fall away”?

Controversy Surrounding the Term Fall Away

For whatever reason, I always thought that to fall away meant to stop following Jesus.  This definition leads into the controversial issue of whether those who fall away were saved believers or people that were never really saved in the first place.  I am not a bible scholar, only a seeker of truth, and God has not revealed anything to me that answers this controversy.

For this reason, The Jesus Said Project will not tackle the question, “Can a Christian lose salvation, or was he or she never really saved in the first place?”  What will be studied is the more important question:  How did Jesus use the term fall away?  The answer is surprising.

Jesus Used the Term Fall Away

Jesus used the term fall away in the Parable of the Sower when He taught of a seed sown on rocky places (Matthew 13:20-21, Mark 4:16-17, and Luke 8:13).  The plant sprouted up quickly in the shallow soil, but then withered because it had no root.  Jesus said the seed represents the Word of God (Luke 8:11), and ”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.” (Luke 8:13)

The seed represents people who hear the Gospel, receive it ”at once” with joy, “believe for a while,” but then just as ”quickly fall away.”  The words Jesus used indicate both the acceptance of the Gospel and the falling away are decisions made quickly, perhaps based only on emotions.

Still, the context of these scriptures does not fully explain what fall away means.  For that, we turn to Jesus’ predictions of what His disciples would do after He was arrested.

Jesus Defined the Term Fall Away

The most enlightening definition of fall away was spoken by Jesus just before His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He used the term as a warning, to predict that His disciples would soon temporarily abandon Him:

”This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” (Matthew 26:31-32)

This answers what fall away means, at least as used by Jesus.  He was not saying that His disciples would lose their salvation; rather, He was referring to their temporary denial and abandonment of Him.  This was a major stumble in their faith, but it was temporary, not permanent.  This is clear by the fact that Jesus said He would later appear to them after His resurrection.

A closer look at Matthew 26:31-34 along with Mark 14:27-30 provides details surrounding Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction.  Peter, always the boisterous one, quick to express what he was thinking, assured Jesus that he would never fall away, to which Jesus replied, ”I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times” (Matthew 26:34).  Peter replied using the same word Jesus had used:  “I will never disown you” (Matthew 26:35).  At first Jesus used the term fall away, and then used the more specific term disown; Peter’s replies included the same words.

The Gospel of Luke does not use the term fall away, but it does include Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial.  Jesus said that Peter’s faith will “fail”, but he will then be “turned back” (Luke 22:31-34).  This is compatible with the earlier definition, that to fall away is to temporarily deny, abandon, or turn away from Jesus.  Peter did fall away, but it was a temporary setback in his faith, one used by Jesus to actually strengthen Peter’s faith and prepare him for future leadership of the Church (Luke 22:32).

Jesus also used the term fall away when responding to the inquiries of John the Baptist’s disciples.  Jesus cautioned these Jews not to fall away on account of Him (Matthew 11:6, Luke 7:23).  Some of John’s followers did not want to transition over to following Jesus.  Some of them, devout Jews, would fall away from the pathway that John had prepared ahead of Jesus (John 1:23); instead of moving forward with Jesus, they would turn back to the old Jewish religion or go off and make up their own.  Any of these responses to Jesus would be a major stumble in faith.

In conclusion, Jesus used the term fall away as a warning, to describe a major stumble in faith.  By God’s grace, the condition is a temporary (not permanent) setback for a believer who repents.  The term is not a definition of a believer’s status as saved in Christ.

Guard Against Falling Away

In Mark 4:16-17, Jesus said believers will be tested, not just by ordinary trouble in life, but by ”trouble or persecution (that) comes because of the word.”  Paul wrote, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).  When a person becomes a disciple of Christ, he or she begins to change, and trouble begins as those changes impact the people around him or her.  In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus said it is at this point people are susceptible to falling away.

How well are new believers prepared to suffer for Jesus?  The whole point of becoming a Christian is NOT to have a trouble-free life and go to heaven (though heaven is an awesome part of becoming Jesus’ disciple).  No, a disciple is called to die to self, to become a slave to God, to work for Him, and for the furtherance of His kingdom (Galatians 2:20, Romans 6:22, Philippians 2:13, Mark 16:15).  Do some new believers fall away because they weren’t taught this?

Mature believers must disciple new believers so that they can mature and become fruitful for the Kingdom of God.  Instead of being a seed that springs up quickly and then quickly falls away, they will be like the good seed in Matthew 13:23:  ” . . . the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it.  He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” 

Closing Thoughts

After studying what Jesus said, I now know a Christian is most likely to fall away when new to the faith, before his or her faith has had a chance to grow strong roots, and the catalyst is likely any trouble or persecution that comes because of his or her faith in Jesus (as in the case of the disciples).  If a believer’s faith is temporarily shaken in one of these tests, he or she can recover from the setback with repentance and turning back to receive God’s forgiveness.

My own experience reflects this.  I have now been a Christian for thirteen years, and cannot even imagine falling away from God.  However, looking back at my first five years as a disciple, my faith and my commitment to Jesus were not strong.  I was immature in my relationship with God because I had not yet been taught ”to obey everything” as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:20.  I was still learning, and so at that point I was most vulnerable to the lies and temptations of the Devil, and most vulnerable to falling away.

All Christians should take these scriptures as warnings, be aware of the pitfalls of falling away, and reflect on one of the following questions:

  1. Mature Christians – What am I doing to disciple new Christians, to help protect them from the pitfall of falling away?
  1. New Christians – What am I doing to grow as a Christian, to guard against the pitfall of falling away?

In love, mature believers must disciple new believers on the path to spiritual maturity, and new believers must be proactive in reaching out to mature disciples, praying, studying and growing in the Word.  The bottom line:  For each disciple, the best way to avoid the pitfall of falling away is awareness of the danger and taking responsibility for spiritual maturity as a Christian (James 1:4, Hebrews 5:14).