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 were all not of us.
-1 John 2:19 (ESV)
It was John Calvin who wrote, “Future and final perseverance is the ultimate test of a past participation in Christ. Those who fall away have never been thoroughly imbued with the knowledge of Christ but only had a slight and passing taste of it.” The idea here from Calvin is that only those who finally persevere in the faith are true Christians and those who do not persevere demonstrate their lack of true faith. Of course, the confusion here is how can anyone know then for sure they are eternally secure if one must persevere in the faith until the end and furthermore how many have been troubled in their souls that perhaps they are not truly part of the elect but are only in the faith for a short while and possibly fall into sin and thus demonstrate that what they perhaps perceived as faith was not true faith. How can one know they are part of the elect and yet eternally secure but must persevere on top of this?
One of the most often quoted passages I have heard from Calvinist theologians concerning perseverance of the saints and those who do fall away is 1 John 2:19. However, even among Calvinist there is some confusion as to what John is trying to teach. For example let me cite two Calvinist teachers on 1 John 2:19.
Joseph Dillow writes, “There is no statement here (1 John 2:19) that true believers will persevere to the end. Nor is there the statement that, if a man departs from the faith, this proves he was never a Christian in the first place. What is taught is that, if these so-called apostles were really apostles, they would have listened to the apostles John and would have continued in the fellowship with the Twelve” (Reign of the Servant Kings, p. 167).
John MacArthur writes, “True believers will persevere. If a person turns against Christ, it is proof that person was never saved. As the apostle John wrote (and he quotes 1 John 2:19)” (The Gospel According to Jesus, p. 98).
Dillow and MacArthur do not agree on what 1 John 2:19 is teaching and yet both affirm eternal security or final perseverance of the saints.
Who Can Know the Heart?
The common argument for using 1 John 2:19 is that no one can truly know the heart of another person and therefore the person might not be (or had been) a true disciple of Jesus. The case of Judas is often cited or the disciples in John 6:66 as proof positive that it is possible to walk with Jesus but not truly know Jesus. Of course, Arminians would agree. While we might add that it is possible also that Judas lost his salvation, Arminians agree that not everyone who claims Christ is truly a Christian (Matthew 7:21-23). The demonstration must come from their fruit.
It is true that we can not see if the roots of a person are truly planted in Christ (Colossians 2:7; cf. Matthew 13:20-21), we can only see the fruit that comes forth if the roots are planted firmly. If an apple tree does not bear fruit, the problem is with the roots. If a person who claims to be a disciples is not bearing fruit, the problem is with the roots of that person. Perhaps through neglect (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) or through sin (Hebrews 10:19-39), the person has been cutting off their life from the root (Romans 11:20-22). We can only abide fruit if we are in Christ (John 15:1-9; Romans 11:16) and we abide in Him by faith. The power to be fruitful comes from the Spirit of God and not our flesh (Galatians 5:16-22). One can attempt to bear fruit but this is impossible in our human flesh to do so (Romans 8:7).
Yet the NT does record instances where people knew that someone was truly saved. How can this be in light of 1 John 2:19? In Acts 11:23 we find the apostle Barnabas in Antioch and the Scripture says, “When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord” (NKJV). It is obvious from the text that Barnabas saw evidence of the grace of God in the lives of the disciples in Antioch. Likewise Paul saw wickedness in the life of Elymas the sorcerer in Acts 13:8-11 and declared him to be a son of the devil because of his lifestyle. Paul understood that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9 NKJV). Both Barnabas and Paul understood that the grace of God brings a radical transformation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and brings about a life of holiness (Titus 2:11-14). Galatians 5:16-22 clearly identifies evidences of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit implying that one can use these to know who are the redeemed and who are not. 1 John 2:3-6; 3:6-9 also is useful in testing Christian fellowship. Bear in mind that 2 Corinthians 13:5 calls us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith or not. In the context of 2 Corinthians 12:21-13:5, Paul is asking the Corinthians to make sure they are in the faith.
The Context of 1 John 2:19
A quick reading of 1 John 2:19 might at first seem to truly embrace the theology put forth by Calvinist Bible teachers regarding personal apostasy but the problem is that the context doesn’t allow for this view. In the context of 1 John 2:18-23, verse 19 is obviously referring not to wayward former disciples of Jesus but the many antichrists of verse 18. In fact notice the usage of the words “you” “us” and “we” in the this 1 John 2:18-23 and 1 John as a whole. Whenever John refers to false teachers (historically in this case it would be the Gnostics) he uses the word third person (they, them, and he but in a broad sense of the usage).
Therefore, the context of 1 John 2:19 has in view the false teachers (antichrists). This becomes plain that John is referring to the Gnostics in 1 John 2:23. The “whoever” of 1 John 2:23 are the same false teachers found in verses 18-19. John reminds the disciples that they have an anointing from the Holy One (v.20) in reference to the gnostic idea that they were enlightened but others were not. In the gnostic understanding, they had the truth and only they but John regards them as liars (v.22). Clearly then 1 John 2:19 is speaking of these gnostic teachers who went out from the apostles claiming to be super apostles and above the apostles. However, they did not continue in the doctrine of the apostles as the early Church had always done (Acts 2:42). This clearly reveals, writes John, that they were not of the apostles (v.19). This is why they are called “antichrists” (2 John 7; cf. Matthew 24:4,5).
A Biblical Solution to Apostasy
However, rather than debate if a person was ever saved to begin with who falls away from the faith, let us be biblical and call the person to repentance. This is the biblical solution. To debate a person’s eternal destiny while they are living in sin is not the main issue but it should be to call such a person to repentance (1 Corinthians 5).