In the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23, but specifically vv. 20-21), Jesus describes a problem that churches don't often like to talk about. People come to a point in life where they intellectually believe in Jesus, and emotionally, they are so excited to know that they can be forever forgiven and transformed by His love. So they make a public profession of faith, get baptized, start attending church…and then somewhere down the line, they "fall away." The term that is used in the parable is skandalizomai. It also means "stumble." You get the picture of people running a race together, and some just drop out. That happens in churches. I have had the privilege of baptizing hundreds of people. I wish I could tell you that every one of those new believers grew up to be like the person Jesus describes here as “good soil,” that they changed the world thirty, sixty or hundredfold. But the truth is that some—the last time I saw them—had left church life entirely. They now live exactly like people who never believed. They were short-timers, temporary believers. Following Jesus was seemingly just a phase in their lives. Anyone who has spent any time in church life can tell stories of friends or family members who went through this. Most music fans know that Bob Dylan went through a very public Christian period. He made a couple of Gospel albums. Most people don’t know that John Lennon went through the same thing. Holed up in his New York apartment, he started watching Billy Graham crusades and the 700 Club on TV. He began attending church and saying, “Praise God” in casual conversation. He told Yoko Ono he had accepted Jesus Christ. But it only lasted a few weeks. Soon he was back to having his life dictated by Yoko’s astrologers and psychics.
Jesus knew this would happen. It was an even bigger issue in the Early church than it is today. . The big debate in the first centuries of Christianity was on whether someone who renounced Christ under penalty of martyrdom was lost. Should people who had saved their own lives by recanting their Christianity be welcomed back into the church? This is why the subject of endurance or perseverance is so prevalent in the New Testament. The book of 1 John discusses this problem at length. People were falling away from the faith, and the apostle wanted his fellow believers to understand why it was happening. In 2:19, he puts it bluntly, They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.This whole discussion makes many of us uncomfortable. We live in a very tolerant, live-and-let-live society. The only people we think we’re allowed to judge are judgmental people, which is sort of ironic when you think about it. So we internally cringe at all this talk of who is in and who is out. Let me be clear: I don’t think it’s fruitful, responsible or biblical for you or I to try to decide if someone else is truly saved. We waste a lot of time and divide the Body of Christ when we do that. But as part of the family of God, we should care if there is no spiritual fruit in someone’s life, just like a farmer should care if one of his peach trees stops putting out peaches. We should care if suddenly one of our members stops coming, just like you and I would care if next Thanksgiving, one of our siblings didn’t show up to dinner unexpectedly. So in this message, we’ll look at three questions: Why do people fall away? What can we do to keep people from stumbling? How should we treat those who have stumbled? And then I have one more question for you to answer yourself.