Falling Away or Cut Off? Romans and the Question of Apostasy

This article is part of a three-part series considering apostasy from different angles and perspectives within varying Christian traditions. Other posts in this series were written by Matthew Wilcoxen and Dave Morlan.

The recent departure of Joshua Harris not only from Christian ministry but from Christianity altogether has brought questions regarding apostasy and falling away to the forefront of recent evangelical dialogue. Can a true believer fall from grace? If someone commits apostasy, were they ever really saved? If it is indeed possible to lose your salvation, how does it happen? What’s the condition? How should we understand the notion of perseverance? What do key biblical texts say about the issue?

You Stand by Faith

One of the determinative texts is Romans 11:17-25. It comes as part of Paul’s refutation of the notion that God has abandoned ethnic Israel in favor of the nations. Paul addresses himself specifically to the Gentile members of his audience (11:13) and warns them to avoid the sin of pride (11:20). He compares them to a wild olive shoot that has been grafted into an olive tree, which represents ethnic Israel. They shouldn’t boast over the natural branches (Israel) that were broken off. After all, God is able to graft them in again.

What’s striking about this text is what Paul assumes about his audience, namely he takes them to be justified believers who have peace with God. This comes through in 11:20 when Paul says to his hearers, “you stand by faith.” Now if you’ve read Romans 3:21-26, you know that those who have faith are also those who have been justified. They stand righteous before God. They have peace with him (cf. Rom 5:1). By using the language of faith to describe his Roman audience, Paul indicates that he assumes their justification. The question is whether he also believes that they could lose that status.

The Consequence of Unbelief 

Paul’s understanding of faith is clarified in this passage through contrast. You may already know that the Greek word for faith is pistis. That’s what he attributes to his recipients in 11:20. The contrasting word is apistis, which is translated “unbelief.” The use of the very different English words “faith” and “unbelief” runs the risk of muddying Paul’s rather clear contrast between pistis and apisits – belief and unbelief, faith and non-faith. Apistis is how Paul describes Israel’s attitude toward God (11:20), and that attitude is causally related to God’s action toward them. Israel’s lack of faith is the cause which has the effect of their being broken off. Notably, Paul later says that if they do not persist in apistis, God will graft them into the olive tree once again (11:24). He will reconcile them to himself, but the condition is faith.

This helps us clarify what Paul means by the language of faith. Pistis is the condition of justification. Apistis is the act of turning away (or apostasy) which is also the condition for losing one’s justified status. We should be clear that the condition of faith is not the same as performing a meritorious work. Elsewhere in Romans Paul sets faith and works in an antithetical relationship to one another (Rom 4:5). To say faith is the condition of justification does not mean the believer in any way merits or earns the justified status. To the contrary, faith as a condition is the humble acceptance of that which we cannot do for ourselves, namely make ourselves right with God.

The concept of faith as condition of justification forms the conceptual basis of Paul’s warning to his Roman audience, “If he did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (Rom 11:21). The recipients are justified by pistis. But if they fall into apistis, they run the risk of being cut off from the people of God. From this, we can conclude that Paul embraced the real possibility that true believers may fall into unbelief and be cut off by God. That act of unbelief is what we mean when we speak of apostasy.

The Power of God

The last thing to observe is the way Paul describes God’s action toward those who meet the condition of unbelief. He breaks them off (11:19). He does not spare them (11:21). He takes a posture of severity toward them; indeed, he cuts them off (11:22). The language is important. Here’s why. Often enough, when the case is made that true believers can fall from grace, the attempted rebuttal insists that no one has the power to wrench their salvation from God’s loving hand. The problem with that view is that Paul does not portray apostasy in Romans 11 as a person wrestling their salvation out of God’s powerless grip. To the contrary, Paul portrays God as one who takes decisive action in response to apostasy. Rather than doing all in his power to hold on, God displays his sovereign power in the act of cutting off. At least as far as Romans 11 is concerned, it’s more accurate to speak of being cut off from grace than of falling from it.

Apostasy is always a time for lament in the community of faith. It’s a grave matter when a brother or sister turns their back on our Lord. Such an event should prompt us to ask hard questions about how we do the work of discipleship and Christian formation. Could we have done differently to perhaps cultivate faithfulness for that person and better safeguard them against apostasy? And the real possibility of apostasy should move us to be always working in our churches toward a more robust faith formation in order that our people may “continue in his kindness” (Rom 11:22).


Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Wesley Biblical Seminary and Houston Baptist University. Connect at orthodoxyforeveryone.com or follow @mporeilly.