“A Thought-Provoking Book” series (post #5)
You — the regular readers of this blog — have had the last four posts to grasp some of the more compelling arguments presented in the book Why I Left, Why I Stayed. As you know by now, the book is coauthored by Bart and Tony Campolo. Bart (the son) rejected Christianity and is now a humanist chaplain at the University of Southern California. Tony (the dad) continues on in Christianity as an author, speaker, and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.
I won’t use this last post in the series to retrace ground I’ve already covered. Instead, I’ll build it around one final thought that is, in my opinion, at the heart of the whole debate between the Campolos. I’ll frame the thought in the form of a question, a question that reads as follows: “Was there ever a moment when Bart Campolo authentically became a born-again Christian?”
Please understand now that I’m not the man’s judge and am not running for the job. Likewise, whatever opinion I might have on the issue, God’s opinion is the only one that counts. With this understood, though, let me say that I think there is plenty of evidence offered in Bart’s sections of the book to cast serious doubt on his Christian conversion. Allow me to cite some of that evidence.
First, even though Tony was a well known preacher who took young Bart along on many of his preaching engagements, Bart didn’t make any kind of profession of faith in Jesus until he was a sophomore in high school. That right there suggests that Bart always had a difficult time getting on board with the Savior his father preached. Bart confirms this when he says in the chapter “How I Left”:
Trust me, it wasn’t my father who kept me from becoming a Christian sooner. He made following Jesus seem like a noble adventure, and I always knew his faith was sincere. No, my problem was that I simply didn’t believe in God.
Not that it bothered me much. Sure, pretending to accept all those Sunday school stories at face value and acting as though heaven and hell were real places felt strange, but I was a nice kid and I didn’t want to embarrass or upset anyone, so I held my tongue.
Second, by Bart’s own admission it is possible for a sincere preacher such as Tony Campolo to be the head of a home of non-believers. Listen to what Bart says about his sister and his mother in that same chapter:
From the beginning, my older sister, Lisa, made no bones about being largely uninterested in Christianity, and she’s never wavered on that note. More importantly, although my mother grew up a minister’s daughter before becoming a minster’s wife, I think it’s fair to say that she didn’t really believe in God, either, when Lisa and I were growing up.
My mom is a sincere believer now, but her late-blooming faith is another story entirely.
Third, again by Bart’s own admission, his first real interest in Christianity came by way of him becoming part of a community youth club for teenagers. This is a far cry from becoming interested in Christianity because you realize that Jesus was God in the flesh who died to pay the sin debt you owe to God. Bart even found out later on that the youth group had actually targeted him as a high-priority prospect to win. On the subject of the youth club, Bart writes:
…Joel’s youth group was absolutely perfect for me — a huge, high-octane club for nice teenagers who genuinely enjoyed making things better for other people. I was hooked from day one, and over the next few months, that youth group quickly became the main focus of my life.
Of course, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that the whole enterprise was built around the same kind of evangelical Christianity I’d been exposed to — and unconvinced by — for as long as I could remember…..What stood out most to me, however, was the sincerity of their love for one another and the depth of their commitment to reaching out and drawing others into their circle of care. I still didn’t believe in God, but for the first time in my life I really wanted to, not because I was afraid of going to hell, but rather because I wanted to become a full member of the most heavenly community I’d ever seen.
Fourth, to hear Bart describe it, whatever salvation experience he supposedly had came by way of the heavy influence of him being a part of that youth group. He writes:
In the beginning (of the youth group) I just went through the motions of being a Christian, but in the midst of that many ardent believers, it was only a matter of time before I began believing myself. We human beings are supernaturalists by nature, after all, especially when we’re socially and emotionally motivated in that direction. The more I sang along with all those gospel choruses, the more I meant what they said. I still had my doubts about the Bible, but they were no match for my certainty about that transcendental experiences and my new friends’ lifestyle of love. So then, a few months later, when Joel sat me down at a McDonald’s and invited me to receive Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, I didn’t hesitate.
Fifth, even as Bart became a professing “Christian” and began ministering to others through his youth group, he still didn’t believe in the biblical facts about Jesus. He writes:
Here’s the thing: As much as I loved my new identity and lifestyle, from the very beginning I struggled with the Christian narrative around which they revolved. While everything evidently made perfect sense to my fellow believers, to me, both the Old and New Testaments seemed chock-full of problems. Indeed, my occasional experiences of spiritual transcendence during prayer meetings or group worship felt more reliable to me than much of what I found in the Bible. From the creation story in Genesis to the resurrection of Jesus, all the way through to the apocalyptic prophesies of Revelation, I found large swaths of scripture to be practically unbelievable.
Now tell me, do all these quotes sound like the words of a person who has truly placed his belief/faith in the Jesus who is presented in the Bible? They certainly don’t sound like that to me. I mean, if you can’t even buy the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, just exactly what “Jesus” did you accept as your personal Savior? He surely isn’t the Jesus of the Bible. Joining up with a Christian youth group is not the same as joining up with Jesus, and ministering to others through that youth group is not the same as having God the Holy Spirit dwell inside you by way of the new birth. There’s a colossal difference between religion and what the Bible calls “regeneration” (Titus 3:5).
Of course, there are some Christians who believe that a person such as Bart can become a genuinely born-again Christian but then lose his salvation through bad behavior or a lack of ongoing faith. These Christians reference passages such as:
- Hebrews 6:1-8 (which talks about those who “fall away”)
- Luke 9:62 (where Jesus warns against putting your hand to the plow and then looking back)
- John 15:1-6 (where Jesus warns about the unfruitful branch being cut off and burned in the fire)
- Romans 11:17-22 (where Paul talks about branches being broken off because of unbelief)
- 1 Corinthians 9:27 (where Paul says that he doesn’t want to become “disqualified”)
- Galatians 5:1-5 (where Paul uses the term “fallen from grace”)
- 1 Timothy 1:18-19 (where Paul says that some “concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck”)
- Hebrews 3:12 (which warns against “an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God”)
- 2 Peter 3:17 (where Peter warns against a “fall from your own steadfastness”)
- Revelation 22:19 (which warns against the possibility of a person’s name being taken out of the Book of Life)
Admittedly, it isn’t hard to see how these passages and some others that could be listed might be understood to mean that salvation, once gained, can be lost. However, there is a whole other side to that scriptural coin, a side which must be given due consideration as well. And as we do this we find that there are plenty of scriptural reasons to promote the doctrine of “once saved always saved.” Consider the following:
- John 10:27-30 (where Jesus promises that His sheep will be given eternal life, will never perish, and will never be snatched out of His hand)
- Eternal life, by its very nature, can’t be probationary. If you can lose it, it’s probationary life.
- Luke 22:31-32 and Hebrews 7:22-28 (both of which teach that Jesus makes intercession for the Christian and is therefore able to save them “to the uttermost”)
- 2 Corinthians 1:21-22 (where Paul says the indwelling Holy Spirit seals the Christian and guarantees that he or she will remain saved)
- Ephesians 4:30 (where Paul says the indwelling Holy Spirit seals the Christian until the actual day of redemption)
- Romans 4:1-8 (where Paul says that God will not “impute” or charge any sin to the believer’s account)
- John 1:12 and Romans 8:14-17 (each of which teach that the Christian is a child of God, the implication being that God will never disown His child)
- Romans 8:30 and Ephesians 1:11 (where Paul says the Christian is nothing less than predestined to go to heaven)
- Romans 8:35-39 (where Paul says that nothing or nobody can separate the Christian from the love of God which is specifically found by being “in Christ”)
- Philippians 1:6 (where Paul promises that God will complete the good work He has begun in the Christian)
- 1 Corinthians 1:8 (where Paul says that Jesus will confirm the Christian “to the end” that the Christian might be “blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”
- 1 Peter 1:3-4 (where Peter says the Christian’s place in heaven is reserved, incorruptible, and undefiled)
- 2 Peter 2:7-8 (where Peter describes Lot as “righteous” despite the fact that Lot chose to live in Sodom and later on committed incest with his two daughters)
- Hebrews 11:32 (which sings the praises of Samson as being a man of faith despite the fact that he lived a life of sexual immorality)
- John the Baptist, when he was imprisoned, doubted Jesus’ Messiahship (Matthew 11:1-3). Thomas doubted Jesus’ resurrection until he literally saw the risen Christ (John 20:24-29). Peter, three times, openly denied knowing Jesus (Luke 22:54-62). And yet none of these believers ever lost his salvation.
These passages are enough to convince me that the other passages, the ones that might be taken to mean that salvation can be lost, should be interpreted through the lens of eternal security. In other words, since we have so much clear evidence for eternal security, we should seek other interpretations and explanations for the passages that appear, at surface level, to contradict it. And it is because of all this that I hold to the opinion that Bart Campolo was never truly saved. If he had been, he wouldn’t have gone atheist.
Bart’s story reminds me of 1 John 2:19, where John says of a certain group of false teachers:
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 they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. (N.K.J.V.)
It also reminds me of Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, ‘Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (N.K.J.V.)
Notice there that Jesus didn’t say, “I once knew you, but you lost it.” No, He said, “I never knew you.” That’s a different matter altogether. It’s been said, “The faith that fails had a flaw from the start.” My take on what happened with Bart Campolo is that his “faith” in Jesus was flawed from the start and was therefore doomed to eventually fail.
In conclusion to this post and series, let me encourage you Christian parents to talk openly and honestly to your children about their relationship with Jesus or lack of it. Even if your child professes to be a Christian, you should take the time to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on with them. Ask questions such as:
- “What do you believe about the story of Jesus as it is told in the Bible?”
- “Do you believe Christ’s virgin birth?”
- “Do you believe that He performed miracles?”
- “Do you believe that He died as the payment for the sins of the human race?”
- “Do you believe that He arose from the dead?”
- “Do you believe that He is right now in heaven?”
- “Do you believe that He will walk the earth again one day?
- “When exactly do you think you became born again?”
- “Did that experience change your life?”
- “Do you sense the presence of God the Holy Spirit inside you each day?”
When all the dust has settled, the primary application I take away from Why I Left, Why I Stayed is that I, as a pastor and a father, need to do everything I can to make sure that my two sons aren’t just going through the motions of Christianity out of some deference or misguided loyalty to me. Ryan and Royce both claim to be Christians, and I baptized them both. But is their salvation real? Do they have a relationship with Jesus rather than just a religion about Him? Is the inner substance there, not just the outer habits? These are hard questions to ask, to be sure, but they are ones that I must ask. If the boys truly are saved, they won’t mind answering them. And if they aren’t, then I need to know it.