Deconversion. Falling away. Backsliding. However we phrase it, it means the same thing: someone who once believed in Jesus Christ now doesn’t. Unfortunately, this phenomenon seems to be happening more, especially among millennials and Christian “celebrities.” It is quite baffling and thoroughly disheartening, to say the least.
But when it hits closer to home—with a spouse, a child, a parent, or sibling—the pain cuts deep. Very deep. We ask ourselves: Why? What caused them to stop believing in God and the inerrant truths of the Bible? Could I have done something to prevent them from walking away? Will they ever return to the faith?
All of these are good and worthy questions. They may not have any discernable or immediate answers, sadly. But there are certain things we can know and specific things we can do when it happens to a loved one.
Salvation is Assured
If this person previously, genuinely confessed belief and put their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord by accepting the free gift of grace through faith, their salvation is secured (Ephesians 2:8-9). Here’s what Paul writes in Ephesians about genuine believers:
“When [they] heard the word of truth, the gospel of [their] salvation, and believed in him, [they] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance… [and] by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” (Ephesians 1:13-14, 4:30; see also 2 Corinthians 1:22, 5:5).
The word sealed (arrabón) means “earnest, a large part of the payment, given in advance as a security that the whole will be paid afterward” (Strong’s Concordance). In this sense, the Holy Spirit is given as earnest, a down payment, for our inheritance. His indwelling is our guarantee; we can be assured of salvation. It is true of us and true of prodigals.
But this leads to the question: What can I do about their deconversion in the meantime?
For the answer, we look at the lives and examples of the prodigal son and his faithful father in the parable of Luke 15:11-32.
We pray that the prodigal will be humbled by their bad choices and their consequences.
After demanding and receiving his half of the inheritance, the prodigal son speedily took off to spend it on licentious living. His bad choices of cavorting with prostitutes and drinking to excess, however, eventually led to his destitution. This young man, who’d once had everything at his disposal—fine clothes, rich foods, a proper shelter—had sunk to the lowest level possible, finding himself homeless, hungry, hopeless.
Sometimes—although not always—some prodigals must descend before they look upward. Upward to God and to the restoration he offers through grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
It may seem mean-spirited, even cruel to pray that our prodigals would “hit rock bottom,” but in reality, it is a kind and gracious prayer. We should pray that they would see their need for God, no matter whatever form that “need” takes. Short of their death, of course.
We pray that they come to their senses.
Having found himself penniless, the young man was forced to hire himself out as a pig herdsman. At one point, he found himself envying the pigs their slop and cried:
“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17).
The scales had finally fallen off; the thrill of his sensual, debauched living had worn off. This young man was awakened to the desperate reality of his situation and the hopelessness of it. His bitter thoughts then turned to the comforts of home, to the goodness of his father, even to the hired servants.
It is compassionate and wise to pray that those who have wandered away would also “come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26, NIV).
We pray that they repent from deconversion, and we celebrate when they do.
Realization of their fallen state often leads to their repentance, as it did for the prodigal:
“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19).
It is a wondrous thing when a prodigal sees their sin and acknowledges it, for it is a sure sign that God’s kindness and mercy are at work in their heart and that they will return to the fold. And we know, and rejoice, that God, who is faithful and just, will forgive them and cleanse them “from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Just as we will forgive them.
And, like the father, we also will celebrate their repentance and return from deconversion:
“And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:23-24).
After watching his selfish son saunter off to an unknown kind of life, the father then took up the mantle of waiting. How long he waited, we don’t know. Scripture is silent on this, and maybe rightly so. For there is no time-constraint on waiting.
But wait the father did. And he waited expectantly, patiently, and hopefully, scanning the horizon every day. And his wait was rewarded when he finally saw this sorry son come slouching home.
Waiting for a wanderer’s return can take months, years, even decades. In fact, we may never see their return in our own lifetime. But we can trust in God’s sovereignty and timing. In the meantime, we wait, with expectancy, holding them close in our hurting hearts.
As long as a wanderer has breath in their bodies, hope is still available. We should never give up on the restoration of a wanderer, for we know that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). After all, God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Let us cling to this promise—and many, many others—for our own wanderers and prodigals. And when we grow weary and in danger of losing hope—which we do—we know that God does not. And we know that when we do grow faint with waiting, He will renew our strength and our hope (Isaiah 40:31).
We take comfort, as well, in that even though our wanderers have left God for a time, God won’t leave them. Ever! His love is far-reaching, his grace and forgiveness never-ending, extending to the lost and the wanderer, alike.
For further encouragement, I recommend Jim Putman’s book, “Hope for the Prodigal: Bringing the Lost, Wandering, and Rebellious Home.”