A common belief (not my own, but fairly common) is that believers may lose or abandon their salvation. A number of Bible verses seem to contradict this teaching, but in particular, 1 John 2:19 stands out.

1 John 2:19 (NASB):

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.

It seems like John is talking about a group (who he refers to as antichrists) who left their fellowship. He seems to imply that if they had been true believers in the first place, they would not have left - which seems to directly contradict the doctrine of conditional security.

How do proponents of conditional security interpret this verse, so that it does not contradict conditional security?

I'm looking for either:

(1) A logical, natural alternate interpretation of the passage, or

(2) An answer that documents and references the most prevalent "conditional security friendly" interpretations of this passage, even if those interpretations are not necessarily logical or natural


I think we're reading our cultural bias back into this text - namely by saying that it is talking about salvation in terms of "in" or "out" and our soteriological context. That is a very Western concept, and was largely foreign to the apostles. For them, salvation was found only in the Church (referring here to the gathered and 'sent' people of God, not to a building nor an institution), and to leave the Church was to leave Christ. Granted, this has soteriological implications, but only as a consequence of leaving the Church and remaining outside of Her.

As you stated, the context of this passage is indeed that the αντιχριστοι (antichrists) were teaching false doctrine, and they "went out" from the κοινωνια (fellowship, participatory community, mentioned in 1:3). The verb μεμενηκεισαν implies that they did not remain, abide, reside, continue, stay, endure, and/or were no longer present. We don't have a great English term to effectively translate this concept, so you often see it in all of the above forms (and some others as well). μεμενηκεισαν is in pluperfect active indicative (3rd person plural) here, simply implying that their present absence is a "state or condition following a completed action in the past," i.e. they (voluntarily) went out and so they no longer remain.

The apostle's view was that we come to the Church and we remain in the Church because the Church is the Body of Christ, and to be one with Him is to be united to the Church, which is His Body (1 Corinthians 12:27; Romans 12:4). Thus there is no salvation outside the Church because there is no salvation apart from union with Christ's Body (which is the Church). This is very sacramental (mysterious) and involves how we are "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). Trying to understand this passage within the worldview of Western Christian philosophy compartmentalizes salvation as a divine singular action that can occur outside of the Church if someone confesses Jesus as Lord and believes several historical facts about Jesus, or simply prays a special prayer. James reminds us that even the demons believe correct doctrine about God (James 2:19) and that "faith apart from works is dead" (2:26).

So to clearly answer the question, this passage has little to do with the doctrines of conditional or unconditional security. The meaning is simply that these false teachers left the Church (the apostolic fellowship), and by doing so proved that they also left Christ; for to be one with Him is to be united to the Church, which is His Body.

As a further note, the theological implications of this passage have more to say about the concept of apostolic succession than they do about Western soteriology. The real question it should cause us to ask is whether or not we are part of the Church that has remained faithful to the teachings of the apostles.

  • Thanks for your insight, I'd say that's worth the bounty
    – user971
    Mar 27 '12 at 22:25
  • If Church (in this reference) == Body of Christ && Body of Christ == All+Only those saved, then how does this not relate directly to conditional or eternal security? If John is implying the Body of Christ by saying "us", then this is implying conditional security.. Unless you are saying that one can be part of the Body and not be saved. Mar 28 '12 at 0:49
  • 1
    @Shredder: The concept of "eternal security" doesn't make sense unless you adopt the framework of Reformed theology. In Eastern theology (if I'm not mistaken) salvation is not a one-time event; it is a life-long process that results in the transformation of our entire nature. Eternal security simply has no meaning in that framework, because salvation is not a thing you can lose or keep. Mar 28 '12 at 5:00
  • Thanks, Eric. @Shredder, Bruce replied very eloquently, ditto what he said ;) In Eastern Christianity, justification by faith alone is not the chief nor central doctrine of the Church, thus we don't read it into everything as is often done in the West. It was not a central doctrine until the Reformation. We do believe that Christ is the center of all scripture, just not the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone. The East emphasizes His entire person and work, which includes His death and resurrection, but also His life and continuing presence and participation in our lives.
    – Dan
    Mar 28 '12 at 13:18
  • 1
    No. Two different paradigms from my viewpoint. One affects the other, but this does not make them one and the same.
    – Dan
    Mar 29 '12 at 21:41

John's thought in his letter includes verses 18 and 20. Here's 1 John 2:18-20 (NRSV)

Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge.

John describes for the first time in his letter the departure of the opponents. They went out from the congregation or Christian community he is now writing to. Their departure shows that all of them never really belonged in the first place. As to whether or not these opponents are antichrists, W. Hall Harris III writes:

Now the opponents have withdrawn from the community in a dispute over christological doctrine, a dispute which has every indication of being a bitter split. As Schnackenburg observed, these opponents were secessionists – they left of their own free will; there is no indication in the text that the author’s community took the initiative in expelling them. Houlden noted that this division appears to be a new development within the New Testament.

In what is probably more than coincidence, the same verb used to describe the departure of the opponents here (ejxh'lqan, exhlqan) was used in John 13:30 of the departure of Judas Iscariot from the upper room. The implication is clear – just as Judas betrayed Jesus, so the secessionists have betrayed their fellow members of the community (and indeed, the author himself) and have gone out into the darkness (as Judas went out into the night).

I believe John is describing antichrists in verse 19, that is, people that have decided to work against the community of believers. I don't believe these were people that just lost faith, or had a disagreement about how to observe the Lord's supper.

Edited to add: In the Wikipedia article on Conditional preservation of the saints, 1 John 2:19 is not mentioned as a supporting verse for conditional security. The verse is referring to antichrists, not people that lose their relationship with Christ.

  • Thanks - I'm not sure how this answers the question, though. Could you be a little more explicit in how your interpretation is consistent with the doctrine of conditional security?
    – user971
    Dec 20 '11 at 15:25
  • @Eric: That's what I thought my last sentence did. I guess you're going to have to explain where I'm lacking in understanding conditional security. I read the Wikipedia article. Dec 20 '11 at 15:49
  • Well, it seems that this passage still contradicts conditional security, even when you consider that John is describing antichrists (I agree that he is). The passage still seems to say that (paraphrase) "if they were really Christians, they wouldn't have become antichrists". But certainly if Christians could lose their salvation, once they were lost, nothing would prevent them from becoming antichrists.
    – user971
    Dec 20 '11 at 16:30
  • 1
    @Eric: Revelation 3:15-16 means a lot to me, so I guess I believe in conditional security. All I can say is, just as people get excited about Jesus, they can get weary. I have no idea what "lukewarm" means exactly, but it's something that happens to a lot of Christians when they get weary of doing good. Dec 20 '11 at 16:39
  • @GilbertLeBlanc Just because somebody is cold, lukewarm, or maybe even hot (IDK), does not necessarily mean that they are saved. Perhaps these "lukewarm" people in Rev. 3:16 were not saved in the first place. As Jesus said, "Strive to enter by the narrow door for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.". Maybe the many lukewarm people you are referring to are the many people that will try to enter the narrow door, but will not be able to. Mar 23 '12 at 19:31

This article gives an argument for an alternate interpretation of the passage that does not conflict with conditional security. The author states that:

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).

As far as I can understand, under the alternate interpretation a paraphrased interpretation of the passage would be something like:

They went out from [the apostles], but they were not really [apostles]; for if they had been [apostles], they would have remained [apostles]; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not [really apostles].

So the argument is that this passage is referring to a special case - referring only to apostolic imposters. It is argued that apostles always "continue in the doctrine of the apostles". Therefore, the apostle imposters were shown as not really apostles by their "going out".

  • Just so you know, accepting one's own answer does not have the usual pin-to-top effect as accepting another's answer would. Mar 26 '12 at 15:21

Your question seems to imply that the group in this verse includes all people who become Christians and then leave the faith.

However, as @Gilbert Le Blanc pointed out, by giving context to the verse, the thought is referring to a specific group who were not believers. So the verse does not refer to everyone who ceases to call themselves Christian.

  • I don't accept conditional security either, btw, especially not when combined with the thought that you must repent of every sin individually. That's just too risky! :) Dec 21 '11 at 18:22
  • Thanks for clarifying - I'm still not sure I understand why "for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us;" would only apply to that group, though. It sounds more like he's referencing a general principle.
    – user971
    Dec 21 '11 at 18:28
  • I should add that this is not from a commentary; it really is just my opinion. Dec 21 '11 at 18:31

I would say that this passage, given the context, is referring to the body of Christ when John says "us". That would indicate eternal security of your salvation. However, if one wanted to interpret the passage to say that by "us", John is referring to a particular group of people (a group of teachers, a particular assembly of believers, etc.), then in that sense it wouldn't contradict with the conditional security belief.

However, I don't think that makes sense, because if John was referring to particular group of people, then he wouldn't say "for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us...", because you can be part of any group and then decide to not be part of it, any group but the body of Christ. If you are truly Christ's, then you can never be separated from Him:

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38-39 (KJV)