“It’s never too late to come back to Jesus”—various versions of this statement appeared throughout the comments section of an article I wrote last summer. The article was about apostasy, and in it I recounted watching a number of my friends turn away from the God and Savior they once seemed to cherish. Many readers exhorted me (and everyone else reading) not to give up on those who seem to have snuffed out the Spirit’s work in their hearts. They said it’s never too late for a person to resume a life of grace-empowered obedience, and that we should earnestly pray for those who have withdrawn from Christ to repent and return to Christ.
Were these commenters correct? Is it really never too late to come back to Jesus? I think they were absolutely right in saying we should never stop praying for our fallen friends to draw near again to Jesus. There was a season in my own life in which I appeared to have thrown away my faith. My behavior and even the words that came out of my mouth would have made any biblically literate person suspect I had never been born again in the first place (1 John 2:19). But things weren’t as black and white as they seemed. After a short while, I ceased from my rebellion and sprinted back to Jesus, and I attribute my repentance partially to the petitions made for me by my brothers and sisters in Christ.
However, the statement, “It’s never too late to come back to Jesus” doesn’t sit well with me. I think this statement can be true, depending on what a person is intending to communicate when they say it. Do they mean if someone who seems to have fallen away later becomes willing to repent and return to Christ, God will gladly accept them? If so, I completely agree. Jesus beautifully pictured such a situation in his parable about the prodigal son. But if what they mean is someone who repeatedly tosses Christ to the wayside will always possess the ability to repent and return to him, I cannot agree.
According to my understanding of what the Scriptures teach, it seems there is a point at which a person who repeatedly withdraws from Christ becomes incapable of genuine repentance. I will let the Bible speak for itself on this:
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” –Hebrews 6:4-6
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” – Hebrews 10:26-31
This may be difficult to digest, but there does seem to be a cap on God’s patience toward a person who repeatedly “profanes the blood of the covenant” by willfully persisting in a sin-saturated, unbelieving way of life. There does seem to be a point at which the Holy Spirit, who becomes outraged at this person’s ongoing faithlessness despite his or her clear understanding of the gospel, ceases to woo him or her to Christ and the life of obedience he requires.
And I don’t think the writer of Hebrews only has in mind people who verbally reject Jesus or very visually depart from him. I think he is also describing people who profess Christ with their mouths yet live utterly contrary to their profession. In chapter 10, he does not say that only those who expressly communicate their rejection of Jesus will come into judgment. He says those who “go on sinning deliberately” will be consumed by the fire of God’s fury. Regardless of what someone says they believe, the way they live their life indicates the true state of their heart. A refusal to cease from a lifestyle characterized by sin is indicative of an unregenerate heart (1 John 3:9). It is to this type of person Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).
God is mind-blowingly patient. He is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). But we should not test him (Deuteronomy 6:16, Luke 4:12). If today you find yourself testing his kindness—the kindness that is meant to lead you to repentance (Romans 2:4)—I beg you to turn from your rebellion while you still can. Whether you think you are a backslidden but truly born-again person or an unregenerate person who has been going through some of the motions of Christianity, God’s call to you right now is to turn from your unbelief and believe on his Son. Don’t put it off.
“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God . . . that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought [the blessing] with tears.” – Hebrews 12:15-17