Lost Irretrievably


Jim van Heiningen

The New Testament teaches that when the believer willfully sins against God, he loses both his fellowship with God and his testimony in the world. But the New Testament also teaches that both can be wonderfully restored, when there is true humiliation and repentance. Yet isn’t there something every believer is in imminent danger of losing for ever – something he will never retrieve?

Don’t miss the Question and Answer at the end!

Some things are lost and can never be retrieved. When years ago I had gradually, but completely, lost my sense of smell, I realized it would never come back. I may feel sorry about it, but I’ll just have to manage without…

When a young person just can’t wait to experience all the joys of ‘sex’, ‘virginity’ may be a thing of the past before he or she is even aware of it. Then, eventually, they meet the man or woman they want to live with for the rest of their lives. They’d like to bring to that union the precious gift of virginity, but… it has already been squandered, never to be retrieved.

Eve lost her innocence, and so did Adam, and all of their offspring. We may strive to get back to that state of innocence or ‘sainthood’, but our efforts are doomed from the outset. That is, unless and until we allow God to work the miracle of his supernatural grace in Christ…

As soon as a believer stops following his Lord, he starts losing! He loses precious time, fellowship, opportunities and many other blessings. It may be during a year, it may be during 20 years, it may be for the rest of his life. Say he has spent 10 years living for himself, for the world, and for all it might offer him. Can he ever recuperate any of that time when at last he comes back to his Lord? Not a single minute of it. At the judgment seat of Christ he will have to answer for all the potential fruit lost during those ten long years. Scriptures about that awesome moment of truth can be found in Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 3; 2 Cor. 5 and Rev. 2 & 3.

There was a grand party when the prodigal son had finally come back (Luke 15). He was fully restored, his nakedness was covered, new sandals put on his feet, a ring on his finger, and a banquet on the table. The restoration of a prodigal must be celebrated. That is what this parable is about.

However, when it comes to the seriousness of unfaithfulness to our Lord, and to the loss incurred by a ‘Christian’ prodigal, and to the high cost to be paid at the end, we have to go to another parable, the one of “the pounds” (four chapters later in Luke 19). Here we find the “other side of the coin”. Inescapably, a price has to be paid for unfaithfulness.

When Christians ask questions about these matters, it is not usually about the restoration of a believer who has been unfaithful to his Lord in some serious disobedience, possibly causing a bad testimony even in the world. Everyone usually realizes that this restoration is wonderfully granted, if and when there is true repentance. Christians are Christians because they have experienced the grace of God. They know that grace will also restore a ‘backslider’ to full fellowship – fellowship with God and fellowship with the other members of the spiritual family.

The question that does bother many is whether such a brother can then also be restored to eldership, if he was an elder. Or, if he never had such a ministry, can he now aspire to be an elder or a deacon; can he now preside over certain meetings of the flock, and, if so, which meetings?

The old enemy knows how to target certain weaknesses in our moral fiber. How he loves to get a ‘foot in the door’ of a Christian marriage. Take this Christian who says he doesn’t love his wife anymore. In reality he is trying to fool himself and everybody else. He has fallen for a younger and ‘more attractive’ woman. She may be an unbeliever or a backslider (could be his secretary)… Nothing is now too sacred! And so, in the end, he divorces his wife and gets married to the other woman. Or they just start to live together. Sound familiar?

In all normal cases such a brother is immediately separated from fellowship and all spiritual activity. The same goes for the new partner if she should be a believer in that congregation. Paul speaks in terms of giving them over to Satan (1 Cor. 5). Strong language, but they have chosen to follow Satan’s ways; and it means they will have to learn the hard way (1 Tim. 1:20). If they learn, then there is hope. Like the prodigal son, they will return. In the Corinthian case we may take the man of 2 Cor. 2:5-11 to be the offender of 1 Cor. 5. Paul mentions his repentance and urges the congregation to receive him back into fellowship. Notice, by the way, the apostle doesn’t do these things for them. They are responsible themselves – by God’s grace..!

The couple we are considering also realize their terrible mistake. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts them of their grievous sin, and it has the desired result of repentance. The congregation has been praying for them and, when there is true repentance, it will be realized! In practical terms this means that now the congregation cannot deny them what their Lord has evidently already given them: i.e. full restoration to fellowship. It is that question of “binding” and then “unbinding”, mentioned by our Lord in Matthew 18.

Of course, two complications arise at this point:

a) Can the couple remain together, now that they are back in The Way?
b) If so, should they be congregating in the very group where we may suppose the original and aggrieved wife (and children) to be still congregating?

These questions, though very interesting, really fall outside the scope of this article. Regarding the first one we’d like to refer the reader to the e-booklet on this website, entitled: “Divorce & Remarriage” by GW Peters, in which the matter is treated in the light of the Word.

Regarding the second, let us just say that in this case it is probably wiser and more considerate that the couple (with the elders) look to God for a better solution. There may be the possibility of another congregation in which to be integrated. Sin is ugly, and when it has been dealt with, and abandoned, there will still be the scars, unsightly reminders for the rest of a person’s days, affecting also the lives of third persons.

The third complication, we might say, is whether the brother, now restored and back in fellowship (leaving the woman out of it for the moment), can have any public ‘ministry’. That is what this article is all about. He has lost so much, could it be that he has lost irretrievably in this area?

Here is a recent letter from one of the countries where we work: “So and so, a local believer, was separated from fellowship some fifteen years ago. This was two years after his conversion. His separation lasted five years in all. During that time he furthermore left his wife for two months and had an affair with another woman. He then realized how wrong this was and he returned to his wife. Nowadays he lives correctly with his wife and two children and they keep a small store. This is not in the same place where he was separated from fellowship. They are now happily integrated with another congregation near to where they live at present. In this (new) congregation there are as yet no recognized elders.

Those that preside, preach and teach in the meetings are always chosen (on a weekly basis) after specific prayer by the whole congregation. Now this brother in question has recently been publicly wondering why he is never chosen to preside at the Lord’s Table. He also wonders why he might not be one of the elders, that is when the time comes for elders to be chosen. How to counsel him?”

The e-booklet “Divorce & Remarriage” on the website briefly addresses this question of possibilities of service that might be open for the one who was separated from fellowship and then restored.

A main issue to consider is what Paul mentions to his co-workers Timothy and Titus, when he writes to them about the appointing of elders and deacons in the congregations. It is the concept of being “above approach”, rendered also as “irreprehensible” or “blameless” (1 Timothy 3:2, 7, 10; Titus 1:6-7). In both chapters he mentions the concept specifically in connection with elders and deacons, but in so many other places it is shown to be a ‘must’ for all Christians. No exceptions! See 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:10; 2:14-16; Col. 1:22; 1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23; 1 Tim. 5:7; 2 Peter 3:14; Jude 24-25. We learn from these passages that God has an “appointment” with the believer. On the Day of Christ He expects his redeemed-one to be presented before him blamelessly! Proverbs 5:20-23 and Eccl. 10:1 shed further light on the meaning and significance of “blamelessness”.

Losing blamelessness doesn’t mean losing salvation and eternal life, but it does mean that the believer’s record of faithfulness has been badly dented. So badly in fact that even when he is restored, and when God’s grace may again make very good use of him, that “scar” of lost ‘irreprehensibility’ will remain till his dying day.

There is an Old Testament case, brought before us by the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, which is very instructive. We find it in Heb. 12:15-17:

“…looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears.”

The author doesn’t start off with Esau. Esau illustrates the final stage of a slowly developing drama. That drama starts in the midst of the Christian congregation.

Irrespective of whether there are elders in such a congregation, all the believers are called on to be constantly on the look out. If they are spiritually alert many a sad ‘drama’ can be avoided. Whenever a spiritual disaster occurs, it can invariably be traced back to the missing of God’s grace. The person(s) involved did show the symptoms, but the other Christians, spiritually ‘asleep’, didn’t notice. Perhaps they were ‘too busy’, or ‘too embarrassed’ to let God’s Spirit use them. In other words, God’s grace was missed, not only by the brother or sister in imminent danger, but also by the others.

The verb used for being on the look out (“episkopeo”), describes, of course, the very thing the elders/bishops (“epískopoi” – “overseers”), are supposed to be constantly doing: i.e. be on the “look out” for Christians who are running into trouble, or are likely to. Logically only Christians who are fully in touch with that grace of God themselves and live by it, can be used by God to help others. It involves a ministry that spends time with God in prayer and intercession, and spends time with men in conversation and counsel. We see the same concept, worded differently, in Galatians 6:1-2 and Proverbs 27:23-24.

How many ‘cases’ do you know of Christians, who have fallen by the wayside, only because other Christians, who could have known what was about to happen, were not really showing much interest? They were shocked when it happened, and then, too late, they did remember the tell-tale signs. Was the troubled Christian in reality calling for help? But, occupied as they were with other “important” things, they thought someone else would surely step in….

The next thing to happen, after a Christian has, almost invisibly, lost his grip on the grace of God, is that he starts to harbor an intruder in his heart, called “root of bitterness”. Allow it to root down and it will keep on growing. As Hebrews 12 tells us, it will then cause disturbance in the whole congregation, and ‘infect’ other believers. Finally, perhaps after a long, long time, and unless there is a return to the grace of God, the next and final step, according to our text, will be “fornication’’ or “profanity”, which is where Esau comes in.

He had wandered further and further away from the will of God. God’s blessing meant less and less to him. Then he made that deal with Jacob. God’s blessing was worth to him no more than a bowl of ‘instant’ soup, instant gratification… The profanity lay in pulling God and his blessing down to that level. The author makes the point that Esau literally sold out. There was now no way in which he could ever retrieve what he had lost. In the context we see that the same holds true for fornication (or profanity), committed by a true Christian, one who has just let himself drift ever since he lost his secure moorings in God’s grace.

Look closely into any gross sin of this nature, committed by a Christian, and you can retrace all of the ‘case history’, right up to the moment when God’s grace ceased to be a reality. Maybe there was no other Christian who gave the needed helping hand, not at that crucial time right at the beginning, and at no time during the weeks, months, or years of drifting. Finally he has made a pathetic fool of himself, dragged the Lord’s name through the mud, brought shame on a whole congregation, and in the process lost a true birthright… irretrievably!

A badly shaken congregation humbles itself before their Lord and, as we saw before, the offender is separated from fellowship. Yet, by faith, they also begin to look forward to what God’s grace may yet do in that now separated life. First of all, they will faithfully pray. Secondly, they will show him or her the brotherly love desperately needed (see 2 Thess. 3:15). Eventually, when “fruits of repentance” are clearly visible, and that will take time, that separation cannot be maintained – and a precious one for whom Christ died is restored to fellowship.

It is after that, like in the case mentioned by our correspondent, that the question of restoration-to-public-ministry may become an issue. And it is then that the congregation must understand that for the ministries that involve authority and which are in the public eye, the record of Christian living must be “undented”. This “must” is there, very noticeably, in Paul’s lists of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The universal priesthood in Christ is a wonderful reality for every single believer, a true “birthright”, but like in the case of the Levites of Ezekiel 44, who had been grossly unfaithful, a substantial part of that birthright ‘ministry’ may, indeed, be forfeited for ever.

When this is carefully explained to the believer in question, once separated, but now restored, it will in most cases be accepted as from the Lord. To avoid serious misunderstandings and trouble, teaching should be given to the whole congregation, even when, seemingly, all is going well and no serious shipwrecks are envisioned.


Thank you for your article about losing one’s birthright. However, it is not clear to me that this would mean that one who has come back to the Lord in repentance, could never again be used in “ministries that involve authority and which are in the public eye”, in other words, could never be an elder or deacon. I am thinking of Peter’s grievous denial of the Lord Jesus. After his profound repentance and restoration surely he was greatly used as an apostle. And what about King David and his adultery? After he had truly repented, he continued as Israel’s king.


Thank you for your observations concerning restoration. We are in complete agreement that God mercifully and completely restores to fellowship, when there is that humble return to him.

Sadly, rebellion on the believer’s part may happen again and again. Our Lord’s teaching is that the disciples were to forgive 70 times 7. That adequately shows that God’s complete and inclusive (re-)acceptance, should be reflected by the (re-)acceptance of the congregation.

However when we think through the issue, we surely must realize that it would be totally out of place to allow a brother, who is (re-)restored to full fellowship up to 490 times, so to speak, to get on with public ministry every time, once the dust has settled sufficiently. As mentioned in the article, something of our usefulness as servants is definitely forfeited, when we willfully turn our backs on the Lord. Undoubtedly it was this to which Paul referred, when he wrote of the discipline he subjected himself to, lest he might become “disqualified” for further apostolic ministry (1 Cor. 9:27).

Peter and his denial, in spite of what it looks like on the surface, do not really come into this category. First, it occurred before the day of Pentecost, when the church was born. Secondly, Peter spoke his words of denial, overcome as he was by fear and panic (without the benefit of the indwelling Holy Spirit), not because he had ‘premeditated’ anything. Thirdly, he immediately repented when his eyes met the Lord’s.

We can imagine how he himself must have despaired of ever being useful to his Lord again. Then the Lord comes in and lovingly shows him how He will yet make use of him. Once again He washes Peter’s feet, we might say (see John 13:5-17; Galatians 6:1). And, on the day of Pentecost, the factor of fear is truly taken care of.

Neither must we forget that Peter was not “worse” than the other disciples. He and John actually seem to have shown more courage than all the rest of them. Peter wanted to be near to his Lord more than anything else – only when the crunch came, his human courage buckled like that of the others. In order to understand their own total uselessness as servants of God, the disciples necessarily had to go through all these experiences of being “sifted by Satan” (Luke 22:31-32). In reality the Lord was molding their lives for the service He wanted them for.

Israel’s kingship, like in the case of David, and especially his successors, cannot really be taken as a precedent for the NT eligibility for elders and deacons. It was simply (and usually) the eldest son who inherited the throne from his father, whether he was ‘worthy’ or not.

To be eligible for the NT public ministries, it is stated again and again that there must be irreprehensibility or blamelessness. What else can this mean than a consistent testimony of faithfulness and dependence on God’s grace, built up through time? This would hardly include a brother, who has had to be excluded from fellowship one or more times for willfully turning his back on the Lord and flagrantly going with the world (1 Cor. 5).

“Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…”