There is a big disagreement as to whether someone can “lose” their salvation. Jesus seemed to set up a stark separation between those that were in God’s hand and those where weren’t. John certainly expressed doubt that the elect could ultimately be deceived. On the other hand the writer of Hebrews seemed to suggest that perhaps they could.
I will leave that for the Biblical Scholars. Part of the problem comes from the fact that we cannot know who is saved. The Book of 1st John tells how we can know that we are children of God, but not how we can know that others are. Paul emphasizes that it is the outworking by God of our faith, but we cannot tell whether others truly have faith or not. James notes that faith without visible outworkings is not real faith. Jesus even noted that those who have some visible manifestations of faith (even miraculous acts) may not be saved or have ever been known of God. Evangelicals tend to focus on the “Sinner’s Prayer” as evidence, but it is not so much a Biblical requirement for salvation, as a formula of sound doctrine tied to a vocal declaration of faith. It does not necessarily express the working of the heart and mind. Therefore, it is not necessarily a good assumption that a person who has said the Sinner’s Prayer is saved, any more than it is a good assumption to believe that those who have not verbalized this prayer are not saved.
Rather than get into a fight over this… let’s simply accept the reality that some people we THINK are saved fall away into faithlessness or into false faith. This is a reality, regardless of what is truly going on on a soteriological level.
How do we close the back door of faith? There have been many different methods.
1. Separatism. I was raised in a Separatist tradition. Those who believe are taken into the church and shielded, as much as possible, from outside influences. Extreme versions of this may be cultic in structure, if not in doctrine. Milder versions may be of value. Certainly, there needs to be changes and often it is easier for these changes to occur if old connections are severed.
There are, of course, problems with this as well. I already mentioned the temptation to want to control the lives of the members. Jonestown was simply the most extreme of a very common tendency to completely regulate and separate members. Also, removing influences from new members also removes the member’s potential to be an influence on others. Finally, there is a tendency of separatist groups to create their own sub-culture. This sub-culture is likely to have little influence on the broader culture around, and may gradually become irrelevant.
2. Emotional Event. I worked at a Christian Summer camp for several years. At the end of the week we would have what was called the “Burning Bridge” ceremony. We would gather in the woods at night around a bonfire. We would sing appropriate meditative gospel songs (“Pass It On”, “Seek Ye First”, etc.). Testimonies would be given. Then a call was given for those who are ready to give their lives to Jesus tonight, or have given it earlier in the week. They would get up and cross a small bridge that was built over a stream. The rest of us would keep singing. Next those who have “assurance of salvation” would cross next. Then those who dedicate (rededicate?) their lives to Christ would cross next. Finally those who are committed to Christ but have made no new decision this week would cross last. In theory those who have decided not to follow Christ would stay behind (can’t remember if that ever actually happened). We would sing “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus” as the bridge is set ablaze and eventually crashes into the stream (the ropes suspending the walkway were what actually burned).
Other methods can be used. Baptism can be used as a visible symbol, or First Communion. Other groups expect some sort of “miraculous” manifestation. These are meant to be visible and emotional signposts that one can grab onto to demonstrate to oneself and others one’s faith. A popular one used in here by some groups in the Philippines is EGR (Encounter God Retreat). It is a couple of days of lectures tied to some acts that are meant to be symbolic in the mind of the individual of spiritual change.
While these forms of events may be helpful for some, their problems hardly need to be noted (but will be noted). First, there is a tendency to confuse the act with the faith. That is why some groups will require people to go through one of these experiences even if they have demonstrated their faith and love for God in more reliable (and Biblical) ways. Second, since the act is not salvation itself, it can confuse and delude the people involved. It is not without reason that Jesus said there would be some “doing miracles” in Jesus name that He did not know, and others whose behavior satisfied a religious group but were considered unacceptable by God (see Matthew 25 for example). Often those who crossed the burning bridge one year for salvation would cross it for assurance the following year (because the emotions wore off over the year). Finally, some groups provide an experience that can do more harm than good. EGR varies from church to church here in the Philippines, but the standard version is of such poor quality theologically that one must wonder whether people may come out of it more damaged and deceived than anything else. Some groups looking for a physical sign leaving those who can’t muster up the sign and have too much integrity to “fake it” in a state of doubt and confusion.
3. Small groups. Small groups have been around for a long time. Monastic groups, Sunday School groups, Accountability groups, Cell groups, Growth groups, and Ministry teams are but a few. They provide the socialization of faith and (hopefully) the place for nurture.
I like small groups (particularly ministry teams and growth groups). But they may not be the best setting for a young believer. A group that may be supportive and helpful for a member of two or three years can be a very foreign setting utilizing an arcane lingo to new believers. Some fight this by making the groups more accessible to new believers, but the risk is then that the group provides no challenge for the new believer to spur growth. Either way, there is a gradual drift to the back door for many.
4. I would suggest that God judges the heart so we can’t, but we can work on the back door issue. My suggestion is that the best method is not separatism (although everyone needs a little help in breaking destructive relationships and habits). The best method is not emotional events (even though symbols and milestones of faith may be helpful for some). The best method is not small groups (although they can have value later on in the discipleship process). I believe that one-on-one discipleship with a mature and trusted (and trustworthy) member of the church is the best start. As time goes on, the new believer can be integrated into other groups (such as Sunday School, cell groups, ministry teams, and so forth).
At least that is my thought. The biggest problem is that churches have so few mature and trustworthy members who are able AND willing to take on this role.