Every Christian knows someone who is pulling away from faith in Jesus Christ. The young person brought up in a Christian home who now has little interest in the faith he once professed; the enthusiastic volunteer who seems close to leaving the church; the friend who has suffered great loss and now wonders why he or she should believe at all.
What we see and experience is a microcosm of a well-documented trend in our culture: People are abandoning faith in growing numbers.
Back in the 1930s, only 5% of Americans did not identify with any religion. In 1990 that number had risen to 8%, a modest increase after more than half a century.
But these last years have brought a dramatic change. By 2008, the number of Americans not identifying with any religion had risen to 12%, and by 2012, it had risen to 20%, with the number among millennials around 30%.
To put this in perspective, it is important to say that the number of Americans committed to living for Christ seems to be holding steady. But Americans who have been Christians in name only are casting aside the faith they once professed and leaving the church in large numbers.
Walking away from faith is not new, and it should not take us by surprise. Our Lord taught that some seed springs up quickly, but having no root, it withers away (Mk 4:5-6, 16-17).
Many of our Lord's disciples turned back and no longer followed Him (John 6:66). The best known of these is Judas Iscariot. Judas heard the finest teaching, saw the clearest evidence and, in Jesus, had the perfect example. He was connected with a small group of disciples, and he was engaged in ministry. He was a gospel preacher and had been sent out by Christ Himself on a missionary endeavor. Yet this man walked away from the faith he had once professed. How was that possible?
The first sign we are given of the defection in Judas' heart came at a dinner given in honor of Jesus, after He raised Lazarus from the dead. Overwhelmed with gratitude, Mary came up with a lavish and innovative way to express her love for Jesus. She brought a jar of ointment worth about a year's wages, and poured it out in its entirety over our Lord.
Judas objected: 'Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? (John 12:5). For Judas, the cost of the perfume made what Mary did wrong. For Mary, it was the cost of the perfume that made what she did right. Jesus was a means to an end for Judas, and it is only a matter of time before a person who tries to co-opt Jesus to another cause will give Him up.
The Bible makes clear that the devil played a major role in Judas' defection. Satan entered into him (Luke 22:34; John 13:2; John 13:27), and this has caused some to view Judas as a victim of powers beyond his control.
But Satan cannot gain a foothold in the lives of people who are walking in the light with Jesus. He only has access when we open the door, and Judas opened himself to satanic invasion by holding onto unconfessed sin. He had been stealing from the bag (John 12:6), and at no time was this confessed, not even when he sat next to our Lord at the Last Supper.
But perhaps the most striking factor in Judas' defection was his persistent resistance to the love of Jesus. At Bethany, our Lord reached out to show Judas the value of what Mary had done in anointing Him, describing it as a beautiful thing. In the Upper Room, Jesus washed the feet of Judas, and at the Last Supper, He handed Judas the bread, which was a sign and offer of friendship.
Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was reaching out Judas in love. Before the traitor was able to plant his kiss on the cheek of Jesus identified himself to the arresting party, (John 18:4-5). Our Lord was giving Himself into the hands of his enemies and so the kiss would serve no purpose whatever.
So Jesus reached out in love again: "Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" (Luke 22:48). Even in the garden, our Lord was inviting Judas back. The resolve of this man to resist the love of Christ must have been very great indeed.
There is a fascinating contrast between the story of Judas and the story of the thief on the cross. These men had lived very different lives; one as a follower of Jesus, the other as a criminal. Both died on the same day, but their destinations on the other side of death were very different. The thief who was on the brink of hell, ended up in heaven, and Judas, who for three years had come as close to heaven as is possible in this life, ended up in hell.
At a time when many are walking away from faith we do well to remember that the distinguishing mark of those who truly belong to Christ is that the hold their original confidence firm to the end (Hebrews 3:14). They hear the voice of the shepherd and they follow him (John 10:27). These sheep will never perish. Make sure you are among them.