How Do People Shipwreck Their Faith?
From Gospel Translations
A new week begins on this fine Monday morning. Thank you for joining us. And the week begins with a humbling question about shipwrecking the faith. What does it look like to make shipwreck of the faith? What are some personal examples of faith failing? Why does it happen? How do people shipwreck their faith?
It’s a sobering topic and a common question in the inbox, represented well by this question from a listener named Andrew. “Hello, Pastor John! Thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast. The apostle Paul talks about ‘some’ who ‘have made shipwreck of their faith’ (1 Timothy 1:19). In the next verse, Paul singles out Hymenaeus and Alexander, both of whom appear to have been professing Christians at some point earlier. According to 1 Timothy 1:20, what did they do? And how do people shipwreck their faith today?”
Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews — all of them — describe people who make a seemingly good start in the Christian life and then reject what they once claimed to believe. Sometimes, this first condition, this first state, is called “faith” and then is shown to be unreal faith. Faith without works is dead. You could call it “dead faith,” James would say (James 2:17). Sometimes, it’s called “knowing the way of righteousness” and then forsaking it (2 Peter 2:21). But in the end, the New Testament teaches that it is possible to make a start in the Christian life, perhaps a very long start, and then throw it away and be lost.
“It is possible to make a start in the Christian life, perhaps a very long start, and then throw it away and be lost.” Not that God ever loses any of his children or any of his elect. He keeps them, according to 1 Corinthians 1:9, 1 Thessalonians 5:24, Philippians 1:6, and Romans 8:30. In fact, here’s what Romans 8:30 says: “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” None of those that God predestines, and calls, and justifies will ever be lost. Those he calls, he keeps. That’s what those verses teach.
Five Ways to Shipwreck Faith
But Jesus said in the parable of the soils that the third soil represents those who make a beginning in discipleship and then fall away. “As for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). Notice what their downfall was. They seemed to make a good beginning, but the cares and riches and pleasures of life are their downfall. I want you to take note of that because I’m going to come back to that when I finish looking at all these five instances.
So that’s Jesus. What about Paul? According to Philemon 1:24, Demas was Paul’s fellow worker, along with Luke. So Demas must have looked enough like a true Christian to actually pass muster for Paul. Now, his standards are really high. Remember John Mark? He wouldn’t even let John Mark go with him the second time, but he’s got Demas as his partner. And later, in 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul writes, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Notice again the reason for the failure, the shipwreck: love for this age, this world.
Third, the text that Andrew, in asking this question, is talking about is 1 Timothy 1:19. So here’s 1 Timothy 1:18–20: “Wage the good warfare [Timothy], holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander.” And notice again, what’s the cause of their shipwreck? Rejecting a good conscience.
Fourth, what about Peter? What does Peter say? Here’s 2 Peter 2:20: “If, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” What’s the problem? Why did they make shipwreck? They were entangled again in the defilement of the world.
And finally, number five, here’s Hebrews 3:12–14: “Take care, brothers [now, he’s talking to brothers, did you get that?], lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if we indeed hold our original confidence firm to the end.” What’s the danger? Deceitfulness of sin.
Heart’s Preference for Sin
So, I think what Paul means by making shipwreck of faith is this kind of defection from professing faith. A person makes a beginning in the Christian life — perhaps he himself and those around him think it’s a real beginning — and then he abandons the whole thing. The ship of faith shatters on the rocks.
And what’s really striking in all five of these descriptions of shipwreck is that the rocks on which the faith shatters are not intellectual problems with Christianity. They’re not problems with reason. They’re not problems with historicity. In every single case, it’s a problem with the heart’s preference for sin.
- The shipwreck of the third soil in Jesus’s parable is owing to riches and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14).
- The shipwreck of Demas is owing to a love for this present age (2 Timothy 4:10).
- The shipwreck of Hymenaeus and Alexander is owing to rejecting a good conscience (1 Timothy 1:18–20).
- The shipwreck of those who escape defilements in 2 Peter is that they become entangled with the defilements of the world (2 Peter 2:20).
- The warning against shipwreck in Hebrews 3 is a warning against the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12–14).
From this I conclude that even though there may be real intellectual struggles — say, with the historical truthfulness of the Bible or with the justice of the ways of God — nevertheless, most shipwrecks of faith are not at root intellectual, but rather because I want what I want and Christianity is in the way. So, let’s pray for those who have turned away, not only that they would see the way of truth as true, but that they would delight in the way of holiness.