Derek Webb, Wrestling with the Category of “Ex-Christian,” and the Nature of True Saving Faith


Derek Webb is an ex-Christian.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Derek Webb, he is a musician that played in the Christian band Caedmon’s Call in the 1990s and early 2000s before embarking on a solo career. Derek wrote songs grappling with theological truth, ranging from topics about God’s sovereign election (“Thankful”), the depravity of man (“Crooked Deep Down”), and the priority of love as a mark of true Christianity (“The Church”).

He is a songwriter with depth and honesty to his lyrics. He looks at the world and tells us what he sees. For me and many of my friends in college, we listened as he worked out his theology in a deeply personal way that made him a representative figure for many of us on the same walk.

And yet a few weeks ago I listened with deep sadness to a podcast where Derek vehemently rejected Christianity. He spoke with vulgar language. He explained how he found more comfort in alcohol than he did in the truths of the gospel. At one point, he expresses that, in light of the suffering in the world, either there is no God or the one that exists is a “f***ing ***hole.”

What happened?

Derek Webb is just one among an ever-increasing category of those who identify as “ex-Christian.” They grew up in the church, many even gave their lives in various roles in the church, and yet today they reject Christianity as a delusion at best or oppressive and even evil at worst.

How can we understand what is going on in their lives? There are only three options before us: 1) They were once genuine Christians but have fallen away; 2) At least some of them are still genuine Christians in a deep state of spiritual confusion and error but will eventually return by God’s grace; 3) They were never genuine Christians to begin with.

Option number one is untenable with biblical truth. I sincerely pray that option 2 is the case for Derek and for all who are in his current camp. But, sadly, we know that this is not true for all of them; some of them have genuinely rejected the gospel and will not return. That leaves option 3 as the only possibility: they were never genuine Christians.

At this point the conversation can diverge into two unhelpful ditches. On the one hand, we can try to start picking at the person’s life and saying, “See, we should have seen this coming.” Some may point to Derek’s salty language in some of his songs or his affair and subsequent divorce. But this is completely unhelpful and displays a lack of grace and humility. Christians have affairs. Adulterous thoughts rage in most of our minds even if we don’t physically have affairs (which to Jesus makes us equally guilty). Christians have different standards of what words are acceptable for what purposes. We ought not use his apostasy to point fingers at the struggles in his life or his views with which we do not happen to agree.

But an equally unhelpful divergence is to deny that ex-Christians were never genuine Christians. Many of these ex-Christians argue adamantly, “No, I was a Christian. I believed it. I was a pastor/song leader/youth worker/conference speaker/musician/committed church member. I was a Christian and now I am not.” The same doubts may arise in our minds: How could someone that I was so sure was a Christian, someone from whom I even learned a great deal, how could they never have been a Christian at all?

The answer lies at what is the true nature and cause of genuine saving faith. Jonathan Edwards is helpful for us here:

“Men may have a strong persuasion that the Christian religion is true, when their persuasion is not at all built on evidence, but altogether on education, and the opinion of others; as many Mahometans are strongly persuaded of the truth of the Mahometan religion, because their fathers, and neighbors, and nation believe it. That belief of the truth of the Christian religion, which is built on the very same grounds with a Mahometan’s belief of the Mahometan religion, is the same sort of belief. And though the thing believed happens to be better, yet that does not make the belief itself to be of a better sort; for though the thing believed happens to be true, yet the belief of it is not owing to this truth, but to education” (emphasis mine).

Edwards makes a vital distinction here between two kinds of belief. There is a way to “believe” in Christianity that is not genuine saving belief. You can believe in Christianity because you are educated in it, because those around you believe it, and because you are genuinely convinced in your mind that it is a true religion. You can be convinced of and committed to Christianity in the same way you can be convinced of and committed to false religions or sports teams or opinions about which James Bond movie is the best. And yet this is not saving faith, no matter how committed it looks on the outside. This is a kind of belief that can be altered or even abandoned.

True saving faith, as Edwards explains, looks like this:

“A spiritual conviction of the truth of the great things of the gospel, is such a conviction, as arises from having a spiritual view or apprehension of those things in the mind. And this is also evident from the Scripture, which often represents, that a saving belief of the reality and divinity of the things proposed and exhibited to us in the gospel, is from the Spirit of God’s enlightening the mind” (emphasis mine).

True saving faith is not being exposed and educated in the Christian religion and coming to a conviction that such things are true. True saving faith happens when God by His Spirit enlightens the mind and helps us see not only the truth of the gospel but the loveliness and divine nature of it. It is beholding not only the truths of the gospel but also having God work on our souls to rejoice in the glory of God as He is revealed in these truths. True conversion happens when God shines “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6, emphasis mine). It is a divine work done by a God who never changes His mind or alters His purposes in history. And thus it will always, always persevere.

I don’t deny that Derek Webb or ex-pastors, ex-missionaries, ex-ministry workers, and those who define themselves as ex-Christians were at one time completely convinced of the truth of the gospel. Their belief in its truth is evidenced by the fact that they built their entire lives around it. But what I deny is that the eyes of their hearts were opened by God to truly savor the glory of God revealed in those truths. I’m not saying they didn’t believe that God was glorious. I’m saying that their conviction was a human conviction and was based upon education and circumstances and not the supernatural work of God to shine in their hearts the beauty and glory of gospel truths.

And that is why they were able to lose the faith they had.

** Due to a number of criticisms of this post, I’ve attempted to show a biblical justification for the idea that some faith is not of God and thus not true saving faith in this follow-up post.**


13 thoughts on “Derek Webb, Wrestling with the Category of “Ex-Christian,” and the Nature of True Saving Faith

  1. Thanks for posting this. I was actually considering writing a very similar article but instead I’ll just point people to yours. If you don’t mind, can you give me the Edwards reference? I have the 2 volume set in case that’s what you’re using.

  2. Since you listened to the podcast, you know that the theological explanation you offer is one of the things that drove Derek away in the first place. You say that if Derek truly isn’t a believer, then “the eyes of his heart were never opened by God…” So he’s damned for unbelief when the only thing that would allow him to believe is a move of God’s Spirit. Webb is hardly the first person from a Reformed background to examine this seeming contradiction and find it unsatisfying.

  3. My religion died off in a similar manner. It has been encouraging to see some of my favorite Christian artists take a hard look at what they believe. Mutemath and Thrice often seem like they are on the edge of reassessing their beliefs as well, though they were not quite as deep in the Christian music scene.

  4. Are we really willing to give up on a set of beliefs because of how our limited human knowledge reconciles these deep concepts? Are we willing to risk our eternity because of the actions of disobedient or flawed Christians? Christ either died and rose again or He didn’t; how will each of us deal with that? The historical documentation leans heavily to “HE DID!” I’m so glad that my salvation is not based on me or my convictions but on God and his faithfulness. The common theme, it seems, is that people can’t comprehend a sovereign God who would choose to not save some people. Me neither! But it’s clear that there’s only one answer that we actually CAN do something about – repent of our sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

  5. Considering the image of God Webb previously embraced as a staunch Calvinist, you may be right.

    As John Wesley once said, Calvinism “represents the most holy God as worse than the devil—as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust than Satan. More false: because the devil, liar as he is, has never said that he wills all men to be saved. More unjust: because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels for continuing in sin which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid. And more cruel: … To suppose him, happy as he is, to doom his creatures to endless misery … is to impute such cruelty to him as we cannot impute even to the great enemy of God and man. It is to represent the high God (he who has ears to hear let him hear!) as more cruel, false, and unjust than the devil!”

    To this, Webb now says, “amen.” Sadly, that representation of God seems to be the only one he ever knew—or at least is the only one he seems to have embraced. Given that, it’s hard to blame him for his current conclusions about that representation of God.

    • You said it better than I could have, Jason. Thank you.

      It’s sad to me that some (like the author of this article) are unwilling to take so many people at their word when they say their faith in Christ was genuine, that they really and truly did have a relationship with God… but now have walked away from that. All because it doesn’t fit into their doctrinal system.

      Apparently they think that if the Prodigal Son had never come home, it would prove that he never was his father’s son in the first place.

      It makes me glad to be in the Wesleyan tradition! We have our own baggage, of course, but at least it’s not this baggage! 🙂

  6. Has the author ever considered that his own doctrine may lead to some pretty troubling conclusions about the nature of God?

    If we are predestined to be saved (or not), as Calvinists believe, then that means God is creating billions of people who are predestined for hell. How would this not make him a cruel and unjust God? How can Webb be condemned by a just God if he had no choice as to if he is saved or not? It’s as if he’s being punished for a choice that was never his to make – free will he never had. You can’t have it both ways.

    Why not entertain the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Webb was being truthful about his belief – and subsequent unbelief? The idea of being able to “lose” your faith may not bring the same amount of comfort as a doctrine that tells us it’s not possible, may even be scary, but it’s something to consider.

  7. Andy, while I do not object to people disagreeing with me, comments that are of this nature will not be approved on our site. If you would like to engage the opinion offered, I am more than happy to approve dissenting comments, as we’ve already done on this post, but mean-spirited attacks will not be approved. You make many assumptions about what we do and do not believe in this comment that are simply incorrect. Respect must be offered even to those with whom you disagree. Blessings to you!

  8. What’s odd about this post is that you don’t mention the very obviously troubling conclusion that you have to arrive at based on this logic, and it’s that the “security” in one’s salvation that Calvinists think they have is really a mirage. If this could happen to Derek Webb, or your best friend, or your father, mother, or child, or your pastor at your staunchly Calvinist church, then it could happen to you, no matter how you think you feel about God, Jesus or Calvin at this very moment. In fact, I think Calvin suggested that God may even cause some to think they are saved for a time, even if they are not, for his “glory”. The way I see it, you can never be sure you are saved as a Calvinist, just as you could never know who is truly predestined for heaven or hell. When God’s salvation is ultimately arbitrary, and I think that is actually the precise word for the Calvinist view of salvation, then you can’t really be sure about anything, can you? How could this possibly be the “biblical” view, it borders on nonsense.

  9. Personally, the narrow minded norm of Christian music plays a part in this. If ‘fans’ and music spin doctors weren’t putting people like Derek on a pedestal, they are tearing them down for having doubts or saying something deemed questionable. No wonder people are turning away.

  10. Pingback: Does the Bible Say There is Such a Thing as Non-Saving Faith? | Theology Along the Way

  11. There are persons who once genuinely believed that salvation and eternal life came through Jesus Christ and who no longer think that. To deny this is to commit the No True Scotsman fallacy. Furthermore, it is presumptuous to claim to know what someone you’ve ever met was thinking at a certain point in time.

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