I’m sure you know the tragic story of Joshua Harris: a respected Christian author, a pastor for 17 years, and a leading voice for sexual purity in the Christian community, who left his wife, left his faith, and left Jesus.
It was a shocking moment for many, especially those who had been impacted by his writing and preaching. It was shocking to me. It made me question some things: how do we know if someone is truly saved? If it’s true that “you shall know them by their fruits,” how do I know which fruits are fraudulent and which ones are genuine?
And so I did some “Christian Detective work.” I came across a book Joshua Harris wrote back in 2010 entitled, Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters. Inside the front cover were endorsements from Joni Eareckson Tada, John Piper, J. I. Packer, Mark Dever, and others. They described this book as one “that will push you farther down the road to faith than you’ve ever journeyed before,” and said that, “as religious fads come and go, the truths in this book will last.”
Surely, I thought to myself, there must be clues hidden in this book that point to his unbelief—some missing piece of the puzzle that hints at apostasy.
And let me tell you, it was downright eerie to read a book about lasting, genuine faith written by a man who didn’t last—a man whose faith proved to be ingenuine...
In the opening chapter where he talks about the Amish concept of rumspringa, a season of life for amish teenagers to explore the “forbidden delights of the outside world” before deciding whether or not they would remain in the amish community and live according to the teachings of the church. Aha, I naively thought, maybe this is a foreshadowing of Harris’s own rumspringa.
I pressed on through the following chapters, keenly prepared to take note of any “concerns” I had and any “clues” I would find. And let me tell you what I discovered:
It was a really good book.
He took the doctrines of Theology Proper, Bibliology, Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, and Ecclesiology, and presented them at a popular level in a way that brought freshness and clarity to topics often reserved for the seminary classroom.
My “spiritual sleuthing” was to no avail. Joshua Harris knew his theology well, and he expressed it clearly.
But one quote from the book did catch my attention, especially when I considered where Harris is now:
“I’ve come to learn that theology matters. And it matters not because we want a good grade on a test but because what we know about God shapes the way we think and live. What you believe about God’s nature—what he is like, what he wants from you, and whether or not you will answer to him—affects every part of your life.
“Theology matters, because if we get it wrong, then our whole life will be wrong.” 
I wholeheartedly agree with that final sentence. It’s true, but it’s also incomplete. Yes, what we know and believe about God is fundamental to who we are and what we do. But Joshua Harris’s current status proves something else: Theology matters, but even if you get it 100% right, you whole life can still be wrong.
You can know the Bible from cover to cover. You can explain it clearly and articulately. You can pastor a church for seventeen years. You can write books and speak at conferences and gain a following. You can do all that, and still come before the throne after you leave this world and hear Jesus say, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, I never knew you.”
Because ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who saves, not good theology. To be sure, the Holy Spirit will guide you toward a proper theology from the Word of God. Good theology is essential, vital, and necessary. But good theology can also be easily memorized, mastered, and parrotted without the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit
Does this rattle your assurance? Does it leave you wondering about your own faith? If so, let me share a couple thoughts that have helped me navigate through tragic stories like that of Joshua Harris.
Belief vs. Desire
Although Harris has been fairly quiet about his motivations and reasons for leaving the faith, one thing seems clear to me: he didn’t reject Christianity because he found new information that disproved the claims of Scripture. His de-conversion doesn’t seem to be info-driven—it seems to be desire-driven. He left the church, not primarily because of something he knew, but of something he didn’t like. And, to his credit, he knew he couldn’t change the Scriptures to match his lifestyle. He knew he couldn’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible to believe or reject. His clear and solid theology gave him zero wiggle-room. He knew it was all or nothing.
In a recent interview with Axios, his first ever since his announcement, Harris said, “If you’re not living according to the teaching of the Bible, if you’re living in unrepentant sin, then you have to be put out of the church. I think I came to the point of recognizing that, you know what, I’m not living according to this, and I held other people to this standard. I excommunicated myself, essentially.”
Life is intolerable when your desires contradict your belief. One of them must conform to the other. And Joshua Harris decided to conform his belief to match his desires. From his perspective, it was more tolerable for him to fundamentally change what he believed in order to align his convictions with his desires, rather than allow the uncomfortable and counter-cultural truths of God’s Word change his desires.
Genuine and single-minded desire for God and his Word, comes only from the Holy Spirit. While good deeds and solid theology can be easily manufactured, a pure craving for Christ that conquers the flesh is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:16-17 says, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
We all have sinful desires that wage war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11), but it is only the Spirit who can keep you from “doing the things you want to do.” Are you finding that what you constantly crave is in direct contradiction to what you know about Scripture? Or do you find in your heart a genuine love and desire for Christ that, although often contested, is unquenchable? That is the work of the Spirit. Rejoice in that.
When faced with the decision between Christ and the world, do you say with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68)? It is this single-minded assurance in who Jesus is that defeats any sinful desire that entices you, no matter how strong.
Nothing outside of Jesus is worth it. Nothing outside of his Gospel will give you peace. For Joshua Harris, he concluded that there was somewhere else to go. His sinful desire governed his belief. One day, hopefully before he leaves this world, he will realize that he was wrong.
In his interview with Axios, Harris said, “Someone said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.’ I can relate to that.” Perhaps he’s already starting to realize it. I pray he is.
Not As Surprising as You Think
In his little booklet on prayer, J. C. Ryle wrote, “You may be very sure men fall in private long before they fall in public. They are backsliders on their knees long before they backslide openly in the eyes of the world.”
Yes, Harris’s “de-conversion” was shocking to most of us. But I firmly believe that the closer you are to the person, the less shocking it is. I only read his books and heard him preach once or twice. That’s the extent of my exposure. But I would venture to guess that it was less shocking for his closest friends. I would assume that his family, especially his wife, would say, “I saw this coming.” And I am completely confident that it was not at all surprising for Harris himself. This didn’t happen overnight. His hypocrisy of lifestyle came before his renunciation of Christianity, he simply had to build up the courage to be honest about his hypocrisy before he left the faith.
I could tell you story after story of shocking de-conversions where supposedly "good Christian kids" I knew abruptly left the faith. And I could also tell you of the conversations I had with their family members or close friends who said, “I saw this coming.” Hypocrisy is easy to maintain at a distant, but it’s tougher to hide the closer you get.
Friend, you know your own heart better than anyone. Be warned and instructed by the tragic lesson of Joshua Harris. He left the faith because, in his own words, “I was really just trying to be honest about the fact that all the ways that I had defined faith and Christianity, that I was no longer choosing to live according to those.” He knew that his private desires didn’t agree with his public teaching.
Do you keep people at arms length because you don’t want them to know that your private life radically contradicts your public testimony? If so, “examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5). If there is a wide disparity between who you are on Sunday and who you are in private, there is no reason for you to be confident in the genuineness of your faith. Down the road, if you throw it all away, you may shock others, but you won’t surprise yourself.
The story of Joshua Harris is undoubtedly a sad and tragic one, but it’s also instructive:
If you’re using your Christian persona as a cloak for your hidden desires; if you’re utilizing your standing in the church or your record of faithful service as a facade to cover the dark warfare going on in your soul; if you’re finding that the allurement of the world is weakening your grasp on truth, take heed. Be warned, “lest there be in any of you an evil unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). Open yourself up to the body of Christ so that you can be exhorted and admonished before you become “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13).
But if you, when examining your own soul, see an undeniable love for Jesus, contested yet unquenchable;
If you look at the Word of God and find an assurance that Christ alone has the words of life, challenged yet unwavering;
If you see a heart that has been transformed by the Spirit, imperfect yet genuine; take heart. These are the fruits of the Spirit, the seal of your eternal inheritance.
 Harris, Joshua. Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters. Multnoma Books: Colorado Springs. 10-11.
 Ryle, J. C.. A Call to Prayer. Charles Nolan Publishers: Moscow. 17-18.
Aaron Berry earned both his undergrad and MA in Bible at Bob Jones University and most recently completed his MDiv at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, MI, where He and his wife Hanna, currently live with their two children, Brooklyn and Joshua. He also serves as the Director of Recruitment at DBTS and is a pastoral assistant at Inter-City Baptist Church.
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