Many Protestants teach that you cannot lose your salvation, so when a person "falls away" from the faith, some of these Protestants conclude that this person was never really saved in the first place. Their favorite prooftext for this claim is 1 John 2:19. Their interpretation is quite convenient, but is actually quite unreasonable, and it's is hurtful towards Christians who struggle with sin (thinking they might never have been saved).
To begin, consider the context of 1 John 2:19,
18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
These Protestants read 2:19 as saying these people who "went out" of the community by apostasy demonstrate that they never really were saved, since true Christians remain in the community. This interpretation is somewhat understandable, but it is very weak when you consider the context, the Greek words themselves, similar verses, and theological coherence.
Consider how John himself uses very similar language (e.g. "antichrist" and "went out" and "coming") as in 2:18-19 elsewhere in his Epistles:
- 1 John 4:1-3 Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
- 2 John 1:7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
- 3 John 1:5-8 Beloved, do in all your efforts for these brothers 6 who testified to your love before the church. 7 For they have gone out for the sake of the name [of Jesus], accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these.
There is a striking similarity between 2:19 and 1John 4:1-3 and 2John 1:7. In each case, John is speaking of antichrists have come and also false teachers went out. It would be natural then to read all as describing the same warning. Based on the above evidence, this "went out" in 2:19 is thus not apostasy , but rather more of the opposite: it's false teachers going out into communities specifically to spread heresy. This conclusion is further confirmed at the Council of Jerusalem, where the Apostles sent out a Letter to Gentile Christians using nearly identical language of 2:19, as they explain (Acts 15:24): "We [Apostles] have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions." So the most natural and reasonable interpretation of 2:19 is that "they" are the antichrists of 2:18 (and 2:22) who went out to preach, pretending to be sent by the apostles ("from us"), but the Apostles never authorized this ("but not of us"), for if these false teachers were sent by the apostles, they would have remained in communion with the Apostles. Indeed, in the 3John 1:5-8 reference, the situation is of Christian missionaries going out, validly sent by the Apostles and their efforts are endorsed by the Apostles.
Some additional points for consideration are:
- The "they" in 2:19 refers to the antichrists just mentioned in 2:18. The term "antichrist" appears only four times in the Bible (1John 2:18; 2:22; 4:3; 2John 1:7), all contexts we've looked at above. It's meaning is not confined to a single person, but rather many false teachers, who all profess the specific error that Jesus is not the Messiah nor Son of God (which rules out the Pope even being a candidate for antichrist). But Protestants presume this to refers to Christians in general.
- The "went out" in Greek is a generic term for going outside, not a euphemism for apostasy. But Protestants presuming a meaning that isn't even lexically valid in the first place.
- The "Us" - in the "went out from from Us, but were not of Us" - is speaking of false teachers pretending to be sent by Apostolic endorsement but not actually endorsed, as was shown earlier. But Protestants presume two different meanings, i.e., "went out from Us" means abandoning membership in the community of believers, while "not of Us" as means 'never really saved'. This is not only inconsistent, since "Us" should means community of believers in the both cases, it's also ridiculous to suggest a person can be a member of the church and yet never really saved (1 Cor 12:13).
- The "continued" - in the "would have continued with Us" - indicates that at one point they were submissive to Apostolic authority. But Protestants presume here that perseverance within the community points to assurance of true salvation, yet many times people live within a community for years before they leave (2 Tim 4:10), many live a lukewarm community lifestyle (cf Rev 3:16), and some leave community only for a time before returning (1 Cor 5:5). A ll these examples demonstrate perseverance in community can easily give the wrong idea, aside from the fact community living is highly subjective given the numerous Protestant denominations.
In conclusion, it is abundantly clear 1John 2:19 says nothing close to what Calvinists want it to say. In my experience, the typical reason someone latches tightly onto a bad argument is because there isn't enough evidence elsewhere to justify their dubious teaching. As a result, Scripture gets abused, which ultimately is to their own shame and loss of credibility. My favorite example of this desperation is the Protestant "interpretation" of 2 Corinthians 5:21, though 1John 2:19 is in my top ten list of most abused Protestant verses.