The apostle Paul understood the value of learning from the past. In 1 Corinthians 10, he highlighted events from Israel’s history to provide examples of spiritual realities and warn against sin. Paul wanted his readers to learn, just as Israel had discovered, that spiritual pride is a powerful deceiver and self-reliance is a great reducer: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, ESV).
Take heed is an expression that means “to watch carefully, be careful, be vigilant, or be on the lookout.” The word stands in verse 12 refers to “holding one’s ground, being steadfast, or remaining firm in one’s position.” Paul conveys the idea of a person who thinks he’s standing firm in the faith, but in reality is overly confident and self-deceived. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” says 1 Corinthians 10:12 in the New International Version.
The apostle Peter famously boasted of his death-defying dedication to Christ: “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death,” he said (Luke 22:33). Jesus’ reply was sobering: “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me” (verse 34). In other words, take heed, Peter, lest you fall. A few minutes later, Jesus tells Peter, James and John, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).
“Take heed lest you fall” is a warning to those in the church who are convinced of their own righteousness. These people should be careful as they may instead be poised to fall just as the Israelites sinned in the desert. God was displeased with the Hebrew people because of their overconfidence, lack of dependence on Him, and the evil cravings in their hearts. Therefore, “their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (1 Corinthians 10:5–10).
The writer of Hebrews gave a similar admonition: “Take care, brothers, 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” (Hebrews 3:12–13, ESV).
These Scriptures are not to be understood as proof texts for the notion that we can lose our salvation. Instead, they speak of those who might think they are saved yet, in truth, might not be. Jesus Himself cautioned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23).
Paul warned that, just as the Israelites faced trials in the wilderness, so too would New Testament believers encounter hardships and tests in this world: “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure” (1 Corinthians 10:13, NLT).
Sometimes we feel like our individual struggles are unique or beyond anyone else’s ability to grasp, but Scripture says trials are “common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13, ESV). Moreover, “He who calls you is faithful,” says 1 Thessalonians 5:24 (ESV; see also 1 Corinthians 1:9, 18). We can rely on the Lord to provide a way of escape or the strength to endure the test. He knows what we can and cannot handle.
Often the “way out” is simply to stand up under the test while God works to strengthen and mature our faith: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4, NLT).
One difference between true and false believers is that God keeps His own from falling away. He will bring them with great joy into His glorious eternal presence (Jude 1:24). Jesus Christ is the vine in whom we must abide (John 15:1–17). Because of His death on the cross and resurrection to life, we are positionally secure (1 Peter 1:3–12). In Jesus Christ alone, we stand firm (Romans 4:25; 5:1–2; John 10:28).
We, like the Corinthians, can learn from the past. Paul’s caution to “take heed lest you fall” calls believers of every generation to avoid becoming over-confident in our own spiritual merit. The only way to stand firm in the faith is to be born again of God’s Spirit (John 3:1–8) through faith in Jesus Christ and to depend wholly on His saving grace to keep us from falling (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8–9).