The Difference Between Stumbling and Falling

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Paul asked, “Have [the Jews] stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not!” (Romans 11:11a). Stumbling is not the same as falling, and we can see the difference between the two by considering two men who had much in common. Who does this describe?

A well-known man received a unique opportunity when Jesus asked him to become one of the twelve disciples. In accepting the invitation, he became a student of the greatest Teacher in history. He could be with the Son of God day and night. The man heard Jesus’ teaching, and when His enemies tried to trap Him with penetrating questions, he heard the profound theological answers. He saw miracles that showed the Messiah’s authority over death, nature, demons, and disease. Jesus gave him some of the same divine power to cast out demons and perform miracles. He witnessed firsthand Jesus’ love, grace, and mercy. After experiencing all this, he betrayed Jesus in a strong, convincing way only hours before His crucifixion. Then he felt great sorrow.

Who is the man? If you say Judas, you are right. If you say Peter, you are right.

Stumbling Is not the Same as Falling

There are plenty of similarities between Peter and Judas, but one crucial difference. Regarding their faith, Peter stumbled, but Judas fell:

And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.”
But he said to Him, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.”
Then He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.”

Luke 22:31-34

Notice the words, “that your faith should not fail.” Jesus knew Peter’s faith was about to be tested, so He graciously warned him. He reverted to Peter’s former name, “Simon,” to remind him of his old nature, and repeated it twice to reveal the gravity of the situation. Peter failed to appreciate Jesus’ warning. He responded pridefully, claiming he would not stumble.

Only hours later, Jesus was arrested:

Peter followed Him at a distance to the high priest’s courtyard. And he went in and sat with the servants to see [what would happen to Jesus].

Matthew 26:58

During this time they spit on Jesus, beat Him, blindfolded Him, and said, “Prophesy! Who is the one who struck You?” (Mark 14:65, Matthew 26:68). Peter kept his distance because he did not want anyone to recognize him, but his plan failed. Matthew 26:69 says while he “sat outside in the courtyard…a servant girl came to him, saying, ‘You also were with Jesus of Galilee.’” Peter denied Jesus three times and became so angry and desperate that he even “began to curse and swear, saying, ‘I do not know the Man!’” (Matthew 26:74 and Mark 14:71).

Peter stumbled when he had the chance to “confess [Jesus] before men” (Luke 12:8):

Immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” So Peter went out and wept bitterly.

Luke 22:60a–62

While being ridiculed and beaten, Jesus made eye contact with Peter. We are not told what Peter saw in that brief look from the Lord, but I suspect it produced the lowest point of his life.

About the same time that Peter denied Jesus, Judas returned the money to the religious leaders:

Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that [Jesus] had been condemned [to die], was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

Matthew 27:3–4

Judas betrayed Jesus to the religious leaders for money. Peter denied that he knew Jesus to save himself. Is there much difference between betraying Jesus and denying Him? Not really! Scripture does not tell us who felt worse—Peter or Judas.

To see a powerful example of a man who stumbled, but did not fall, watch this sermon I preached about the wickedest king in the Old Testament, Manasseh…

What Is Your Response to Sorrow? Stumbling or Falling?

I suspect Peter and Judas felt equally terrible, but the difference is in what their sorrow produced:

  • Judas felt sorry enough to commit suicide.
  • Peter felt sorry enough to return to Jesus.

For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.

2 Corinthians 7:10

Peter was filled with godly sorrow that produced his repentance. Judas was filled with worldly sorrow that produced his death.

Jesus told Peter, “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; (Luke 22:32a). When Judas and Peter’s faith was tested, Peter stumbled, but Judas fell. Stumbling need not be spiritually fatal.

How Do You Know If You’re Stumbling or Falling?

The answer is contained in the next words which Jesus spoke to Peter: “and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32b). The person who fell does not return to Jesus. The person who has stumbled does return. This is the sign of a true Christian. The famous Scottish preacher Dr. Alexander Whyte said:

“The perseverance of the saints is made up of ever new beginnings.”

God gave new beginnings to Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, and Peter when they stumbled, and He does the same for us today:

The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand.

Psalm 37:23-24

All Christians stumble, but God does not let them fall. The difference between a Peter and a Judas—a backslider and an apostate—is not that one is perfect, and the other is imperfect. Imperfection or stumbling, is what they have in common. The difference is that unbelievers stumble, which results in them falling, while believers stumble, but get up and return to Christ.

Discussion Questions to Answer in the Comments Section

  1. What is the difference between stumbling and falling?
  2. What other differences exist between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow?
  3. Can you think of other examples in Scripture of individuals who stumbled? What about individuals who fell?
Enduring Trials God's Way author Scott LaPierre

The text in this post is from Enduring Trials God’s Way: A Biblical Recipe for Finding Joy in Suffering, and the audio is from the accompanying audiobook. I am praying God uses the book and audiobook to strengthen your faith and exalt Christ!

8 Responses

  1. I am really blessed by that sharing about Peter and Judas..
    We know Peter, as Simon,fisherman,a tougher guy, always messed up on the regular .But as the mature ( a tax payer ) among his brethren, had always the final say ..he was a leader..
    And The LORD was working with his character..
    That eye contact was all about HIS Unconditional Love,that speaks of how much I still love you regardless, and that weeping was his good intent of True repentance …
    He stumbled,but didn’t fall, though he failed The LORD so many times..

    1. Victor,
      Thank you for letting me know. It is always encouraging to learn that my materials have ministered to someone.

      I agree with you about the significance of the eye contact. It was clearly devastating to Peter.

      I have always found Peter to be so encouraging, because of my failures, and I am blessed that he seems to do the same for you.

  2. This is amazing! But I can thought of King Saul. Can he be considered as someone who fell? I just couldn’t think how the holy spirit left this man, would that meant to say he also lost his salvation like Judas? But I have been thinking that the spirit or anointing of being the chosen king was the thing referred to in this. I hope to hear your thoughts about this too. Thank you!

    1. Jaylene,
      King Saul is an interesting example. I think some people would consider him as someone who stumbled versus fell. But for me personally, I would consider him as someone who fell. As far as I can tell there’s no example of genuine repentance from him, or another way to say it would be, there is no example of him getting back up…as we see with David and Peter.

      When the Holy Spirit came upon Saul in the Old Testament, or when it came upon other individuals, it wasn’t the same as the Holy Spirit indwelling believers in the New Testament. I don’t think that just because the Holy Spirit came upon him that means he was saved, although some people believe it was evidence. In all of his conversations he always said, “Your God,” versus, “My God.”

  3. Thank you for sharing this timely word. How does the scripture of Proverbs 24:16 align with this message as it states, “A just man falls seven times”. Is this a different type of falling that is now of Christ and “justified”, not excusing sin but immediately receiving of salvation because this man is in Christ? Thanks!

    1. Hi Samantha,
      Thanks for reading and reaching out with your question.

      Proverbs 24:16 says, “For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again, but the wicked stumble in time of calamity.”

      Obviously this verse uses the words “fall” and “stumble” oppositely of the way I use them, but also oppositely of the way the words are used in Romans 11:11. I simply wanted to discuss the difference between sinning and repenting (Peter), versus sinning and staying down, or committing apostasy (Judas), and I chose to refer to Romans 11:11. I think the point is the same, regardless of the verse quoted: the believer gets back up (repents), but the unbeliever stays down.

      No, I wouldn’t say it’s a different type of falling. I would say it’s the same point with different words.

      What are your thoughts?

  4. Things are often decided in a moment, but it need not be the end. The Gospel account helps us understand Peter’s faith was deficient. When tested, he denied Jesus three times. Yet this was not the end. His encounter with Jesus as he was led away, was. His eyes and Jesus” eyes met. In that moment Peter saw, to his profound regret, the difference between his own faith and Jesus’ standard. Rejected, mocked and walking to his appointment at Calvary; from the human perspective, Jesus was justified to shout in bitter words, anger and accusation. But he did not. Though his heart must have been heavily burdened and in pain. As Jesus’ and Peter’s eyes met, they both could recall precious moments together in Galilee. Jesus, in forgiveness, extended his heart to Peter, ‘my beloved disciple.’ Their bond of heart was renewed. A connection was made. Peter, could clearly compare his own heart with that of his lord. Could see that he himself had believed in Jesus for himself, but Jesus was completely focused on saving the world, whatever the price. In his love, Jesus gave energy and power to Peter. In Peter’s bitter tears of repentance thereafter, he changed. In that moment of eye contact, he had once again felt Jesus love. Thereafter, shedding endless tears of bitter remorse, Peter, in Jesus love became a new man, he became the rock.

    1. Trevor,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the account. You’re a good writer. I found myself drawn in by your description.

      I think it’s important to consider that should Judas have repented the same could be said of him.

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