Church

The Doctrine of Apostasy

Joonas Laajanen

In my previous piece, I offered a positive biblical basis for the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Objections against this focus on many passages about apostasy, i.e. falling away from the faith. In light of this, we have to ask ourselves: Have we considered all passages or confined ourselves to a select few texts? Should we hold two realities, the perseverance of some and the death of eternal life in others? The Reformed and Calvinists reject this.

In this piece, I seek to present a positive teaching on the biblical doctrine of apostasy. While apostasy is actual, it concerns covenant-breaking by false brothers. I add that these passages are not inconvenient. While the doctrine is nowhere near pleasant, the Reformed churches have a robust view on the matter, held with the same confidence as the doctrine of perseverance. The biblical doctrine of apostasy is vital for the vigilance of the Church and applicable to our humbling. I am thankful the Lord has provided us with many scriptural texts about it.

Salvation Lost in the Wilderness?

Favorite objections against the certainty of perseverance by true believers come from Hebrews 6:4-8 & 10:26-31. Frequently overlooked is the background of Hebrews 3-4. The writer warns New Covenant believers against the wicked example of the people of God in the wilderness at the time of Moses:

Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God. (Hebrews 3:12 NKJV)

Were the Israelites that perished in the wilderness, genuine believers? The whole narrative in Exodus and Numbers is vehemently against this. From the beginning, they desired to go back to Egypt (Ex. 16:3; Num. 14:14). They were not thankful to the Lord, and neither do we see faith and trust in Him (Ex. 32). They are called uncircumcised at heart (Deut. 10:15-16) who lived lives of nagging, idolatry, fornication, and rebellion. It was always Moses, Aaron, or another persevering godly man interrupting God’s judgment against the people. How then could these Israelites be used as a warning to the Hebrews? Because external spiritual blessings do not save or renew anyone in the covenant:

For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? (Hebrews 3:16 NKJV)

The Israelites received salvation from captivity in Egypt. They were covenant members with immense spiritual blessings, privileges, miracles, and protection. They had everything possible that could demand sincere faith and love for the gracious Lord. And so the author of Hebrews warns his audience, blessed with similar but even more lavish spiritual blessings. Why? Because outside of true faith, these will not save anyone. You can have the gospel, say and confess the right things, have religious fear, awe, and emotions, be in the church, and still fall away, breaking the covenant through unbelief. The author is precise. He is indeed paralleling his audience with the Israelites:

For indeed, the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. (Heb. 4:2 NKJV)

The author called his audience to examine themselves. Have they received the gospel with faith? Without saving faith they will not enter God’s rest. The vital significance of these chapters is the following: Since the lengthy Old Testament example of apostasy does not involve truly believing people losing their salvation, neither do the following warnings which are parallel to it. If one believes that Hebrews 6 and 10 speak about individuals losing true saving faith, one should find the same in Hebrews 3 and 4. This can not be done: Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. (Heb. 4.11 NKJV)

Apostasy is Actual, Disgusting, and Final

The wickedness of apostasy is not lost when we confess that it is committed by false brothers. Covenant blessings are such an unimaginable privilege. In the Old Testament, all Israelites were covenantally God’s bride, children, and people, and He was their Father, King, and Savior. These were objective realities through which the people received more light and grace than any other nation on Earth (Rom. 3:1-2). Therefore, to reject Him and His gospel was the most disgusting thing that a person could do. Of no other sin is such strong language used, than of apostasy:

Has a nation changed its gods, Which are not gods? But My people have changed their Glory for what does not profit. Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid; Be very desolate,” says the Lord “For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:11-13 NKJV)

In the law, the penalty for apostasy was death (Deut. 13:10). No atonement! Falling away then was not about any particular sin committed at a point in time. It was a permanent rejection of the truth by non-ignorant people. This is what Hebrews 6 and 10 teach. It is “impossible” to “renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:4-5). There will even be “worse punishment” in the New Covenant for apostasy than in the Mosaic Covenant (Heb. 10:28-29).

The light rejected was more incredible. These were people who had seen objective beauty in the gospel, professing as fact that Jesus was the Son of God who shed His blood for them. For a time they changed their mind (repented) about Him and professed the truth. They received the Word gladly. But now? They were going to take it all back, confessing that this was all wrong and that they were mistaken, thereby metaphorically crucifying Christ again, demanding His death with the original mob. There is no righteousness in Christ or anything better than in the Old Covenant. How dreadful. Listen to what John Owen says:

“When people say they have tried Christ’s righteousness and did not find anything in it, so now are trusting in their own righteousness, they do him great dishonour and bring upon themselves the full judgment and wrath of God on their wicked apostasy.” – John Owen, Apostasy from the Gospel (Banner of Truth, 2015), 96.

Apostasy is actual, disgusting, and final. Yet we must confess, that the apostates are never described as regenerate, justified, or united to Christ. Enlightenment refers to instruction in the truths of the gospel. Through this, they tasted the heavenly gift. Gospel was fed to them and like the seed that fell on stony ground, they initially received it gladly (Matt. 13:20-21). It is certainly possible for the unregenerate to take delight in promises of salvation, forgiveness, grace, and eternal life (Eze. 33:31-32; John 5:35). Next, they are described as becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit which is tied to tasting the powers of the age to come. 

John Owen has a lengthy discussion on this, distinguishing between saving and illuminating works of the Holy Spirit. That may sound too technical but the concept is very biblical. Christ could say to one scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). He was closer than others in his understanding, but he was still not in the kingdom. George Smeaton however provides a more understandable interpretation, worthy of consideration:

“The two difficult passages which involve apostasy of some professing Christians after being made partakers of the Holy Ghost (6:5, and where the parties have done despite the Spirit of grace (10:29), are instances of men receiving only the supernatural gifts, not true grace. So Kinkenberg puts it; compare Matt. 7:22. If we take this view, which is every way preferable, we need not labour, as Owen and others have done, to meet the arguments of those who contend against the perseverance of the saints from this text.” – George Smeaton, The Holy Spirit, (Banner of Truth, 2016), 82.

Like Judas, they might have performed miracles, cast out evil spirits, or been under the influence of extraordinary gifts. None of which are proof of being known by Christ (Matt. 7:22).

Those who know Christ and are known by Him have these great promises to not lead them into a fear of being among future apostates:

​​But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. (Heb. 6:9)

But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul. (Heb. 10:39 NKJV)This comfort makes sense if there is a categorical difference between the apostates and the saved people, who have the witness of the Spirit testifying to their sonship. St. John would agree (1 John 2:19-20).

Apostasy is God’s Judgment to False Converts

Speaking about the last Day, apostle Paul made it clear that a great apostasy would have to take place before that:

Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first. (2 Thess. 2:3a-b NKJV)

What follows is a detailed explanation of God’s reasons in allowing this to happen. It will take place through the instrumentality of Satan, who will perform lying wonders through the lawless one (2 Thess. 2:9). The man of sin is described with the same title as Judas, the son of perdition (2 Thess. 2:3c) leading us to understand, that like Judas, he originates in the Church, the temple of God. But why do some follow his pronouncements instead of the scriptures? The answer is clear:

Because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason, God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thess. 2:10b–12 NKJV)

Apostasy is a judgment of God against false brothers. Through apostasy, they are exposed to be of the Devil. Not a single apostate in the great falling away is a persevering saint, justified or sanctified. Instead, their heart always longed for unrighteousness, pseudo-spirituality, and the doctrines of demons.

Like the Hebrews passages included contrasting promises to the elect, so does this text. A clear-cut difference is made so that the sincere believer would not be tormented by his or her frailty: But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (2 Thess. 2:13–15)

Conclusion

The biblical doctrine of apostasy is a sober revelation about the depths of sin in the human heart. It reminds us that we are far from heaven, even inside the Church. If we receive this doctrine and meditate on it, it will lead us to our humbling as we depend on Him who has sworn to preserve us. We should also be more vigilant as we notice the temptations, deceptions, and signs of apostasy in the church (Jam. 5:19-20). The doctrine of apostasy also safeguards the sacraments or ordinances from error. Baptismal regeneration and transubstantiation fly out of the window the moment we accept the biblical difference between the apostates and the saved.

I am confident that most Christians would actually want the reformed doctrine of apostasy to be true because of its companion, the perseverance of the saints. The good news is that these doctrines are true and worthy to be confessed.

My name from the palms of His hands
Eternity will not erase;
Imprest on His heart, it remains
In marks of indelible grace.
Yes! I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure,
When all earthly ties have been riv’n

– Augustus M. Toplady

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