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ApostasyĖFalling from Grace
Thomas R. Fletcher
Apostasy is an unfamiliar term for many. It is the condition of one who has completely fallen away from God, one who has completely abandoned the faith. The subject has been a theological battleground for centuries. Does the Bible teach the security of the believer? Does the Bible teach that a true, born-again believer can fall away? Yes...to both questions. Thatís contradictory, you think. Only in appearance. The Bible teaches both and the two teachings DO reconcile, but it takes diligent study, with an eye to see how the seemingly contradictory passages actually work together to compliment and support one another.
In my early days as a Christian, I would hear a speaker espousing the "unconditional eternal security" teaching, expositing Scripture to back up his beliefs. Pretty convincing stuff. (Though the Bible teaches the security of the believer, it does not teach "unconditional eternal security.") Then I would hear a teacher warning Christians of the possibility of falling away from God, backing it with Scripture all the way. Pretty convincing stuff. Both teachers were convincing because both were teaching truthĖbut only certain facets of it. Most every New Testament book makes at least one reference (either outright or implied) that a believer may fall away. The book of Hebrews has at least five apostasy passagesĖa primary reason Martin Luther had qualms about placing it in his German translation of the Bible. These apostasy passages flew in the face of his "election" beliefs of predestination.
These doctrines hinge upon the larger question of predestination or free will. Are we creatures of free will or creatures whose every action, thought and deed has been preprogrammed by God? The predestination folks would have us believe we are mere automatons. Others have adopted a strange twist on this teaching. They believe that a person must choose to follow Christ (free will), but once a person has believed, that person can no longer exercise his or her free will to walk away from God (predestination). Does the Bible teach free will? Does the Bible teach predestination? Again, yes to both questions. I believe it does so in such a way that our predestination to become children of God is based upon Godís foreknowledge that we would use our free will to choose Christ. The matter isnít so much an either/or choice of which doctrine you prefer, but a synthesizing of all relevant Scripture passages to determine the overall view of Scripture.
Augustine, as the Churchís primary theologian of the 4th Century, first put forth the codified teaching on predestination: "Predestination is the Providence of God by which certain men who have been mercifully selected from the mass of perdition, are directed by infallible means to life eternal." Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, 1200 years later, derived most of their theology through the doctrinal screen of Augustineís beliefs, Calvin carrying the predestination teachings of Augustine to their logical conclusion: if the elect are predestined for heaven, the lost must be predestined for hell. Further, since the lost were predestined for hell, the atonement of Christ was limited in scope to only the elect. Calvinís theology, referred to as "Calvinism" taught the absolute sovereignty of God (man has no free will); unconditional election (God before the foundation of the world chose the elect for salvation); total depravity (in human beings there is nothing good); irresistible grace (when God calls the elect, they cannot refuse); eternal security (once saved, always saved). Theologian James Arminius questioned these assertions, based upon his study of the Bible. His view, picked up by John and Charles Wesley, is referred to as "Arminianism." Much of what today is referred to as "Calvinism" or "Arminianism" is far removed from the actual teachings of these men. Calvin never believed a believer had any choice other than to be saved. I think of my Baptist friends who believe in a semi-predestination, in which a person must choose to follow Christ, yet once that choice is made, the person no longer has the ability to walk away from Godís grace. Logically, this makes no sense. Either humans have free will or they donít. Others teach that humans have no say at all in the matter. It is Godís sovereign choice. The predetermined elect are drawn by irresistible grace. Therefore, the elect can never fall away. This system makes more sense than one which says free will must be exercised, then in some mysterious way that free will is removed.
Many who claim "Arminian" beliefs hold that a believer may fall away from grace to an unregenerate state, then return to salvationĖsomething taught by neither Arminius nor the BibleĖa perversion of Biblical truth. Donít confuse the repentance of a backslider with an apostate returning to faith. Arminius did teach free will and that a true believer may fall awayĖbut as made absolutely clear in Hebrews 6:4-6, once that happens, there is no remedy. His teaching never allowed for one to be in, then out, then back in grace. Salvation is a one-shot deal. There is no second, third, or fourth redemption. Christ paid the penalty for sin once (see 2 Peter 2:20-22; Hebrews 6:4-6, Hebrews 10:26-31). Salvation is serious business with God. It cost Him the life of His Son to redeem you.
We, as obedient children, must study the Word to see how the scripture passages that teach the security of the believer and those that teach the possibility of falling away reconcile. Both are Godís truth. We develop a lopsidedness when we only look at the Scriptures which back our previously held beliefs. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16 NIV). And sometimes, ALL of Scripture must be studied to determine truth on a matter. Salvation is such a matter. A study of the passages which teach the security of the believer gives us confidence. Nothing can snatch us from Christís or the Fatherís hand (John 10:28-30). "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38-39). The Christian need never worry about "losing" salvation. It isnít going to happen. God paid too high a price to secure your salvation to let you slip from His hand. One act of sin does not void salvation. A series of acts does not void salvation. Backsliding is not apostasy, but backsliding leads to apostasy. A person may be in backslidden condition, but that doesnít mean the person has committed apostasy. The person may repent and be restored. The Lord will bring discipline into that believerís life to persuade him or her to turn from the sin, back to God (Hebrews chapter 12). Apostasy requires a series of deliberate acts, willful choices not to follow the Lord, a turning away from God, a continued refusal of repentance. Apostasy begins with backsliding (a drifting from Godís truth, a failure to live up to the standards of Scripture, see Hebrews 2:1-3). Apostasy is not something one may unknowingly commit. It takes a deliberate walking away from God, a refusal to allow the discipline of the Lord to have its purifying effect, a continual turning from the grace of GodĖuntil one crosses the line. At that point his or her heart is so hardened it is impossible to return to God. Where is that line? The Bible does not say, but over and over, it is indicated as a possibility. Once the line is crossed, "no sacrifice for sin is left" (Hebrews 10:26b).
Apostasy has precedent throughout the Old Testament, though the teaching isnít fully developed. The "high-handed sin" of Numbers 15:30 comes to mindĖthere was no sacrifice for this intentional sin, just as there is no sacrifice for those who walk away from Christ. Chapters 18 and 33 of Ezekiel warn the righteous of the consequences of turning from righteousness. If apostasy were not a possibility for the believer, then why the great number of passages warning believers against drifting, turning away, hardening of oneís heart through the deceitfulness of sin? God isnít making straw men, He is warning of a real and perilous possibility. "If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing (epignosis, epignosis true, full knowledgeĖsalvation knowledge ) our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning" (2 Peter 2:20). What could be worse than not knowing Christ, facing eternity in hell? The torturous knowledge that one faces hell after having known and turned from the Lord. Those who have committed apostasy have neither the capacity nor inclination toward repentanceĖit is absolutely impossible (Hebrews 6:4).
Backsliding is literally playing with fire, because backsliding, sin, hardens the heart--to the point of no return for some. Only God knows when that line is crossed. If you are backslidden, and God is still dealing with you, you havenít crossed the line. Repent while there is time. Be assured that before that point is reached, God will bring chastisement, discipline into the life of that believer in an attempt to correct His wayward child. As long as God is dealing with the backslider, hope remains. There is opportunity for repentance but there comes a point where that opportunity is lost forever. We find biblical lists of things that canít remove us from Godís loveĖbut in none of those lists does one find self, because self-will (the freedom to choose or reject God) is the only thing that can remove one from Godís care.
Just as the Calvinistic "unconditional eternal security" provides a false sense of securityĖa presumption upon God, so does the perversion of Arminiusí teaching that says one may repeatedly fall away, be restored, and fall away again. Not so! The Apostle Paul himself considered the possibility that he himself, after having preached to others, could find himself rejected by God (adokimos, adokimos, translated disqualified in the NIV, 1 Corinthians 9:27). No easy grace for Paul, he saw the faith as an ongoing battle. He knew what could happen. Paul witnessed it in his own acquaintance, Demas, who fell away, "having loved this present world."
I donít believe it is an either/or option (Godís sovereignty or manís free will). I believe the Bible teaches manís responsibility and free will within the confines of Godís sovereignty. John is a favored biblical author for the unconditional eternal security folks. John does put forth strong teaching on the security of the believer. He holds out a warning as well. "If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned" (John 15:6). John is in total agreement with the writer of Hebrews. "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God" (Hebrews 10:26-27).
Summed up, one may be born again, go through cycles of backsliding and repenting (more normal than any of us would care to admit). Finally one may continue to backslide until the heart is so hardened through sin that repentance becomes impossible ( 2 Peter 2: 20-23; Hebrews 6:4-6; Hebrews 10:26-31). Sin is serious business. One is playing with fire: presuming upon God while indulging known sin. The believer is secure. Absolutely nothing can remove the believer from the Love of GodĖnothing but willful disobedience that has the potential to harden one beyond the point of return (a seared conscience). Seemingly conflicting passages do not conflict, but present facets of truth which serve to refine and define the Bibleís teaching on salvation.
Falling away takes place by degrees. One does not apostatize in one day. Rather it is the "small" things that take one away from God, the gradual erosion of the things of God in the life of a believer, step by step until the line of apostasy has been crossed. If youíre toying with sin, repent! Donít presume upon Godís grace!
I highly recommend the book, "The Word of Truth" by Dale Moody. The book is a succinct summary of Christian doctrine, based upon the teaching of the Bible (not denominational doctrines and traditions of men). He has a chapter in the book covering apostasy. It was primarily this chapter that won him "the left foot of fellowship" from the Southern Baptist Convention.