The sectarian notion that it is impossible for a child of God to so sin as to be lost eternally is widely believed by a host of sincere people. But the idea is fallacious. It was first vocalized in the Garden of Eden by Satan, who lied to Eve by telling her that disobedience to God would not result in death (Genesis 3:4; cf. John 8:44). Human history has demonstrated the devastating consequences of believing that error. In later ages, the dogma of the impossibility of apostasy was popularized by John Calvin (1509-64). It is, however, without biblical support.
The Potential of Apostasy
That apostasy from the true faith is possible may be demonstrated in several ways.
(1) An individual disciple may depart from the truth. Simon, a sorcerer of Samaria, heard the gospel of Christ, believed it, and was immersed, just as others in that region had been (Acts 8:12-13). When he observed that the apostles had the ability to confer miraculous gifts, he was intrigued by the prospect of possessing this power for himself; and so he sought to bribe the apostles into bestowing the gift upon him. He was seriously in error on this matter, both in disposition (v. 21) and in the act itself. Accordingly, Peter sternly rebuked the wayward disciple, warning him that he could “perish” (v. 20), which is the equivalent of being lost (cf. Luke 13:3). The apostle urged Simon to pray that he might obtain forgiveness (v. 22).
(2) The Scriptures indicate that a congregation of God’s people may fall away from the faith. On his third missionary journey, Paul came to the city of Ephesus (ca. A.D. 52). There he taught the gospel and baptized a dozen
men. The members of that congregation had been saved by grace through faith when they were immersed into Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9; 5:25-26; Acts 19:5; cf. 2:38). Paul labored in this great city some three years, and the church prospered (Acts 19:8, 10; 20:31).
Some four decades later, however, the scene was very different. On the isle of Patmos (ca. A.D. 96), the Lord Jesus Christ, through the apostle John, dispatched a series of letters to seven congregations in Asia, one of
which was the Ephesian church (Revelation 2:1-7). To that group Christ presented this indictment: “You have left your first love” (v. 4, NASB). “First love” seems to be an allusion to the passionate love for the Savior that these brethren entertained at the commencement of their Christian lives (Alford n.d.; cf. Jeremiah 2:2). The Lord promised that unless they repented and returned to their “first works,” i.e., those of the earlier days of their discipleship (Danker et al. 2000, 892-893), their “lampstand” would be removed. Since the lampstand represented the church itself (cf. 1:20), this was the equivalent of a threat of disinheritance (cf. Numbers 14:12). A church can depart from the faith.
(3) A significant movement, i.e., a conglomerate of churches, can drift from the truth. In his second epistle to the church in Thessalonica, Paul warned of the days to come when “the falling away” (Greek apostasia) would occur (2:3). While the Greeks frequently used this term of political rebellion, in the New Testament “verbal forms related to apostasia are commonly used in religious contexts” (cf. Luke 2:37; 8:13; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 2:19; Hebrews 3:12; see Martin 1995, 233). Clearly, that is the meaning here.
The notion that this text merely deals with those who profess Christianity, but really are not Christians at all, is false. The use of the definite article, “the” apostasy, is important. It identifies a specific movement and focuses upon the sum of those digressive acts which resulted ultimately in the development of modern “Christendom.” The progress, though occurring in stages, is considered to be a unified movement (Middleton 1841, 382-383). The entire church did not defect, but a sizable segment did (cf. Daniel 2:44; 1 Timothy 4:1ff). (Note: the theory that this falling away is a movement associated with the rise of the antichrist and a rapture at the time of the Lord’s second coming is without merit.)
Some Causes of Apostasy
Inasmuch as it clearly is possible to depart from the primitive faith, surely this inquiry is appropriate: what precipitates apostasy? Many causes might be suggested; only a few may be mentioned here.
(1) Some leave the faith because of persecution. In one of his parables, Jesus spoke of the superficial person who endures for a while, but “when tribulation and persecution arise because of the word, straightway he stumbles” (Matthew 13:21). The Christian is charged to be faithful, even if it means the forfeiture of his life (Revelation 2:10).
(2) Others fall away because, not understanding the permissive will of God (i.e., his allowance of natural hardships, which are a consequence of humanity’s initial rebellion), they blame the Creator for those dire circumstances that sometimes invade their lives. As a result, they walk away from Providence. One of the great lessons of the book of Job is that God does not shield his people, even the best of them, from life’s tragedies. We must learn to trust our Maker, no matter what happens to us (Job 13:15).
(3) Many Christian souls have become victims of false teaching. There are those who seem to think that false teachers do not exist. But the Savior warned of this danger (Matthew 7:15) and subsequent history reveals the devastation of believing error (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1ff; 2 Timothy 4:1ff). In our own day, we have observed many in the church yielding to the influence of error. From Nashville to Abilene to Malibu, defection from the ancient faith is apparent. The expression, “the old paths,” has become a term subject to ridicule by a new clan of self-designated sophisticates whose ambition seems to focus on fashioning a church in their own image, rather than after the biblical pattern.
(4) There are those who simply wander away from fidelity in a gradual fashion. The writer of the book of Hebrews spoke of the distinct possibility of neglecting one’s salvation, hence, drifting away from the saved state (2:1-3). In our present environment of busy activities, it is not difficult to allow life’s distractions to choke out our passion for serving Christ (cf. Matthew 13:22) so that we subordinate the interests of the Lord’s kingdom to a multitude of trivial things (contrary to Matthew 6:33). For many, worldliness has an allurement that has drawn them to destruction, much like the silly fly in Mary Howitt’s famous poem; with flattery the shallow creature was charmed into the spider’s deadly web (cf. 2 Timothy 4:10). To employ a metaphor more in line with biblical imagery, some members of the church are languishing in a pigpen (cf. Luke 15:15)—and they no longer even smell the stench!
The Road Home
The homeward road for the wayward prodigal was long and difficult (Luke 15:17ff), but there was no substitute. It is a rather curious thing that so many entertain the illusion that they can stand aloof from Almighty God for years, and then somehow simply inch back into divine fellowship, ignoring the sacred prescription for restoration, e.g., acknowledging their apostasy and asking for pardon—from God and their kinsmen in Christ. For these, time is the great healer. Seemingly, in time the Lord just forgets the misbehavior. They appear to be unaware that time is quantitative only; it is not qualitative. For others, serious illness or death seem to be an intrinsically empowered cleansing process. Is there ever a notable person who dies but what many do not bequeath to him a destiny of eternal bliss?
When the child of God goes astray, there is but one route of return—that of repentance, acknowledgement of wrong, and the humble petition for Jehovah’s pardon. This requirement was enunciated forthrightly in the Old
Testament and it is detailed in the New Covenant as well.
In a communication to Solomon by night following a warning of severe consequences for disobedience, Jehovah said:
[I]f my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).
There are several important particulars in this powerful passage. (1) God’s people can drift into wicked ways. (2) They may, however, find forgiveness for their transgressions. (3) Pardon is conditional (note the if-then construction in our common translations). (4) The wayward child of God must humble himself (and what a difficult chore this is for prideful people). (5) The digressive is required to turn from (repent of) his evil. (6) Finally, he must solicit the Lord’s forgiveness in prayer.
The same concept is set forth in the New Testament. Those who have departed from God are obliged to: (1) rekindle the faith (the motive that fuels obedience) that has diminished in their hearts (cf. Luke 8:13; Hebrews 3:12); (2) be characterized by a “godly sorrow” that produces penitent fruit (Matthew 3:8; 2 Corinthians 7:10); (3) confess his wrong—to the degree that such is known (cf. Acts 19:18; James 5:16; 1 John 1:9); and (4) petition God for pardon (Matthew 6:12; Acts 8:22). For a more detailed discussion of this point, see the author’s tract, God’s Plan of Salvation for His Lost Children (Haun Publishing Co., Box 3426, Pasadena, TX 77501, Phone 1-800-231-9709).