James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Permanent Apostasy? (Winds of Doctrine #12)

When a person who has accepted God’s testimony about His Son as the source of eternal life then turns back to his own wisdom, either for understanding other Christian doctrines or for his ‘secular’ intellectual pursuits, he will inevitably ‘fall away’ from the ‘faith’-based wisdom of God and allow his thinking to be shaped by the deception of the father of lies.  This is the source of heresy and ‘doctrines of demons’, and it is only by humbly submitting to the word of truth that someone can escape the trap of the devil and the immoral lifestyle that will follow.  Paul’s approach to heresy or immorality in church leaders was to excommunicate them from the fellowship of believers, in order that they might come to their senses out in the pigsty of life without grace, and repent.  However, for church members living in sin or believing lies, he recognised that by remaining part of their local congregation they were choosing to submit themselves to their leaders, and were therefore in the best place to come to accept also the truth that they were being taught.  In both cases, however, those who ‘fall away’ can potentially be brought back to repentance.

John’s first epistle, written some years later with the benefit of being able to observe the ongoing unrepentance of those Paul and Timothy had excommunicated, deals with the question of those who had permanently left the church (contrast 1 Cor 5:1-5 & 2Cor 2:5-11):  ‘They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.’ (1John 2:19)  As long as the teaching of a church is truly biblical, those who reject its message and leave the church for good are demonstrating that they did not truly belong in the first place.  This is difficult to accept, though, when it is those who have participated thoroughly in the life of the local church, apparently understood the biblical truth, and personally experienced the power of the Holy Spirit, who then fall away.  The writer to the Hebrews considers this scenario in chapter 6, and concludes that for such a person there would be no possibility of repentance because this was the equivalent of the unbelief of Jesus’ opponents who wilfully attributed His anointing to Satan and were therefore condemned as having committed an unforgivable sin (Matt 12).  Jude would describe such fake believers as ‘hidden reefs in your love feasts’ (Jude 1:12-13).  However, the writer to the Hebrews immediately reassures his listeners that he is convinced of better things for them, because God could not be unjust and forget the genuine love they had borne towards Him.  It is a genuine warning to those considering ‘falling away’, and yet he has confidence that God’s grace that established the church will also preserve it, as Paul regularly affirmed (1Cor 1:7‑9; Php 1:6; 2Tim 1:12).

We must treat the warnings in the book of Hebrews in a similar way to Paul’s stern instruction to ‘Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail the test?’ (2Cor 13:5).  Those who would fail the test, or those turning back to the sacrificial system, would be those who did not actually have the life of Jesus in them.  There will likewise be members of churches today who, when challenged to consider carefully if they have ever truly received Jesus as Lord, will discover that they have never actually trusted in His grace.  The warnings must not be quickly dismissed or explained away as ‘hypothetical’; they are meant to provoke soul-searching on the part of those who read them, driving one back to a complete dependency and trust in God’s ability to save, both at conversion and throughout one’s life.  Anxiety is not evidence of trust, but rather of concern that one’s own efforts will not be enough.  That is completely true, but instead of anxiety we must turn our eyes onto Jesus again and trust Him alone for His all-sufficient grace (cf. Php 4:6‑7).  As Jesus Himself assured us in John 6:37‑40, the task appointed to Him by His Father is to welcome any who are given to Him, and then to make sure that they are not lost but rather raised to life on the last day.  He is the Good Shepherd, the one who goes after the lost sheep and brings them home, and if the Father has graciously enabled us to receive the good news of grace by faith, Jesus is fully able to preserve us and bring us back to repentance and faith.

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