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.

Apostasy in Light of Faith and Grace (Winds of Doctrine #11)

In the last eight posts we have seen how the Early Church that had demonstrated Jesus to be the Messiah in the 30’s AD, welcomed Gentiles in the 40’s, and reaffirmed God’s plans for the Jews in the 50’s, had to endure mighty winds of heresy and persecution in the 60’s, and then recover their ‘first love’ for each other again in the 70’s.  The 60’s had brought a widespread apostasy, or ‘falling away’, in the church, which some at the time may have interpreted as the prophesied final apostasy that would sweep through the Church before the Great Tribulation and the return of Jesus (cf. 2Thes 2:1‑12).  Clearly Paul, Peter and John all recognised that a greater one was still to come (cf. 2Tim 3:1‑9; 4:1‑4; 2Pet 3:1‑18; 1John 2:18‑19, 28; 4:1‑3), whether or not they expected the final one within decades rather than millennia.  It is vital that we consider the nature of that first great apostasy, though, that we might be prepared for the final one that will soon be upon us.

1 Timothy 4:1 makes it clear that “in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons”.  Hebrews warns believers not to “fall in the wilderness” through disobedience like the generation of Moses (Heb 3:7‑17; 4:11; 6:4‑8; cf. 1Cor 10:1-12).  Whereas Paul is referring to specific fallen individuals in his congregation, whom he has ‘handed over to Satan’ for discipline, the writer to the Hebrews is offering a more general warning from Scripture, confident that his hearers will turn back from the brink and inherit the promises after all (Heb 6:9‑12; 10:23‑39; 12:12‑13).  The reality is that there are in every generation individuals who in practice ‘fall away’ from the Christian beliefs and lifestyle they once had.  Most of those who read this will know several such people, and the issue therefore becomes one in which we have intense personal interest.  Others might be genuinely afraid that they themselves might ‘fall away’ at some future point, and the doctrine of ‘perseverance of the saints’ (“Once saved, always saved”) can sometimes be applied too quickly to dismiss people’s real concerns.  Probably the single most fundamental key to this whole topic is a correct understanding of ‘faith’, a word we looked at in detail above.

Faith in God’s Grace

‘Faith’, or ‘trust’, is the only appropriate response to the ‘grace’ of God, and these two terms sum up absolutely every element of the Christian teaching.  They are the truth that distinguishes Christianity from every other religion ever taught, because they teach that as humans we have nothing to contribute to our relationship with God, and can only trust Him to bring about in our lives what is pleasing to Him.  Jesus is the fullest expression both of the grace of God towards humanity and the world, and of the faith in God which God considers to be true ‘righteousness’.  We receive ‘salvation’ and enter into God’s family when we share the ‘faith’ of God’s unique Son Jesus, and this has two elements according to Romans 10:3‑13.  The first element is the conviction that God alone can raise the dead to bodily life, which Jesus went to the cross believing, and therefore that God did indeed raise Jesus to permanent bodily life.  The second element is the willingness to surrender one’s life completely to the direction of this God like Jesus did, which Jesus describes as ‘take up your cross and follow me’.  The writer to the Hebrews says that ‘without faith it is impossible to please God, for the one who comes to God must believe that He exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him’ (11:6).  There are many who have heard about Jesus, admired Him, and even dedicated their lives to imitating His good works, but none of this matters at all if they have not understood that the only way of pleasing God and receiving eternal life is to accept that Jesus has done everything required, and to put one’s life entirely in His hands.  Even this decision itself is a work of grace in the believer’s life.  As Luke points out in Acts 13:48, ‘as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed’.

If a person has truly understood that they can do nothing of any value without God’s gracious giving, they will be in the right place to receive His Holy Spirit, who gives us everything we need for life and godliness, empowering us to do what God has called us to do.  This is the beginning of a life of trust, or ‘faith’, in which time and again the believer comes back to God asking for grace to accomplish what he or she has been given to do.  If at any point we turn back to our own wisdom and strength, we have ‘turned away’ or ‘fallen away’ from faith, or from ‘the [life of] faith’.  ‘Whatever is not from faith is sin.’ (Rom 14:23)  Paul expresses exactly the same concept in Galatians 5:4, when he tells those trying to be righteous by keeping laws that they have ‘fallen from grace’.

Faith is just as necessary for one’s beliefs as it is for one’s life, because we are unable to arrive at the truth through our own wisdom or ‘rational’ thought processes.  God has deliberately planned it this way, so that those who come to Him are forced to accept what He says without the benefit of their own five senses.  If we were able to reason our way to the ‘meaning of life’, we would have no need for grace, and we could boast in our own wisdom.  As it is, God has chosen to save people through the apparent ‘foolishness’ of what is preached, the message of a crucified Saviour (1Cor 1:17–2:5).  Of course, that is not to say that God leaves us in the darkness just for the sake of it, or that He has not revealed elements of the truth about the world around us to those who do not trust Him.  Rather, God reveals more and more to those who keep coming to Him for wisdom, and He graciously enables others who do not trust Him personally to nevertheless recognise the divine order and beauty with which He created the world.

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