Anyone who has been in local church ministry for any amount of time is well-acquainted with disappointment. Things like criticism, gossip, and less-than-ideal fruit are normal. And, in some sense, you get used to that.
But there is one thing that seems to never get easier: when an individual who has professed Christ, immersed in the local church, and served in ministries, departs from the faith. AKA, “apostasy.” John Owen defined apostasy as “continued persistent rebellion and disobedience to God and his word,” or “total and final and public renunciation of all the chief principles and doctrines of Christianity.”
As our leadership team has had to grapple with this recently, we wanted to share a few things we’ve learned from the tragedy of apostasy:
- We’ve learned to weep over apostates.
The wound is deep and multi-directional. There is the weeping over the shock of it all. There is weeping over the callousness apostates show to the ministry they’ve received. Often, they will shun your care and past ministry to them with a cutting indifference. They do not know your pain as you pour out your heart for them in secret prayer. Often, those in apostasy will not believe you when you tell them that you love them. Nor do they care.
Even more, there is weeping over the disloyalty to Jesus Christ. Weeping over the betrayal of the body of Christ, the betrayal of other loved ones involved, their hard-heartedness, their blown witness, the unbelievers they will lead further astray, and over the believers they lead astray. And weeping over the eternal punishment they will face if they do not repent.
If you weep over apostates, it’s a good thing. By God’s grace, you still care and have fought the constant creep of callousness.
- We’ve learned that apostasy is pretty normal.
I was recently reminded that apostasy is as old as the universe. Satan, who was likely among the angelic choir which applauded God for his work in creation (Job 38:7), only later used his words for the destruction thereof (Gen. 3:1).
Then there is the Old Testament, which is largely the history of God’s grace and judgment on an apostate nation.
Incredibly, after three years spent with the Lord of glory, one out of Christ’s twelve apostacized. And outside of the twelve, departure was a regular thing: “And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’ After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:65-66).
The “many” in v. 66 always gets me. Not few, but many, pulled a nonchalant, about-face on His Majesty. Incredible. But also normal.
Of course, in the parable of the tares and the wheat, Christ lets it be known that there will always be wheat-looking tares in the church.
The Apostles also experienced it. Demas appeared to start well, being named in the ranks of Paul’s “fellow-workers” (Col. 4:14, Philem. 23), only to be choked out later by the cares of the world (2 Tim 4:10).
If that happened to Christ and the Apostles, what should the people of God today expect? “The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1).
- We’ve been reminded that God’s people have a vicious enemy.
The longer we are in local church ministry, the more we believe in Satan and demons. Attacks on sound local churches happen that are far beyond neutral coincidence. It’s hard to miss the systematic and unrelenting damage they attempt to do. And they seem to never clock out.
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
But, on the other hand, be encouraged if you encounter Satan’s attack. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, his bout with Apollyon meant he was going in the right direction.
- We’ve been reminded that, because apostasy is common, leadership needs to say hard things.
As I look back on a recent apostasy situation, I regret not saying some harder things to people. Would it have prevented the apostasy? It would have been faithful, though uncomfortable, to do so. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6).
- We’ve been reminded that every Christian is called to help prevent each other’s apostasy.
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:12-14).
According to this passage, mutual exhortation is one of God’s means of preventing apostasy. And the writer of Hebrews was not talking to elite Christians, but every Christian. The address is to “brothers.” One of the responsibilities in getting to be a Christian is keeping each other away from the apostasy abyss.
- We’ve been reminded that fighting for sanctification is essential to finishing in glorification.
By the grace of God alone, a sinner passes from condemnation to salvation, through sanctification, into glorification. And God has ordained that sanctification not happen by effortless drift. His grace empowers that fight-stage of our salvation.
Even the life of the Apostle Paul was filled with fight language. His approach to the Christian life included things like, “I run” (1 Cor. 9:26), “I buffet my body” (1 Cor. 9:27), and, “I press on” (Phil. 3:14). The only time where he seems to let up was when his execution was imminent (2 Tim. 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith”).
He knew that none of us are beyond apostasy. And he knew that God’s ordained means of persevering in the faith is fighting the fight of faith.
- We’ve learned that apostasy is going to be normal in churches where sanctification and transparent biblical community are emphasized.
Apostates apostacize because they are not Christians (1 John 2:19). They are of the flesh, and, therefore, spiritually dead (Rom 8:6-7). Since they do not have the Holy Spirit, they cannot experience one of his most miraculous and powerful miracles: sanctification.
Though apostates associate visibly with the community of the Spirit, they cannot do so spiritually by being conformed into the image of Christ. It may appear that they are externally, but they are not experiencing sanctification because they have never experienced salvation.
This means that those who are unregenerate will eventually be exposed in a local church which rightly emphasizes progressive maturation in Christlikeness. The flesh simply cannot last in an obedient church where the word is exposited, sin and repentance is talked about, the cross held high, the one anothers are practiced, humility is emphasized, and members are necessarily getting into each other’s lives in a Hebrews 3:12-14 kind of way. In such a church, the flesh, if not surrendered in salvation, will have nowhere to go, which means apostates will be exposed.
So, in some sense, a local church should be concerned if they never see apostasy. Scripture teaches that it’s going to happen. Tares accompany wheat. So, if apostasy never happens, a church may want to examine whether or not their ministry is accommodating tares.
- We’ve been reminded that God will never lose his elect.
It’s easy, especially for leadership, to take on excessive blame when people depart from the faith. The questions can haunt you: “What wrong thing did I teach?” “Did I pursue them and meet with them enough?” “Was I not nice enough to them?”
To be sure, we must examine ourselves and deal with our mistakes. At the same time, faithful local church leaders need to recall that their normal shepherding imperfections are not more powerful to ruin the elect than the sovereign grace of God is to keep them. That is not to say that shepherding mistakes are inconsequential. But it is to say that God’s sovereign grace is far more consequential.
“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39).
- We’ve learned that unwanted social experiences do not force people into apostasy.
Apostasy never happens because a Christian didn’t do enough nice things for the apostate. Social benefit is not the reason we follow Christ. Thus, it is not the reason why we would ultimately depart from him. People apostacize because they are unregenerate and do not love Christ.
Christians follow Christ because of Christ. By his grace, we maintain covenant allegiance to him for no other reason than he is the King of all kings, the majestic sovereign one, who loved us first by laying down his life down for hell-deserving rebels. If that is not enough reason to follow Christ, then nothing will be.
- We’ve learned that only God can turn the apostate.
Debate exists about whether an apostate can ever be saved. It seems that we can make one of three conclusions about an apostate-like situation. First, the individual is regenerate, in a dark time, and God will discipline them soon (Heb. 12:5-11). Second, they are unregenerate and will repent at some point in their life. Third, they are unregenerate and God has judged them with the result that they will never repent (Heb. 6:6).
John Owen comments on the Hebrews 6 passage: “Nor does this text bar any who, having fallen by any great sin or who have returned to sinful ways and have long continued in those sinful ways and then, being convicted, desire to repent in all sincerity, from being accepted back into the fellowship of the church.”
But in each case, the individual’s heart is stone. If you’ve talked with an apostate, you know that your words and persuasions shatter to pieces when they hit that flinty heart. Only the power of God can break through. Even more than breaking through, the individual likely needs an entirely new heart.
- We’ve learned that excessive sorrow over, and chasing of, apostates can dishonor Christ.
Pursuing and weeping over apostates is necessary. But too much and we risk glorifying them. If we grovel and paw apostates, we communicate that the privilege would be all Christ’s to have them give him the time of day. In doing so, we can make God look like an unfortunate puppy who may or may not be picked up from the pound.
But Scripture teaches otherwise. “’I am a great King,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:14). Our Lord is the great I AM. His supremacy saturates all creation. He is so radically glorious and good. So, the privilege of following Christ is all ours. We mustn’t communicate otherwise to apostates.
- We’ve been reminded that apostasy is a despicable sin.
Scripture speaks of apostasy with some of the strongest language. For example, “…they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Heb. 6:6) and, “…has trampled under foot the Son of God” (Heb. 10:29).
They have heard repeatedly of the majesty of Christ. The banquet of his love has been laid out before them in Scripture. His glory in redemption has been proclaimed to them continually, yet they simply walk away like Christ is an out-of-order carnival ride.
The act of apostasy proclaims that Jesus deserved to be crucified. His life, death, and resurrection are not worthy of the apostate’s time. For this, they put him to open shame. The Greek word translated “shame” in Hebrews 6:6 means “to cause someone to suffer public disgrace; to openly discredit someone.” For all this, apostasy is an appalling act.
We don’t just get to apostacize because human beings don’t get to say, “No,” to the Lord Jesus Christ. It was unthinkable in ancient times, for example, for a slave to say, “No,” to his lord. How much more the Lord of lords?
Others have spoken on this:
D.A. Carson: “Failure to believe stems from moral failure to recognize the truth, not from want of evidence, but from willful neglect or distortion of the evidence.”
John Stott: “Unbelief is not a misfortune to be pitied; it is a sin to be deplored.”
John Owen: “For no sin whereof men can be guilty in this world is of so horrible a nature, and so dreadful an aspect, as is this unbelief, where a clear view of it is obtained in evangelical light.”
John Calvin: “To give way, after having begun well, is more disgraceful than never to have begun.”
- We’ve been reminded that God will be glorified in the more severe eternal punishment of unrepentant apostates.
For the moment, apostasy appears to have the upper-hand. God seems to be getting slapped between the heathen gods by the act. But, apostates will face a more severe punishment in hell because of their exposure to and defaming of Christ (Heb. 10:29). Some of hell’s highest torment seems to be reserved for them. The punishment is so terrible because the God they disgrace is so wonderful. For this reason, though, it would be better to die than apostacize.
And we do not rejoice in that. However, we certainly rejoice in God’s glory being upheld. This will happen in the judgment when God’s perfect justice administers their retribution (Rev. 20:11-15). In that day, God’s glorified people will worship him for doing so.
However, as Octavius Winslow wrote, the apostate will for all eternity cry out, “God is holy; I was a sinner; I rejected His salvation, I turned my back upon His gospel, I despised His Son, I hated God Himself, I lived in my sins, I loved my sins, I died in my sins, and now I am lost to all eternity! And God is righteous in my condemnation!”
Other lessons are to be learned in the tragedy of apostasy. Some include learning to trust God, pray, draw together as a church, continue to affirm his goodness, and the all-the-more importance of corporate gatherings.
Photo credit: htimeshighereducation.co.uk, boagworld.com, onebigphoto.com, beforeitsnews.com, i.usatoday.net/news.