The topic of apostasy is challenging, and often controversial. Is it possible for a person who has come into a saving relationship with God to fall from grace? To lose their salvation? Those of the Reformed tradition would say that it is not possible; that the Spirit who irresistibly draws you to salvation, will also irresistibly keep you. Baptists would tend to refer to passages such as Romans 8:38-39 to claim that nothing can separate us from the love of God; that once we are saved, we are always saved.
But what should we make of the many passages in the Bible that issue warnings against apostasy? If apostasy is not possible, why issue a warning against it? This article will take a look at some of these warnings and will attempt to offer a way of understanding these warnings that is consistent with what the Scripture teaches about salvation.
Passages that Warn Against Apostasy
There are several passages that seem pretty explicit in warning against apostasy. Many of these are in the book of Hebrews, but Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John also include some warnings.
The Most Explicit Warning – Hebrews 6:4-6
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.Hebrews 6:4-6a NIV
This passage certainly seems to describe a real believer. They have been enlightened; tasted the heavenly gift; shared in the Holy Spirit; and tasted the goodness of God’s word. It is hard to see this as representing anyone who has not been in a saving relationship with God. One who has experienced the working of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Hebrews says here that if such a person falls away, that it is impossible to restore them to repentance. This would seem to say two things. First, that apostasy is possible. And secondly, that there is no recovery from it. If you fall, it is a permanent fall.
Personally, I find this passage to be the most challenging to opponents of the possibility of apostasy. You must either deny that the person described was actually saved. Or say, as some do, that the warning would always be effective to prevent apostasy.
Other Warnings from Hebrews
The author of Hebrews is clearly concerned about those he is writing to and includes several other warnings to them. In Hebrews 3:6 he tells his listeners that “we are his [God’s] house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” In Hebrews 3:14 he continues with “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the end.” And, in Hebrews 10:39 he expresses confidence, saying “we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.“
To include this many warnings against apostasy, it would seem like the author of Hebrews was clearly concerned. Concerned that his readers might turn from their current walk with Christ, and back into their former way of life.
There are several times we have where Jesus is recorded expressing the need to remain faithful. In Luke 9:62 he expresses that “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” And in both Matthew 10:22 and Matthew 21:12-13 he says that “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
In 1 Corinthians 10:12 Paul warns those who believe that they are standing firm to “be careful that you don’t fall!” And in Galatians 5:4 he warns believers who are turning to the law that they “have fallen away from grace.“
One last warning comes from 2 Peter 2:20-21. In this passage Peter expresses that those who have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing Christ, and have become entangled in it again, would be better off never having known the way of righteousness. You would have been better off to have remained lost.
Some Solutions to the Dilemma
So how can one reconcile these warnings against falling away with a belief that it is not possible for one to actually fall away? There are a couple of ways that I am familiar with.
The Who of Apostasy
One way to resolve this dilemma is in the way you define apostasy. Apostasy is defined along the lines of “the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief.” So someone who once held to belief as a Christian, and then rejects that belief, is an apostate. But, was that apostate ever truly born again? Were they abandoning true faith in Christ? Or simply turning away from an intellectual belief?
1 John 2:19 is commonly used to defend the position that they were never believers in the first place. John says that these antichrists had gone our from among the believers, but had never really belonged to them. And their going out demonstrated that they had not belonged. Clearly, these that John is referring to had never actually been saved in the first place. They had merely given that appearance. So their apostasy, rather than a loss of salvation, was actually a revelation that there had been no salvation.
But is that true of all apostates? Many of the warnings given in the pages of the New Testament do seem to be given to those who have at least seem to have been faithful believers. So it seems that there is more to this issue of apostasy that simply the revelation of fake believers.
The Warnings Are Effective
Another explanation that I have heard is that these are real warnings against falling aways from true saving faith. But that these warnings are effective. They will in all cases serve to prevent a true believer from abandoning their faith.
But I do not find that argument to be very persuasive. The Scripture is filled with many other instructions to believers that we seem quite capable of disregarding. Why would this specific admonition be universally effective when so many others are not?
Salvation as a Journey
When discussing this issue of apostasy, I believe it is important to first have a good understanding of what salvation is. What does it mean to be saved?
Scripture speaks of salvation in three ways. I was saved when I believed in the Lord Jesus (Acts 16:31). I am being saved as I grow in Christ (Phil. 2:12). And I will be saved when Christ returns for me (Rom. 13:11; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:5).
It seems that all too often we only look at the first of these when talking about salvation. That salvation is something that happened to me some time in the past. I was saved 48 years ago when I accepted Jesus as Lord of my life. And I don’t mean to dismiss that, but there is more to it than that.
Salvation is really more like a journey that an event. And that journey is not finished as long as I live here in the flesh. I am still looking forward to my salvation. To finishing this journey that I embarked on 48 years ago, being delivered from the fate awaiting this world, and being brought into the presence of my Lord and Savior.
Another Look at Apostasy and Salvation
So let’s look again at the issue of apostasy. And this time from the perspective of salvation as a journey. And this perspective would say that ultimately I am not saved until I reach the end of the journey.
Compare this with Jesus’ words that “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Salvation comes to the one who endures to the end. And when you look at all of the other warnings given against apostasy, they all say the same thing. Salvation comes to the one who is faithful to the end.
But what about the person who has made a real confession of Christ and has faithfully served for a period of time, and then falls away and does not complete their salvation journey? They did not endure to the end. And so, according to Jesus, they were not ever saved. They did not lose their salvation, because they never had it in the first place.
Assurance of Salvation
But this raises a serious question. How can I have assurance of my salvation? Can I know that I am saved and have eternal life? What happens if I sin? Or struggle in my walk with Christ?
My understanding is that apostasy is not an issue of struggling with sin or doubt. Rather it is a conscious decision that one makes to walk away from Christ and no longer accept him as Lord. It is a return to the way of life you had before coming to Christ. This is not something you do accidently. Nor is it something that you do unawares. It is a conscious decision made by the apostate.
So I can have assurance of my salvation. I can know it intellectually because I am seeking to follow Christ. And I can know it because of the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.
In my understanding of the Scripture, apostasy is possible. It is something that a person with a relationship with Christ can do. But it does not result in a loss of salvation since salvation is only given to those who endure to the end. Nor is apostasy something that one could do accidently. It is a conscious decision to turn from the truth of Christ and back to ones old way of life.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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