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Definition

Apostasy is decisively turning away from the faith. An apostate is a person who once claimed to be a Christian but has irreversibly abandoned and renounced orthodox Christianity.

Summary

Apostasy is decisively turning away from the faith. An apostate is a person who once claimed to be a Christian but has irreversibly abandoned and renounced orthodox Christianity. On the one hand, the Bible warns people who claim to be Christ-followers: God will not finally save you if you do not persevere in the faith and good works. On the other hand, the Bible comforts Christ-followers: God preserves all genuine Christians as eternally secure (preservation), and all genuine Christians continue in the faith (perseverance).

Introduction

Apostasy is decisively turning away from the faith. An apostate is a person who once claimed to be a Christian but has irreversibly abandoned and renounced orthodox Christianity.

There is a tension throughout the New Testament between warning and comfort. On the one hand, God warns professing believers that he will not finally save them if they do not persevere in the faith and good works. On the other hand, God comforts genuine believers that he will preserve them to the end.

Apostasy, preservation, perseverance, and assurance are four distinct theological concepts that interrelate. It is difficult to talk about any one of them without talking about the other three. This article focuses on apostasy. (See the articles “Preservation and Perseverance” and “Assurance of Salvation: How Can I Know I am Saved?”)

Warning: God Will Not Finally Save You If You Do Not Persevere in the Faith and Good Works

Not everyone who claims to be a Christ-follower is actually a Christ-follower (Matt 7:21–23). What seems to be genuine faith may actually be spurious (Matt 13:1–23). That is why the Bible repeatedly warns those who claim to be Christians to beware apostasy (e.g., John 15:1–8; 1Cor 15:1–2). Here is a sampling of ten warning passages:

  • Rom 8:13: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Those who characteristically live according to their sinful nature will experience eternal death.
  • Rom 11:20b–22: “They [i.e., unbelieving Jews] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you [i.e., Gentile Christians] stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.” Paul warns Gentile Christians that they will remain part of God’s people only if they persevere in faith.
  • 1Cor 9:27: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Paul exercises self-control so that he does not apostatize. If he did not keep his body under control, he might, for example, have immoral sex, and the sexually immoral (i.e., people for whom unrepentant immoral sex characterizes their life) do not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 5–6). Being “disqualified” from this race means being disqualified from inheriting the kingdom of God.
  • Col 1:21–23a: “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard….” Paul warns that persevering in the faith is a condition for final salvation. He does not want false teachers to disqualify the Colossian Christians (Col 2:18).
  • 1Tim 1:18–20: “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Hymenaeus and Alexander were likely false teachers who once claimed to be Christians but then apostatized (cf. 2Tim 2:17–19; 1Jn 2:19).
  • 1Tim 4:1: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” Departing from the faith is apostatizing.
  • 1Tim 5:8, 11–12: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.… But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith.” Denying the faith (cf. 2 Tim 2:12b) and abandoning one’s former faith refer to apostatizing.
  • Heb 6:4–6: “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” God uses warnings like this as a means to exhort genuine Christians to persevere. Some who claim to be Christians have a superficial faith even though they appear to be genuine Christians. Only genuine Christians have a faith that perseveres: “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb 3:14).1
  • Heb 10:26–27, 29, 36, 39: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.… How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?… You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.… We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” Some who seemed to be genuine Christians were only superficially attached to the Christian community and eventually demonstrated that they were never genuine Christians (cf. 1Jn 2:19). They apostatized by rejecting the truth and the Son of God himself. God uses this warning as a means to exhort genuine Christians to persevere in the faith.
  • 2Pet 2:20–21: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” Those false teachers initially appeared to be Christians, but they rejected the truth and thus are more accountable for their sin (cf. Luke 12:47–48).

Warning passages are a God-ordained means to a God-ordained end. That is, they are one of the ways God ensures that all genuine believers will persevere.

Comfort: God Will Preserve Genuine Christians to the End  

Someone who once professed to be a Christian may become apostate. But a genuine Christian cannot become apostate. Those who apostatize demonstrate that they were never genuine Christians: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1Jn 2:19).

Preservation: God Preserves All Genuine Christians as Eternally Secure

Preservation (or eternal security) is God’s sovereign work of preserving all genuine Christians through faith as eternally saved and safe (John 6:39; 17:11–12; 10:27–30; Rom 5:9–10; 8:1–4, 28–39; 11:29; 1Cor 1:4, 8–9; Eph 1:13–14; 4:30; Phil 1:6; 1Thes 5:23–24; 2Thes 3:3; Heb 6:17–20; 7:23–25; 1Pet 1:3–5; 1Jn 2:18–19; 5:18). All believers have eternal security and cannot lose it because God is faithful and all-powerful.

Perseverance: All Genuine Christians Continue in the Faith

Perseverance means that genuine Christians can neither totally nor finally fall away from the faith but will certainly continue in the faith to the end and be eternally saved (Col 1:22–23; Heb 3:14). The areas in which believers must persevere include their personal faith (John 8:31; 1Jn 4:15; 5:1, 4; Heb 3:14; 6:11; 10:22; Jude 21), sound doctrine (John 7:17; Col 1:22–23; 1Jn 4:6), and good works (John 10:27; Eph 2:10). All genuine Christians persevere in the faith. “They will never perish” (John 10:28).

That does not mean that genuine Christians never temporarily lapse in their faith, resist God, or otherwise sin. Christians are sinners—repenting sinners. And those who claim to be Christians must beware false faith. Professing Christians with false assurance inevitably end up in hell contrary to their expectation (Matt 7:21–23). So those who claim to be Christians must be diligent to confirm their calling and election by cultivating the qualities of faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2Pet 1:5–7, 10). Christians must cultivate “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).

Footnotes

1See R. Bruce Compton, “Persevering and Falling Away: A Reexamination of Hebrews 6:4–6,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1.1 (1996): 135–67.

Further Reading