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The Great Falling Away

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Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost, but He knew many would fall away (Matthew 24:10-13). People said they were going to follow the Lord but did not. Today, we call this “apostasy.”

This early American song reminds us that Christians must remain faithful. It is based on the words of Jesus in Luke 9:62.

No, I’ve never been to Heaven, but I’ve been told
It’s a pretty fair city, and the streets are gold

And the chorus

Keep your hand on that gospel plow, hold right on
Hold on, hold right on
Keep your hand on that gospel plow, hold right on

It is relatively easy to remain faithful to the Lord when life is easy, but it’s a different story when political or economic times get rough.

Apostasy Defined

The term apostasy does not apply to non-believers but only to those who once declared they were following Christ, then fell away. Jesus put it this way in the Matthew passage. He was speaking to his followers:

Many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

That definitely requires a believer to “Keep your hand on that gospel plow, hold right on.” If as believers, we allow our love to “grow cold,” betray each or follow false prophets, then our salvation, or at least our rewards, are at risk.  That applies, according to Scripture, even when you hold to the doctrine of “Eternal Security.” Apostasy is the or renunciation of our faith in Christ. Atheists and other non-believers have never proclaimed faith in Christ so they cannot abandon it. Such people have a different eternal destiny.

Can a believer lose their salvation and end up in hell? My reading of the Bible says, “No, that’s not possible.” I’m certainly not a Calvinist, but I know from the Bible that redemption is based on the shed blood of Christ. When we internalize that sacrifice spiritually by an act of our will, we become one with Him in a mystical spiritual transaction we call “Union with Christ” (Being “in Christ” – Colossians 1:27).  I don’t think the Bible teaches that union can be broken and the sacrifice of Christ undone.

Peter proved that. Jesus predicted that Peter would deny Him three times (an act of apostasy), and Peter did exactly as predicted. Yet, Peter realized his transgression and quickly repented.  We have no reason to believe that Peter is in hell today because of his apostasy.

All sins can be forgiven at any time except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:30-32 and elsewhere). Can an apostate go so far that he or she invalidates his or her salvation? Yes. Even John Calvin and Jacob Arminius agreed on that. Apostates have, by an act of their own will, rejected the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and forfeited their salvation.

Apostasy Today

How does apostasy happen today where there are so many Bibles and so much sound Bible teaching? It happens for numerous reasons which we discover in Revelation 2:1-7.

Drifting Away

A few years ago, a Christian friend of mine came to me and reported that he and his wife were divorcing. Sadly, my friend had no biblical reason for the martial acrimony that led to the split. He simply said, “We drifted apart until we lost sight of each other.”

That is the sort of thing that Jesus spoke about in Revelation 2:1-7. He commended the Church of Ephesus for their initial faithfulness, but faulted them for “abandoning the love you had at first.” He urged to people to repent while they still could, and not fall into the decadence of apostasy. However, without awareness and repentance, Christians can drift into apostasy just as some people drift into divorce.

Like Peter and like the Ephesians in Revelation, we can make rash decisions that look like apostasy. The question is, do we drift into perdition by denying the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, or do we immediately examine our own souls and repent? The Lord always honors our repentance.

Confused Theology

In this same Revelation passage, Jesus also commends the Ephesian church for their resistance to false teaching.  The Lord he was pleased they, “tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” Nevertheless, false or confused theology has led many into apostasy.

How can Christians identify this kind of flawed theology? Here are three questions to ask of any teaching, even from those deemed reliable by others.

What is the source of the teaching? Christians realize the Bible is our source of spiritual information. We know that when humans start writing books, like the Book of Mormon or Dianetics, they are trying to lead others into apostasy.

However, even Christians who adhere to the Bible can be led astray by the notes that are so commonly added to Bibles today.  Deuteronomy 4:2 says, “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.” Revelation 22:18-19 says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City….”

That’s strong language. Yet, adding to the Word of God with notes by some favored teacher violates this injunction. Looking to the writer of the notes for understanding, rather than to the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), could easily be a shortcut to apostasy.

What is the content of the teaching? Reliable content honors the Lord and His plan for humanity. The Apostle Peter speaks strongly against those who go against that standard. In 2 Peter 1:1 he says,

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.”

Not only do they bring destruction upon themselves with their apostasy, but they also bring spiritual destruction on those who “follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute” (v.2).

How can believers trust the truth? Some may find this difficult in these days of TV preachers, Bibles with notes, and an abundance of biblical commentaries telling you what you should think. But there is a biblical approach. In Acts 17:11, Luke tells us about the believers in the town of Berea who, “examined the Scriptures every day.” In 1 Corinthians 2:13 Paul may have revealed their methodology. He said believers should test truth by reading the Word and allow the Holy Spirit to inform their understanding: “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

This notion of “spiritual realities” brings us to our final point about avoiding apostasy. That is, living the Christian life is the ultimate proof of our commitment to the Lord.

What is the result of the teaching? Godly teaching results in Godly behavior. Godly behavior is the most important indicator that a person remains “in Christ” and has not slid off the precipice into the depths of apostasy.

No, I am not talking about proving you are not an apostate by doing good works. A spiritual person transcends that.  Godly behavior includes your “upward” spiritual life, exercising your will to remain in a spiritual frame of mind which is focused on Christ.

Godly behavior includes an “inward” spiritual life which includes respecting your own spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible meditation and caring for your own mental and physical health.

Godly behavior includes an “outward” spiritual life. This is what we often equate with “good works,” but it is far more than that. If we are “in Christ” we help others the most when we are kind to them, not when we debate with them. An attitude of kindness usually leads to acts of kindness, and that pleases the Lord (Matthew 10:42).

Many ingredients go into an apple pie. But it is a taste delight when there are measured ingredients, proper baking time, and love in the heart of the person making it. The same can be said of living a life when Christ is in you.

Outright Renunciation

The third was to fall away into apostasy is by renunciation of Christ. Sadly, we are seeing a lot of that from Christian leaders. For example, Paul Maxwell, a well-known Calvinist writer, and professor at both Moody Bible Institute and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School recently declared, “I’m just not a Christian anymore, and it feels really good. I’m really happy.”

That is the face of apostasy. Not only that a person openly renounces Jesus Christ, but claims at the same time they are “really happy” about it. Many would say that Satan has deceived Paul Maxwell and others like him and that the Scriptures ring true about the spiritual battle in which we are all engaged (Ephesians 6:12).

Apostates may have never been followers of Christ in the first place. They were posers and pretenders planted by the Evil One to bring spiritual destruction to others. We must be vigilant against such people.

Holding On

In 1 Timothy 4:1-2 Paul says,

The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron…

That is the apostasy we see today and is yet to come with greater force in the future. It is our responsibility, and desire, as followers of Christ to “Keep our hand on that gospel plow, hold right on” and resist the apostasy of our times in all its forms by remaining “in Christ” and in His Word.

Donald L. Hughes is editor of

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