Apostasy truly happens. Real people, once professing Christians, truly fall away from the faith.
For many younger, more inexperienced Christians, apostasy seems like an ancient situation that rarely happens today. We see it in the New Testament. The Apostle writes in 2 Tim. 4:10, “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Even during our Lord’s earthly ministry, we read in the Gospels of disciples who “turned back and no longer followed Him” (John 6:66). Of course, there are stern warnings against falling away or apostasy throughout the New Testament (for ex, Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-31; Matt. 13:20-21; Gal. 1:6-9; 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; and 2 Pet. 2).
But this is not merely an ancient problem. It is a contemporary problem as well. It happens in our day and it upsets the faith of some. In the last couple of years we’ve witnessed former pastors like Joshua Harris and former Christian hip hop artists like Eshon Burgundy and now Phanatik of Cross Movement fame leave the faith. There are many more, both known and unknown. Their particular circumstances and stories vary, but their departures are real.
I tremble to say we are living in an era of apostasy. We may well wake up from the sleep of the pandemic to find our churches and Christian friendships significantly depleted because many are leaving or have left the faith.
I am particularly concerned for Black Christians disoriented and discouraged by their sojourn in predominantly-white evangelical and fundamental spaces. Many are discovering that their long years disconnected from their native faith communities has left them unrooted. They may over-identify the Christian faith with white Christianity. After nearly a decade of disappointment and even opposition from some white Christians, they struggle to find their way home–not necessarily to the Black church but to Jesus, the Bible, and a more authentic faith. I’m not here talking about folks engaged in various forms of “deconstruction.” I’m talking about a more specific group of people who really are apostasizing.
The reasons for apostasy are many. No two cases are alike. So this isn’t to say that all of these things happen for any of the persons we know. But these are among the reasons I see in various cases.
1. No Roots in Trouble (Mark 4:17)
This reason comes from the Lord in the parable of the sower. He tells a story about seed (the word of God) being spread into different soils (the hearts of men) and producing different results. The Lord describes one result like this: “these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). Some people begin well but then turn away because of suffering for the word.
2. Choking on Worldliness (Mark 4:18-19)
In the same parable, our Lord tells of another apostate hearer. These are the stony ground hearers: “And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:18-19). It’s not suffering that trips up these professors; it’s wealth and ease. They desire riches and that desire chokes out the word. The word is unfruitful or ineffective in their lives and they turn away.
3. Professing Wisdom on the Way to Foolishness (Rom. 1:21-23; Ps 14:1; 1 Cor. 1:20-25).
Worldly wisdom causes others to turn away. They become deceived by the ideas of the world’s fallen system and are enticed from the truth. Paul warns of this several times. For example, Romans 1:21-23 says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Paul is describing Gentile unbelievers in this passage, but the same process of trusting worldly wisdom and becoming apostate or idolatrous fools with darkened hearts can be seen in apostate Christians. Consider 1 Cor. 1:20-25:
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Here, Paul writes to a Christian church with some members really smitten by Greek wisdom. But such wisdom was the antithesis of God’s wisdom, seen most fully in the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s why he writes in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Jesus Christ is the Christian’s wisdom and we are to “see to it” that we walk “rooted and built up” in Him (Col. 2:6). For worldly philosophy and wisdom sometimes pulls people out of the Church and into the world. Such persons end up joining the fools of Psalm 14:1 who say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
4. Disappointing Heroes and Communities
Disappointment tempts others to leave the faith. The disappointment may come from the actions or inactions of faith heroes. Perhaps they hear a John MacArthur or a Wayne Grudem wax nonsensical about oppression and justice and supporting Trump, and they wonder how can someone I’ve learned so much from be so devastatingly wrong and indifferent on matters that effect me so deeply. Or, maybe it’s been the opposite problem. They have a pastor that’s remained silent about justice and righteousness. They longed for the trumpet to make a clear sound, but it never did. Then there are those who have encountered outright opposition whenever they attempt to address race and justice. They are labeled all kinds of things, increasing their marginalization and disappointment. They have been disheartened to the point that leaving the faith seems not only feasible but right.
5. Deciding It’s Too Hard (John 6:60, 66).
In the midst of the things above and many others, some professing Christians decide that following Jesus is too hard. The requirements of faith exceed their willingness to follow the Lord. We have a memorable example of this in John 6. Our Lord just taught his disciples that He is the Bread of Life and that they must feed on Him by faith if they are going to have eternal life. John 6:60 records the response of some: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Just pressed in harder. In verses 66-67 we read, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?'” The difference between the apostates and true disciples is the apostates “turned back and no longer walked with him” while the disciples, like Peter, answer, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.” Some find following too hard and turn back.
7. Overconfidence (Mark 14:29).
Still others remain overconfident when it comes to the cost of discipleship. The Lord Jesus predicted that even the 12 would abandon him in the hour of his suffering and rejection. But, Peter boasted he would never do that even if everybody else did. The rooster crowed on ol’ Peter and then he knew. With tears he knew that he, too, had abandoned the Lord. Sometimes temptation–even the temptation to apostasy–overcomes us because of our sinful overconfidence.
8. Returning to the law (Gal. 5:1-7).
We’re seeing in our community some people returning to the Law. That’s particularly the case for those drawn away by various Hebrew Israelite cults. But it’s a problem as old as the first letters in the New Testament, like Galatians. In Galatia, the principle issue was circumcision. In our communities, the principle issue is identity. But in either case, returning to the Law is not a solution but a falling. Paul writes to those who go back to the Law, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” Severed from Christ. Fallen away from grace.
9. Unbelief (Heb. 3:12).
Last, the Bible points to unbelief as an underlying issue causing apostasy. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12). Unbelief never leads to spiritual success. The Bible regards unbelief as an evil and hard heart. The end result is apostasy, falling away from Jesus Christ and the salvation He gives through faith alone.
Why We Have the Bible
What’s striking to me about a number of cases of apostasy is that some of the persons leaving the faith attempt to strike a posture of intellectual enlightenment. They speak humbly enough in tone. But they almost always cast dispersions on faith and faithful followers of Jesus, and they almost always invite believers to a conversation with them about truth.
The Bible never treats apostasy as an intellectually legitimate or reasonable stand. We need to be careful that we don’t assign credibility to a spiritual condition and posture that the Bible outright rejects as hard-hearted, evil, unbelieving, worldly, and foolish. And we need to be careful that we don’t forget that one of the main reasons Jesus came to teach us and one of the main reasons we have the Bible is so that we would not fall away. The Lord says in John 16:1, “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.”
It’s no wonder that apostasy usually begins with some kind of departure from the scriptures. A Christian without a Bible intake is a Christian without food. A malnourished Christian is too weak to withstand the assaults from without and the temptations from within. Some will fall away.
Why We Need a Local Church
We need each other in our local churches to finish this race. We need each other to open the word to one another so that the goal of the word (keep us from falling away) is fulfilled. Here’s how the writer to the Hebrews put it:
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)
It’s no wonder that, for some, apostasy also begins with falling away from the fellowship of the local church. Who will exhort us every day and help keep us from the deceitfulness sin if we abandon the fellowship of God’s people? The world won’t. We must persevere until the end in order to receive the reward of Christ. Persevering is a team sport, beloved. We need each other.
Why We Need to Be Sober-Minded
Finally, we need to keep in mind how serious all of this is. Hebrews 6:14-16 tells us:
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.
Apostasy–genuine falling away–is fatal. It’s not something a person can recover from simply because they wish. The writer of Hebrews describes this as “impossible… to restore them again to repentance” and as a “crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” As cordial and even reasonable as an apostate may sound, do not be deceived. They are expressing contempt for the Son of God and crucifying him to their own harm. Be sober-minded about that.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Apostasy doesn’t have to win. We don’t have to be victims of the present falling away. Beloved, stay at Christ’s feet. Believe Jesus more than you believe yourself. Believe the Bible more than you believe your doubts. Believe the wisdom of the word more than you believe the “wisdom” of the world.
Let me end with 1 John 2:18-25 as a kind of benediction.
18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 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. 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.