The Reality of Apostasy
As we come to the end of this year and anticipate a new one, it is common to be looking forward to new commitments and new hopes. However, to successfully advance in the new year with new goals, it is equally important to look for the potential pitfalls which might lie in the way. For the Christian, it is imperative to understand the wiles of the devil and to anticipate the temptations that might lie ahead. One of the greatest of all is the temptation to forsake the Lord for the passing pleasures of this age. The seductive power of worldliness tugs at each of our hearts and whispers in our ear that present comforts are more important than future hopes. It is this danger that I want to address this morning.
In the Lord of the Rings, the “one Ring to rule them all” had to be entrusted to a hobbit named Frodo to be taken to Mount Doom and delivered into its fires to be destroyed. The reason was because the Ring corrupted everyone else who came into contact with it. Elves, men, dwarves – none could be entrusted. But for some reason, the strange resilience of hobbits allowed them to have the ring without being completely corrupted by it.
But as the story goes on, we learn this is not all the truth. We learn of a strange creature, Gollum, who was once a hobbit, and has been deformed through the ring's influence. And as Frodo makes his way to Mount Doom, he feels the Ring tugging at his inner self to gain control. He is constantly lured by the Ring to give himself up to its Master. And at the very end, it almost happens.
In the same way, we all have an evil nature that is tugging at our hearts to give ourselves up to God's archenemy, the Devil. Some are overcome, like Gollum, to its influence; and others struggle on, encouraged by friends, and, ultimately, sustained by God himself. Some persevere to the end, and some don't.
It is this reality – the reality of apostasy – that Paul warns of in our text. For Paul speaks of those who “shall depart from the faith” (verse 1). The word used here is the verbal form of the noun apostasia, the Greek word from which we get “apostasy.” Apostasy is problematic on a number of levels, not least of which because it poses a serious threat to the security of the believer.
One of my favorite books of all time is John Murray's Redemption Accomplished and Applied. In his chapter on the perseverance of believers, he begins by noting that there are some features of the biblical record as well as our own experience that at first glance make it look like some believers may not in fact persevere:
Experience, observation, biblical history, and certain Scriptural passages would appear to provide very strong arguments against the doctrine which has been called “The Perseverance of the Saints.” Is not the biblical record as well as the history of the church strewn with examples of those who have made shipwreck of the faith? And do we not read that it is “impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they fall away, to renew them again unto repentance” (Heb. 6:4-6)? Did not our Lord himself say, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away. . . If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered” (John 15:1, 2, 6)?1
And yet, Murray argues that all who are truly saved will persevere. He contends that “the saints, those united to Christ by the effectual call of the Father and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will persevere unto the end.”2
The passage we are looking at this morning falls into the category of texts that raise some question as to the truth of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The text is very clear that apostasy is a very real possibility, though there is some question as to the structure of verse 1. The phrase “the faith” could be taken either with “some” or with the verb “depart.” That is, it could be translated “some of the faith will depart,” or it could be translated “some shall depart from the faith.” Both are legitimate translations. The end result, however, is the same. Both translations indicate that some who professed to believe the truth will depart from it. They will apostatize.
That much is clear. In fact, Paul says that “the Spirit speaketh expressly [clearly, distinctly] that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith” (v. 1). Paul is probably referring to a previously uttered prophesy, either through him or through others. In fact, the New Testament is filled with such warnings. For example, Jesus prophesied that “many shall be offended [fall away], and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall arise and shall deceive many” (Mt 24:11). Paul himself warned the Ephesian elders, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-30). And this had already happened. Paul laments that Hymenaus and Alexander have made shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:20).
Some might think that because Paul says that this will happen “in the latter times” that he is referring to a state of events that will take place immediately before the Second Coming. But for Paul, the “latter times” began at the inauguration of the era ushered in by the First Coming of Christ. In other words, the latter times stretches between the first and the second advents of our Savior. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul says that he and the believers of his day are those “upon whom the ends of the world are come” (verse 11).
Paul says something similar in his second letter to Timothy. There, he writes that “in the last days perilous times shall come.” He then goes on to describe the kinds of behavior that will characterize the last days, ending with those who have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:1-5). However, this is not some catalog of sins for an age far off in the future; in fact, Paul tells Timothy that action with respect to these kinds of people are required of him in the present: “from such turn away” (verse 5). With Paul, we are not waiting for the last days, we are living in the last days.
Our text is therefore a concern both for Timothy and ourselves. We are still living in the last days, and though the specifics of this prophesy may not apply to every believer or every church, yet the fact remains that some still depart from the faith. Paul goes on to describe to Timothy the source of the apostasy (verses 1-5) and then how to contend against it (verses 6-16). In some sense, this chapter mirrors the first. In chapter 1, Paul does a similar thing. He describes the false teachers in the first part of the chapter, and the contrasts their teaching with the gospel, and encourages Timothy to remain faithful to it. Our text, therefore, teaches us two things. It tells us first that apostasy is a very real possibility. But Paul is no fatalist. He is not willing to simply let sin do its work; he wants Timothy to do everything he can to stop it in himself and in the church (cf verse 16). Thus, the second thing about our text is that it teaches us that there is something that can be done about falling away, and what we must do about it.
Two Wrong Responses
Before I go on, I want to note that there are two wrong responses to the reality of apostasy. One is to say that this reality shows that a person can get saved and then fall away and lose that salvation. Another wrong response is that perseverance has no bearing on one's salvation. One can be a true believer and then lose their faith but not their salvation. Both of these responses are a denial of the Biblical doctrine of perseverance. This doctrine states that true believers will persevere in the faith to the end. Or, as Wayne Grudem defines it, “The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God's power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.”3
The first response stems from a failure to recognize a distinction between true and false faith. What the doctrine of perseverance does not say is that everyone who professes faith in Christ will persevere. The text we are considering clearly shows that this is not true. Rather, what it does claim is that everyone who is truly born again will not finally fall away. This is implied in the words of the apostle John: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19). In other words, John is saying that the apostasy of some who had claimed to be disciples proved that their profession of faith in Christ was fake. They “were not all of us.”
On the other hand, the Scripture clearly teaches that those whom God calls to himself effectually through the power of his Spirit will be saved. Those who belong to Christ will not be lost. Peter tells us that the power of God keeps us from falling away. Believers, he says, “are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). Paul says that he is “confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And to the Romans, he says that nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:35-39). Of course, all this is just what Jesus himself taught. For in John 10:28, 29, he says, “And I give unto them [his sheep, his people] eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.”
Therefore, we have Biblical warrant to speak of “true believers” and “false believers.” Those who are true believers, who have been truly born again and are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will persevere to the end and be saved. But false believers are those who, though professing faith in Christ, have never truly been changed. They are like the seed that fell on the stony and thorny ground – they appear at first to have a genuine response to the gospel, but which later turns out to be a hoax (Matt. 13:1-23). Such never lose salvation, for they were never saved to begin with. The faith which justifies is the faith of Abraham (cf. Rom 4:17-23), not a shallow profession that issues from an unchanged heart.
The other wrong response affirms that some who are truly saved can fall away from true faith in this life without losing their eternal salvation. Against this, the Biblical doctrine of perseverance teaches that those who are truly born again will never fall finally away. When Peter said that God keeps believers by his power unto eternal salvation, he said that God does this “through faith.” And the apostle John teaches that whoever “is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn 5:4, 5). True believers overcome the world – they are not overcome by the world (which would clearly be involved in falling away from the faith!).
One passage that is often pointed to as teaching that true believers can fall away is Hebrews 6. How can they not be saved if they are said to be “once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come” (verses 4, 5)? Yet the author of Hebrews claims both the possibility of such people falling away and the impossibility of renewing them to repentance (verse 6). In other words, it seems like he is saying that truly saved people can apostatize.
However, on closer inspection, this passage teaches the very opposite. For a few verses later, the writer tells his audience that “we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak” (verse 9). Of which “things” is the writer speaking? These “things” are said to be “better.” The key question here is, “Better than what?” And the clear answer is, better than the things he had listed in the previous verses (verses 4-6). What the author of Hebrews is convinced of is that the Hebrew believers are characterized by “better things,” which he goes on to explain by the phrase “things that accompany salvation.” In other words, the characteristics of verses 4-6 are not things that accompany salvation; they are not evidences of being truly born again. Thus, Hebrews 6 shows that apostasy is possible, but that those who apostatize do so because they do not have those “things that accompany salvation.”4 In other words, they were never truly saved.
Before moving on, I think it's important to say something about what the doctrine of perseverance does not teach. In saying that the saints persevere to the end, we are not claiming sinless perfection for them at any point before heaven. Nor are we claiming that true believers are immune from terrible sins with all the awful consequences that attend them. A believer can even permanently damage his/her witness or ministry. Rather, what the doctrine of perseverance teaches is that true believers will never ultimately lose their faith in Christ. And such faith inevitably blossoms into repentance whenever the believer has sinned. Such faith unites them to Christ and therefore to his righteousness. It cannot be lost, and “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Why warn true believers of apostasy if they cannot fall away?
Why does the Bible put warnings against apostasy if the true believer cannot finally fall away? I think there are two reasons.
First, the Bible warns against apostasy because even if a true believer cannot completely lose their faith, they can get swept up, at least temporarily, into false doctrine and lies and wrong behavior which can render long-lasting spiritual damage. For example, King David really went off the deep end for a long time. His own heart was hardened in his sin for probably at least a year. However, because David was a man after God's own heart, he did repent when God sent the prophet Nathan to him with the message, “Thou art the man” (2 Sam. 12:7). But this did not save him from the consequences of his sin. The rest of his life was plagued with rebellious sons trying to overthrow him and each other – the direct consequence of his own rebellion against God. Even so, though the true believer in Christ will eventually repent and turn again to the Savior and be fully forgiven, it does not mean that he/she will be free from the attending consequences of their sin.
Another way to put this is that though the person who is truly born again cannot finally fall away, nevertheless he/she can backslide. From our perspective we cannot discern the difference between backsliding and apostasy. Until a person repents, they look the same. Therefore, a warning against apostasy is a warning against backsliding and all its consequences. And that is precisely what Paul is doing in our text. He wants to save the believers at Ephesus (and us) from following the path of Hymenaus and Alexander: “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ,” (verse 6) Paul exhorts Timothy. The brethren needed to hear these things, and so do we.
Second, the Bible warns against apostasy because such warnings are a means that God uses to keep true believers from falling away. And this is not a disingenuous warning, because the reality is that all who finally fall away will not be saved: “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13; cf. Heb. 10:39). Paul says that what's important is not getting into the race, but finishing it (1 Cor. 9:24-27). Those who do so will have the crown of life that fades not away (2 Tim. 4:7-8).
There are a couple of passages in the book of Revelation which show how this works. The first is found in Revelation 13:10, the context of which is about the first beast who causes all the earth to worship him, “whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (verse 8). Note that on the one hand, John places the perseverance of the saints firmly in the fact of their election. But then he goes on to say: “If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword he must be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (verse 10, ESV). The last phrase shows that the warning of verse 10 about the consequences of the Great Apostasy are meant to call believers to endure, to persevere. They are meant to take seriously such consequences and be warned against succumbing to the spirit of the age.
The other text is found in the next chapter:
And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:9-12, ESV)
Here, the terrible reality of God's final judgment on those who worship the beast and its image is meant to be a serious warning to believers not to apostatize and an encouragement to endure, despite the awful hardships to which they will be exposed on account of their faithfulness. What our Lord is saying is exactly what he said to his apostles in Matthew 10:24-28:
The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
The Cause and Nature of the Apostasy
If therefore apostasy is real, and its consequences are terrible, more terrible than anything mortal men can do to us, we need to hear what the apostle has to say in this text. What Paul does for us is to show us the path down which apostates travel in order to keep us from traveling down the same path: “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, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared” (1 Timothy 4:1-2, ESV).
The “grim sequence of events”5 that transforms faithful elders like Alexander and Hymenaus into demonic false-teachers seems to be as follows. First, they stopped listening to their consciences. Paul uses a very colorful expression here and says that their “consciences are seared.” Paul is saying that their consciences have been deadened so that they don't react to sin, just as nerves become dead when they are cauterized and stop warning of pain. Second, because their consciences were now hardened, they had no problem telling lies. When Paul describes their deception as “the insincerity of liars,” he is implying that they knew what they were teaching was lies. But it did not bother them. Their consciences were dead. Finally, they exposed themselves to the operation of the devil himself, for their teaching is described as having its origin from “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” We are reminded of what Paul says of apostates in 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12. Speaking of the antichrist, he warns, “Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”
What should we take away from this? Surely, we need to listen to our consciences! We need to be like Paul, who said, “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void to offence toward God, and toward men” (Acts 24:16). We need to listen to the voice of the Spirit when he speaks to us through the Word and be quick in our obedience. It is also why Paul places such an emphasis in this letter on keeping a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:5, 19; 3:9; cf. 2 Tim. 1:3).
But that is not all that Paul says. He goes on to describe some of the content of the false-teaching: “Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (verse 3-5). It is sometimes said that a believer needs to only know truth in order to grow. However, that is not quite true. We also need to know the errors of our day, and why they are wrong. That is what Paul is doing here. He is exposing, not only the moral bankruptcy of the false-teachers, but the errors that they were teaching and giving a Biblical response.
We already know from chapter one that the false-teachers were perverting God's good law. One of the ways they were doing this was by taking the food laws which were no longer binding on believer's consciences, and making them a necessary precondition for salvation. John Calvin, in his commentary on this verse, argues that the false-teachers were seeking “to acquire righteousness for themselves by abstaining from those things which God has left free.” In addition to this, they added certain philosophical tendencies of that age that later blossomed into full-blown gnosticism. This philosophy taught that matter and spirit were diametrically opposed, and that anything to do with the body is inherently bad. To be freed of everything material is the ultimate good. Thus, they taught that believers should abstain from marriage (and thus probably from having children).
This ascetic view of life has always had its champions. Ryken explains, “The Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls refused to marry. So did the Manichaeans, who lived in the east from the third to the tenth centuries. Similarly Irenaeus reports that the Encratites of his day 'preached against marriage, thus setting aside the original creation of God, and indirectly blaming him who made them male and female for the propagation of the human race. Some of those reckoned among them have also introduced abstinence from animal food, thus proving themselves ungrateful to God, who formed all things.'”6
How does Paul respond to this? In verse 3-5 he says two things in response, and says each thing three times. First, he says that this ascetic view of life is contrary to the fact that God has blessed the eating of all foods as well as marriage (Paul doesn't focus on marriage here, but he does this elsewhere): “God hath created to be received. . . . For every creature of God is good. . . . it is sanctified by the word of God.” The second thing Paul says is that this ascetic view of life is contrary to the attitude of thanksgiving that every believer ought to have with respect to the good things that God has given us: “to be received with thanksgiving. . . .if it be received with thanksgiving . . . . for it is sanctified by . . . prayer.” Ultimately, however, Paul's argument is one from the Word of God. The bottom line is that the teaching was false because is was contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
Thus, there are two certain habits that we need to cultivate in our lives if we are to avoid the pitfall of apostasy. First, we need to keep a good conscience. We need to keep short accounts with sin. Second, we need to know and believe God's word. Of course, these two things go together. For God's word informs our conscience and our conscience responds to the word of God.
No believer, however, can persevere on their own. The fact of the matter is, we are all too weak. We need real help. That is why we must always remember the overall context, the fact that immediately preceding this text is the affirmation of 1 Timothy 3:16, which is the summary of the truth the Church is to uphold. It is about Christ: his coming, resurrection, proclamation, and glorification. In other words, we need to remember that the doctrine of perseverance in faith can never be separated from the doctrine of Christ and his saving work. The very fact that we are in the Path means that Christ has freely lavished his grace on us through his atonement, and now keeps us by his power. We can do nothing without him (Jn 15:5) but we can do all things though him (Phil. 4:13).
1John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), p. 151.
2Ibid, p. 154.
3Gudem, Systematic Theology, (1994) p. 788
4For a more complete discussion of this passage, I recommend Grudem's take on it in his Syst. Theol., pages 796-800. Also, all the traits mentioned in verses 4-5 can be seen in Judas Iscariot. And yet few would say that he was saved despite his apostasy. Jesus himself calls him “the son of perdition” (Jn 17:12).
5John Stott, Guard the Truth, p. 112.
6Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy (REC), p. 161.