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Apostasy and Heresy

The Banner of Truth web site features a host of useful articles (1302 at last count). One that I’ve found worth reading and bookmarking is entitled simply “Apostasy.” In the article the author, David Samuel, makes a distinction between two terms that many people mistakenly use synonymously – apostasy and heresy. Apostasy he defines as a rejection of truth that a person once believed. Hence I would be apostate if I were to suddenly reject the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine I now hold dearly. Heresy, one the other hand, is the addition of foreign doctrines. Thus I would be heretical if I added the worship of some foreign deity to my beliefs.

The first apostasy was when man rejected God. Having once held that God was perfectly trustworthy, man rejected Him and attempted to thrust himself into God’s role. In so doing he dragged himself and the rest of Creation into this state of horrible sin. This first apostasy is the source of all further apostasy. We do not need to look much further into history to find the first heresies and, in fact, much of the Old Testament is a history of early heresies.

The author then turns to the Church of Rome to show an example of a church that is both apostate and heretical, for she has both rejected doctrines she once believed and has added unbiblical beliefs to them. He calls Catholicism “wickedness under a form of godliness cunningly managed” and with Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones and many other eminent Protestant theologians, considers Catholicism Satan’s masterpiece. Catholicism seeks to undermine Christianity not with an obvious frontal assault, but with careful, deliberate and veiled attacks. Francis Turrentin wrote:

“Christ wills that sola Scriptura, inspired by God be received by us as the perfect rule of faith and morals. The Pope denies Scripture alone is an adequate rule of faith, unwritten traditions must be attached. These traditions, together with Scripture, are to be equally adopted and venerated. They are to be held alike as the means of influencing godliness.

“Christ wishes His Word to be believed on its own, because it does not take its authority from man. In our estimation, the Pope wishes the authority of the Word to be derived from his Church. Christ wishes no supreme judge to be acknowledged in ruling on controversies other than God speaking through Scripture. The Pope sacrilegiously claims this prerogative for himself.

“Furthermore, Christ teaches that He alone is the Mediator, appointed by the Father, who alone is the way, the truth and the life, without whom no man can Conic to the Father. Yet the Pope forces innumerable mediators upon us. Mediators who, he says, are to reveal the way to heaven for us. Also, Christ testifies that there is no other sacrifice apart from His own; no other satisfaction by which we may obtain remission of sins and the reward of salvation. But the Pope insists on human punishments and satisfactions, while demanding a new propitiatory sacrifice called the Mass.

“Though Christ established that men are to be saved by grace through faith alone. the Pope includes works as well. Whereas Christ institutes only two sacraments, the Pope decrees seven. Christ ordains that no one but God be the object of cult and adoration, yet the Pope worships creatures as well. Christ declared Himself the sole Head and Groom of the Church, but the Pope grants this to himself as well. Christ subjects Himself to the magistrates, ordering His servants to be likewise subject. Nevertheless, the Pope subjects the magistrates, rulers and emperors to himself.

“Can it truly be said that those who teach such doctrines and defend such dogmas keep the faith of Christ? Or are they not adjudged guilty by the deserts of defection and the fact of apostasy?

Doctrine after crucial doctrine is discarded in the Roman system, only to be replaced with something that is more appealling to man’s sinful nature. Words are changed, meanings slightly altered, so that what is false seems so very close to the truth.

All this leads to the author’s assessment of the evangelical churches. “The Protestant Churches, having largely abandoned the biblical doctrines of the Reformation, which were their raison d’être, are capitulating to the leadership of the papacy and to Roman Catholic doctrine. There are, indeed, other ways that men and Churches may apostatize from the faith - into liberalism, for example, or other faiths - but Rome remains the great threat to the Protestant churches, Satan’s great masterpiece, his counterfeit Christianity by which he deceives the nations.”

With many other Christians, I have often mourned the fact that the contemporary church has so little identity with its Reformation roots. Each year Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and Independence Day, days that hearken back to their roots as a nation. They celebrate Memorial Day and Veterans Day which also look to the great victories of the past. All nations celebrate similar days – here in Canada we celebrate the anniversary of our confederation on Canada Day, remembering each year the events of the past. Yet Christians have little identity with the Reformation, the event which gave birth to the church as we know it. Along with the loss of the historical view has come the loss of the historical doctrines. The beliefs that gave birth to Protestantism are rarely articulated or taught to evangelicals. Is it any wonder, then, that many churches have capitulated “to the leadership of the papacy and to Roman Catholic doctrine?” And many who have not capitulated have developed apathy towards, a respect of, or even an envy of Catholic doctrine.

A few paragraphs later, in a discussion of the causes of idolatry (which he identifies as: enmity against God in spiritual matters, spiritual darkness and ignorance), the author writes about the critical difference between dialogue and controversy.

I think this explains the ease with which many in recent years have been able to enter into dialogue with Roman Catholics and even Muslims and Hindus. It demands a certain detachment from the truth to be able to do that. You are obliged to put a question mark over it, otherwise you are not genuinely engaging in dialogue, which means, at least in principle, you are prepared to change and qualify your beliefs. I think we must be very careful to distinguish between dialogue and controversy. Dialogue carries with it implicitly this assumption, that you will be prepared to modify and change your position, in the light of the debate, if it so requires you. But controversy, in which all the Reformers engaged, is quite a different thing. You start from what you know and believe to be the truth, and your object is to expose the error and confusion of the opponent’s position and, if possible, persuade him of the truth. It was dialogue in which Satan engaged Eve in the garden. She would have been safe if she had insisted on controversy. When men have not a fervent love of the truth and no sense of abhorrence of error they are in the anteroom of apostasy. It is said that the apostle John fled from the public baths, where Cerinthus the heretic appeared, lest they should fall on him. Today some evangelicals would be glad to stay and engage in friendly dialogue.

He is correct that dialogue carries with it the assumption that there is a question mark hovering over my beliefs. It is very postmodern, in that I acknowledge that though I believe what I believe quite strongly, it might just be all wrong. Those who dialogue enter into their dialogue with that attitude and it is no wonder that they are often persuaded that they are indeed wrong. As Christians we have no need, no right, to dialogue about our faith. We are not on equal footing with others when it comes to the fundamental doctrines.

Perhaps the most important part of the article is the author’s wisdom, culled from John Owens, about how we can avoid apostasy. He lays out several important steps:

  1. A preeminent concern with God’s glory. Meditating upon God’s glory and the current state of the church may well lead us to mourn for all we have lost.
  2. Continual prayer. We are to continually pray for the restoration of the primacy of proper doctrine in the church.
  3. Constant testimony. An open and avowed profession of, and contending for the faith and the truth of the Gospel.
  4. Keep careful watch over your heart. We must remember that our hearts are deceitful and wicked and will seek to lead us from the inerrant and holy word of God.
  5. Beware of the world. We must be careful not to allow the customs and habits of the time to indiscriminately infiltrate the church.

The article, then, provides a brief overview of apostasy and provides the most prevalent example of apostasy in the Roman Catholic Church. But best of all, it instructs us how we can guard ourselves against falling into such error. You may like to read the article yourself. If so, you can find it here: Apostasy.

More on this subject tomorrow.