Missing Elements in Our Discussions about Apostasy

For the past few weeks, apostasy has been a trending topic among Christians. Though the discussion has been spurred by the sad news of some well-known men revoking their Christian faith, the discussion is bringing about the positive effect of engaging a crucial but neglected subject. (Apostasy refers to people falling away from previously held Christian beliefs.)

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Much of this happened when I was on vacation and deliberately taking some time away from writing. This removed my opportunity to offer a hot take—something I’m actually thankful for—so perhaps we ought to consider this my cold take. I know much has already been said and said well, but as I’ve caught up with the many articles and podcasts, I think there are a few missing elements that would be helpful to discuss.

The first thing we ought to consider is that apostates are self-deceived. Years before a man or woman apostacizes, he or she would probably be shocked to hear what their future holds. This is to say, while there are always some “wolves in sheep’s clothing” within the church—people who know they hate God but pretend to love him—apostates generally deceive themselves before they deceive others. There is a time in their lives in which they are convinced they are truly saved. They live like Christians because they believe they are Christians. This being the case, we don’t need to think that those who have fallen away knew they were unsaved all along. Rather, we believed they were saved because they believed they were saved and even provided some evidence of it. This puts the call on each of us to ensure that we are not self-deceived but that we have genuinely come to Christ in repentance and faith. Their apostasy provides us the crucial opportunity to examine our own hearts before the Lord.

Second, apostasy should not surprise us. We should expect that a certain number of people will fall away—even people who showed convincing evidence of salvation, who displayed what seemed to be Christian character, and who held positions of prominence. This is not the same as saying we should expect that any particular individual will fall away. But it should not surprise us that some people are self-deceived and, therefore, deceive us. It does not necessarily mean that we, as the wider church, have done anything wrong or failed to carry out any duty. If the Apostle Paul lost some of his disciples to apostasy, which he did, it should not surprise us if we lose some of ours. It still shocks us, of course, when when learn it is this man or that woman. But in big picture, we have to expect that while many will endure, there will be some who fall away, and even some who have written good books or composed good songs or preached good sermons. These recent examples are certainly not the first in the history of Christianity and will unfortunately not be the last.

Third, trajectories matter. It is rare that people apostacize all of a sudden. Rather, there will almost always have been a long trajectory away from genuine Christian faith and practice and toward distinctly unChristian faith and practice. I expect that those who knew these men well, those who saw their lives up close, could tell of a slow drift rather than a sudden deconversion. We are all people of trajectories who wittingly or unwittingly, deliberately or carelessly, point ourselves along the narrow way that leads to salvation or the broad way that leads to destruction. This demonstrates the importance of having people in our lives who will confront and redirect us not just when we’ve gone past the point of no return, but at the point we begin to go astray, even by small degrees. This also demonstrates the importance of having a vital relationship with God and a sensitivity to his Spirit as he examines, confronts, and assures us. “Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind” (Psalm 26:2).

Then, apostasy is not always permanent. Some people reject the Christian faith for a time, even while they are still true Christians. Just as unbelievers can convince themselves they are saved, believers can convince themselves they are unsaved. But whether these men are saved or unsaved, formerly deceived or currently deceived, the solution is one and the same: they need the gospel of Jesus Christ. They need to repent and believe. They need to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. And we need to be pleading with God that he will reveal to them that he is still their God and Father, or that he can be their God and Father for the first time.

Finally, apostasy accomplishes good in the church. Even though apostasy is terrible, God uses it to accomplish good. He, after all, is the God who promises that “all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). If this is true on a personal level, surely it’s equally true on a corporate level. The revelation that some have abandoned the faith, warns the rest to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:10). Even while we grieve the church’s loss, we ought to rejoice that God will be at work to bring about his great and glorious purposes.

I will leave you with an encouraging anecdote from Robert Peterson’s book Our Secure Salvation which gives just one example of how God can use apostasy to bring great glory to his name.

At a good church Paul had been attending while going to seminary, a dreadful thing occurred. An elder and another elder’s wife had been having a secret affair and one day abandoned their spouses and children and left the church for parts unknown. They had thought things through carefully and had all of their ducks in a row. This included mailing letters of resignation to the church.

The departing couple had planned their escape well. But they seriously underestimated two things: the church’s love for the Lord and for them. Paul told me that he had never seen anything like what happened. The Sunday that the announcement was made to the congregation, the people responded with sackcloth and ashes. During a time of prayer people wept openly over the sin of the couple and the losses felt by their devastated families. What really astonished Paul was the way God used the couple’s sin for good. Believers, including leaders, openly confessed adulteries in their hearts. The church rallied around the two wounded families. Paul explains, “It was like a scene in the book of Acts, when a holy fear of God fell upon the early believers. It was awesome.”

But the church’s greatest response was to vow not to give up on the erring couple. The church made contact with them and assured them that the congregation would never stop praying for them. At first the couple hoped that these statements were pious but idle words, but time proved the church’s love for them to be genuine. Many prayer meetings were held at various times of the day and night. After months of concerted prayer for the couple and many gentle but persistent contacts, God broke through.

There was cheering in the congregation the day the pastor announced that the couple had repented and wanted to return. But, he said, both parties were too ashamed to face their families or other members of the congregation. After weeks of pastoral counseling, the families were put back together and the elder—no longer in office, of course—and the other elder’s wife returned to Sunday worship. Their fellow believers welcomed the repentant man and woman with open arms and tears of joy.