Apostasy can mean different things to different people. To those of us who believe in the eternal security of the believer, it cannot mean losing the salvation that one once had, but rather (and most commonly among us) we believe it is the falling away by a mere professor of salvation. We often hear the word apostasy used to describe an outright liberal or agnostic, one who denies the fundamental Biblical doctrines. I am using apostasy to mean someone like Judas who acted as a believer but in the end showed his true colors and left the believers, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place (Acts 1:25). The same is true of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some (2 Tim. 2:17-18). In the consideration of these and other Biblical examples, Millard Erickson writes, “From the foregoing considerations it is clear that, in Jesus’ view, not all who appear to be believers are truly that. We conclude that those who appear to have fallen away were never regenerate in the first place.”1 Understanding that a true believer can fall into carnality and later repent of it, an apostate then is one who falls into carnality (from a mere profession of faith) and never returns to real Christianity.
The word “apostasy” comes from the Greek word “apostasia” which is used of divorce in the gospels (Mt. 5:31; 19:7; Mk. 10:4) meaning that one person departs or leaves another. It is also used in Acts 21:21 as an accusation against Paul, saying he was trying to persuade Jews to “forsake” Moses and no longer be true Jews. The most well known usage of the word is in 2 Thes. 2:3, Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition. Apostasia is translated as “falling away.” An important question is whether this “falling away” refers to a collective apostasy in the last days prior to the rise of the antichrist, or to the rapture of the church which will be a “departure” from the earth. For the latter view (which is entirely possible) see the 1954 work by E. Schuyler English, Rethinking the Rapture2 and also Myron Houghton’s review and further explanation of this view.3 English admits that the primary meaning of apostasia is “defection, revolt, or rebellion against God” but allows for “disappearance or departure” as a secondary meaning.4
I would make the point that regardless of how we take apostasia in 2 Thessalonians, there is no doubt that there will be a world-wide apostasy by those left behind at the rapture. There will be many who professed to know Christ but really did not. They attended churches, did many mighty works in Jesus’ name, worshiped alongside many others, but will eventually leave any profession of Christianity and follow the antichrist and the false prophet. Once they receive the mark of the beast, they will never come to Christ. This general apostasy is shown in all tribulation passages including 2 Thessalonians 2.
Both Peter and Jude wrote scathing rebukes to the apostates of their day and the future. They had crept in unawares into the churches but in the end drew away disciples after themselves promising them liberty when in fact they are servants of corruption. Both writers remind their readers of how God judged apostasy in the past and how He will do it again in the end times. For those who had known the way of salvation and later became entangled in and overcome by the world, it would truly be better for them if they had never been born!
Apostasy doesn’t begin in a first generation.
A person who has made a false profession of faith has done so because someone before him has explained the way of salvation or led him into fellowship with believers. Jude said they had crept in unawares, who before of old ordained to this condemnation (Jude 4). A person like this was once enlightened by the gospel and even tasted of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, being a partner with Him for a period of conviction (Heb. 6:4). The result, however, was a head knowledge only but a rejection of the appropriation of that salvation to his own heart.
We have often seen zealous soul winning efforts that cut corners on repentance in order to gain a convert. Sometimes these “converts” are children in our churches and sometimes a relative stranger who was met by chance. I do not discount proper and necessary soul winning evangelism. I am only suggesting that false professions of faith can happen when sincere believers become a little more interested in the success of the soul winner rather than the salvation of the soul.
After having moved to Kansas City a few years ago, I was again surprised as I witnessed to new people I had met how many had a story to tell of praying a prayer with someone but never went on in the Christian life and walk. It wasn’t that it was just a faith without works, but it was a faith that didn’t work. The sad part of these conversations was that it was almost impossible to ask them to reconsider their standing with Christ.
We may be seeing the coming of a whole generation of apostates
Early in the Lord’s ministry, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus said, Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity (Matt. 7:20-23). Note that this takes place “in that day,” a common prophetic formula for the end times and that “many” will be in this situation and that these have been involved in many Christian endeavors.
If, of course, we knew that the rapture were near, we would expect and even preach the reality of a whole generation who are going to be left behind and who would willingly follow the antichrist. One day this scenario will be true and, when it is, it will be too late to change the circumstances or to rethink a road that should never been traveled. It seems therefore that it would be proper to evaluate how our evangelism is going and what is happening to our “converts.”
How could anyone not be alarmed at survey after survey which show that there is little, if any, difference in the lifestyles of those who profess Christ and those who do not. Many of us have also been alarmed at the changing of our churches before our eyes as the lack of moral fortitude, the love of the world’s values, the copying of the world’s lifestyles, the recreating of the church’s worship, and the questioning of the sufficiency of Scripture become more pervasive within Christian fellowships. It is becoming more and more difficult to count the growth of churches as the working of the Holy Spirit. Paul reminded Titus of the gainsayers (those who show little respect for proper authority), They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate (Tit. 1:16).
How can this happen?
When Paul wrote to the Philippians, he dealt with the differences among preachers with gentleness (Phil. 1:14-18). But when he wrote to the Galatians, he was much more severe in his denunciations of those who opposed him. Why? Because in Galatia the problem was with the truth of the gospel itself. I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another (heteron) gospel: which is not another (allo); but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:6-8). Paul said that a different gospel (heteron) is not an alternative (allo). Similarly, he wrote to the Corinthians that he was afraid they would be beguiled by Satan to embrace another Jesus or spirit or gospel (2 Cor. 11:3-4). He went on to describe such messages as coming from Satan’s ministers (13-15) who exalted themselves before the church (19-20).
It is only a generation since we heard the great fundamentalist preachers of our childhood (there were giants in the earth in those days). Regardless of what the present generation thinks of those men, thousands upon thousands of people were confronted with the claims of the gospel and the expectation of Christ’s second coming. Now, a generation or two later, we think we have only changed the methodology when we have subtly changed the message itself.
We talk about “fiducia” a lot but I have noticed that it is the one thing that is being left out! Knowing about the gospel (notitia) is only the first step. Agreeing to the truth of the gospel (assensus) is the necessary second step. But at this point a man only has a head knowledge about Christ. There must be the crucial third step (fiducia) in which a person trusts in the object of that knowledge. It’s one thing to ask if they know; it is another to ask if they believe what they know; and it is another thing to ask if they trust in what they believe. This is what has been called the “evangelical” faith as opposed to the knowledge-only faith of Rome and other Churches.
Have you noticed that a lot of people, when you ask them when they got saved, fumble around trying to come up with a story or a time of crisis or a time when they had a religious experience or when God seemed to answer a prayer in their life? Yet they insist they are born again. They have come in among believers but have never seen a gospel invitation, have never been confronted with their sin, have been taught to avoid “judgmentalism,” and have spent their time in emotional services that are a show to be watched rather than a message that requires a response.
What must we do?
First, we must be “evangelistic.” I use this word rather than “evangelical” because that no longer carries the meaning it once did. The “gospel” is the “good news,” the “eu-angellos,” the good message! We must insist on fiducia for salvation, not just religious knowledge. For this to happen we must preach repentance so that sinners see their need and are brought (by God’s Spirit) to a time when they reach out in saving faith to the One Who alone can save them from their sin and an eternal hell. Soul winning and gospel invitations can be given in a correct way; we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Second, we must again be holy as our Father in heaven is holy. God has never needed unholy messengers to present a message of sin and forgiveness. It is doubtful whether the Holy Spirit will use such a person at all to convict sinners. Paul wrote, For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth [holiness], despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 4:7-8). Personal and ecclesiastical separation are part and parcel with the power of the gospel.
Third, we must again put the Lordship of Christ in the right place and that is in the new convert’s life. As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him (Col. 2:6). If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). In case we have forgotten, these verses are still in the Bible. Fruit of the Spirit in the believer’s life brings assurance and confidence that we are children of God.
“Active obedience is the expression of inward communion, love and trust. The spring that moves the hands on the dial is love, and if the hands do not move, there is something wrong with the spring. Morality is the garment of religion; religion is the animating principle of morality. Faith without works is dead, and works without faith are dead too.” (Alexander Maclaran)