Apostasy is the unthinkable, crushing reality of watching a friend walk away from Jesus. I have a short list of such friends for whom I grieve and pray regularly. On July 31, 2019, I added Joshua Harris to that list.
Though his name is the most famous, it is no more tragic than the rest.
Walking away from the faith isn’t confined to any one group of people. Men do it. Women. Older. Younger. Naive. Seemingly wise. I am always surprised by who it is this time. And what circumstance provoked their departure.
For there is always a reason. Sometimes it’s a large, life-changing blow to their faith, but just as often it can be a slow trickle of faith draining away, unseen but very real.
I believe in the perseverance of the saints–that God is able to keep every child who belongs to him. How then do we make sense of the fact that some people you and I know decide to walk away from faith in Christ?
In short how does apostasy happen?
How does Apostasy Happen?
Josh’s Instagram post provides one answer to this question. It seems he had been experiencing a slow, internal erosion of faith over the past few years, that had turned into a flood of regrets. It seems he had been slowly backing away from Jesus, but that now he turned and walked away.
I have seen this before. The doctoral student, busy with school and church and family, suddenly announces that she no longer believes any of it. The young man who was a pillar of the faith, invested in serving others and talking winsomely about Jesus with neighbors, suddenly turns and walks away from it all.
Shock waves ripple through the congregation, wondering when this started, how it could happen.
In both cases something had trumped Jesus as the only Savior of their lives. A different lord was ruling their inner world. For the doctoral student it was her academic training that became the trump card. The gospel of God, revealed in the Scriptures, no longer seemed plausible to her mind.
For the young man it was the loss of his mother. A devastating loss, to be sure, following a ravaging disease that took her mind and then her body. During the ordeal he prayed and trusted and endured. But when she died, he lost it. He raged against God and then turned and walked away.
An idol had replaced the true God. Something else had captured their heart, and they loved it with all their heart and soul and strength. Apostasy had already occurred. It had simply not yet become public.
Apostasy had already occurred. It had simply not yet become public.
The Gravity of Apostasy
Apostasy is a grave matter. Literally a matter of eternal life and death. Leaving the faith we once professed is soberly presented in the Scriptures. The author of Hebrews wrote his letter to urge his readers not to leave, but to continue in the faith they had once professed. He used positive arguments, but also stern warnings. Turning from Christ is serious, because there aren’t any other options.
Jesus is the only Savior out there. That’s why the author writes:
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.Hebrews 6:4-6
Not only is Jesus the only Savior, but he has already died for our sins and been raised for our justification. To reject him in his saving work is to ask him to do it again. It’s an insult. It’s also an impossibility. We can’t be born again all over again.
Repentance for Apostasy
But when I look again at my Bible, I see more grace than I did at first. Repentance is the issue. First time repentance–that act of turning from sin to faith in Christ–is a God-empowered, one time act that brings us into living relationship with him. But living out that relationship requires continual repentance, turning from our daily sins to receive his cleansing.
Is there repentance for apostasy?
At first it doesn’t seem so. There are stern warnings against forsaking faith in the true God. God warned Israel through his prophet Jeremiah:
Your evil will chastise you, and your apostasy will reprove you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the LORD your God; the fear of me is not in you, declares the Lord GOD of hosts.Jeremiah 2:19
Apostasy is an evil act, involving a deliberate rejection and forsaking of the Lord your God. Your God, my God is pushed away, the covenant relationship rejected. But Jeremiah also shows us that God uses the evil of apostasy to chastise his people. He brings bitterness to them for aptasy, not as final punishment, but as fatherly discipline.
Grace for Apostasy
Jeremiah wrote these words of warning at God’s prompting. Such warnings are a gift from God. Behind every one of them is a call to repent. Severe consequences are his goad to prod and poke and push us back to our Savior and into his arms.
Yet we–like Israel–are stubborn and slow to repent. The warnings bounce off. We plug our ears and pretend not to hear. So God goes one step farther. He woos as well as warns. Before Israel had even begun to repent, he sent his prophet Hosea to announce how he intends to bless them.
I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.Hosea 14:7
When you see the future tense of Hosea’s words, you realize God stands ready to welcome back every apostate who repents, from the least to the most famous. Thomas Cranmer, the famous English reformer, is a case in point. Condemned to death as a heretic for his Reformation faith, Cranmer faced the penalty of burning at the stake.
At this point his courage failed him, terror of the flames goaded him to sign a statement denying his beliefs. But later he repented of his denial of Christ and recanted. After affirming the faith that was dear to him, he faced the fire, and in a moment recorded in history, thrust the hand that had signed the denial first into its flames.
God is gracious to heal even our apostasy. Guilty hands thrust into the fire of His glorious presence will be filled with gracious forgiveness.
Let’s continue to pray for those we love who have walked away from him.