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the doctrine of apostasy

Updated on February 7, 2013

Is apostasy Biblical? Did Judas commit apostasy?

Apostasy has been defined as a total desertion of or departure from one's religion, principles, party, or cause.[1] The term has never had a good connotation. It implies a person has given up his religion or beliefs. In the spiritual sense apostasy literally has to do with turning one’s back on God, after having received His gift of salvation. Many commentaries and books avoid the subject all together. It seems as if apostasy doesn’t exist at all in many denominations and circles. It has become a doctrine many would like to forget about. Apostasy is a much debated subject in the Bible. Many believe it is impossible for a believer to commit such a heinous act. Still others claim it is a very real danger to the believer. Apostasy is proven in scripture, revealed in characters’ lives in the Bible, warned against by God in the Bible, and a dangerous doctrine to overlook.

The Bible makes it very clear that apostasy is a very real and literal danger to the believer. This difficult doctrine must be distinguished from heresy which is simply a belief in false doctrine. Apostasy is a deliberate turning away from God’s revealed truth after it has been received.[2] There are some scholars who believe apostasy only refers to men who claim to be saved, but are not truly believers. These men have missed the meaning of the word. Hypocrites claim to be saved and are not. Apostates are individuals who were genuinely saved and have left their former estate. They claim that these apostates were never believers because they didn’t have the spirit.[3] They claim Jude 19 as a verse of reference for this. A close examination of context in Jude 19 reveals the Bible is not speaking of apostates here. It is referring to unsaved men, antichrists in the last days.[4] The separation is not one of apostasy, because they were never saved.

Many who oppose a literal view of apostasy claim that it would make God an Indian giver. They claim one who is born again cannot be unborn.[5] Others wonder how a believer could have so little faith in the keeping power of God. They claim that one must not have faith in God’s keeping power to believe such a doctrine.[6] These are simple word games. These arguments are not based on any scripture, but rather stand on a foundation of logic. All logic aside there is no scripture to support such arguments. These arguments can be traced back to an underlying assumption that salvation is not conditional.[7]

When confronted with a difficult doctrine, one must not be swayed by emotional appeals or logical arguments. The real test of any doctrine is scripture. The doctrine of apostasy is mentioned in scripture over and over again. In 2 Peter 2:18-22 Peter regards the apostates mentioned as having a genuine Christian experience. This is seen in three ways. Peter first said they got away from the pollution of the world, referring to their salvation. He secondly claims they did this by the knowledge of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Thirdly, he says they came to know the way of righteousness.[8]

The Bible also teaches that salvation is conditional in the actual texts of the Bible. That is in the wording of certain passages. In John 3:16 the Greek is very clear. The Bible says “whosoever believeth on Him shall be saved.” The word “believeth” in the greek is one of continuous action. In other words the Bible is saying literally whosever is believing, shall be saved. This sounds the same, but it emphasizes one thing, belief. The Bible is making it clear you must be continually believing. A belief in the past is not good enough; it must be a continuous action. In John 5:24 the Bible says, “He that believes…shall not come into condemnation.” In John 3:36 it says, “He that believes not…shall not see life.” The grammar in these two verses is identical, therefore if one were to say that the state of the believer cannot change, neither can the state of the sinner.[9] Neither state is definite, both are conditional. It is clear that the state of both can change through faith. The believer can turn his back on faith, or the sinner can place his faith in Christ. There is one way to be saved and one way to commit apostasy. Many have the false idea that if one believes in apostasy he must be terrified of losing his salvation. This is why many claim these view holders have no faith in God’s keeping power. The truth is quite opposite. One who believes apostasy is a real danger does not fear losing salvation, but ultimately strives to be closer to God. The believer should not trust in anything but God. The keeping power of God is only promised to those who have faith in Him. God will not keep a person who has turned his back on God and committed apostasy. The Bible states the conditionality of salvation throughout implicitly and explicitly. Salvation has always been conditional. The one condition is faith. There is no denying that fact. Faith is the door one must walk through to be saved. It is the only way to be saved. “For by grace are ye saved through faith…” This is also the only way to commit apostasy. Apostasy is not an accident someone can commit. It is a real decision just like salvation is. They must decide to walk back through the door of faith, they are turning their back on faith and God.

The Bible also reveals apostasy in the lives of it’s characters. In the Old Testament the most obvious example is Saul. The Bible says in I Samuel 16:14, “The Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul…” This Old Testament example is clear, but many debate whether Saul was truly saved. They claim he was merely a rocky soil believer, who withered in the time of persecution.[10] This is debatable, but why would God choose to anoint a hypocrite as a king? It is clear that the Spirit of God was upon Saul early in his life. The change was simple. Saul turned his back on God. It is interesting to note that once the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul an evil spirit came upon him. Once there is a void in his spirit the devil quickly fills it.[11]

Saul was a man used by God early on. In I Samuel 11 the Spirit of God came upon him. He was anointed king of God’s people. However, years later he died in sin. He was guilty of witchcraft, murder, and jealousy. The difference was in his heart. He decided to turn his back on God.

In the New Testament the Bible reveals another character who commits apostasy. The character was Judas Iscariot. Judas has been a controversial figure since his death 2,000 years ago. The debate centralizes upon his salvation. Many claim he must have been unsaved. Others believe he was a believer who committed apostasy. Judas’ name appears ten times in the Bible.[12] Every time he is mentioned there is a mention of his betrayal of Christ. He is also at the end of every list of disciples.[13] This may be due to the fact that he was the only disciple who was not a Galilean.[14] It may also be due to the fact that he was the betrayer.

In Matthew 10:1-4 Jesus calls his twelve disciples. Judas is named here. Jesus gives every disciple power against unclean spirits and all manner of sickness. More importantly, Jesus called every one of them into the ministry. This demands Judas to be a believer. Christ will not call a sinner to such a ministry. There are many “preachers” or “missionaries” today who might be unsaved. However, none of these hypocrites received a real call from Christ himself. Judas, however, did. He was called to take the Gospel to the nation of Israel. Judas was called to preach as it were.

Many claim that Judas was simply an imposter or hypocrite. This claim must indicate that Christ chose him to do the terrible deed. There would be no other reason for Christ to choose an imposter. More importantly if Christ so openly rebuked the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, He would never have called a hypocrite to be His friend and disciple.[15] An impostor would not care about the sick and oppressed, yet Judas was given power to heal these people. If Jesus knew Judas to be an impostor He would never have granted him equal powers with the other disciples.[16]

Judas did, however, commit the most heinous of all acts in the Bible. He betrayed the Son of God. He gave his once popular Jewish name a bitter connotation to this day. He had a change of heart. He was not an impostor or a hypocrite. He genuinely was saved, but somewhere decided to go back. His life, more than any other , reveals apostasy in it’s rawest form.

The most convincing evidence of Apostasy is God’s warning against it. In Hebrews 6:4-6 Paul writes, “For 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 shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.” This passage serves as one of the most debated in all scripture.[17] The debate arises as to the state of the readers. If Paul was writing to believers, this is clearly a warning against apostasy. Therefore, the obvious argument by anyone seeking to debunk apostasy is that these readers are not genuinely saved. There are countless views of the state of the readers. Commentators claim they are professors, but not possessors. Some state they are tasters, but not swallowers.[18] The most outrageous view taken is the view that this is a warning against a hypothetical situation which cannot happen. This is ridiculous because the Bible has never warned against a hypothetical situation. It also suggests one cannot take seriously God’s warnings.[19]

There are three reasons given by Barnes taht the readers should be interpreted as being genuine Christians. The first is it is the most obvious. The natural interpretation indicates this, unless one is defending a presupposition. The second is context. The writer has been dealing with matters relating to believers all along. He is trying to keep them from apostasy. Thirdly it is in accord with their experiences listed. They have been described as having experienced salvation.[20]

In his commentary Outlaw observes five statements in Hebrews 6:4-6 that describe a believer’s experience. He begins with “those who were once enlightened.” This term refers to the light of the gospel of Christ. One enlightened has experienced salvation. He also notes “those who have tasted the heavenly gift.” Tasting something is to experience something. These Hebrews has tasted salvation. They were believers in the truest sense. They were also made “partakers of the Holy Ghost.” This is very clear. Only a believer can have the Holy Spirit, and these people partook of the Holy Spirit. They must have been saved to experience this. They also “tasted the good Word of God.” The taste here is the same as afore mentioned, but this time they are tasting the “word.” This is not word as in “logos.” This is the entire word of the Gospel. They experienced the Gospel. They tasted the Gospel. Lastly Outlaw notes the phrase “if they shall fall away.“ The first four phrases mark the conversion experience of the believers while the fifth shows what can happen to the believer who abandons Christ. This phrase indicates they had something to fall away from. They would fall from salvation.[21]

God warns the believer of apostasy in His Word. The fact that He warns against it confirms it must be a possibility. The fact that it is possible does not, however, indicate that it is probable. The argument today seems to hinge upon true salvation. Many claim that a person who leaves the church was never saved. Most of the time this is probably true. One does not have to believe it is probable, but one must see the fact that it is possible. There are probably thousands of professors who are not possessors, but that does not mean it is not possible.

It is very dangerous to overlook the doctrine of apostasy. To deny the doctrine is to deny any responsibility to the believer. If after salvation there is no danger in sin or attitude of the believer, there is no reason to avoid it. Many in the “Once saved, always saved” crowd are treading on dangerous ground. If a person is told they can have one experience and be assured heaven no matter what, they can live however they like and trust they are going to heaven. The danger lies in carnality. If a man can live however he wants with no repercussions, he will. The truth is every believer must live a holy, separate life. One doesn’t need fear of losing his salvation, but one must live a saved life. The doctrine of apostasy will, if anything, bring one closer to God. It will make a person realize that they must live the Christian lifestyle daily.

Apostasy has become a forgotten doctrine in many ways today. It has vanished from books and commentaries. The reason many avoid it is simply fear. They fear being labeled a repeated regenerationist. Many fear knowing their family member has committed it and cannot be reclaimed. However, most fear being debated and argued against. This is a cowardly excuse to avoid a doctrine that affects every believer. The doctrine has not changed, but many believers view of it has. God warned against it for a reason, may the church continue to warn of sin’s danger in the believer’s life.


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