How do believers in Jesus deal with apostasy? How do we explain when one who appeared to be born-again turns back from following the Lord? Many are shaken by these occurrences and struggle to explain. The reactions are seldom tepid. What can we say when someone announces they no longer believe?
It is tempting to think the incidents of apostasy are increasing, but I suspect it is only that the renunciation of faith by well-known people is easier to broadcast than it was in the past, and that it also seldom warrants notice when an unknown person quietly walks away from the faith. A couple of recent ones come to mind. The Christian rapper, Brady Goodwin, known as “Phanatik,” recently announced he no longer believed in Jesus. Goodwin posted a video to YouTube and listed some reasons, saying things in Scripture just didn’t add up for him, but he was decidedly non-specific about what those things are. In the latter half of the video, he noted that social justice issues were a factor for him, too. Without the details, it’s difficult to offer any answers.
Another recent case is Paul Maxwell, a theologian who had written articles for Desiring God, and like Goodwin, is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Westminster Theological Seminary. Maxwell also did a Ph.D. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School under Kevin Vanhoozer. In both cases, it is difficult, if not impossible, to say Goodwin and Maxwell did not understand the Gospel or the message of salvation. Maxwell’s book The Trauma of Doctrine: New Calvinism, Religious Abuse, and the Experience of God is part psychology manual, part theology, but it’s clear that trauma in Maxwell’s own life played a large role in his own apostasy, which he announced shortly after the book’s publication.
Life experiences can’t be discounted as playing a role in apostasy, but neither should one ascribe apostasy solely to such things. To do so would be patronizing and dismissive of what those who turn away from God are saying.
With such cases, there seems to be a tacit assumption that atheism or another belief system does provide the answers. But it is not the case that alternative world views are free from the challenges or difficulties some find with Christianity. No documents in the world have been scrutinized to the same degree as the New Testament documents. Thus the objections, the doubts, the difficulties are not new. When a person rejects some of the proffered solutions, they are rarely doing something new, nor particularly personal. Do other belief systems (broadly speaking) have the same level of critical analysis behind them as the Christian faith? In some cases, from the standpoint of time and history alone, one would have to say no. How, then, does one explain these cases?
They lost their salvation
One explanation is that salvation is a two-way agreement. We have eternal life as long as we continue to follow Jesus. But, if we turn our backs on him, he will renounce us. This has a certain appeal, but only through proof-texting. That is, one can find various texts in the New Testament that speak of this. “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 10:32-33) Or, Colossians 1:22-23, “he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.”
I suggest, however, that these texts don’t tell the whole story. The strength of our trust is not what redeems us. Rather, it is the strength of our Savior. There are numerous texts that talk about the gift of salvation not depending on ourselves and that salvation is a crossing over from death to life, something that only God can do. Indeed, perseverance is a mark of the believer, and there are many passages of Scripture that exhort Christians to continue on in the faith, not to waver or lose hope. Yet when a person does turn back, explaining it as losing eternal life doesn’t help us understand what happened. The eternal life one can lose is not really eternal.
They never were saved
It’s quite common to hear someone quoting 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” We cannot look inside a person’s heart and see faith, so it’s possible that someone masqueraded for a long time as a believer and only later showed themselves not to believe. Falsehood and pretense are possible because our hearts are deception factories, even deceiving our own selves. Yes, it is possible that someone was not a believer, which later becomes evident. But I would also suggest that it isn’t the most pastorally helpful approach. It can be a sort of hand-waving dismissal of someone, a soul who is in peril, struggling, and who needs prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit in their heart. If such a person feels that their friends now regard them with scorn or derision, it won’t lead them to repentance, which is always the goal.
I don’t know
This last explanation is, I would offer, the best approach. There are several reasons for this. First, what we accomplish by this is, contrary to the previous explanations, we leave a door open a little bit wider for someone to return. As Paul told the Corinthians in a church discipline situation, “Aim for restoration.” (2 Cor 13:11) When Jesus gave the outline for church discipline in Matthew 16, there, too, it was with a goal of restoring one who had sinned. Someone who apostatizes is unlikely to submit to church discipline, but the principle of seeking someone who has turned aside still prevails.
Moreover, we aren’t required to have an airtight explanation for every situation. In other words, having a foolproof explanation for apostasy is not itself an article of faith, not something a believer is required to confess. Resist the urge to feel that someone else’s apostasy is a threat to your faith. In fact, it is not. Another person’s rejection of the evidence does not obligate you to come to the same conclusion. If we are performing an autopsy on someone’s faith, it is at times acceptable to say “cause of death unknown.” In one way, we treat the apostate no differently than we do one who never professed: we pray, we entreat, we warn. But we also recognize that the burden of salvation is not ours. Salvation belongs to the Lord.
Matt Ferris lives in Wheaton, Illinois and is involved in Bible study ministry in his local church. He is also active in children's ministry and has written a number of hymns. His books include Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life and Losing Religion, Finding Jesus: Moving beyond Cultural Christianity. He and his wife have been married since 1987 and have four adult children and six grandchildren. He blogs at gentlemantheologian.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrismattic.