by Mike Ratliff
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14 ESV)
Apostasy: [Middle English apostasie, from Old French, from Late Latin apostasia, defection, from Late Greek apostasi, from Greek apostasis, revolt, from aphistanai, aposta-, to revolt : apo-, apo- + histanai, to stand, place; see st- in Indo-European roots.]
Noun pl -sies abandonment of one’s religious faith, political party, or cause [Greek apostasis desertion] from: Collins Essential English Dictionary 2nd Edition 2006 © HarperCollins Publishers 2004, 2006
I heard another definition today for the word “apostasy.” This definition says that a good way to understand apostasy and what causes one to abandon his or her religious faith is “to forget.” In the history of civilization, the battle between intellectual honesty and intellectual barbarity is one that has cycled back a forth for millennia. When intellectual honesty is on top, truth is seen as succinct and knowable and authoritative. When intellectual barbarity is on top, truth is seen as relative and completely unknowable. In case you weren’t sure, we are now in an intellectual barbarian stage in the early 21st Century.
The move from intellectual honesty to intellectual barbarity takes place as successive generations “forget” the truth or the fact that truth is truth regardless of variableness in culture or mores. The Church is not immune my brethren. Look at what has happened to it over the last several centuries culminating in our time with relativism on the throne of men’s hearts rather than a love for the truth. In a time of intellectual barbarity, since relativism is seen as the only reality, the Church becomes infected with this deadly disease.
Justin Martyr, in his many Apologies, was able in his time to point to the personal holiness of the people of God and use that point to show the difference between Christians and everyone else. However, with a divorce rate in the Church equal to that of the culture, that would be a hard point to make in our day. I read yesterday of a pastor in Dallas being caught in a sting attempting to hook up with a 13 year old girl for sex. This is just a fruit of the growing apostasy in the 21st Century Church.
Apostasy doesn’t happen all at once. The church is continually under attack from without and within no matter what intellectual cycle it is in. The Protestant Reformation is good example. Foxx’s Book of Martyrs shows how large the number was of Christians who paid with their lives because they knew the truth and would not recant. I wonder how many of today’s Christians would be likely to take that stand.
What is the process of the Church moving into Apostasy? In the early 20th Century the Princeton University Seminary was dying. It had a wonderful history being lead by Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, but those men were gone. The new leadership was determined to liberalize and modernize it from top to bottom. Along with this, the denomination behind it went the same way. That, of course, was The Presbyterian Church USA. It is, without a doubt, one of the most liberal denominations. It’s members actually pray to a goddess named Sophia. God did raise up men like J. Gresham Machen who would not give in to the pressure to conform to the new form of his old denomination. He is credited with starting the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.
In any case, the move from orthodoxy to apostasy occurs over time and starts at the top. The leadership, usually adjusting their theology in order to “stay in step” with society, begins by conforming their beliefs and churches and ministries down in order to “stay relevant.” Once doctrine is dummied down, personal holiness is next. Another tragic example of this happened as J.P. Boyce and John Broadus began the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, KY. One of their star students and later professors of theology was C.H. Toy. However, he traveled to Europe to study with the new liberal theologians there who where championing “Critical Analysis” of the Bible. Toy returned to Kentucky with his faith in tatters. It wasn’t long before the leadership at the seminary were forced to deal with his apostasy. When he was asked to give an account of his false teachings, his reply was that he no longer believed in Biblical Inerrancy. They did not renew his contract. Dr. Toy moved to Harvard and taught at the seminary there. Later in life he had abandoned all of his formerly held beliefs in the deity of Christ, the resurrection, the authority of scripture, and the necessity of the Gospel.
Yes, it begins at the top, but the visible church is full of unbelievers 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.” (Hebrews 6:4-5) However, they were not genuine and prove it by falling away into some form of apostasy. Some apostates turn completely away. Others are religious, so they find their home in the apostate churches that are everywhere right now.
These apostates were “enlightened” and yet fell away. This means they had received biblical instruction in God’s truth. They perceived it to be true through their intellect, however, we know that that is not the same thing as regeneration. As we see in the following verse, the true light enlightens everyone, but we know that only a few actually believe. (Matthew 7:13-14)
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:9 ESV)
These apostates tasted the heavenly gift. Tasting in the figurative sense in the New Testament refers to consciously experience something. It does not refer to the eternal “believing” that comes from regeneration. We see an example of this tasting in the Jews who followed Jesus in order to have their felt needs met, but He raised the requirements to be His disciple and most of them left. (John 6:25-66)
These apostates were partakers of the Holy Spirit. These people were right there as the power of the Holy Spirit was demonstrated in the 1st Century, but it did not change them. They were not regenerate. To be a partaker does not mean these are believers, but were involved somehow in the ministries of the Lord or the Apostles. So, you see, people can appear to be very religious and do many good works, but if they do not continue they prove themselves to be disingenuous.
These apostates tasted the goodness of the word of God. Think of the Israelites who did not enter into the Lord’s Rest (The Promised Land) because of their unbelief even though they had witnessed the parting the Red Sea among innumerable other mighty works by God through Moses. Now think of those folks who sit in pews on Sunday morning who would much rather be somewhere else. Or, think of those who have abandoned the form of Christianity which teaches spiritual growth and personal holiness as our requirements before our Holy God; so they become part of a Church that puts no demands for repentance on them.
What is the warning for us here?
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. 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. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. (Hebrews 6:1-8 ESV)
The warning is that apostasy lurks in our churches when God’s Holiness, God’s Grace, God’s Mercy, The Cross, and our complete and utter dependence on Christ as our mediator is lost in trying to appease people who do not want to repent and mature and work with God in their personal holiness. Numbers may not be as large in churches that are faithful in preaching the Word and boldly confronting sin, but those that remain are those the rain falls on so God can bring forth a crop useful to those for whose sake they are cultivated. God blesses His people. His people are the ones who remain. They abide in Christ even as the Father prunes them so they will be even more fruitful. (John 15)