The apostasy of true believers. Is it possible?

12 Nov

My pastor preached an excellent sermon from Hebrews 6:1-9 this past Lord’s Day.  It reads:

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, 2 and of instruction about washings,the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 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, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 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. 7 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. 8 But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. 9 Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.

The question before is whether a true justified believer may lose that justification, salvation.  At first blush, verses 4-6 appear to indicate that he can.  Formerly, I was a Wesleyan-Arminian (though I didn’t know it at the time), and held this view, even using this very passage to thump baptists who embraced the doctrine of eternal security (I was a jerk).  So what shall we say?  Are “those” addressed in verses 4-6 genuine believers, who at some point in the past had been justified by faith through grace alone in Christ alone, only to have that status undone as a result of apostasy?

It really boils down to this.  If the person(s) in 4-6 were true justified believers at one point, then we have two options.  1) The spiritual blessings referred to in 4-6 indicate an inward heart conversion and subsequent sanctification that didn’t last.  A true justified believer can indeed become apostate, losing their righteous status before God, and can apparently reach a point that is irreversible (“For it is impossible… to restore [that sort of person] to repentance”).  That is the Wesleyan-Arminian position (and Roman Catholic, as I understand it).  Some who hold to eternal security as Reformed folk do actually argue that this passage does in fact refer to true justified believers falling away, but only as a hypothetical in some sense.  In essence, they reason that the author is saying that no true believer can lose their salvation or become apostate, but if they could, they could never be restored and would be eternally lost, so wake up and get serious about your faith!  It’s a threat of something that would happen if possible, but can’t happen in fact.  At this point, it is hard for me to see much to commend in this latter view (seems hard to avoid the empty-threat label), though heavy-hitting NT scholar Thomas Schreiner takes this view (pp. 52-end) and insists that the threat is real, and is being used to keep all true believers persevering until the end.

The other view among those who hold to eternal security, as all Reformed folk do (Federal-Vision folk excepted in a particular sense), argue that the person in 4-6 is not a genuine true justified believer, but simply someone who has been part of the covenant community of God (the church) but was making a false profession of faith.  They had gone through all the motions, benefited and experienced many spiritual blessings that attend church and Christian life, even had been baptized and taken the Lord’s Supper (“washings” and “tasted” could reasonably refer to these).  But eventually the inward reality became manifest and he falls away, never to be restored.

My pastor pointed out several reasons why this view is most probably correct.  First, the pronouns indicate a stark contrast between true believers and false professors.  In all of Hebrews until this point, “we” and “us” are used to address the people of God.  But suddenly in 4-6 “those” (apostates) is used.  The author goes right back to speaking in more intimate personal language at the conclusion of this section, picking up in verse 9.  “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things–things that belong to salvation.”  Clearly, the author sees a radical difference in the nature of the “beloved” and “those” who fall away.  Indeed, in verse 9, the author indicates that all that he has said about the spiritual blessings experienced by “those” apostates did not involve “things that belong to salvation” such as they do for the beloved.

Secondly, we know from other verses that eternal security is a reality for the true believer, who can never be separated from the love of God  by anything (Rom. 8:38-39) and who can never be plucked out of His hand (John 10:28), who are assured that if they are given to Christ by the Father, will also be raised up with Him on that last day, losing none of them (John 6).

So the situation of “those” described in 4-6 is not unlike that of Judas Iscariot.  As 1 John 2:19 said, apostates come out from the people of God but were never of them (“of” being a state of being; inward reality).  Apostasy, that is, is evidence of no internal saving faith ( they may possess a kind of faith that comes from seed sown on poor soil, which withers and dies when trials come; Matt. 13:1-9).

I just happened to be reading J.C. Ryle’s commentary on Matthew 26:14-25 today.  He says this, concerning Judas (fits right in with a Reformed interpretation of 4-6):

Judas Iscariot had the highest possible religious privileges. He was a chosen apostle, and companion of Christ. He was an eye-witness of our Lord’s miracles, and a hearer of His sermons. He saw what Abraham and Moses never saw, and heard what David and Isaiah never heard. He lived in the society of the eleven apostles. He was a fellow-laborer with Peter, James, and John. But for all this his heart was never changed. He clung to one darling sin.

Judas Iscariot made a reputable profession of religion. There was nothing but what was right, and proper, and becoming in his outward conduct. Like the other apostles, he appeared to believe and to give up all for Christ’s sake. Like them he was sent forth to preach and work miracles. No one of the eleven appears to have suspected him of hypocrisy. When our Lord said, “One of you shall betray me,” no one said, “Is it Judas?” Yet all this time his heart was never changed.

And since Hebrews 6 is a warning passage, something God uses to warn true believers to “press on” and to keep believing, I leave you with Ryle’s departing thought concerning the apostasy of Judas:

We ought to observe these things. They are deeply humbling and instructive. Like Lot’s wife, Judas is intended to be a beacon to the whole church. Let us often think about him, and say, as we think, “Search me, O Lord, and try my heart, and see if there be any wicked way in me.” Let us resolve, by God’s grace, that we will never be content with anything short of sound, thorough, heart conversion.


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