As the Lord Jesus Christ began His ministry among His people, He attracted many men and women to Himself, and the Bible calls those who followed Jesus “disciples”. Some of those disciples were apparently impressed by the miracles He did, some perhaps by the perfection of His person, by His moral glories, and at least one of them followed the Lord because he saw it as a way to enrich himself. A few genuinely believed on Him out of a pure heart, receiving the testimony of God against themselves as sinners in need of a Savior, for even the name “Jesus” bore witness to His mission from Jehovah as Savior of His people.¹
Since the days of Cain, there has always existed the possibility, the danger, of a man professing faith or practicing religion without true faith in the living God and in His revelation of Himself. Saul and Jehu might be cited as examples of this sad phenomenon in the Old Testament. But after the Light shone upon men so brightly in the person of His Son, the living Word of God, the treachery of the apostate became so much worse when seen in the illumination of the revealed Truth of God. So that, when many of Jesus’ disciples went away because of His hard sayings on the subject of the need for imbibing by faith His body and blood offered for the life of the world, and of the uselessness of the flesh (man’s fallen nature), it was a fall from a place of higher privilege than from mere Judaistic religion. They left, in unbelief, that great privilege of being in the company of the very Son of God walking among men.² This brought forth the Lord’s searching question to those disciples who remained: “Will you also go away?”
However, I believe we can say that apostasy after the cross and the descent of the Holy Spirit is an even greater fall, and even more treacherous. That awful danger is what the baptized Jews were warned of in the epistle addressed to them, in Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31. Some would take these passages to mean that these who were in danger of falling away from the Christian faith were truly believers with eternal life, but a careful reading of these passages shows a complete lack of evidence for that. Faith is not mentioned in connection with those who are being warned, and “life” and “salvation” are both conspicuous by their absence, except to present a stark contrast in 6:9. Some of these Hebrews professing Christianity are seen in grave danger of falling away from a privileged position of provisional sanctification as outwardly connected with genuine believers.³
Is it not a normal thing that a preacher should take into account that a few in his audience may be “going along for the ride” without actually having believed and received eternal life? An earnest warning of the dangers of apostatizing is in such a case an implicit plea to truly believe, rather than to be satisfied with the trappings of Christianity and casually partaking with saints.
In Colossians 1:21-23, we see a juxtaposition of assurance of the believer’s reconciliation to God on the one hand, and of reconciliation’s test of reality on the other hand. “And you . . . hath He reconciled in the body of His flesh through death . . . If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel.” There is no contradiction here, no questioning of the foundational truth of eternal security, and no “Lordship salvation” principle teaching that a soul might be unsure of his standing before God in new creation life until the very end of his natural life. This portion confirms that believers in Christ have already been reconciled, an irreversible act of God, but at the same time, that apostasy from the faith, from a profession of the doctrines of Christianity, is something to be watched out for in the collective testimony of the church.
In every generation of the church’s history there have no doubt been apostates who were motivated early in life by self-centered interests to connect themselves with a Christian testimony, only to be revealed as counterfeits in due time. Now, the Lord knows them that are His, and for every case of apostasy, there are real Christians who backslide and languish for a time in that state, dishonoring as that is to the Lord, and detrimental as it is to the life, liberty, and happiness of such a failing believer. The Lord Jesus not only knows all of His own, but He keeps all of those who are really His sheep.° The doubts and worldliness of a believer are not contemplated in Colossians 1:23, but when one denounces the foundation doctrines of Christianity, and despises the idea of a hope for a life to come, we as saints of God are fully justified in doubting the reality of that person’s profession of faith, no matter how real it might have seemed to us when emotion or persuasion worked an apparent conviction or lifestyle change.
The case of a Canadian evangelist named Charles Templeton came to my attention a few years ago. Charles had a conversion experience when he was 20 years old, and in spite of having only a ninth grade education, he developed a real ability to speak to and connect with people. Charles preached the gospel to crowds of many thousands in the United States and Canada in the late 1940’s. It is said that during his campaigns, an average of 150 people per night were converted and experienced real change in their lives. Charles made use of his natural abilities in salesmanship as he preached about the power of prayer to change lives. He was a pleasure to listen to as he told of the benefits of faith and religion, and he connected with people on an emotional level. He was a close friend of the evangelist Billy Graham, and they went on gospel campaigns together. Sadly, by the late 1940’s, Charles was having increasing doubts about the accuracy and inerrancy of the word of God, and he and Billy Graham took a different path in their preaching careers. After a three-year stint as an early televangelist, he felt he couldn’t continue on any longer given his doubts about the faith, and he soon became an agnostic. Near the end of his life, he wrote and published his memoirs, which he entitled “Farewell to God: My reasons for rejecting the Christian Faith”. Such was the end of a life that, to outward appearances, was started on a course of faith and good works.
Some time before Templeton died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001, the well-known author Lee Strobel, the former atheist who was converted and later wrote “The Case for Christ”, had the opportunity to interview him. Although suffering the effects of Alzheimers, Templeton was still able to carry on an intelligent conversation, and here is an excerpt of that exchange.
Strobel: “And how do you assess this Jesus?”
Templeton: “He was the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus . . . He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history . . . In my view, he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”
That’s when Templeton uttered the words that Strobel never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!” After a few minutes of deep and sad emotion, he quietly but adamantly insisted: “Enough of that.” Charles Templeton had Jesus for his human hero, but he had long ago rejected Him as Savior.
How very sad that there will be some who reach that great white throne judgment having come so close, yet having fallen so far away, from the faith of God’s elect. If you, as a reader of this article, have an inclination to leave the faith or to question the reality of God’s moral claims upon you, I urge you to come to believe, to trust Christ for eternal life, before you fall away from the faith with no possibility of recovery. No real Christian ought to be moved to doubt his or her salvation by these warnings, but the Spirit of God desires that they be aware that some nominal professors of Christ around them may take that awful course of apostasy themselves. May it never shake our confidence in our Savior God.
¹ Luke 7:29-30; Matthew 1:21
² John 6:60-71
³ See also I Corinthians 7:14 and Hebrews 13:12 for other examples of “provisional sanctification” by outward connection to family or nation.
° II Timothy 2:19; John 10:28; I Peter 1:5