Does Scripture Describe Two Types of Apostasy?

In my series on perseverance I dealt with the warning passages in Hebrews.  I have changed my views on certain aspects of apostasy while studying the subject.  However, my view that apostasy from true saving faith is possible has never changed.  I just can’t read the Bible honestly and deny such a reality, even if it would be far more pleasant to believe that true believers can never forsake the faith.  My series on perseverance presented much of the exegetical basis for my strong conviction that true believers can forsake the faith and perish everlastingly.  I will not be covering that ground again here, but would direct anyone interested to those posts to examine the strong exegetical evidence.

In dealing with the Hebrews passages one will easily come to the conclusion that the apostasy described there seems to be of an irremediable nature.  Robert Picirilli and F. Leroy Forlines (among many other scholars) make a strong case that apostasy is irremediable based on the warnings in Hebrews.  In reading them I was swayed from my previous position that an apostate can always be restored to faith.  However, in looking at the context and considering other passages of Scripture, I came to the conclusion that there may be two types of apostasy, one irremediable and one from which a person may yet recover.  I described that possible distinction in this post.  The basic idea is that the apostasy described in Hebrews is the most severe form of apostasy possible.  It is a heartfelt repudiation of the faith and the full spiritual experience once enjoyed by the Spirit filled believer.  From such an apostasy the writer of Hebrews informs us that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”  This is the sort of apostasy that the Jews of Hebrews would likely be facing in being tempted to return to Judaism after becoming Christians.  In such a return it is likely that the former believer would have to publicly repudiate Christ as an imposter and false Messiah who rightly suffered death for His blaspheme as a common criminal.  This makes sense of the specific language describing the apostate as one who has crucified to themselves again the Son of God and put Him to open shame (6:6, cf. Hebrews 10:29, where the apostate is said to have “trampled under foot the Son of God and regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified”).

The lesser form of apostasy would not involve a heartfelt repudiation of faith in Christ.  Rather, it would involve a slip into an attitude of practical unbelief where one is no longer concerned about the things of God and begins to live a life characterized by rebellion and sin.  Such a person may even believe that they are still a Christian, while living like the devil.  This apostasy would be no different than the other in the result that a vital relationship with Christ would cease to exist, resulting in spiritual death.  It would differ only in the extent to which one has walked away from Christ, not yet coming to a point of full heartfelt repudiation of Christ and the Christian experience.  It would be like those who claim to know God, but their actions deny Him.  They would not deny Christ fully, but have no concern about living for God or maintaining a relationship with Christ.  Spiritual death would result from either degree of apostasy, but the lesser degree may yet have hope of a return to a saving relationship with Christ.  However, over time this lesser form of apostasy, if not dealt with, will lead to such a hardened heart that it will inevitably lead to total irremediable apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10.

Some hold to a similar view but would call what I have described as a lesser apostasy as “backsliding” and maintain that the backslider is still saved (this is the view of Free Will Baptists Robert Picirilli and F. Leroy Forlines).  My view basically sees the backslider as unsaved while still in a position where recovery is possible.  I had never really heard my view expressed before, but was pleased to find that Henry H. Halley came to essentially the same view in his “Halley’s Bible Handbook.”  The only difference would be that he seems to see a possible description of a partial and total apostasy in Hebrews 6, where I see the passage as describing only the most severe apostasy.  Under Hebrews chapter 6 (pp. 650, 651) he writes,

The Fall of a Christian, spoken of in verse 6 may be Partial or Total; as a person may fall from the top of a building to a projecting ledge, or all the way to the bottom.  As long as the Apostasy is Partial, there may be Hope.  When it becomes Total, Recovery may be impossible. 

The Sin here spoken of  may be similar to the Unpardonable Sin mentioned by Jesus (Matthew 12:31, 32, and Mark 3:28-30), where the implication is that that Sin consisted in attributing the Miracles of Jesus to Satan, and which, in Luke 12:9-10, is connected with Denial of Jesus.  It could be committed by a person outside the Church.  The Sin here referred to is the Fall of a Christian.  The Essence of the Fatal Sin, whether by a Christian or by One Outside, is the Deliberate and Final Rejection of Christ.  It is as if a person in the bottom of a well, to whom a rope is let down, slashes the rope above his reach, thus cutting off his only hope of escape.  For those who Reject Christ, there will Never Be Another Sacrifice for Sin (10:26-31).  They will have to suffer for their own sin.

Over against this Fearful Warning against Falling Away from Christ, the writer is very positive that, for those who remain Faithful and True to Christ, the Hope of Eternal Salvation is Absolutely Sure and Steadfast, based on the immutability of God’s Promises to those who Trust Him (9-20).  (Frequent caps his, bold emphasis mine)

I find that my view is practically and theologically superior to the view of Forlines and Picirilli in that it leaves no room for the possibility of antinomianism that may result from a view of “backsliding” that maintains that the backslider is still saved.  Forlines and Picirilli maintain that as long as one is saved, sanctification is taking place, but this is hard to fit with their insistence that a backslider is still saved.  Maybe we just have different views of what backsliding is, but if a backslider is still in the process of sanctification it is hard to understand why he or she could be considered a backslider.  Sanctification is a forward process.  As long as one is in that forward process I do not see how one can call him or her a “backslider.”  That seems like a contradiction in terms.  It may also be that my view sees backsliding as more serious.  I would not consider frequent struggles with sin backsliding.  One can struggle with sin and still be in the process of sanctification.  That the believer is “struggling” is evidence enough that sanctification is taking place.  The “backsliding” or “lesser apostasy” I am describing is characterized by an attitude of unconcern about struggling against sin or repenting.

My view also holds that unbelief is what ultimately severs a relationship with Christ.  The difference has to do with the degree of unbelief.  One is a practical unbelief where a lifestyle of sin and rebellion results.  The other is a practical and total unbelief, characterized not only by sin and a lifestyle devoid of fruit, but a heartfelt repudiation of Christ and the Christian experience.  It would be similar to the difference between unbelief and rejection.  An unbeliever can be anyone who does not have faith in Christ.  However, there is a difference between an unbeliever who has not yet heard the gospel and an unbeliever who has heard and rejected the gospel.  Likewise, there is a difference between an unbeliever whose life is no longer characterized by a living faith relationship with Christ that results in sanctification and one who has coupled that practical unbelief with an outright heartfelt rejection of Christ and the fullness of spiritual blessings once experienced.

____________________

For a solid alternative view from an Arminian scholar, see Brian Abasciano, My Argument for Apostasy Not Being Irremediable in Hebrews 6

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24 Responses

  1. Good post, Ben. Thanks for this 🙂

  2. I recently presented a lesson on Manasseh from 2nd Chronicles 33. The aim of the lesson was to magnify the grace of God, in spite of Manasseh’s wholesale rejection of Him.

    Manasseh couldn’t have been a worse king. He brought idols into the temple of God, he rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had torn down, and he even sacrificed his sons in fire to Molech. Verse 10 says that he did not do these things in mere ignorance, rather “And Jehovah spake to Manasseh, and to his people; but they gave no heed.”

    Yet in spite of this, God punished him by sending him captive to Assyria, and he humbled himself and prayed to God for deliverance. After turning his heart back to God, he spent the rest of his life trying to undo what he had done. In spite of years of rebellion, God welcomed his repentance and continued to offer grace.

    I think we need to be careful assuming certain people can never repent even of they wanted to. I think you rightly say that the context of much of Hebrews is discussing the fate of those who turn their back on “so great a salvation.” And in the context of those thoughts, it is totally true that there is the impossibility of salvation to those that “crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.”

    But if someone renounced their position of unbelief, could they not again be saved? Isn’t that the whole point of the author writing the book, to pull their wandering eyes back from Judaism?

    Thanks, as always, for your articles!

    -steven

  3. Steven,

    Manasseh is an interesting case and a true testimony to God’s tremendous grace and patience. I would classify Manasseh as a terrible backslider. Manasseh certainly turned from the Lord, but it is unclear if Manasseh understood himself to have turned from the Lord. It may be that Manasseh believed he could serve other deities while still believing that the Lord was on his side as well. He may have found ways to justify his actions as so many do. It would be like someone today who lives in gross rebellion and sin all the while thinking they are still saved. They would be wrong and their actions would prove that they have no real relationship with Christ, but they would still fall short of a total heartfelt repudiation of Christ and the Christian experience.

    As a side note, if I am correct, this would underscore why certain “once saved always saved” positions are so dangerous. They can cultivate an attitude towards God’s grace that can lead to a disregard for spiritual growth and serious trivialization of the dangers of sin, potentially leading one to practical apostasy (the lesser form) and eventually towards absolute apostasy as the heart is continually hardened by sin and the desire for any relationship with Christ is essentially quenched, leading to a total heartfelt abandoning of the Christian faith.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  4. Steven,

    It may also be that Manasseh never had any real relationship with God. He seems to have been in rebellion from the start. In that case, he would not really be an apostate as described in Hebrews. He would not be someone who has fully experienced the spiritual blessings of a life of true faith and then fully spurned and rejected that experience, “insulting the Spirit of grace.”

    God Bless,
    Ben

  5. But if someone renounced their position of unbelief, could they not again be saved? Isn’t that the whole point of the author writing the book, to pull their wandering eyes back from Judaism?

    Yes, but they had not yet fully embraced Judaism and repudiated Christ though they were wandering in that direction and were in danger of fully abandoning the faith and renouncing their Christian experience altogether. They are still believers, but believers in great danger as they are not moving forward in their faith and being tempted to leave the faith for a system that has no room for Christ. That is the purpose of the warnings and the encouragements of the book. I don’t see the author holding out any hope for those who have already made that fatal and final move. Quite the opposite.

  6. Though I disagree with aspects of Calvinism, and think it is deterministic; possibly the greatest reason I think Calvinism incorrect is that I am convinced the Bible teaches that people can lose their salvation. This seems incompatible with Calvinism.

    Your thoughts are interesting here. I meet people who seemed ta have returned to the faith, though I am aware of the Hebrews passage.

  7. What I want to know is does the Bible say how an apostate may know if he or she has gone too far and become an apostate?

  8. …possibly the greatest reason I think Calvinism incorrect is that I am convinced the Bible teaches that people can lose their salvation. This seems incompatible with Calvinism.

    I agree completely and it is is certainly incompatible with Calvinism.

  9. Matt,

    If one can know that he is an unbeliever, then one can know if he has become an apostate. See this post for a distinction between practical unbelief and deliberate hearfelt repudiation of one’s faith in Christ.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  10. Ben,

    I’ve been thinking more about this over the weekend, and before I comment further, I wanted to ask you a clarifying question:

    Do you feel that the impossibility of repentance described in Hebrews 6 is because of God’s unwilingness, or the individual themselves?

    I think that would help frame some further thoughts.

  11. Good post. I too agree that there is an apostasy without remedy AND a falling away from grace that may be repented of.

  12. Article XVI of the Anglican Thirty Nine Articles seems to suggest both kinds of apostasy [my comments in brackets]:

    OF SIN AFTER BAPTISM

    “Not every sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. [Comment: this implies some sins ARE such.] Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to such as fall into sin after baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may [notice not ‘inevitably must’] arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, thy can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.”

  13. Steven,

    Frankly, I am not sure. I am not sure we can draw a solid conclusion on that from the text. Picirilli makes a strong case that this has reference to the judgment of God due to some of the specific language being used in Hebrews 6 and 10 as well as in other warnings throughout Hebrews. I think it possible that it may have more to do with the hardness of heart being reached by the apostate.

    A clue may be found in the description of the apostate prior to defection in Hebrews 6 (e.g., enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift and powers of the age to come, partners with the Holy Spirit, etc.). The description may be more for making the point that the apostate has fully experienced every spiritual Christian blessing available in Christ, and has now fully repudiated that profound spiritual experience. It is not too hard to imagine why one would not be able to repent again in such a case. What could the apostate possibly experience that he has not experienced already and fully repudiated? He has experienced God’s grace to the fullest and rejected it as a false experience. What more can God do that has not already been done?

    Still, it may be more of a judgment against one who has so insulted the Spirit of grace and trampled under foot the Son of God. Or perhaps it is some combination of the two. Again, the text doesn’t really solve the question for us, but the text does tell us that a renewal to repentance is impossible for those who have fallen away in such a severe manner.

    God Bless,
    Ben

  14. DT,

    Thanks for the interesting tid bit from the Anglical Thirty Nine Articles.

  15. You’re welcome

    (Oops…just realized I left out a clause in the quoted Article. This sentence “Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not to such as fall into sin after baptism” should read “Wherefore, the grant of repentance is not TO BE DENIED to such as fall into sin after baptism.)

  16. A thought on whether the hard apostasy is without repentance on the part of God or the apostate…
    If someone willfully turns from the best God has to offer (Christ Jesus) after thoroughly knowing him, what more could be added to the offer that would entice the rejecter to try again? If Christ isn’t enough what ever could be?

  17. No one could be presented a Bible with absolutely no previous teaching and read it and arrive at once saved always saved. When I made that statement on a hyper-Calvinist blog (very well known) I was told:

    “That’s why we need teachers.”

    Dumb alert.

  18. Interesting read regarding two types of apostasy but I think your misguided in one area. Taking the entire book of Hebrews into consideration the passage which ironically is 6:6 deals much more themematically with idea of returning to animal sacrifice system of Judaism rather than a repudiation of Christ. My own view is this we must assume that some of the readers had indeed already fallen into this due to social and political pressure. So the impossibility of repentance refers to operating under a system of animal sacrifice, if these jewish believers turn from trusting Christ to animal sacrifices there is no renewal in the old covenant. If fact the writer goes on to tell us that this system is unfruitful and will result in judgement. To say that these could not be restored is reading into the text

  19. loosenoose,

    I would suggest to you that returning to a system of animal sacrifice would involve a repudiation of Christ. In fact, many scholars believe (based on historical evidence) that for Christians to return to Judaism they would be required to publicly denounce Christ as a common criminal who rightly died for his blaspheme. That makes a lot of sense of the language of chapter 6 and chapter 10 (trampling underfoot the Son of God, counting his blood as unholy or “common”, etc.). Also, in verse 1 we see how he is using repentance in terms of an element of conversion to Christ. That is the immediate context and suggests that the impossibility of being renewed to repentance has to do with converting again to the Christian faith. For more on the warnings and the context of these passages which I think will more adequately address your comments, see the following posts:

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2008/02/07/perseverance-of-the-saints-part-5-hebrews-64-9/

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2008/03/27/perseverance-of-the-saints-part-6-hebrews-1026-30/

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2008/04/03/perseverance-of-the-saints-part-7-who-is-sanctified-in-hebrews-1029/

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2008/04/10/perseverance-of-the-saints-part-8-what-kind-of-sanctification-is-being-described-in-hebrews-1029/

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2008/05/12/perseverance-of-the-saints-part-9-hebrews-1032-39/

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/perseverance-of-the-saints-part-10-tying-up-loose-ends-in-hebrews/

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2008/07/08/perseverance-of-the-saints-part-11-can-apostates-be-restored/

  20. It seems obvious to me that indeed nobody can know if they are apostate, or if they can, they don’t care that they are, because if they could, we would see tons of people writing here, telling us that they had. What is the essence of worry? The essence of worry is concern for the possibility of impending harm or danger. I don’t worry that I might have broken my leg before I ski down a dangerous slope, or that I might have spilled coffee on my chest, before I buy the coffee without a lid on it. The whole point of God giving us the capacity to worry is that He wanted us to correct situations that could become bad or irreparable, before they do. Once someone who has been hardened by sin and has rejected Jesus as savior, there is no point in worrying, so why would God inspire worry? If anything, God would inspire judgement and feelings of wrath being bestowed upon someone, but God is pretty clear that this type of judgement will occur on that last day when the book is opened, and the names are read. In Matthew 25, we see that those on the left are surprised that they are being sent to hell, as if they thought everything was ok and Jesus tells them “depart” and they are stunned! Even the example of Esau shows us that Esau was oblivious to any wrong doing on his part. If we go through the Bible, we see time and time again that sinners who incur wrath upon themselves are either coy, ignorant or sometimes even proud and arrogant, like Pharaoh who knew FULL WELL the judgement of God and His power, yet refused to yield to Moses’ decrees. The essence of apostasy then MUST be pride and a willful rejection of God/Christ, to suggest otherwise is nonsense IMO. Also, note that in every instance where the word repentance is used, or any of it’s sister words such as repent, repented, repents, or turned back, it always denotes a change of heart resulting in an action equal to but opposite of the action one is already taking. If I repent of my sins, I am saying that God is right, and I am wrong, thus i am CHANGING my mind, about sin and Jesus. To reject Jesus is a repentance of one’s repentance, thus to repent of that would literally be impossible! It’s like saying I could change my mind about dying, after I had decided to place my .44 to my head and pulled the trigger. There simply is no way back, no way to trust in Jesus again, no way to love God or care about His will. It is a switch in the soul that is forever turned off.

  21. Dear Sir,
    I found your post on evangelicalarminians.org and I found it very good (but I didn’t read now the comments).

    As arminian, I agree that two different kind of apostasies do exist, but I strongly disagree about the idea that a believer can be not-saved but still able to be restored. I think that there are at least two strong biblical reasons to leave definitively this theory:

    > we are saved only by faith, and true, genuine faith works towards sanctification. So the idea of a true believer that still believes but is not working to be a holy disciple of Christ, makes no sense for me: it is not true saving faith in that moment.
    > the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit according to Romans is the assurance of our future full redemption, and there are three possible conditions for someone that in the past was regenerated:
    1) or now the Holy Spirit delights calmly in him (1 Peter 4:14b) –> good christian
    2) or now the Holy Spirit is upset (Eph. 4:30) –> bad christian
    3) or now the Holy Spirit departed (Hebrews 6:4-6) –> not a true christian anymore

    So we have two alternative scenarios for a “carnal christian”:
    – or he has the Holy Spirit, and it grants future redemption (so he is saved)
    – or he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit anymore, and this means that the Holy Spirit can’t come back and so he will never be saved again (Hebrew 6:4-6).

    I agree that the path from 2 to 3 is gradual and progressive and it’s not easy to make a difference (just like we are not able sometimes to understand WHEN exactly the Spirit “comes in” at regeneration, we are not able always to say WHEN exactly the Spirit “goes out”, but that exact moment does exist in God’s mind).

    Probably, Psalms 19:12-13 confirms this model from another point of view:

    1) Psalm 19:12 –> good christian
    2) Psalm 19:13a –> bad christian
    3) Psalm 19:13b –> not a christian anymore, according to Hebrews 10:26.

    I’d appreciate a feedback about these thoughts, please

  22. PLEASE HELP

    I WANT TO BELIEVE SALVATION IS NOT FRAGILE.

    I HAVE READ SOME PASSAGES IN 1 JOHN 1:9 AND 1 JOHN 5:16 AND PSALM SOMEWHERE THAT SAYS CONFESS SO THE GOLDY AREN’T WASHED AWAY IN THE WATER OF GODS JUDGEMENT! IS THERE ANY WAY I COULD CALL YOU TO GAIN ASSURANCE THAT SALVATION IS NOT FRAGILLLLLEEEE!

    HELP PLEASE

    HUTTON

  23. Hutton,

    Salvation is conditioned on faith in Christ and God empowers you to believe and continue to believe. You have all you need to remain in Him. Can you still walk away? Yes, but that doesn’t mean salvation is fragile. Likewise, I have all I need to remain faithful to my wife. Does that mean I could never leave her? Of course not. However, it would be strange to call that relationship “fragile” based on that fact.

    Jesus promises that He will not cast out any who come to Him. That should give you assurance.

  24. The Bible is clear that faith alone, fully apart from works saves us, so unless someone has rejected Jesus’ work on the cross and His resurrection fully, they are saved,. it is easy to get caught up in semantic arguments, and in doing so, many have become either way too liberal, or way too conservative. The Amish come to mind, as well as several other groups that actually say you have to physically get down on your knees and “repent” every time you sin. These groups stress works, and make the walk with Christ out to be some sort of narrow thin line that is so easy to fall off of and be damned, that one scarcely could be a Christian if they took that literally. The once saved always saved people take the salvation doctrine way too casually, and I have literally heard some say once we have said within ourselves “Jesus died on the cross and rose again” we are set in salvation, much like people are locked into a carnival ride until it ends, no matter what they might do to get out of it. I see works not as contributions to salvation, or even so much as evidence of salvation (i.e. if we aren’t working, we aren’t saved) but as things we as believers should want to do, not out of a feeling of debt, but out of love for the one who is saving us. A lack of works doesn’t mean someone does not believe, it just means they are not placing full command of their lives over to Jesus. However, works do keep us grounded in the word of God, and on the right path. I think a lazy Christian can become a complacent Christian, and eventually allow false doctrines or doubts to creep in, and eventually lead to spiritual death and rejection of the Holy Spirit. So, if we find ourselves not tithing enough, or not attending church regularly, or not witnessing, or if we find it easy to drink or look at porn, etc. we may want to examine why this is, and not just stop doing those things, or begin doing the positive things, but remember our first love and rekindle that excitement and desire to serve God wholeheartedly.

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