Many words of caution can be found in the Bible warning the believer to be vigilant and be prepared at all times (cf. Matt 24:37-44; 25:1-13; Rom 13:11-14). If our salvation is eternally secure (i.e. we can’t lose it), why are we warned against being sloppy and unprepared? Should we take such warnings seriously? Why did Jesus ask his disciples: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)
The Bible also contains some strong warnings against apostasy. These warnings have led some to doubt the doctrine of eternal security. After all, if we cannot lose our salvation, why are we warned against falling away from the Lord?
An apostate is someone who abandons his religious faith. It is clear from the Bible that apostates are people who made professions of faith in Jesus Christ but never genuinely received Him as Saviour and Lord of their lives. They were pretend believers. Those who turn away from Christ never really trusted Him to begin with, as 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” Those who apostatize are simply demonstrating that they are not true believers, and they never were.
The Bible’s warnings against apostasy exist because there are two types of religious people: believers and unbelievers. In any church there are those who truly know Christ and those who are going through the motions. Wearing the label “Christian” does not guarantee a change of heart. It is possible to hear the Word, and even agree with its truth, without taking it to heart. It is possible to attend church, serve in a ministry, and call yourself a Christian—and still be unsaved (cf. Matthew 7:21–23). As the prophet said, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13; cf. Mark 7:6).
The passages warning against apostasy serve two primary purposes. First, they exhort everyone to be sure of their salvation. One’s eternal destiny is not a trifling matter. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to examine ourselves to see whether we are “in the faith.”
One test of true faith is love for others (cf. 1 John 4:7–8). Another is good works. Anyone can claim to be a Christian, but those who are truly saved will bear “fruit.” A true Christian will show, through words, actions, and doctrine, that he follows the Lord. Christians bear fruit in varying degrees based on their level of obedience and their spiritual gifts, but all Christians bear fruit as the Spirit produces it in them (cf. Galatians 5:22–23). Just as true followers of Jesus Christ will be able to see evidence of their salvation (cf. 1 John 4:13), apostates will eventually be made known by their fruit (cf. Matthew 7:16–20) or lack thereof (cf. John 15:2).
The second purpose for the Bible’s warnings against apostasy is to equip the church to identify apostates. They can be known by their rejection of Christ, acceptance of heresy, and carnal nature (cf. 2 Peter 2:1–3).
The biblical warnings against apostasy, therefore, are warnings to those who are under the umbrella of “faith” without ever having truly exercised faith. Scriptures such as Hebrews 6:4–6 and Hebrews 10:26–29 are warnings to “pretend” believers that they need to examine themselves before it’s too late. Matthew 7:22–23 indicates that “pretend believers” whom the Lord rejects on Judgment Day are rejected not because they “lost faith” but because the Lord never knew them. They never had a relationship with Him.
Let us take a closer look at one of the warnings the Apostle Paul gave to the Hebrews. Paul says: “26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb 10:26-29).
From the description Paul gives of the sin of falling away from the Lord. It is sinning willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, sinning willfully against that truth of which we have had convincing evidence. This text has been the occasion of great distress to some gracious souls; they have been ready to conclude that every willful sin, after conviction and against knowledge, is the unpardonable sin: but this has been their infirmity and error. The sin here mentioned is a total and final apostasy, when men with a full and fixed will and resolution despise and reject Christ, the only Saviour,–despise and resist the Spirit, the only sanctifier,–and despise and renounce the gospel, the only way of salvation, and the words of eternal life and all this after they have known, owned, and professed, the Christian religion, and continue to do so obstinately and maliciously. This is the great transgression: the apostle seems to refer to the law concerning presumptuous sinners, Numbers 15:30, 31. They were to be cut off.
From the dreadful doom of such apostates. (1.) There remains no more sacrifice for such sins, no other Christ to come to save such sinners; they sin against the last resort and remedy. There were some sins under the law for which no sacrifices were provided but yet if those who committed them did truly repent, though they might not escape temporal death, they might escape eternal destruction for Christ would come, and make atonement. But now those under the gospel, who will not accept of Christ, that they may be saved by him, have no other refuge left them. (2.) There remains for them only a certain fearful looking for of judgment, Hebrews 10:27.
Here the Apostle Paul refers to their consciences to judge how much sorer punishment the despisers of Christ (after they have professed to know him) are likely to undergo and they may judge of the greatness of the punishment by the greatness of the sin. (1.) They have trodden underfoot the Son of God. To trample upon an ordinary person shows intolerable insolence to treat a person of honour in that vile manner is insufferable but to deal thus with the Son of God, who himself is God, must be the highest provocation–to trample upon his person, denying him to be the Messiah–to trample upon his authority, and undermine his kingdom–to trample upon his members as the offscouring of all things, and not fit to live in the world what punishment can be too great for such men? (2.) They have counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing that is, the blood of Christ, with which the covenant was purchased and sealed, and wherewith Christ himself was consecrated, or wherewith the apostate was sanctified, that is, baptized, visibly initiated into the new covenant by baptism, and admitted to the Lord’s supper. Observe, There is a kind of sanctification which persons may partake of and yet fall away: they may be distinguished by common gifts and graces, by an outward profession, by a form of godliness, a course of duties, and a set of privileges, and yet fall away finally. Men who have seemed before to have the blood of Christ in high esteem may come to account it an unholy thing, no better than the blood of a malefactor, though it was the world’s ransom, and every drop of it of infinite value. (3.) Those have done despite unto the Spirit of grace, the Spirit that is graciously given to men, and that works grace wherever it is,–the Spirit of grace, that should be regarded and attended to with the greatest care,–this Spirit they have grieved, resisted, quenched, done despite to him, which is the highest act of wickedness, and makes the case of the sinner desperate, refusing to have the gospel salvation applied to him. Now Paul leaves it to the consciences of all, appeals to universal reason and equity, whether such aggravated crimes ought not to receive a suitable punishment, a sorer punishment than those who had died without mercy? But what punishment can be sorer than to die without mercy? I answer, to die by mercy, by the mercy and grace which they have despised. How dreadful is the case when not only the justice of God, but his abused grace and mercy call for vengeance!
There are many people who love religion for religion’s sake and are willing to identify themselves with Jesus and the church. Who wouldn’t want eternal life and blessing? However, Jesus warns us to “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 9:23–26; 14:25–33). True believers have counted the cost and made the commitment; apostates fail to do so. Apostates had a profession of faith at one time but not the possession of faith. Their mouths spoke something other than what their hearts believed. Apostasy is not loss of salvation but evidence of past pretension.
Let us praise God with the song “In Christ Alone”: