When any Christian, particularly a leader in the church, renounces faith in Jesus, troubling spiritual and cognitive dissonances ensue for believers. The reactions range from fierce denunciations of the apostate, blame directed at the apostate’s theological and ecclesial tradition, and a melancholic sense of doubt over one’s own standing before God. Sometimes these reactions are all wrapped up together. Understandably, then, Christians reach for an explanatory theological framework for the reality of apostasy, and two readily present themselves.
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us (1 John 2:19).
On the one hand, the apostate might be regarded as nothing more than an impostor whose true colors are now being revealed. Those who have truly come to Jesus have come because God has drawn them and all those who come to Jesus will be kept securely by him (cf. John 6:44; 17:12). The work of salvation is God’s, and he will finish the good work he has started (cf. Philippians 1:6). On this account, genuine apostasy of a genuine Christian might be regarded as an absolute impossibility. Thus, it is concluded that either the apostate was either never truly a Christian to begin with, or that they remain a Christian (though they are living in rebellion).
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 age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance (Hebrews 6:4-6a).
On the other hand, the apostate might be regarded as someone who has participated in the realities of Christ and his gospel and has nonetheless inexplicably fallen away. There is a “sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16), a spurning of the Son of God (Hebrews 10:29), a final blaspheming of the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven (cf. Matthew 12:32). Whatever the precipitating temptations, genuine apostasy of a genuine Christian is an absurdity that nonetheless seems to be actualized both in the scriptures and in the history of God’s people.
A Third Way?
Which of these two explanatory frameworks one applies to apostasy is typically indicative of one’s soteriology—one being rooted in a Calvinist and the other in an Arminian doctrine of salvation. The best of each of these approaches has its exegetical and theological strategies for attempting to incorporate the scriptures cited by the other framework. Without dismissing some of the important differences underlying these divergent accounts, and without implying that at least some of these differences could not be settled by more careful reasoning from scripture, it is possible (if not necessary) to transcend and to incorporate aspects of both of these accounts in our theology and our pastoring.
The background for relating these two perspectives must be the doctrine of God proper. Thomas Aquinas crystallizes the entirety of the patristic and medieval traditions on the divine nature and God’s relation to creation when he says that the self-existent, eternal, metaphysically simple God is neither “a genus” nor is “in a genus” (Cf. Summa Theologica 1.3.5). In other words, God is not some general category, nor is God inside of any general category. One upshot of this is that it is impossible for us to get a “bird’s-eye view” of God and how he relates to his creation either in creation or salvation. If we believe we can construct a model of a God-world system and view that system from the outside as objective observers, we are fundamentally wrong. We are always participants, with a subjective view from the side of the creature. The comprehensive viewpoint remains God’s entirely.
As Christians we nonetheless encounter apostasy objectively in those who apostasize. This encounter calls for, and even necessitates, an interpretation. What must at all costs be avoided in this interpretation is speculation about God’s true intentions toward the apostate. God does not have a secret agenda hidden behind what he has expressed to us in the person of Jesus Christ and the universal call to faith in, and new life through, him. While the genuineness of the apostate’s original intentions vis-à-vis Christianity are more susceptible to suspicion, speculation on this front is also deeply problematic. No one is saved by the Lord Jesus Christ on the merits of their good intentions, and it seems that most, if not all, people come to faith in Christ with mixed motives. If we refuse to say we know more about God’s will for the apostate than that he calls them to life in Jesus, and if we decline to question the apostate’s original motives for following Christ, then we must simply regard them now as a non-believer, and preach the gospel of grace to them. Whether the apostate is a runaway believer who cannot ultimately escape God’s grasp, or a former believer who has, once-and-for-all, chosen death and hell—this will only be revealed in whether they ultimately surrender to the grace of God or persist in refusing it. We must refuse both cheap comforts and also hopeless despair; we must live, pray, and proclaim in this tension.
In addition to the pain felt over the one who has left the fold, apostasy often causes those who remain to call into question the genuineness of their own faith. For those settled into a more Arminian soteriology this may look like a fear that they themselves would not continue to belong to Christ, while those in Reformed camps may be led to question whether they truly belong at all. In either case, the only place that one can find subjective certainty is in communion with the objective, living Christ and his body, the church. As John Calvin writes:
Those whom God has adopted as his sons are said to have been chosen not in themselves but in his Christ; for unless he could love them in him, he could not honor them with the inheritance of his kingdom if they had not previously become partakers of him. But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life if we are in communion with Christ (Institutes 3.24.5).
Those who doubt either the genuineness of their own faith or God’s benevolence toward them—and isn’t this all of us, in one way or another?—are called to attend to the preaching of the gospel’s promises, the realities conveyed by the sacraments, and the contemplation of Christ in prayer, all as received in the concreteness of the body of Christ. These are the ways, and this the context, in which God’s love is known and experienced, and through which faith is strengthened and sustained. One wonders whether the apostasies which so perturb us might not all have their root in a neglect of these “ordinary means of grace”.
Matthew Wilcoxen is the associate rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Washington, DC. Matt studied for his PhD in Systematic Theology in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Divine Humility (Baylor, 2019) and a member of the St. Peter Fellowship of the Center for Pastor Theologians.