THE NEED FOR FAITHFULNESS IN DAYS OF APOSTASY
By Rt. Revd. Dr J Barry Shucksmith, Royal Navy (retired)
We live in momentous days. The Christian “religion” has been in a state of decline for many decades. However, our nation – until the end of the Second World War – was still giving some public respect to its Protestant Settlement. Since then we have seen, both in State and National Church, a great departure from Christian belief and practice. Even a quarter of century ago, we would not have thought it possible to have an Archbishop of Canterbury who would blasphemously refer to God as “a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting”. He also quotes approvingly these heretical words: “the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Pentecost of his Spirit do not mean that Jesus Christ is henceforward the answer to everything” (1). The departure from Christian truth is well advanced in most of the denominations, where fundamental Christian beliefs are being jettisoned in the interests of expediency; but false religions now also grow and multiply. Many professing Christians are being duped into giving recognition to multi-faith religion – and some will eventually be found supporting a “one-world-religion”. Indeed, the need for the Lord’s people to be watchful and engaged in prayer, has never been more urgent.
TRUE AND FALSE CONCEPTS OF APOSTASY
We read in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church: “incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the wilful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith…” (2). (emphasis added)
It is this latter word, “apostasy” with which we are concerned. Of course, when the Roman Catholic Church speaks about total repudiation of the Christian faith, it means Roman Catholic faith. This is confirmed by the final sentence of the same quotation: “schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (Catechism paragraphs 1814-1816, pages 454-455). We repudiate this entirely. By these criteria and definitions all true Protestants, bible-believing Christians, would be in a state of apostasy. What does the Scripture say about apostasy?
THE BIBLICAL TEACHING ON APOSTASY
Apostasy is defection from biblical faith. Jeremiah 2:19 reads: “Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord God of hosts”. Hebrews 6:4-6 warns: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame”.
The characteristic and oft recurring sin of the chosen people was “forsaking the Lord”, especially with regard to their contact with idolatrous nations. It is seen in the warnings and prohibitions of the laws of Moses (3). Indeed, so wayward was the heart of Israel, even in the years in the wilderness immediately following the national emancipation, that Joshua found it necessary to re-pledge the entire nation to a new fidelity to the Lord and their original covenant (4).
WHAT LEADS TO APOSTASY?
In the New Testament, causes of apostasy include persecution, false teachers, temptation, worldliness, defective knowledge of Christ, moral lapse, forsaking worship and spiritual living, and unbelief (5).
While Paul was falsely accused of teaching the Jews apostasy from Moses, he predicted the great apostasy from Christianity, foretold by our Lord Jesus Christ which will precede “that Day of the Lord” (6). Apostasy, not in name but in fact, meets scathing rebuke in the Epistle of Jude, so relevant to Christians today.
Not only does Jude speak of angels who apostatize from Almighty God but, like Paul and Peter, he warns of a great apostasy at the end times. (Jude 6,ff; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Thess 2:3; 2 Peter 3:17) (7). Apostasy may be a word which many wish to avoid in today’s liberal and “matey” climate. Yet, all serious students of the Word of God need to take it seriously, heed its warnings, and acknowledge, this is no mere intellectual departure. It is a crucial matter of heart and soul before the Lord.
Our trust is in the mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our humble confidence is in His sovereign and electing grace. We are believers in eternal security, for none shall pluck us out of the hand of the Lord. But, to Christians the command is given… “let him that thinketh he stand, take heed lest he fall” (8). And, again, in the context of the Lord’s Supper, “let a man examine himself” (9).
THREE VOICES FROM THE PAST – STAND FIRM!
Although we live in wicked times when there is much compromise, departure from the faith, and pressure to conform to the ways of the world, we have a rich heritage. Many have walked this way before us. There have been other difficult times and we can take heart from their courage and example. The Book of Common Prayer says “the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs and the holy church throughout all the world: doth acknowledge Thee” (10). Even today, rather than follow the route to apostasy, Christians are laying down their lives in South America, Africa, India – and many other Islamic countries.
One of the earliest Christians to stand against compromise and overcome the sin of apostasy was Polycarp (A.D. 70-156). The civil authorities, which recognised Caesar as a god, importuned this good Christian leader to apostatize because of his age. His reply was dramatic and a rebuke to much modern-day Christianity, “I have served Christ eighty-six years and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King? I am a Christian.” Polycarp was thereupon despatched with a dagger, then burnt.
Or what about Athanasius? (A.D. 293-373). Today, so many Christians seem to want to follow with the crowd. It can be uncomfortable to walk a lonely path and popularity is therefore one of the greatest temptations to apostasy. Many religious, so-called Christian philosophies, were propounded in Athanasius day, as now also, but he opposed these false teachings. We too must speak up. Arian views, which still abound attack the unique person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Athanasius was personally assaulted for counteracting these. He was deprived and banished from his homeland several times. But, almost singled-handed, he kept alive the true gospel and the teaching of the uniqueness of our Lord. At one stage, the comment was made, “the whole world is against you, Athanasius”. He replied, “then Athanasius is against the whole world” (11).
The Reformation period is full of those who refused to join in the apostasy of the day. Today’s dispirited and pressurized Christians would benefit from reading John Charles Ryle’s LIGHT FROM OUR TIMES. It is a special tonic for weak and unhealthy Christians.
The Lord has many “ordinary” saints, of whom little is known, but they are precious to Him. Rowland Taylor was one of them. He was the Minister of Hadleigh in Suffolk, during the time of bloody Mary. Rather than compromise the faith, he left behind his wife and family, and chose a martyr’s fire. His parting wishes say everything… “Beware, for God’s sake, that ye deny not God, neither decline from the word of faith, lest God decline from you, and so do ye everlastingly perish. For God’s sake beware of Popery, for though it appear to have in it unity, yet the same is vanity and anti-Christianity, and not Christ’s faith and verity…the Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom then shall I fear? God is He that justifieth; who is he that can condemn? In Thee, O Lord, have I trusted; let me never be confounded.” (12).
THE WORD OF GOD – OUR FINAL AUTHORITY FOR FAITH AND PRACTICE
It is possible for individuals to fall away from faith and turn against Jesus Christ, if only momentarily. Peter was one such individual but gloriously restored by the Lord (13). Scripture identifies a very real danger and warns against its negative consequences and Christians today need a “wake-up call”. Personal apostasy is described in many places (14).
We have Old Testament examples of apostasy in King Saul, King Uzziah and King Ahaz (15). And the New Testament is full of personal warnings to us; Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, Hymenaeus and Alexander, Demas, and Jezebel, to name but a few (16).
THREE MORE INSPIRING WORTHIES FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT
We also have in the ever sure Word of God, wonderful examples of those who faced the temptation to compromise and conform to the spirit of the age in which they lived. By God’s sovereign grace alone, they triumphed in weakness.
Noah lived at a time when “God saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”. But he found grace in the eyes of the Lord to enable him to obey the Word of God in building the ark of deliverance. He did according to all that God commanded him (17). Do you want to avoid apostasy? Obey all the Word of the Lord, revealed in Holy Scripture.
Elijah also lived in days of great evil. Like true ministers of God today, he was called to confront and challenge the status quo of Premier, Palace and Priest. He was accused of being a troublemaker, as all true ministers will be. He had to speak with force to those who “halt between two opinions” (18), a most fitting title for much of the evangelical world today. But what was Elijah’s strength, despite all his personal weaknesses and inconsistencies? He was a man of prayer and prayer will halt apostasy, even strengthen us against it. Prayer can also reverse the decisions of the nations, as we have seen in the U-turn for a referendum on the European Union!
Jeremiah, among all the prophets, had been warned, he would have little success. His work, as ours may well be, is not merely for this generation but the next. Jeremiah was ‘to root out, to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.’ Surely, there is no limit for the Lord’s people here? There is work for all to do in demolishing the strongholds of Satan. But there is a price to pay. Are you willing to pay it, like Jeremiah? “They shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee” (19). Jeremiah avoided apostasy by being prepared to suffer personal pain and mockery.
A FINAL WARNING – HOW THE ROT SETS IN
In summary, we believe in the perseverance of the saints. Perhaps, this is better described as God’s perseverance with us. The grace of God by which we are saved, kept, and eternally secure, will never fail. No doubt, those who apostatize prove themselves not to have been saved in the first place. But we must not presume upon sovereign grace and certainly not sin that grace may abound. He who endures unto the end shall be saved. Remember Jonah? Remember Lot? Saved indeed, and kept from apostasy but only after great personal pain, divine rebuke, and by the ‘skin of the teeth’. How much better the example of Joshua, whether he pleased the crowd or not. “If it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your father served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (20).
How does the rot set in? By listening to false teachers, choosing the easy way, and not being prepared to separate from all things evil. So let us close this study with the words of one who fought a good fight and served, not only his own generation, but the Lord also, as a good and faithful soldier of Jesus Christ. Countless times was he tempted to follow the crowd. He chose instead to follow the Word of the Lord: “I believe that when we hear men asking us to ‘add a little more’ to our good old plain Evangelical views, we should stand upon our guard. We should remember our Lord’s caution: ‘of the leaven of the Pharisees’ take heed and beware.”
I consider the most dangerous champion of the ‘Sadducee school’ is not the man who tells you openly that he wants you to lay aside any particular part(s) of the truth, and to become a free-thinker and a sceptic. It is the man who begins with quietly insinuating doubts as to the position that we ought to take up concerning religion: who doubts whether we ought to be so positive in saying ‘this is truth, and that falsehood’: who doubts whether we ought to think men wrong whose religious opinions differ from our own. It is the man who tells us we ought not to condemn anybody’s views, lest we err on the side of want of charity. It is the man who always begins talking in a vague way about God being a God of love, and hints that we ought to believe perhaps that all men, whatever doctrine they profess, will be saved’… (21)
What a warning and a challenge to us from a great evangelical leader! But here is the most gracious, loving, true, reliable warning ever given, by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself:
“And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved … (v.24) For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold I have told you before (22).
BIBLIOGRAPHIC CROSS REFERENCES:
(1) Gary J Williams THE THEOLOGY OF ROWAN WILLIAMS pages 6-7 Latimer Studies 55 2002 Latimer Trust London
(2) Geoffrey Chapman CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH p.454 1994 Cassell, London
(3) Ex. 20:3; Deut 6:14; 11:16
(4) Joshua 24:1-28
(5) Matt 24:9, ll; Luke 8:13; 2 Tim 4:4; 1 John 2:19; Hebrews 6: 4-6; 10:25-31 also Hebrews 3:12
(6) Acts 21:21; Matt 24:10-12, 2 Thess 2:2
(7) For fuller treatment see the article on Apostasy in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia volume one page 192 Eerdmans Grand Rapids USA
(8) 1 Corinthians 10:1-14
(9) 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
(10) Te Deum Morning Prayer
(11) W P Barker :WHO’S WHO IN CHURCH HISTORY Athanasius page 24, Baker Book House Grand Rapids USA
(12) J C Ryle LIGHT FROM OLD TIMES p.133 : Charles J Thynne, publishers ,London.
(13) Luke 22:31-34
(14) Hebrews 6:4-8, Matthew 24:10-12, Galatians 1:6, 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 John 2:19; 5:16, Hebrews 10:26-31.
(15) 1 Sam 15:11,28; 2 Chron 26:16-21; 2 Chron 28:19-27
(16) Luke 13:26-27; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Tim 1:19-20; Titus 1:16; 2 Tim 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1-3,10-15,20-22 Jude 4:8-16; Revelation 2:20-22.
(17) Noah, Genesis 6:5-8
(18) Elijah, 1 Kings 18:17-22; James 5:17-18
(19) Jeremiah 1:4-18
(20) Joshua 24:14-15
(21) J C Ryle WARNINGS TO THE CHURCHES 1967 : Banner of Truth Trust, London
(22) Matthew 24:11-13, 24,25