Apostasy means to “fall away.” Apostates are those who identify themselves with Christ and the Church and then subsequently renounce Christ. This falling away is not the loss of salvation, but the proof that these individuals were never truly converted. The greatest illustration of apostasy is the disciple Judas Iscariot. He spent three years under the care of Jesus, listening to the truth of Jesus’ words and seeing the miracles of Jesus firsthand. And yet, Judas having the devil in him (John 6:70) fell away from Christ showing a hatred toward him (Jn 12:4-6, 17:12). From an outward appearance Judas had all of the disciples fooled. One could argue that Judas was very trusted among the disciples being the one who was in charge of the moneybag of Jesus’ ministry. And yet Judas did not persevere in faith, but fell away ultimately rejecting the truth of Christ.
While apostasy is illustrated clearly in Judas, it is adequately explained in Hebrews 6:4-8. The writer of Hebrews explains that apostates who have “fallen away” are people who were closely related to the Church. Apostates are those who particularly experienced the blessings of the church in a superficial way but not in a life changing manner. The writer of Hebrews says,
“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 word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”
Five advantages or blessings are listed that this particular group of apostates experienced: 1) they had once been enlightened, 2) they had tasted the heavenly gift, 3) they had been partakers in the Holy Spirit, 4) they tasted the goodness of the word of God, and 5) they tasted of the powers of the age to come. It should be noted that the passage in Hebrews makes no reference at all to salvation. None of the normal terminology of salvation is used in this passage. Rather all of these descriptions are superficial at best. First, the apostate had been enlightened. This means that the individual came to a certain knowledge and had an intellectual perception of biblical truth. These individuals heard the Gospel and understood it naturally. They saw Christ and even heard his message (like Judas) and yet their lives were not permanently affected by the message because they did not believe it. Second, they only tasted of a heavenly gift. The gift is probably a reference to Christ himself (2 Cor 9:15) and the salvation that He brought (Eph 2:8). This gift was only tasted, but not feasted upon. It was only examined and then determined not to be worthy of ingesting and internalizing. Third, the apostate was only a partaker of the Holy Spirit. Partake has to do with association and not possession. These apostates never did possess the Holy Spirit but only shared with the congregation the joys and influences of the Holy Spirit. They never did receive a permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Fourth, the apostates only tasted the Word of God. They heard it and tasted it, but did not deem it worthy of ingesting. They may have tasted the word with enthusiasm and appreciation, but it did not taste good to them, so they stopped eating. Last, they also tasted the powers of the age to come. It is possible that these particular apostates had seen some of the very miracles of the Apostles and yet they still did not receive the truth. Their eyes marveled, but they did not receive and believe in the message of the Gospel.
Apostates are those who are closely related to the Church in a superficial way and have experienced some incredible advantages. But they never truly ingest and receive the truth of Jesus. They never have truly been converted and been anointed and receive the Holy Spirit. From an outward appearance these people seem to be attached to the Church which makes it difficult to discern their true spiritual condition. But after a period of time, their true colors and the true condition of their heart is revealed when they fall away (Mark 417). John the Apostle explains why some had left his congregation, “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).
The Warnings from Scripture
Some have been very confused about the warnings particularly in the book of Hebrews. The writer continues to warn believers not to fall away, but to persevere in their faith. Some advocate that this proves that believers can lose their salvation. But this doesn’t square with the rest of Scripture. Scripture is clear that those who have been given eternal life are secure (Phil 1:6, Rom 8:30, John 10:26-30). So, then what is the purpose of these major warnings in the book of Hebrews (2:1-4, 4:11-16, 6:4-8, 10:26-31, 12:25-29)? These warning passages are used as a means to exhort true believers to continue in the faith! The Holy Spirit uses these warning passages to prompt and push believers to faithful living and godly living.
The Need for Perseverance
It is clear that every true believer will be preserved by the power and the promises of the Triune God (Jn 6:39, 44, 54, Rom 8:35, 37-39). But this does not exempt every true believer from their responsibility to persevere in faith throughout their lives. Scripture issues numerous calls to persevere in faith indicating that failure to persevere will result in a failure to lay hold of final salvation (Matt 10:22, 24:12-13, Jn 8:31, 2 Cor 11:26, Gal 2:4, Heb 3:14). And indeed, every true believer will persevere in faith and obedience. Scripture calls all those who profess faith in Christ to examine themselves (2 Cor 13:5, 2 Peter 1:10).
Scripture gives many different ways to determine whether or not we are truly believers. First, we have fellowship with God through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (1 Jn 1:3, 1 Jn 2:27, 4:13, Gal 5:22-23). Second, we have assurance of our salvation by answered prayer (1 Jn 5:14). Third we have assurance if we truly long for heaven (Phil 3:20). Fourth, we have assurance if we are able to discern between truth and error (1 John 4:1-3). Fifth, we have assurance if we are acutely aware of our own sinfulness and God’s holiness (1 John 1:8-10). Sixth, we have assurance if we see a decreasing pattern of sin in our life (1 Jn 3:9) and an increase in obedience (1 Jn 2:3). Seventh, we have assurance if we have a rejection of this world and its system that dominates life (1 Jn 2:15, James 4:4). Eighth, we have assurance if the world hates us (1 Jn 3:13). Ninth, we have assurance if we see an increase in love for our fellow brother and sister in Christ (1 Jn 3:10). (MacArthur & Mayhue, Biblical Doctrine. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017, pg 649-653.)
“Am I an Apostate?”
Some have become very concerned that they may be an apostate! Just to set the record straight, apostates are not typically concerned about this issue. Apostates, having hard hearts toward Christ and the Word of God, are typically not too worried about their spiritual condition. Apostates have comprehensively turned and rejected Christ and His Word. To be concerned about one’s condition is a good sign that the Holy Spirit is bringing about the necessary conviction of sin. If we encounter someone who may be struggling with assurance of salvation, we must point them back to the evidences above that gives us assurance.
The Need for the Community
Apostasy is real. It happens on a regular basis. This is why the writer of Hebrews says clearly, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering for he who promised is faithful. And, let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb 10:23-25). Coming together weekly to worship is a means of God’s grace in our lives to help us persevere to the very end.