Paradise Deserted: Can a True Christian Renounce Their Faith? (Apostasy Part 2)

But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with full persuasion of our minds.

Taken from Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 548-49. [Five Articles of The Remonstrance, Article 5, written in 1610]

Teaching More Than Arguing

As a disclaimer, I plan to argue for why I believe the Bible teaches that a true follower of Christ can renounce their faith and be an unbeliever again, but I realize I’m not going to settle a 500 year debate over this.  So my approach is simply to explain what a few important passages mean, not to delve into certain point-counterpoint aspects of Arminian v. Calvinist theology.  No doubt a Calvinist will disagree with me, but I am not trying to represent that disagreement except where absolutely necessary.  Space is too limited and I may not represent them well enough.

I also take this approach to assure that my arguments are biblical instead of merely logical.  A statement like “God loves people so he would not send them to eternal torment” is logical, but not biblical.  It is far too easy on this topic to make “I just don’t see how” statements when the Bible speaks clearly to tell us how.  And by warning us that a true Christian can abandon their faith, as the passages below do, they are communicating reality.  As Picirilli says, those who do not believe in the possibility of apostasy do not warn against it.1

So without further ado, let’s dive right in.  There are two New Testament books that deal with apostasy as a main point of the writing.  Note that direct quotes from Scripture will be bold.

“Those who do not believe in apostasy do not warn against it.”

Robert Picirilli

Hebrews: Be Careful Little Heart How You Turn

I’m convinced this book is in part a letter to warn true Christians about the dangers of apostatizing from the faith and the author is so concerned, he repeats this warning several times.  In 2:1, after establishing Christ as superior to everything, he says, For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from itWhat does it mean to drift away?  Well I think as he continues to write, that answer becomes clearer.  In 3:12, after using the hardened hearts of the Israelites in the wilderness as an example of going astray he says, Take care, brothers, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living GodNote two things: He says, brothers which means he is directing a warning to real Christians2 and secondly, that unbelief and falling away are linked.  Faith puts you in covenant, so it follows that unbelief (inseparable from evil) would take you out.  

But the clearest portion of Hebrews that speaks to who and what this “falling away” means is 6:4-6.  Picirilli lays out his translation of these verses and separates the clauses in such a way so that you can see how they are related:

For it is impossible for those
 who were once for all enlightened
 who tasted the heavenly free gift 
 who became partakers of the Holy Spirit 
 who tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age
 who fell away
To be being renewed again to repentance.3

Picirilli lays it out this way so you can see the relationship between five clauses: four that have verbs explaining their relationship to God and a fifth with a verb to describe what they did after.  They are all equal, coordinate clauses with the same grammar tense4.  Translations often obscure the relationship between the clauses by adding words5.

However, first it is imperative to prove that the passage is talking about a genuine Christian, as opposed to someone who is not truly a follower of Christ.  Dr. Picirilli says unilaterally that “There is no doubt those lives refer to genuine Christians.”6  The first clause uses the word enlightened which he also uses in 10:32 in a way that appears to refer to conversion.  Once for all occurs several other times in Hebrews and means something like “once effectively” in the sense that it needs nothing added to it or to be repeated7.  That communicates completeness.  

The people described were entirely enlightened, intimately close to the Holy Spirit and had fully experienced God’s free gift

Two of the clauses use tasted which can be a misleading (even if precise) translation because it is a word used for full-fledged eating elsewhere (Acts 10:10) and also because in Hebrews 2:9 the word is used for Christ having tasted death8.  It follows that the people described here experienced the free heavenly gift and God’s good word as intimately as Christ experienced death.  Which is to say, totally. Any attempt to read too much into the use of the Greek genitive (which can explain what was experienced instead of the extent it was experienced) for the free gift clause here fails, as Hebrews 2:9 uses the Greek genitive for Christ tasting death9.

The fourth clause is about being partakers of the Holy Spirit.  F. Leroy Forlines comments, “In Hebrews 3:14 we find a reference in which the same Greek word as partake in Hebrews 6:4 is used. It reads: For we are made partakers of Christ.  This would certainly refer to a close relationship.” He goes on to compare the word to a companion or someone who is in agreement with10.

By using other verses and words in Hebrews, Picirilli and Forlines assure us that the words are being interpreted correctly and that we do not use any tortured exegesis to make them say something they do not mean. The people described were entirely enlightened, intimately close to the Holy Spirit and had fully experienced God’s free gift, among other things.  It seems to me that the author is going above and beyond to make it clear these are people who knew God in relationship through his grace, Word and Holy Spirit.  Picirilli concludes, “If you wanted a better definition of conversion, you could not find it!”11

But that leads us back to why the clauses are laid out by Picirilli the way they are.  Could the “fall away” clause be hypothetical?  Could the author be communicating something that could happen but will not?  The grammar makes this extremely unlikely.  All five clauses have the same constructions as far as verb form and tense, aorist participles12.  In other words, there is nothing in the text that even implies that the first four are real and the fifth is hypothetical. It is conclusive, to me at least, that if the first four are objective reality, the fifth one is too.  They fell away just as surely as they tasted the heavenly gift.

To illustrate: Suppose I say, “Consider those who ate fast food every day. And who played video games all day.  And who did not exercise. And who were unhealthy as a result”.  A natural reading says all of these things happened.  The last sentence is just as factual as the first three. This is essentially what Hebrews 6:4-6 communicates.  Greek has several ways to communicate hypotheticals.  And even hypotheticals that cannot happen, like “I wish I were taller”.  But aorist participles as they are used here do not communicate this.  What he is saying in Hebrews 6:4-6 is what did happen, not what could happen.  Additionally, it starts by saying “It is impossible” not “It would be impossible.”13  This eliminates, to me at least, the possibility that Hebrews 6:9 (We are convinced of better things in  your case) is saying that what he says in 4-6 is something that could happen but will not.  There isn’t a shred of hypothesis in this passage.  Only a real life indicative warning.

So what does fall away mean?  I think it means exactly what the similar expression means in Hebrews 3:12 above.  It means to fall away in the sense of having a sinful, unbelieving heart. The word in 6:6 isn’t used anywhere else in the New Testament but is used in the LXX in places like Ezekiel 18:24, which also appears to describe apostasy founded in unrighteousness14.  And lest there be any confusion, it follows by saying these people cannot be renewed again to repentance.  That goes beyond merely suggesting these people are now lost.  It’s firm.  They are outside of repentance, one word used as the condition of salvation (‘faith’ being the other). This would mean the apostasy is final15.

Hebrews 6:4-6 explains what did happen, not what could happen.

Hebrews 10:26-29 in one sense completes the series of detailed apostasy warnings by affirming that if we go on sinning willfully after we have received a knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment…How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot 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?

I am confident that using the word sanctified–which in Hebrews with one exception always refers to the sanctity of salvation16–and even by saying we in the beginning, the writer is giving a real warning to other Christians, including himself.  And what the person does by sinning willfully and regarding Christ’s blood as unclean sounds like a person outside of covenant with God17.  Scot McKnight says, in reference to all of the Hebrews warning passages: “…the sin the author has in mind is a willful rejection of God and his Son, Jesus the Messiah, and an open denunciation of God and his ethical standards.”18.   This can only refer to a person who has sinned so as not in covenant relationship with God.  And the result is the same as 6:6: there is no more sacrifice (i.e., forgiveness) for sins, removing any doubt this person is now lost.

Hebrews offers a couple of more warnings of apostasy in 10:30 (Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.) and 12:25 (See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven.).  The repetition only enforces the reality of the danger of what can happen to a true Christian.

2 Peter: Once You Escape, the Enemy Keeps Pursuing

The beginning of Peter establishes that he is writing to fellow Christians (those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ) and is encouraging them to live well. And he concludes by telling them make their election sure.  Dr. James Leonard comments on the first ten verses of 2 Peter 1: “Thus, the letter was written to urge believers to grow in Christ so that they will not stumble, and so that they may successfully complete their pilgrimage to their eschatological reward. Of course, it would be wholly tautological to urge believers to make every effort to confirm their calling and election if they were, in fact, unconditionally secure therein.”19

“It would be wholly tautological to urge believers to make every effort to confirm their calling and election if they were, in fact, unconditionally secure therein.”

James Leonard

2 Peter 2:1 adds the theme of conditional security by saying, But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.  The fact the Master had bought them sounds very much like Christian redemption in covenant relationship (2 Cor. 6:20; 7:23).  And denying is a strong verb of relational rejection (cf. Matt. 10:33, 2 Timothy 2:12).  And from here throughout this section of the letter, Peter is warning against false teachers who can tempt a believer to defect from the faith.

It is the last part of chapter 2 that speaks most forcefully to apostasy of the genuine Christian.  In verses 18-22 there are three phrases that describe the people Peter is referring to.

  1. They have escaped from the pollutions of this world.  The quoted phrase can be found in vs. 20 here and in 1 Peter 1:4, where Peter is describing their salvation experience20.
  2. They escaped by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  In his commentary on 2 Peter, Picirilli makes the case that the word for knowledge (epignosis, a compound verb that goes beyond mere head knowledge) is often a conscious attempt to communicate saving knowledge of Christ one gains at conversion21.  It is the knowledge used twice times in the first few verses of 1 Peter to describe genuine Christianity.
  3. They have come to know the way of righteousness.  The word “know” is the verb form of  “knowledge” in point 2 and “the way of righteousness” refers back to two very similar phrases in 2:2 and 2:15, both of which seem to refer to salvation22.  It is at least possible the use of “the way” in all three of these 2 Peter 2 verses is a reference the the name the first Christians used in Acts to refer to themselves as the true sect of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22; cf. John 14:6). 

If [they] were never saved, how could they be “again” entangled?

So what did these people do?  They were overcome and again entangled by the pollutions.  The word ‘again’ in notable since the pollutions are what they were saved from.  They were right back where they were before they were saved. (And If they were never saved, how could they be ‘again’ entangled?) Secondly, they turned away from the holy command handed to them. And their destiny seals the case for their present condition: their last state is worst than the first and they would have been better off not knowing the way of righteousness.  This can only be a group of people that is no longer saved and whose judgment is finally determined as in irremediable apostasy.

And as if all that were not clearly enough explained, he closes in 3:17 by saying, Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.  It is very hard to try to make that mean something other than what it seems to say, especially in view of the rest of the book.  It’s entirely in context with its naturally read meaning.

As much as I would love it if the writer of Hebrews and Peter had used a simple word like “Christian” or “true disciple” (those these words are vehemently implied by the use of words like “brothers”) to describe these apostates, the books are too rich in detail.  Yet I am confident the detail makes the case even stronger that these were people of legitimate conversion.

But There Are So Many More…

I wish space allowed for a detailed treatment of John 15, Colossians 1:21-23, Revelation 1-3, and a few verses from the letters to Timothy and other passages.  But suffice it to say that when a Biblical writer is addressing a group of Christians and makes statements like if you continue in your faith or if you don’t abide in me, you will be thrown away or if you endure to the end you will be saved then I think he is speaking to conditional perseverance.  Conditioned on faith.  And I believe that Paul names names to Timothy of people who did in fact apostasize from the faith.  Finally, both the idea of a sin that cannot be forgiven (Matt 12:32) and a sin that “leads to death” (1 John 5:16) make more sense to me within the teachings of apostasy.

But the case rises and falls on Hebrews and 2 Peter.  If it can be proven–and I think it can–that these two authors truly believed the people they were writing to could forfeit their faith and therefore were warning them, then I think we must teach that apostasy is real for the true Christian.

  1. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 208
  2. For a more detailed account of the recipients of Hebrews please read James Leonard at “Eternal Security and Exegetical Overview of the Book of Hebrews
  3. Picirilli, 216
  4. Ibid, 221
  5. Most infamously, the KJV adding “if” before the 5th clause, while not its intention, has led some to believe it is hypothetical.  More on that below.
  6. Picirilli, Perseverance (a booklet), 20
  7. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 217
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid, 218
  10. F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest For Truth, 278
  11. Picirilli, Perseverance, 20
  12. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 227
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid, 220
  15. Ibid, 222-24.  For a contrary Arminian perspective, see Brian Abasciano, Note that Abasciano is not arguing against irremediable apostasy totally but that Hebrews 6 may not be teaching it.
  16. Forlines, page 280-81
  17. For an explanation of how ‘willful sins’ in Numbers 15 equates with New Testament teachings on apostasy, please see Forlines, page 282-83
  18. Scot McKnight, “The Warning Passages in Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions” (published in Trinity Journal), 39
  19. James Leonard, “Exegetical Overview of 2 Peter and Eternal Security: Forewarned Not to Fall From Your Secure Position” This reminds me of this quote I read recently by Matt Pinson writing about Daniel Whitby on “If God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30) and preordains a state of affairs in which some men are not divinely enabled to obey His command, then there is a disjunction between His command (“Repent!”) and His intent (“I have no intention of enabling you to repent; in fact I have predetermined the universe in such a way that you can never repent”).
  20. Picirilli, 230
  21. Picirilli, Commentary on 2nd Peter, 285-92
  22. Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 230-31
Series Navigation<< Paradise Deserted: Can A True Christian Renounce Their Faith?  (Apostasy Part 1)Paradise Deserted: Can a True Christian Renounce Their Faith? (Apostasy Part 3) >>

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year-old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

6 thoughts on “Paradise Deserted: Can a True Christian Renounce Their Faith? (Apostasy Part 2)

    • July 6, 2016 at 1:26 pm

      Thanks, Brandon.

  • July 6, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    I particulary enjoyed your exposition and analysis of Hebrews 6.

    • July 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm

      Thank you. I think it is the most important passage on this topic.

  • July 6, 2016 at 11:46 pm

    The Reformed Response: Hebrews (like James) is an epistle of straw.

    • July 7, 2016 at 4:20 am

      I doubt there is anyone in the 20 century history of the church I’m more thankful for and disgusted by at the same time as Luther.


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