JOHN: Here’s the letter from Steve.
“Dear Grace To You:
“Over many years, I have been blessed to receive free tapes, CDs and books from your ministry. Thank you. At those times I really appreciated them. Now, I no longer believe in the God of the Bible or in Jesus Christ. Ten years of full-time ministry proved to me that there is no God and that the God of the Bible does not care. I now reject Christianity and have come to peace. What was at first a great loss has now turned to joy, peace and freedom.
I did not leave the faith because of some extreme sin. I left because the God of the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all a fantasy. I’m happy I now live in the real world. I only feel guilt about the many people whom I led to Christ and exposed them to the lies of Christianity. I’m not mad at Christians, I’m not mad at you. However, I am mad at myself for not being a more critical thinker. I won’t make this mistake again.
“Again, thank you for the many years of help and teaching you all shared with me. I do appreciate what you all are trying to do with the knowledge you have. Please remove me from your mailing list. Save the money. Don’t waste it on an apostate like me. I was just giving your CDs away. But now my conscience can no longer can tolerate the further spread of a false hope and disappointment.
PHIL: That’s sad, isn’t it?
JOHN: Yeah, it’s the letter you never want to get. It’s the story you never want to hear.
The discussion continues below…
What does apostasy mean?
PHIL: What is the biblical definition of an apostate? What does apostasy mean?
JOHN: Well, we want to be careful about how we define that. The simple definition of an apostate is this, an apostate is someone who knowing fully the gospel turns against it in complete rejection. And you could add the components such as in the case of Steve that there was at one point in time a professed belief in the gospel.
But I think apostasy can be defined as someone who with full knowledge of the gospel, full knowledge of the message of Scripture turns against it in a final act of rejection.
Jesus never speaks of Judas as a believer
JOHN: ….Judas is the perfect illustration because Judas was three years in the ministry. He was a ministry partner with the eleven Apostles. He was a ministry partner with the Lord Jesus Himself. He was exposed to the perfections of Christ on a 24/7 basis. He actually was a preacher and from all that we can tell, he was there participating in the miracles that the Apostles were part of and that they actually did. So he was fully engaged in the ministry, fully engaged in fellowship with the Lord Jesus Christ.
But of him, Jesus said this, “One of you is a devil.”
Jesus diagnosis of Judas was not that he was a believer who lost his way, or he was once saved and then became unsaved, or he once had saving faith and then forfeited that saving faith. It was that from the beginning one of you is a devil.
And the other thing He said is this, He said, “I have lost none of you except that son of perdition that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”
In other words, it was never a shock to Jesus that there was a traitor among the Twelve because that was predicted in the Old Testament. There are a number of prophecies that are fulfilled directly by Judas.
So, Jesus never speaks of him as a believer. He is a son of perdition which is to say he is by nature headed for damnation. He is a devil. So whatever was going on on the outside, nothing was going on on the inside. And I think that’s what we have to understand about apostates. It isn’t that they once were saved and turned against that. It is that they never were. And if you ask the question…well how could a guy minister for ten years? Then ask the question, how could Judas walk with Jesus, as you put it, for three years, 24/7, and with eleven men living in very intimate conditions day after day after day and they don’t even know that he’s a devil, that he is by nature a son of perdition?
Continuity is the evidence of true salvation
PHIL: And Scripture is clear, 1 John 2, that anyone who turns away and abandons the faith like that, none of them were ever true believers from the beginning.
JOHN: Yeah, see that…there are two passages that I think are foundational to this. And one of them is in John 8 where Jesus says, “If you continue in My word, then you are My alethos mathetes, my genuine disciple.”
In other words, Jesus said it is continuity. It is continuing in obedience to the truth that gives evidence that you are a real Christian.
If you don’t continue, you weren’t a real Christian.
Now Paul picks that up in Colossians 1. You remember he talks about true believers and then he adds, “If you continue in the faith…if you continue in the gospel.” Continuity is the evidence of true salvation. That’s a vital passage.
Now the other one that always comes to my mind that you mentioned is 1 John 2:19 which says this, and this is THE definitive passage. Speaking of an apostate, they…or apostates, “They went out from us that it might be made manifest they never were of us. If they had been of us, they would have continued with us, but they went out from us that it might be made manifest they were not of us.” That verse is the definitive verse. When somebody abandons the faith having once made a profession, understood the faith, it is not a loss of salvation, it is merely the revelation that they never ever had it to begin with.
Judas was motivated by greed
JOHN: No, I think he knew all along that he wasn’t a true believer. I think he was motivated by greed. You remember the incident that really brought that to light was when he saw a lady wasting a very, very valuable amount of perfume on Jesus and he said, “Oh, why are you doing that? We could take that and give it to the poor.” And the commentary of the New Testament is he didn’t want to give it to the poor, he said that because he held the bag. He was the treasurer. He wanted his hands on that money.
PHIL: So he was just very good at being a phony.
JOHN: He was very good at being a fake. He was trying to ride Jesus into power, prominence and money. He was motivated by avarice. He was motivated by greed. I don’t think he was ever self-deceived in the sense that he thought he was a true disciple of Jesus and he thought he was…he was a part of the Kingdom…no way, the very opposite. He knew from the get-go that this was a way to power and prominence and money if this Jesus who could do miracles and he knew that. And that’s kind of…that’s the amazing part of it because all the evidences of Jesus’ messiahship were there for him, too. But instead of concluding that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, and embracing the salvation He provided, all he could see in Jesus was the path to his own power and his own riches.
The most helpful portion in all of Paul’s writings to a Christian
The answer is, because that section of Romans 7:14 to the end of the chapter, may be the most helpful portion in all of Paul’s writings to a Christian. Because otherwise, if that wasn’t there, we would be more melancholy, more frightened by our sinful tendencies. I just am so grateful for Romans 7:14 to 25. You take it out and all you’re left with is 1 John, you know, if you sin, you know, you’re not born again. You know, if you don’t obey, you don’t belong to Christ. If you say you walk with Christ, then you ought to behave the way He behaves.
Well, that is so black and white. You know, there’s got to be some relief. And Romans 7 is a haven for the doubting Christian, where you can go and find comfort in the fact that the Apostle Paul struggled mightily against his own sin. That is why it is such a tragic thing to misinterpret that section, to try to make that some pre-Christian experience which commentators through the centuries have done.
What to say to someone who struggles with assurance
The joy of trials
Evidence your faith is real
Proof of your faith
JOHN: And that robs us, you know, we’re not looking at perfection here. So I often will say to someone who struggles with assurance, you need to know two things. One, you need to go back and read Romans 8:31 to 39 that nothing will ever separate you from God, from Christ. And no one will ever successfully condemn you because Christ does not. He died to eliminate that condemnation. And then you need to read Romans 7 to understand that though you are secured, you’re sinful.
And the combination of those two, I think, is a haven.
At the same time, you say to a person, and I said to somebody, this was last Sunday morning, a guy came up to me, nice young man struggling with this very issue. And I said to him, the answer to your assurance is this, when you go through the severest trials possible, when you go through the most disappointing behaviours and thoughts and attitudes, when you repeat the same sins, when you succumb to the same temptations, do you come out of that denying Christ? Do you come out of that denying the gospel? Do you come out of that denying salvation by grace and faith?
He said no.
I said, “That’s the evidence that your faith is real.” That’s the proof. Peter calls it the proof of your faith. James says the same thing, count it joy. Why? Because this trial gives evidence that you have a faith that is supernatural. You know, this guy here, this Steve, he had a human faith…whatever it was. And when God didn’t save him from trials…he says essentially in the letter that He didn’t care about me. You know, which is to say I went through this, I went through that. And hey, let’s face it, ten years in the ministry, you can pick any ten years of my ministry and there would be incidents in those ten years that if I was just hanging on by human faith, I would abandon it.
The testing of your faith proves its reality
Sadly, he couldn’t deal with the remorse and he hanged himself. And I wonder what happened to Steve, you know, in all honesty. Because while he says he has peace and freedom, I think there’s a hollow ring to that. But anyway, I do believe that when you have a false faith, a human faith, it can’t hang on. When you have a saving faith, bring the trial and your faith will be proven to be the real thing. And so that’s what I encourage people who are struggling with their assurance to look at. Look at Romans 7, look at Romans 8 and then consider the fact that the testing of your faith proves its reality.
What to expect when you have a saving faith
You can’t do that. You don’t know that when they prayed that prayer that really was salvation. You can’t see justification take place. It’s an invisible transaction. You can’t even see regeneration. The best you can say is, “If your repentance and faith was real and if God in His power and His grace has given you new life and justified you, and converted you and saved you, here’s what you can expect…here’s what you can expect.” And then you lay out, “You’re going to love Christ, you’re going to love His people, you’re going to desire to worship, you’re going to desire the Word, you’re going to find hope in the midst of difficulty, you’re going to look forward to seeing the hand of God manifest in the trials and issues of life.
PHIL: So the testing of their faith actually produces maturity.
PHIL: Yeah, assurance is really a byproduct of the sanctifying process.
JOHN: No and I would think the people who sit in churches where, you know, the so-called pastors are cool dudes that talk about the culture and tell funny jokes and all of that, those poor people if they’re Christians at all must struggle mightily.
PHIL: Yeah, in fact, if you got into a situation in a church situation like that and you’re not genuinely saved, it would seem to me that churches like that would just multiply apostates.
JOHN: Yeah, no question.
PHIL: Because they inoculate people against the truth with the appearance that they’re getting some kind of Christian teaching.
JOHN: Well they multiply…they multiply the self-deceived. It’s the many, many that are there, Lord, Lord. And He says, “I don’t know you.” They multiply the self-deceived for sure. But I do think they multiply apostates because they give every reason to be a part of it but the right one.
I think apostates are less likely the more faithful the church is. The more the church is truly devoted to the Lord, the more the church is truly pure in its love for Christ, the more biblical the church is, the fewer apostates are there because there’s a certain reality that they have to face. But where there’s a superficial kind of church, they can be a part of that and fit in to that. So I…and I think that’s obviously true.
I would wonder, for example, what the post-church life of people who leave the emergent church is. It would be the same as those who leave the liberal church.
PHIL: Yeah, in fact, you see a lot of people coming out of that kind of environment who become apostates, they turn away.
Warning signs of someone who is abandoning the faith
JOHN: Yeah, I think…I think maybe the dead give away is that they put themselves in a position to sit in judgment on the Bible. It’s one thing to have somebody come up and ask you a question, and then when you give them an answer, they’re interested, satisfied, they want to think about it. But I think…if you’re going to reject the Bible, if you’re going to reject the gospel,…if you’re going to be an apostate, you have to reject the Bible, right?
JOHN: So you have to put yourself in a position to be the judge of Scripture’s validity. That is a very proud position to take, given the fact that for thousands of years the most godly and brilliant minds in Christianity have found the Bible to be consistent, inerrant, divine, you know, it verifies itself again and again and again every which way possible, but you are a higher judge, you are a more clear minded authority than all the Christian scholars of all the ages. So I think the danger sign in somebody that’s headed toward apostasy is they want to render judgment on the Scripture that is independent of history that is independent of Christian theology, Christian tradition. And so they turn from, as you said, and you wouldn’t know it at first, your friend asking questions, and it becomes sitting in judgment. You never have an answer that satisfies. It’s never enough. I don’t think that comes because the Bible can’t defend itself. I don’t think that comes because the Bible is unclear or hard to interpret which would be the emerging, you know, answer. I think it comes because the heart is so proud and so rebellious that it will deny what is patently obvious.
The unpardonable sin
PHIL: Take the case of an apostate who has utterly abandoned the faith, says he doesn’t believe in Christ any more, like Steve, who wrote us that letter, is there hope for an apostate like that, or is this the unpardonable sin? I mean, the difficult passage is Hebrews 6 which says if somebody falls away, it’s impossible to renew him to repentance.
JOHN: You know, I think in the truest sense, apostasy is a final rejection. And I think Hebrews 6 is saying that if someone has full light, that’s the point there, tasted the heavenly gift, etc., etc. By the way, there are no terms in Hebrews 6 that are used of salvation. It never says a person is regenerate, saved, born again, converted. But it uses terms that indicate full knowledge, they’ve been illuminated, they’ve tasted the heavenly gift, they’ve tasted the powers of the age to come. And in the case of the writer of Hebrews, what he’s looking at is those people who were exposed to Christ. They saw His miracle power, they heard His message about the Kingdom, they saw that He had power over demons, power over death, power over disease, all of this. And he says if at that point when you have that full disclosure, you fall away, it’s impossible to be renewed again to repentance.
Reason…not so much because of some divine judgment, but because there’s nothing more to say to you. When you had the full disclosure, you rejected it. And there can be no more revelation.
PHIL: Rejecting the truth with their eyes wide open.
JOHN: Right. That’s Matthew 12. Yes. Because they saw everything Jesus did. They never deny His miracles, never in the New Testament do they deny His miracles. They heard everything He said and He continually talked to them. And they concluded that He’s from hell. That He’s operating under the power of Satan. He said you can’t be forgiven. You can’t be forgiven.
You’ve attributed the works of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, that’s done through Me, to the devil. That is 180 degrees away. You can’t be saved.
So I think the parallel is…to Hebrews 6…if with full revelation you turn away from Jesus and go in the opposite direction, then you’ve apostatized, there’s nowhere else for you to go. So I think those two are connected.
PHIL: Yeah that really shows the irrationality of apostasy as well, doesn’t it? If you can look at and see the truth with your eyes wide open in the bright light of day and conclude something as irrational as Jesus was doing that in the power of Satan…
Don’t confuse an apostate with the facts
JOHN: And how about the fact that they all knew, all the Pharisees knew that Jesus rose from the dead. They knew that. They knew He rose from the dead because they bribed the Roman soldiers to lie and say somebody stole His body. So talk about…don’t confuse me with the facts. That’s the resolute hard-heartedness of an apostate who with all the right evidence makes the absolute wrong conclusion.
Difference between doubt and denial
JOHN: Well that’s what Paul said to Timothy. He said if you doubt, He remains faithful. If you doubt, He remains faithful. If you deny Him, He’ll deny you. Denial is apostasy. Doubt is just struggling, and we all do that.
I don’t know if I’m saved – What scripture says about this
I don’t know if I’m saved…Go back to Romans 10:9 and 10, “If you believe in your heart God raised Christ from the dead and you confess Him as Lord, you’ll be saved.” Go to the Word of God and anchor yourself in the Word and those doubts will disappear.
Doubt, you know, what’s still in doubt. You know, is God going to heal my husband of cancer? Is the Lord going to bring me a wife? Or whatever is on your mind. Those things you can wrestle with those things. That’s just normal. But don’t let temptation turn into sin by making you doubt the things that are clearly promised and revealed in Scripture.
This discussion was recorded in 2009 and can be viewed in it’s entirety at Grace to you website