Recently I have been studying a word that is used, sometimes carelessly, by many Christians today. It is the word apostasy, which comes from the Greek apostasia. The English word is derived from two Greek words. Putting them together they mean “to stand away from” or “to abandon” one’s faith.
Most people think of an apostate as a person who has denied the theology of his faith. But the Biblical teaching about apostasy goes far deeper than that. The “falling away” mentioned by Paul to the church at Thessalonica indicates that apostasy affected every area of life. The word is so strong and so emphatic that it suggests a complete breakdown of morals, ethics and spirituality.
Paul wrote, “That Day [the day of the Lord] will not come unless the falling away comes first” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). The context of this passage would indicate that “the falling away” refers not only to the abandonment of intellectual belief but also to an abandonment of morals and an abandonment of the love that is to characterize all Christians at all times.
Paul used the same word again in 1 Timothy 4:1-2, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron.” In his second letter to Timothy, he warned: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Notice that Paul spoke of ears that do not want to hear the truth because they love their lusts and immoralities so much.
Paul listed the types of sins that these people who fall away will fall into: “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power … always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:1-5, 7).
What a picture of thousands of professing Christians today—people “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” This is a picture of Satan releasing against the church all the diabolical powers at his command. The main objective of Satan against the church is to create a “falling away,” a decline of moral and spiritual power.
As I have studied this word in the Scriptures, I am convinced that there are three kinds of apostasy that Satan is perpetrating against the church.
First, there is moral apostasy. The Bible says, “The whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19). As Christians, we live in enemy territory; and Satan’s purpose is to create an atmosphere of immorality, where even professing Christians will fall. I am convinced that a tremendous battle is going on in the moral realm. Satan, working through society’s obsession with sex, is causing even many clergy to fall. There are many who once walked close to Christ, who knew the joy of sins forgiven, who carried influence with thousands of people, but who fell to the ancient temptation of Satan and succumbed to his subtlety and wiles.
Letters come into our office every week telling of the moral defection of Christians who have yielded to these pressures of Satan and become moral apostates. The Apostle Peter spoke of this type of people when he said, “For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world … they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning” (2 Peter 2:20).
Many of those who fall victim to moral apostasy retain their theological orthodoxy. Theirs is an apostasy of life and not of doctrine. Like the professors of religion in Isaiah’s day, they “draw near with their mouths … but have removed their hearts far from [God]” (Isaiah 29:13). Their words, their teachings and their theology are all right. But in their hearts, they are far from Him!
There can be no greater inconsistency than an orthodoxy of words and an unorthodoxy of life. I know of a professor in a Christian university who is leading a double life; but because he is a good teacher and declares, “I believe the Bible from cover to cover,” he is kept on—even though, from the point of view of the Scriptures, he has already departed from the faith.
No wonder Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). The Bible says, “Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19). But this doesn’t mean that the demons are saved. Our intellectual comprehension is not enough; it must be backed up by a life that has been “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
Second, there is theological apostasy. The Scripture says, “Some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). In several places in the Scriptures, we are taught that a doctrinal falling away is a sign that we are living in the latter times and that Christ’s coming is relatively near.
A bishop in England boldly announced that he no longer believes in a historical Christ; an American religious leader even went so far as to say that he no longer believes in a personal God. Tragically, this type of doubting and theological confusion has invaded many seminaries and many pulpits. In many of our seminaries there is a mad scramble for scholarship, and people are sacrificing clear Biblical teaching upon the altar of so-called scholarship. Many come out of our seminaries today with no Gospel—they are confused and bewildered. I talked to a senior at one of the seminaries who said, “I have been robbed of my faith. I am now under psychiatric care.”
The Bible warns that the time will come when the churches will not endure sound doctrine. The seven churches of the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation represent all the churches of all time. The Laodicean church is the last of the seven. Hear what Jesus Christ has to say to this church: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).
This third chapter ought to be read and pondered by every seminary student and preacher in the country. It shows how Jesus views a compromising church. It shows how He views a straddling, pussyfooting, equivocating, self-satisfied, proud, blind and poor church. Even though professing wealth and broad vision, in the sight of God it is naked and shameful.
Thank God that there are still believers and pastors whose knees have not “bowed to Baal” (see 1 Kings 19:18). God always has His “seven thousand” who remain true in a time of doctrinal apostasy.
Third, there is pharisaical apostasy. This kind of apostasy is evident in much of the religious life of America. These are the Pharisees whom Jesus so often scathingly denounced.
He said time after time, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). He said, “You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). And He said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
The orthodox Pharisees had a pure theology, but it was all a shell and a mockery. They had become hard, cold, vicious and revengeful.
There are some today who have become victims of a censorious, critical and fault-finding spirit. They no longer preach a simple Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. They spend their time digging up all the ugly things they can find about other Christians. They have forgotten that the one distinguishing mark of the Christian is love and that “love will cover a multitude of sins” (see 1 Peter 4:8).
They produce very little of the fruit of the Spirit themselves, as listed by the Apostle Paul: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
They have lost the true meaning of 1 Corinthians 13, which gives the definition of love. Paul wrote: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).
Then Paul describes what love is: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).
How the devil must rejoice when he gets Christians fighting one another, disputing with one another and quarreling among themselves.
As we see all this taking place in the church, our hearts become grieved and sick. We know that the enemy is at work—denying, dividing and destroying people of God and causing them to fall away from the Gospel in various ways. Some of them keep their intellectual faith but fall away into immorality or pharisaism. Others deny the faith, and this, too, eventually leads to despair and depression.
May God help us to turn to Him. May we have a great revival that will melt our hearts together, burn our consciences and drive us back to the altar with tears of repentance. A revival among Christians could change the whole process of history and reverse the immoral tide.