10 – ‘Stumble,’ ‘fall,’ and ‘fall away’
If you haven’t already concluded that some of us have accepted too many easy answers on the subject of security and apostasy, this is the end of that road. This subject is nowhere near as simple as some people seem to think.
Please bear with me on this one. We can’t even scratch the surface in this venue. If you finish reading this and aren’t sure what to think, just re-read the final two paragraphs and move on to the next chapter. You could spend the rest of your natural life sorting this out.
As strange as it may seem, the biggest problems in resolving disagreements about security and apostasy are not presented by the verses that speak clearly to the issue but the passages in between – the ones whose meanings aren’t readily apparent.
Much of the confusion centers around the New Testament verses about “stumbling,” “falling,” and “falling away.” If you look at the Greek words behind the English text, you find that sometimes the same English word is used in different passages to translate entirely different Greek words, which can cause a person to think there are connections between verses that may not be there. At other times, the same Greek word is translated in various passages into different English words, making it very difficult to see potential connections without looking at the Greek.
Here is where a tool like an “Englishman’s concordance” is especially valuable. A regular “exhaustive concordance” will show you where the same English word appears in the Bible and which Greek words are translated into that English word. But an exhaustive concordance will not let you easily discover the various English words that have been used to translate the same Greek word. An Englishman’s concordance, like the one in the NAS Electronic Bible makes it easy to search by Greek word, allowing you to see relationships between verses you can’t see by looking at the English text.
It is not a simple matter, however, of seeing the same Greek word translated into different English words. The same Greek word still can mean somewhat different things in different contexts. For example, the same word may be translated ‘fall’ in one place where it means something more serious than stumbling or backsliding, but in other places that word does not represent as serious a problem.
The difficulty can be illustrated by looking at examples of three key words, starting with ‘stumble.’
I have not yet found a New Testament passage where ‘stumble’ means apostasy. In daily life, stumbling usually is an accident, nothing more than an ordinary misstep. Apostasy, on the other hand, is not common – and it is not an accident.
Stumbling, for its part, is a failure we all know only too well. James 3:2 reminds us “we all stumble in many ways.” (NAS)
The Greek word translated ‘stumble’ in that verse is ptaio. Stumbling isn’t as serious as falling, as seen in Romans 11:11 – “I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they?” (NAS)
The Greek word translated ‘fall’ in that verse is pipto, yet pipto is not a word that necessarily implies apostasy. Revelation 2:5 says, “Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place – unless you repent.” (NAS) The problem plaguing the church at Ephesus is serious, but the situation is retrievable.
A related word, ekpipto, seems to indicate an even more serious situation. It means “to drop away,” “to lose,” “to become inefficient” and in the NAS is variously translated: failed, fall, fall away, fallen, falls off, fell off, run aground. A verse like Galatians 5:4 – “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (NAS) – leaves one thinking that perhaps such a situation is not retrievable.
Another significant word is skandalizo, which is translated in various ways, including both “fall away” and “stumble.” When Jesus tells his disciples, “You will all fall away because of me this night,” (Matthew 26:31 NAS) he obviously did not mean they would make an eternally fatal choice. Those disciples went on to take the Gospel to the ends of the known world and gave their lives for Christ’s cause.
Yet skandalizo also is the word used in Mathew 24:10, where Jesus talks about a “falling away” in the end times. Skandalizo also is the word used in Mark 4:17, where Jesus tells a parable about seed falling on rocky soil to describe believers who “fall away” in time of trial or temptation. Some believers might be inclined to think that stops short of apostasy, yet in Luke’s parallel passage the Greek word behind “fall away” is aphistemi – the root from which the Greek word for apostasy is drawn.
So is skandalizo a fatal choice or not? You won’t find a categorical response to that question. The answer must be found in the context.
We must be careful to not oversimplify or read too much into a particular passage. We must never jump to conclusions about the meaning of a particular verse. In some verses, the terms used are not clearly defined. In some, the ultimate consequences of the situation are not spelled out.
For example, in 1 Timothy 1:18-20, Paul encourages Timothy to “fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.” Are the eternal consequences for the spiritual castaways readily apparent? What does ‘shipwreck’ mean, after all? People survive shipwrecks, don’t they? But isn’t a ship destroyed when it wrecks?
The point here is to not assume what a passage means. Look carefully at every word in the verses, at the context, and at the Greek words behind the English text. Allow passages that are clear in meaning to shed light on unclear ones. Watch for elements that don’t fit with what you think the passage means. Don’t be dogmatic about passages that can legitimately be interpreted in different ways.
You will do well to remember that “we all stumble in many ways” and that a person does not fail to finish the race just because he falls down. The one who fails to finish is the one who falls down and chooses to stay down.
Look who is ‘close to being cursed’!
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