There are passages in the New Testament that warn of the eternal danger facing people who resolutely insist on living their way instead of God’s. Some of the passages refer to people who are part of a congregation. Pick up almost any popular evangelical commentary written since the early 1900s, and you will find those passages explained by saying they refer to people who were “never saved” or were “almost saved but turned back.”

I find that pretty unsatisfying.

For one thing, it begs the question. Those commentaries are written from a viewpoint that says apostasy can’t happen to a genuine follower of Jesus. Passages that warn about the danger of apostasy must therefore be speaking to someone other than genuine followers of Jesus.

A neat solution, and very correct – unless the writers are wrong about apostasy. If they are mistaken, then they have misled the faithful and exposed trusting souls to mortal danger.

One problem with that solution is that it’s not clear why – if those passages are only addressed to the “almost saved” and “never saved” – why don’t they speak specifically to those audiences?

Why, for example, doesn’t …

— 2 Peter 2:20 say, “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ but stopped short of being saved, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first”?

— 2 Thessalonians 2:3 say, “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy of those who were never really saved comes first”?

— Hebrews 12:25 say, “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 they escape who were almost saved but turn away from him who warns from heaven”?

— Hebrews 3:12 say, “Take care, you who are almost saved, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God”? Instead, it says, “Take care, brethren ….”

Perhaps the reason warning passages aren’t addressed specifically to the “almost saved” and “never saved” is because they really are intended to speak to the entire congregation. Perhaps apostasy actually is a danger every believer needs to be wary of.

Having said that, I have to add that I’m not particularly concerned whether anyone agrees about apostasy. I am far more concerned that everyone understands the very real dangers of what we used to call “backsliding.”

It’s no way to be saved
Many lay people have heard the “once saved, always saved” preaching and concluded they can be complacent about obeying Christ’s commands. After all, if I have God locked into a contract that requires him to save me, why would it really matter whether I actually do all that “discipleship” stuff – Bible reading and memorization, prayer, teaching, witnessing, missions, ministry, and so on? As long as I try to live a pretty good life (at least in public) and give a little money to my church, I’m OK, right?

Wrong. And the church leaders who let you live with that misunderstanding will share the blame – and the punishment – when we all stand before the Judge.

When we dismiss warning passages as applying only to the “almost saved” and “never saved,” we deprive genuine followers of Jesus of the truth that there are serious – even severe – consequences for failing to obey the Lord’s commands.

Leave to one side the question of whether such passages warn of apostasy. Let’s at least tell people the frightening truth about what the Bible has to say about the danger of backsliding.

God’s people persisted in disobedience in the wilderness, and they paid a horrible price. Paul warns believers that our choices also determine what we will experience from God’s hand: “Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.” (Romans 11:22 NASB)

Paul counseled ministers like Timothy to be wary of “foolish and harmful desires” that plunge some people into “ruin and destruction” and because of which some “have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10 NLT)

He also warned of a day when the quality of our life’s accomplishments will be tested with fire. Lives built with gold, silver, and jewels will survive and the builders will receive rewards. Lives built with wood, hay, or straw will be burned up. “If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builders themselves will be saved, but like someone escaping through a wall of flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15 NLT)

I don’t know about you, but that’s not the way I want to be saved.

Next installment

Chapter 5

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