I recently picked up a copy of Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, from Kregel Academic, and was disappointed to find that the promotional copy on the back cover raises two of the most common questions asked about the issue of security and apostasy:

“Is there no restoration for a backslidden believer?”

“Can believers lose their salvation if they fall away from God’s grace?”

I was disappointed because those questions reflect two misconceptions that get in the way of understanding what apostasy really is. These questions may help catch the eye of a prospective buyer, but they cast little light on the dark, dusty corner of the theological attic where we keep the doctrine of apostasy.

“Is there no restoration for a backslidden believer?”
This question could be taken to equate backsliding with apostasy. While an argument for that equation can be made based on some Old Testament passages, no widely used English translation uses ‘backslide’ or any related word to translate any Greek word in the New Testament.

In addition, the concept of apostasy under the Old Covenant was dramatically different from that under the New Covenant – different enough that the Lord could tell Hosea: “I will heal their apostasy.” (Hosea 14:7a NAS) There certainly is no indication that under the New Covenant there is any possibility of “healing” either individual or corporate apostasy.

In popular usage, most people in my circles believe backsliding is a condition from which a person can return, whereas the New Testament witness is that there is no such opportunity with apostasy. We all have known backsliders who repented and returned. So while there certainly is a relationship between backsliding and apostasy, and while backsliding may lead to apostasy, backsliding is not the same thing as apostasy.

Apostasy occurs when we “keep on sinning willfully” and cross a line forbidden by Almighty God. Only the Lord knows whether a particular person has crossed that line. While a backslider may be easily identified, whether a person has committed apostasy is beyond our ability to discern. Even the backslider may think he has become an apostate. Many of us have known people who said they had completely turned their backs on Christ, yet later returned to obedience.

Using the same word – ‘backsliding’ – to describe two different situations is confusing in the extreme. Some teachers, of course, focus on backsliding because they reject the possibility of apostasy. However, if the most serious danger facing the resolutely disobedient Christian is the “loss of reward” that they say awaits the backslider, why don’t the “warning passages” limit themselves to clearly saying that? Are the Scriptures so poorly written that their plain reading causes us to misunderstand this critical teaching?

“Can believers lose their salvation if they fall away?”
I already have indicated why I think the teaching that a Christian can “lose” his salvation is an insult to both God and Christ. The question above carries one of two implications, both of which are unacceptable:

– Someone took away your salvation. This is an utterly unbiblical notion, as explained in the earlier essay. It implies God is not able or cannot be trusted “to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12 NAS) The Scripture is clear that God will not breach that relationship and that no outside power is strong enough to drive a wedge between us.

– The loss of salvation was accidental or unintentional. Salvation is not a common object like car keys or a cell phone that it can be lost in the airport or supermarket. Just as an act of will is involved in choosing to follow Christ, so an act of will – and only an act of will – could take a person off that path. There is nothing accidental or unintentional about apostasy.

Just as we ought to quit using ‘backsliding’ to describe apostasy, so we also ought to quit talking about apostasy as “losing your salvation.” It would be far better to use a phrase that makes it clear no one has taken your salvation from you and that you did not accidentally misplace it.

A phrase like “throwing away your salvation” might serve us better.

Salvation is a gift costly beyond your imagination, far more expensive than you could ever pay out of your own empty pocket of righteousness. Your salvation was purchased just for you, specifically applied to the particular sins you would commit. If I read the Scripture correctly, it is a gift that cannot be replaced.

The last thing you want to do is to throw it away.

Next installment

Chapter 13
Don’t turn back to the wilderness!

Copyright © 2007, Kainos Press. All rights reserved.