The problem of apostasy in our churches is potentially far more serious than most of us would ever imagine. That’s because we don’t understand the kind of choices that put us in danger.

I grew up in and have been a lifelong member of Southern Baptist churches. Ask any member of those churches, “How would a person commit apostasy?” and you will get a blank stare. Some aren’t sure what the word means. Most don’t believe there is anything a Christian could do that would keep him from going to heaven.

In our view, it doesn’t matter how low he might sink in sinful excess; if he genuinely “got saved” at some point in the past, he was guaranteed a home in heaven. His behavior might cause him to suffer a “loss of reward,” but at least he would be in heaven. That makes sanctification – the process God uses to make us more like Christ – a consequence of salvation, perhaps even an optional consequence, rather than part of a process of being saved.

Many other churches do teach that sanctification is essential to salvation, but even they often miss the point of holiness – being “set apart” by God.

Holiness is seen by some as a matter of what a Christian does do – growing to be more like Christ by practicing certain personal spiritual disciplines: a “quiet time,” Bible study, prayer, etc. Others emphasize what a Christian doesn’t do – avoiding certain sins.  “We don’t smoke, drink, or chew, and we don’t run with girls who do.”

And that certainly is part of holiness. 1 Peter 1:15 tells us that “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior.” (NAS)

But focusing only on behavior will cause you to miss the point of holiness – and leave you exposed to a danger you might never even consider a threat.

Holiness is not something achieved by what you do or don’t do. Like the new birth, it is a gift of God’s grace that we receive as we exercise faith in Christ. Achieved holiness is lost the moment you begin to think you are succeeding in living it. Your sanctification becomes a matter of pride, and you join the ranks of Christian sourpusses who peer down their noses at the rest of us. “Holiness as behavior” leaves little room for the real-life fact that “we all stumble in many ways.”

There is more to holiness than behavior. An unbeliever can be well-behaved, even admirably moral, but it doesn’t make him holy.

Holiness rests on two foundations: (1) our relationship with Christ – “if the root is holy, the branches are too.” (Romans 11:16 NAS) and (2) the purpose for which God “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity.” (2 Timothy 1:9 NAS)

That second aspect of holiness – fulfilling God’s purpose in saving us – is the one many of us have failed to teach our people, exposing them in the process to a mortal danger of the soul.

Abraham’s children failed to be the blessing to the nations that God called them to be, and the consequence was that Jesus took the Kingdom from them and gave it to others who would produce its fruit. (Matthew 21:43)

Moments before he pronounced that judgment, Jesus told a parable about obedience:

“A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing, and he answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him, and you, seeing this, did not even feel remorse afterward so as to believe him.” (Matthew 21:28-32 NAS)

The point of Jesus’ parable wasn’t which son lived an exemplary life. In fact, the moral was quite the opposite. The crucial issue was which of the two sons ultimately did the will of his father. He had a purpose he expected his sons to fulfill – a command he required them to keep – and obedience was the criterion that mattered to him.

If holiness is rooted in a believer’s fulfilling God’s purpose in saving him, then knowing that purpose is essential. And knowing is not enough; one must also obey the Master’s commands:

The Great Commandments
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39 NAS)

The New Commandment
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34 NAS)

The Great Commission
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20a NAS)

Loving God, loving others, loving brothers and sisters in Christ, making disciples: these are the commands given us by the Master who laid down his life to set us free. We ought to obey, not because of obligation, for that would be empty works, but because our hearts are filled with gratitude for the awful price he paid.

Jesus tied our love for him to our obedience: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” (John 14:15 GW)

He also tied our obedience to experiencing his love: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” (John 15:10a NAS)

Those two “if” statements clearly establish the Lord’s expectation that his people will obey and that their obedience allows them to experience the full, free, and forever life he promises.

Consider for a moment, however, the level of our obedience to those commands. In many churches, there is a core of faithful souls who obey, and one sees in their eyes the joy their Master feels because of them. They love him, they obey his commands, and they live in the fullness of his love.

Yet in most churches, only some genuinely love their brothers and sisters in Christ, even fewer love their neighbors as well as they love themselves, and only a tiny minority actually makes disciples. Many claim to love God, and they call Jesus “Lord” – but their failure to obey puts the lie to their empty words.

Jesus drove home the relationship between salvation and obedience when he asked “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” and then he told a parable that directly connected obedience with the success of one’s “abiding.” The one who obeyed had a house that could not be shaken by the storms, he said. By contrast, the house of the one who did not obey immediately collapsed – “and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:46-49 NAS)

The disobedient majority must understand that paying lip service to Jesus will gain them nothing. The Mission is not optional. Refuse to obey the command to minister, evangelize, and make disciples, and you can expect that the ruin of your house will be great as well.

Failure to obey, of course, does not in itself constitute apostasy. We all fail Christ at one time or another – usually more than once. We may stumble or even fall, but nothing can threaten the security of the believer – someone who genuinely seeks to follow Jesus and willingly obeys his commands.

Obstinately refusing to obey Christ’s commands, however, is far worse than inadvertent failure or impulsive disobedience. The double-minded believer will not minister to the poor, evangelize the lost, or disciple new believers because that would require him to give up his friendship with the world. James calls such believers “adulteresses” – brides who are unfaithful to their husbands – and warns that such a person “makes himself an enemy of God.” (James 4:4 NAS)

Hebrews warns that such willful sin leaves a believer in the hands of a God who has vowed to pass judgment on his people – and such a person has only “a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10:26-31 NAS)

The heart of holiness is our “set-apartness” for God’s purpose. Holiness requires not just living in “the way of righteousness” – doing good and avoiding evil – but also joining God’s Mission – loving others, loving the brotherhood, and making disciples. Refusing to join God’s Mission places one in grave danger, just as much as refusing to live in God’s righteous way.

Some of my Southern Baptist friends wonder why so many of our churches are dead, baptizing no one year after year. They wonder that even in good churches there are so many members who show no signs of obedience that would demonstrate their love for the Lord.

Some suggest the problem is “unregenerate members.” It is a problem to be sure, and a serious one. We have for at least two generations made it easier to join a Southern Baptist church than to join the Rotary Club. The result is that some, perhaps many, of the people in our churches have not in fact been born again. It is no wonder they would refuse to obey our Lord’s commands.

But not all those who are disobeying the commands to minister and witness are unregenerate. Many can share an authentic salvation testimony and simply have not been taught that obedience to the commands of Christ is part and parcel of salvation. Some others know it full well, yet refuse to obey.

How many church members do you see faithfully obeying all four of the Master’s commands? Of those who do not obey, how many do you suppose are fully aware they have been commanded to love others, love the fellowship, and make disciples? What is the scope of the apostasy danger in our churches when so many Christians have for so many years been willfully refusing to minister, evangelize, and make disciples?

Apostasy is not just a matter of unrighteous behavior. It also can involve whether we obey the Lord’s commands and engage wholeheartedly in his Mission. Refusal demonstrates disdain for Christ – trampling under foot the Son of God and regarding as unclean the blood of the covenant by which we are sanctified.

“If you love me, you will obey my commandments.”

He has promised that if we obey his commandments, we will abide in his love.

What do you think he will do with us if we refuse to obey?

Next installment

Chapter 20
Believers are eternally secure

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