How can you avoid falling into apostasy? What are some of the warning signs you or others might be falling for doctrinal error or heresy?
What is Apostasy?
When we read about apostasy, it’s typically about a group or a believer falling away from the truth, particularly from the essentials of the faith, like the divinity of Christ, the sinless nature and life of Christ, and the fact that we’re saved by grace and not of works. It is a renunciation or abandonment of the faith once delivered to the church (Jude 1:3). It can also be abandoning one’s own principles, morals, and values, but either way, apostasy is like a falling back or falling away from something; in this case, the truth (John 14:6). The Greek’s used the word apostasy (apostanai) to mean, “to stand apart from,” or “to desert” something or someone, so apostasy is voluntarily abandoning or standing in defiance of something that was once believed and practiced as true. It’s a rejection of what they knew, and in fact, a renunciation of what was formerly held. Whoever has believed the Bible and then chosen to disbelieve it or whoever doesn’t believe, which is also a free, volitional choice, is an apostate of the truth. Apostasy is not always bad. Some people have left a group when they discovered they were teaching errors, so in that case, it’s best to separate themselves, but when it’s a falling away, or as the Old Testament calls it in the Hebrew (mĕshuwbah), “a turning back,” or “backsliding.” The implications of being an apostate can have catastrophic, eternal consequences, particularly if it’s un-repented of.
Discernment and the Word
I believe those who have the greatest discernment are those who spend the greatest amounts of time in the Word of God. When you know enough of the truth, you can more easily recognize error when you hear it or read it. If you don’t know what the objective truth is, which is found in the Bible, then you are much less likely to know if something is true or not. For example, Christians know they cannot be saved by religious ceremonies or works (Gal 3; Eph 2:8-9), so when you hear someone say something like you must be baptized in our church, it’s like they’re saying, “Baptism + Jesus = Salvation.” I cannot count the number of times when someone wrote or talked about their experience, and in a way that seems to overshadow Scripture. It usually begins with, “My experience is” or “from what I’ve experienced,” and then just fill in the blank. Human experience might be helpful for some things, but it’s never a substitute for the truth. Rather than hearing what they believe based upon chapter and verse, it might be, “This is what happened to me,” therefore, their conclusion is, this must be true. In effect, it’s “My experience proves this to be true,” but what a slippery slope that is! The best weapon we have against heresy and apostasy is to know the truth well enough that when you read or hear something, you know it doesn’t square with Scripture. Experience is fine for many things, but its sinking sand when you try to build your eternity on it. Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matt 7:24-25), however, “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand” (Matt 7:26). Building one’s belief system upon one’s own personal human experience is building a house on sinking sand and not the solid rock of Scripture.
Not if, but When
The Apostle Paul spoke with certainly about a time of apostasy. He writes that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1st Tim 4:1). This departure from the faith was the reason Jude wrote his book. He knew it was necessary to contend for the faith that was once delivered (Jude 1:3), meaning it was a past, one-time event (Heb 1:1-2). The tense in the Greek doesn’t allow for it to mean it’s still happening or is yet to be delivered. By the way, the faith that was once delivered didn’t depend upon human experience to validate whether it was true or not. Human experience has no effect on the truth, but the truth directly effects the human’s experience (John 3:16; 2nd Cor 5:17-21). It is never the other way around. When Paul was writing about the coming of the Lord (2nd Thess 2:1), he reminded the church at Thessalonica that “the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way” (2nd Thess 2:7), and it will be condemnation for those “who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2nd Thess 2:12). This is why James places so much emphasis on helping our brothers and sisters, writing, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).
Some of the signs of falling into apostasy are that you start believing in human experience over what the Bible says. Your Bible reading drops off, which means you’ll be less likely to spot error. Your prayer life will all but dry up. You’ll be focusing on the peripherals (Gal 3) instead of the essentials (Rom 10:9-13; Acts 4:12). You worry less about what the Bible says and listen more to what people have experienced. We must recognize that a half-truth is really a whole lie. A little bit of error mixed with truth renders it all useless. In fact, the truth, even with a touch of error, is more dangerous than easily recognizable falsehoods. If there was a pure bottle of spring water and someone said, “It only contains 0.001% poison,” I doubt you’d drink it, even though it looked good. To protect yourself from apostasy, stay in the Word, study the Word, have the Spirit help you in the Word, and the Word will be familiar enough to you that you’ll know when something doesn’t smell right.
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is host of Spiritual Fitness and also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.