Let me offer words of encouragement for the loved ones of those who have denied Christ. There is hope. There is comfort. There can be peace.
WHAT IS APOSTASY?
Apostasy is the denying, or falling away, of believers. And it certainly seems to be getting more common.
The evangelical world is reeling in recent weeks over ‘Christian’ celebrities who have publicly denounced their faith. These include predictable apostasy from those who discerning believers wouldn’t assume were saved anyway, like Hillsong music leader, Marty Sampson (Contemporary Christian Music artists are notoriously unconverted, and Hillsong is a cult). But this rash of apostasies also include leaders who were once considered sound teachers, like Joshua Harris. In each case, believers have been saddened, even if they weren’t surprised.
But what about those who aren’t celebrities involved in high-profile theological train-wrecks, of which we can sit in the distance, detached and emotionally disconnected from the carnage? What about those who are our friends, our loved ones, our children, our parents, or even our church members or spouses who explicitly deny Christ once they have professed him?
WE HAVE MADE PEACE WITH SOFT-APOSTASY
In so-called Christian cultures, we are used to what one might call “soft apostasy.” We have gotten used to watching people slink away from the church, stop observing the Means of Grace, cease their Bible reading, forsake the Sabbath, and neglect the assembly.
Likewise, we are used to the soft-apostasy of behavioral sins. We all know professing Christians who cohabitate without marriage, as though it weren’t a shameful reproach. We all know professing Christians who engage in riotous living and regular debauchery. We all know professing Christians who live characteristically pagan lives.
For generations, we have made peace with soft-apostasy so long as the one who denies Christ by their lifestyle and consistent willful disobedience still occasionally attends church or can be goaded into offering prayer before family dinner. We have called soft-apostasy being ‘backslidden’ or more recently, ‘unchurched.’
Ultimately, these are also forms of apostasy, but it is one that we are comfortable with. So long as our loved ones ‘identify’ as Christians – no matter how insincerely – we so easily overlook the reality that they probably do not know Christ at all.
APOSTASY IS PROBABLY NOT WORSE IN 2019, IT IS ONLY MORE EXPLICIT
What has kept the soft-apostate over the last few generations still ‘identifying’ as Christian has been little more than societal or family pressure.
Simply put, there has traditionally been only a disadvantage to declaring oneself an atheist, agnostic, or unbeliever. Only a generation ago, it was culturally taboo not to have some religious affiliation. It was unheard of for someone in America not to consider themselves to “have a church,” no matter how infrequently they attended. People would identify as a Baptist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran, no matter whether they understood or appreciated the theology.
In fact, in 1960 almost 90% of American voters said they would not consider an atheist for President of the United States. Today, voters show almost complete indifference to the leading primary candidates being atheists or “non-practicing” Christians. It is no longer a public shame or scandal for someone to ‘come out of the closet’ as an unbeliever. There was a time, not long ago, when open atheism would have made someone a social pariah in their community, and it would even affect their gainful employment, their social standing, or the eligibility to marry many women.
These things have changed.
In fact, there are reward systems now in place for apostasy. Christianity – or religion of any kind – is no longer in vogue. Support systems are in place to celebrate the denunciation of faith, family members signal their ‘open-minded’ virtue by making apostasy a non-issue in the family dynamic, and often times open denunciation of theism is met with congratulations.
People probably aren’t leaving the Christian faith in higher numbers than they were a generation ago. They are only doing it more explicitly. The way that people ‘announce’ their apostasy (like Sampson and Harris) mirror exactly the way that homosexuals announce their sexual orientation. Their ‘coming out of the closet’ is done with bravado and publicity, and often it is done for applause. For celebrities, their apostasy is done in overly-dramatic Instagram posts and magazine interviews. For regular people, it’s done on Facebook or small-group settings or around the dinner table, much like a marriage announcement.
This is just the world we now live in.
WORDS OF COMFORT: APOSTASY IS NOT THE END
So many believers feel a sense of hopelessness when their family members denounce Christ. Indeed, it is tragic. But, the feeling of hopelessness is undeserved because there is, in fact, hope.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7)
God can – and does – conquer apostasy.
Apostasy, or denying Christ, is not the unforgivable sin. God regularly brings people back from the brink. He’s done it before, he does it now, and he’ll continue to do it to show his saving power over stubborn souls.
It is true that if someone dies while apostate we are foolish to presume their salvation, for as Solomon wrote, “Where a tree falls, there it lies.” However, while that person yet lives, there is time for God to quicken them, forgive them, and bring them back to Him. In fact, God rejoices to do so, and it glorifies Him greatly.
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? (Matthew 18:12)
Isn’t explicitly denying Christ a point-of-no-return?
No! Remember that Peter denied Christ thrice.
Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” (Matthew 26:34)
I’ll remind you that Peter was the first disciple to make a profession of faith in Jesus (1 Corinthians 13:7). He also denied Jesus three times in a single night before the rooster crowed in the morning.
However, ultimately, Peter returned to Jesus and Jesus freely forgave him. Jesus embraced him. Jesus took him back. Jesus restored him.
In 64 A.D. this one-time apostate went to his own cross, refusing to recant his belief in Christ. Crucified as was the Lord who bought him, Peter is a testimony to God’s power to save those who first professed him, but then denied him.
If you have a loved one who has said they don’t know Christ, remind yourself of Peter who said on the night of Christ’s betrayal, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” He was ultimately crucified, in Jesus’ glorious name.
No matter your loved ones’ denunciation of Christ, they are not outside the reach of an Almighty God. The Lord is impassible and without emotions, and does not have his feelings hurt as though spurned by a lover or good friend. Jesus died for apostates. Jesus saves apostates. And Jesus brings them back home again.
Have hope, friends. God helps to the hopeless and achieves the impossible, and no one is beyond his saving grasp.