Does Scripture Describe Two Types of Apostasy?

, posted by Ben Henshaw

In my series on perseverance I dealt with the warning passages in Hebrews. I have changed my views on certain aspects of apostasy while studying the subject. However, my view that apostasy from true saving faith is possible has never changed. I just can’t read the Bible honestly and deny such a reality, even if it would be far more pleasant to believe that true believers can never forsake the faith. My series on perseverance presented much of the exegetical basis for my strong conviction that true believers can forsake the faith and perish everlastingly. I will not be covering that ground again here, but would direct anyone interested to those posts to examine the strong exegetical evidence.

In dealing with the Hebrews passages one will easily come to the conclusion that the apostasy described there seems to be of an irremediable nature. Robert Picirilli and F. Leroy Forlines (among many other scholars) make a strong case that apostasy is irremediable based on the warnings in Hebrews. In reading them I was swayed from my previous position that an apostate can always be restored to faith. However, in looking at the context and considering other passages of Scripture, I came to the conclusion that there may be two types of apostasy, one irremediable and one from which a person may yet recover. I described that possible distinction in this post. The basic idea is that the apostasy described in Hebrews is the most severe form of apostasy possible. It is a heartfelt repudiation of the faith and the full spiritual experience once enjoyed by the spirit filled believer. From such an apostasy the writer of Hebrews informs us that “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” This is the sort of apostasy that the Jews of Hebrews would likely be facing in being tempted to return to Judaism after becoming Christians. In such a return it is likely that the former believer would have to publicly repudiate Christ as an imposter and false Messiah who rightly suffered death for His blasphemes as a common criminal. This makes sense of the specific language describing the apostate as one who has crucified to themselves again the Son of God and put Him to open shame (6:6, cf. Hebrews 10:29, where the apostate is said to have “trampled under foot the Son of God and regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified”).

The lesser form of apostasy would not involve a heartfelt repudiation of faith in Christ. Rather, it would involve a slip into an attitude of practical unbelief where one is no longer concerned about the things of God and begins to live a life characterized by rebellion and sin. Such a person may even believe that they are still a Christian, while living like the devil. This apostasy would be no different than the other in the result that a vital relationship with Christ would cease to exist, resulting in spiritual death. It would differ only in the extent to which one has walked away from Christ, not yet coming to a point of full heartfelt repudiation of Christ and the Christian experience. It would be like those who claim to know God, but their actions deny Him. They would not deny Christ fully, but have no concern about living for God or maintaining a relationship with Christ. Spiritual death would result from either degree of apostasy, but the lesser degree may yet have hope of a return to a saving relationship with Christ. However, over time this lesser form of apostasy, if not dealt with, will lead to such a hardened heart that it will inevitably lead to total irremediable apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10.

Some hold to a similar view but would call what I have described as a lesser apostasy as “backsliding” and maintain that the backslider is still saved (this is the view of Free Will Baptists Robert Picirilli and F. Leroy Forlines). My view basically sees the backslider as unsaved while still in a position where recovery is possible. I had never really heard my view expressed before, but was pleased to find that Henry H. Halley came to essentially the same view in his “Halley’s Bible Handbook.” The only difference would be that he seems to see a possible description of a partial and total apostasy in Hebrews 6, where I see the passage as describing only the most severe apostasy. Under Hebrews chapter 6 (pp. 650, 651) he writes,

The Fall of a Christian, spoken of in verse 6 may be Partial or Total; as a person may fall from the top of a building to a projecting ledge, or all the way to the bottom. As long as the Apostasy is Partial, there may be Hope. When it becomes Total, Recovery may be impossible.

The Sin here spoken of may be similar to the Unpardonable Sin mentioned by Jesus (Matthew 12:31, 32, and Mark 3:28-30), where the implication is that that Sin consisted in attributing the Miracles of Jesus to Satan, and which, in Luke 12:9-10, is connected with Denial of Jesus. It could be committed by a person outside the Church. The Sin here referred to is the Fall of a Christian. The Essence of the Fatal Sin, whether by a Christian or by One Outside, is the Deliberate and Final Rejection of Christ. It is as if a person in the bottom of a well, to whom a rope is let down, slashes the rope above his reach, thus cutting off his only hope of escape. For those who Reject Christ, there will Never Be Another Sacrifice for Sin (10:26-31). They will have to suffer for their own sin.

Over against this Fearful Warning against Falling Away from Christ, the writer is very positive that, for those who remain Faithful and True to Christ, the Hope of Eternal Salvation is Absolutely Sure and Steadfast, based on the immutability of God’s Promises to those who Trust Him (9-20). (Frequent caps his, bold emphasis mine)

I find that my view is practically and theologically superior to the view of Forlines and Picirilli in that it leaves no room for the possibility of antinomianism that may result from a view of “backsliding” that maintains that the backslider is still saved. Forlines and Picirilli maintain that as long as one is saved, sanctification is taking place, but this is hard to fit with their insistence that a backslider is still saved. Maybe we just have different views of what backsliding is, but if a backslider is still in the process of sanctification it is hard to understand why he or she could be considered a backslider. Sanctification is a foreword process. As long as one is in that forward process I do not see how one can call him or her a “backslider.” That seems like a contradiction in terms. It may also be that my view sees backsliding as more serious. I would not consider frequent struggles with sin backsliding. One can struggle with sin and still be in the process of sanctification. That the believer is “struggling” is evidence enough that sanctification is taking place. The “backsliding” or “lesser apostasy” I am describing is characterized by an attitude of unconcern about struggling against sin or repenting.

My view also holds that unbelief is what ultimately severs a relationship with Christ. The difference has to do with the degree of unbelief. One is a practical unbelief where a lifestyle of sin and rebellion results. The other is a practical and total unbelief, characterized not only by sin and a lifestyle devoid of fruit, but a heartfelt repudiation of Christ and the Christian experience. It would be similar to the difference between unbelief and rejection. An unbeliever can be anyone who does not have faith in Christ. However, there is a difference between an unbeliever who has not yet heard the gospel and an unbeliever who has heard and rejected the gospel. Likewise, there is a difference between an unbeliever whose life is no longer characterized by a living faith relationship with Christ that results in sanctification and one who has coupled that practical unbelief with an outright heartfelt rejection of Christ and the fullness of the spiritual blessings once experienced.

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