Thoughts on Apostasy from I. Howard Marshall and Robert Picirilli

, posted by SEA

I. Howard Marshall finds four biblical dangers that could serve as precursors to a believer giving up their faith in Christ and committing apostasy.

Persecution by Unbelievers – “Believers . . . are frequently tempted to give up their faith because of the difficulties of maintaining it amid fierce opposition.”

Accepting False Doctrine – “Whatever form this presents itself . . . the temptation is to blunt the edge of faith in Jesus Christ and ultimately to destroy it altogether.”

Temptation to Sin – “The significance of this form of temptation is that it causes the believer to deny the power of God to preserve him from sinning, to return to the very things from which he was saved by belief in Christ (and which by their nature exclude a man from the kingdom of God), and to perform those acts which are expressly forbidden by the Lord . . . . In other words, sin is an act and attitude which is incompatible with the obedience of faith, and hence constitutes a denial of faith.”

Weariness in Faith – This is where “the believer gradually drifts away
from his faith and passes into a state of apostasy.” (Kept by the Power, 197; see also French Arrington, Unconditional Security: Myth or Truth? 178-79)

Marshall concludes:

      The New Testament contains too many warnings about the danger of sin and apostasy for us to be complacent about these possibilities. . . . These dangers are real and not ‘hypothetical.’ (

Kept by the Power

    , 198; cf. Arrington, 179).

Reformation Arminian Robert Picirilli has provided some lengthly but very helpful comments on the nature of apostasy.

Cautions About Developing a Doctrine of Apostasy

If the Bible teaches that apostasy from a truly regenerate state is possible, one must still be very cautions about expressing or formulating such a view. Here are some of the things to be careful about.

1. It is extremely important to express our view in such a way that faith, not works, is the sole condition of salvation. We must not establish salvation by grace through faith with the right hand and take it away with the left.

The door swings on the same hinges as the door in. In other words, the condition of salvation is always the same. As Arminius expressed this, it is “impossible for believers, as long as they remain believers, to decline from salvation.” If one gains access to saving grace by faith and not by works, he departs by unbelief and not works. And, as saving faith has been defined in chapter 9, so its nature does not change once the person has been saved. . . .

“Saved by faith and kept by works” simply will not accord with Biblical teaching relative to the basis of salvation.

2. In whatever ways the positive “works” of a believer are involved in perseverance, we must relate them to faith and not as conditions of continuing in salvation as such. Expressing this relationship is sometimes difficult; the Bible itself does not always attempt to make sure we understand that such things are not “essential” to salvation.

One cannot doubt that faithfulness, right conduct, prayer, and obedience to God are required of Christians, or that they are important for the Christian’s spiritual well-being—and thus eventually for his perseverance. Even so, these must apparently be understood as integrally related to the faith which is alone the condition of salvation. In other words, these “works”—if that is the right word—are evidences of faith (for the Christian, perhaps even [the] means of strengthening or sustaining faith), but it is the faith and not the evidences of it that saves.

In that sense, we may even call them “essential,” just as bearing apples is “essential” to an apple tree but manifest what the tree is instead of making the tree what it is.

3. Conversely (and equally difficult to express precisely sometimes), we must not make sinful acts, in themselves, the cause of falling from grace. Likewise we must not give the impression that every time a saved person sins he is lost and needs saving again. Furthermore we must not make the mistake of implying that saved people do not sin.

If faith is the condition for salvation, then unbelief is the “condition” for apostasy. Again the works have an important role, whether negatively or positively, but as evidences of faith and unbelief rather than as the fundamental condition of being saved or lost. . . . Apostasy is a willful retraction of faith.

Do Christian sin? Must assuredly so. Even Wesleyan Arminians who believe in some form of “entire sanctification” believe Christians sin. So do Calvinists, although the classical Calvinists do not encourage us to think that Christians go on indefinitely in lives characterized by sin. What, then, is the difference between the sins of a regenerate person and those of someone unregenerate?

While I am cautious enough to know that I cannot always examine the life of an individual and make a dogmatic judgment about his condition, I think I can define the fundamental difference involved. When an unsaved person sins, that sin represents what he really is by nature. When a regenerate person sins, that sin is a contradiction of what he really is, and he recognizes it as such. Consequently, in the loosely quoted words of 1 John 3:7, the regenerate person does not live in sin; the unregenerate person does. But in both cases the practice is evidence of the inner nature, not its case.

We rejoice that God, who makes the only judgment that counts, knows perfectly the heart of each individual, whether genuine faith is there. We, on the other hand, can “judge” only by what can be seen on the outside, and that kind of judgment—even though it must often be made—may be wrong. In Biblical terms, then, we will rightly continue to regard any person whose life is characterized by sinful practice (regardless what he claims about “salvation”) as having no grounds for assurance of salvation.

    Does any of this mean that whenever I sin I must immediately doubt my salvation? No. . . .

4. Corollary to what has already been said, we must allow in our expression of this doctrine for the fact that the saving works of grace we receive are based on “union with Christ” and that union is established on meeting the condition of faith. I receive . . . [all the blessings of salvation (justification, sanctification, redemption, etc.) by virtue of being “in Him.”

    . . . If I am in Him by faith, then only by a forsaking of saving faith will I be “out of” Him . . .

One of the implications of this is, simply, that there is not a state “in between” being saved and lost . . . . Any given individual, at any time, is either in a saving union with Christ or not. And if he is in Christ, he is by faith alone. . . .

5. It is important, therefore, for us who believe in the possibility of apostasy to teach assurance of salvation and the proper grounds for that assurance. This viewpoint does not mean, for example, that one may not have assurance, or that one must go about as though walking on eggshells for fear of “losing” his salvation. Living in fear or with lack of assurance of salvation is neither God’s will for His child nor in harmony with Biblical teaching.

Assurance, therefore, must be based on the word of God which promises salvation to those who . . . put faith in Jesus Christ. Confirming that assurance for those who do this will be the inner testimony of the Spirit of God. . . .

At the same time, the Bible offers us no encouragement to provide assurance of salvation to those whose lives are characterized by sinful practice. Both traditional Calvinists and Arminians will agree with this.

6. Also important, we must express our view in such a way that apostasy is recognized as a serious and willful, decisive crises. Apostasy is not what most people mean by “backsliding.” It is not something that a true believer, regenerated by the Spirit of God, can do lightly and easily. One is not saved today, lost tomorrow, and saved again the day after.

      So long as one continues to exercise saving faith, he has not


      committed apostasy. . . .

Apostasy, apparently, cannot be reversed and is final.

7. It is equaling important, therefore, for us to warn believers about the danger of apostasy and to exhort them to persevere in faith and good works, not as a means of frightening or troubling them but as a means of edifying them and nurturing their spiritual development, which is the one, sure, Biblical way of avoiding apostasy (2 Peter 3:17, 18).

. . . The traditional Calvinist agrees that the New Testament itself does actually present such warnings and exhortations, and that these are in fact means of perseverance. It is obviously Biblical, therefore, to take up such warnings and exhortations. It is not so obviously Biblical, however, to teach believers that these are merely warnings against something that cannot really happen. One wonders if these warnings and exhortations can have their intended effect if the presenter afterward assures his hearers that such apostasy is not a real possibility do any of those pastors who deny the possibility of apostasy warn their flock against it?

If not, that is most certainly not the Biblical way. Indeed, such warnings and exhortations have force precisely because they refer to a real danger. To convince believers that there is no possibility of apostasy is to negate the Biblical warning. I cannot avoid saying, therefore, that the Calvinist attempt to explain the Biblical warnings as means by which the perseverance is ensured is, finally, a sad travesty.

On the negative side, believers ought to be warned against those roads that might lead to apostasy. These will include tolerance of false doctrine, continued indulgence in sin, and rebelling against God’s chastisement. Any of these may put one on a path that leads to the conscious and willful disbelief that is involved in “departing from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). (Grace, Faith, Free Will, 204-208)