Tuesday, March 17, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

The (Not So) Great Apostasy

Every once in a while I fall into a very specific brand of depression, prompted by a very specific circumstance. I'm not talking about when the other party's candidate wins or when I tell someone I'm a pastor only to have them look skeptically into my boyishly (read: chubbily) handsome face and clarify: "the senior pastor?" No, I can endure minor setbacks and annoyances. Real discouragement and misery get a grip on me when I find out that yet another saint (falsely so called)—in whom I had placed the utmost confidence—has apostatized.

These moments have been faith-testing for me. The latest Darwinian hypotheses don't make me swallow hard and re-assess my convictions. Richard Dawkins pretending that he's a chemist, geologist, philosopher, theologian, anthropologist, and historian just makes me laugh. But when someone who, by my eyes, bore the mark of the cross upon his forehead renounces that cross and the Christ who died on it...well, at those moments I feel like someone has kicked me right in the faith.

Apostasy isn't a word we use much anymore. Most people seem to think it's synonymous with heresy; it's not. A heretic (from a Greek root meaning "sect" or "division") is one who teaches a false doctrine or set of doctrines, usually while remaining within the visible church. An apostate is one who leaves (literally abandons) the church and its teachings all together. This is somewhat confusing, considering that 2 Thess 2:3 predicts a great apostasy ( ἀποστασία) that will involve a large portion of the visible church abandoning the biblical/ apostolic teachings, while claiming to still be the church. So that will be kind of the combination of heresy and apostasy. We see the same thing today on a smaller level when somewhat biblical churches take the plunge into all-out cult status.

The people I keep hearing about, though, aren't embracing heresies. They aren't becoming Mormons, Kabbalists, or Monophysites. They are leaving faith behind. Leaving theism behind. Abandoning what appeared to be rock solid devotion to Jesus Christ and riding the pendulum to the other extreme: a passionate and polemical devangelicalism.

A decade ago was the first major blow. A man who had been something of a mentor in the faith to me as a child and teenager just drifted away from church. Then (with his life, if not his lips) announced that he no longer needed God. This man had come out of a very sinful past filled with drugs and promiscuous sex, "found Jesus," and became a bedrock member of our Baptist church. At every stage of my early life, he was there offering guidance, counsel, prayer, and support. He challenged us to dig deeper and not have a surface relationship with our Savior. He encouraged the men to go to Promise Keepers and the young people to go to camps and conventions to keep our spiritual lives fresh and vibrant. He was one of a handful (along with my father) who met with a men's accountability group for mutual prayer and encouragement.

Then he bailed.

He's still an incredibly nice guy. He runs a small business and I have dropped in on him a couple times. But he's not the same man. His stories are now tainted with a worldiness that still doesn't seem to fit him. Instead of looking to Scriptures for living water, he's got Playboy magazines on an end table at his workplace. Rather than looking for a deeper connection with his Creator, he seems to be ever pursuing a shallower hedonism. Tragic.

A few years later came a much more painful apostasy. You see, my wife Erin is my best friend and has been for a dozen years. But during that time, I've often had guys who fill the traditional "best buddy" role. One guy in particular. I lived with him for several years during college. We played in a band together, studied Scripture together, led inner city youth to Jesus together. I was studying to be a pastor and he a missionary. He was, in many ways, my hero.

But now he believes that a few sinister men concocted the very notion of religion to control the simple-minded. No gods. No masters. Et cetera, yawn. And he's essentially fallen off the face of the earth, bouncing from state to state, trying to find himself or something. Apparently he didn't get what he thought he had coming from the big guy upstairs and so he got his revenge by taking a breeze and wishing Him out of existence. Or so he thinks.

If I had a buck for every time I've cried about this I'd use the money to buy a gold Gisbon Les Paul like the one my friend had, to remind me of the fun we had together. Because that's all we've got now: some fun we had. And that's all he can ever hope to have.

Some fun.

News of apostasy has continually trickled in over the past few years. Peer networking sites are the standard conduit, as they generally have a "Religious Views" field amongst the obligatory stats. Again with the pendulum swings. My once-
devout friends who have abandoned the faith don't fill in the religion blank, "not sure" or "Christian, but doubting." No, they put, "Religion? No thanks!" or "Atheist!" or "Religion poisons everything."

This year, my wife has given up Facebook for Lent. Since she signed up for the service a few months ahead of me, I've been continually lagging behind her in number of friends. Being gratuituosly competetive, I saw her spiritual exercise as a forty day window to close the gap, which stood at a couple dozen. (Note: as of today, we are tied. It would be more satisfying if she actually cared who had more.)

Now, understand that I have online peer networking principles. I don't just friend people because I know who they are. I'll only friend them if we are or were—in some real sense—friends. So I spent a couple lunch hours running searches on people I hadn't seen in years and made some fun and exciting reconnections. To that end, I looked up a bunch of folks who had participated with me in a state-wide church leadership program my junior year of high school. My search turned up three people. Each of them has matured beyond their need for the crutch we call faith. That silly imaginary friend/ fairy tale for grown ups. They're enlightened now, describing themselves with words like "skeptical rationalist." As a group, we were supposed to be the leaders of the church of tomorrow (which, I suppose, is now the church of today). How could this happen?

One guy (with whom I was stretching my principles, as we'd had maybe three conversations ever) had become a particularly ardent anti-theist (a card-carrying member of Dan Barker's sophomoric "Freedom From Religion Foundation.") For some reason, I engaged him in a discussion. In retrospect, I was sarcastic and aggressive in a way that was neither helpful nor pastoral. Maybe he was the proverbial last straw. Maybe I slipped back into a "high school" way of relating to someone I had last seen in 1994. Either way, I told myself that I was just "casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Cor 10:5). I wasn't, though. I was lashing out at God.

But I know it's not God who bears the guilt. I had an epiphany last night: of all the apostates I've mourned over the past decade, they've all had one thing in common: none of them have embraced the doctrines of grace. If you know me, you can be sure that I'm no neo-Gnostic Calvinist (i.e. I don't believe that only Calvinists are Christians.) If anything, I'm usually accused of being too open and ecumenical when defining the Church.

All the same, though, it only makes sense that in circles where a sinner's "free will" to "make a decision for Christ" is the sacred cow that must never be slaugthered or even slandered, well then I hold my salvation in my hands. And, as Luther pointed out, I'll drop it 100% of the time. If I think that I "found Jesus," then what I've found isn't Jesus. Whether a Christian is a Calvinist or an Arminian, if she is truly a Christian, then she didn't find Jesus: He found her.

And that means that I don't hold my salvation in my hands. Jesus holds it. He holds me. And as the modern hymn proclaims: "No power of hell, no scheme of man can ever pluck me from His hand. Till he returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand!"

My Calvinism is not what saved me. Mη γενοιτο!! The sacrificial death of Christ saved me. But my Calvinism has equipped me with an understanding that we call the perseverance of the saints. Those whom HE has called are safe and secure in his hands. Because those he predestined he also called, justified, and glorified (Rom 8:30).

I'm sure there will be more painful apostasies in my future: likely someone in my church whom I've led to the Lord. I pray it never happens, but if and when it does, I will not see it as God's failure. I won't wonder if I should have presented the Gospel in some snappier way or given them more "relevant" teaching to keep them "engaged" in the church. Because if they're saved, they aren't holding their salvation in their hands. And I'm sure as heck not holding their salvation in my hands. God is holding it in His.

Me? I'll just keep proclaiming that truth delivered once for all to the saints: Jesus Christ died. Jesus Christ rose. Jesus Christ is coming again. Repent and put your faith in Him.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

4 reader comments:

E. said...

What a comforting realization. It's funny to me that where I used to see Calvinism as a sort of snobbish copout when it came to evangelism, I can now see how utterly freeing it really is.

On another note, this post got me wondering why I haven't had the same experience of friends leaving the faith. I suppose it's partially because my Missouri Lutheran upbringing didn't realy ever seem to focus on evangelism, and partially, perhaps, because Lutherans don't have that "I was saved at this age" sort of experience. Faith was, for me, more a natural part of life since I grew up in the church and there was no "you must make a choice"-type language. I was baptized into the family as a baby and I confirmed it later, but since there is that set age for confirmation (which has its own problems, illustrated by my sincere confirmation and my sister's one for show at the time) there's no big "now you're a true Christian" moment. I always felt like a Christian.

Regardless, I wonder if you might also feel comforted to think of all those people in your life who have been faithful through difficult trials, or who have returned to the church later in life, drawn by God back into the fold. I'm sure that there are many more of those saints in your life than the ones who have apostatized. And, as you said, the true comfort comes in knowing that those whom God has saved are safe in Him.

All of this is such a good lesson to us as we share the Gospel (not "my story" but His). God will snatch up those He wills and those who harden their hearts, even if for a time they "tried Jesus," were never going to truly believe.

Thanks for a great post, Zach.

Raymond Nearhood II said...

You wrote:
I won't wonder if I should have presented the Gospel in some snappier way or given them more "relevant" teaching to keep them "engaged" in the church. Because if they're saved, they aren't holding their salvation in their hands. God is holding it in His.

I've had recent discussions with Christian friends that have had some not-so-nice things to say about their misunderstandings of Calvinism. Coupled with recent article in Time Magazine Online that mischaracterized Calvinism, and other misunderstandings from other friends, I decided to post a series on TULIP on my blog. I've come to the same understanding about preaching the Gospel as you have because of my understanding of Total Depravity.

I wrote: Now, I can evangelize with complete confidence....I don't worry about whether my "two minute testimony" is sufficient, or if my story of "how Christ has changed my life" is good enough for the person I'm talking to at that moment in time. I know that the Gospel is sufficient and that God will work in His own time who will be saved when.

My job is to 'sow the seeds,' (Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23) God determines what kind of soil they land on.

By the way, great post. I understand the hurt that goes along with apostasy. My brother turned from the faith about eight years ago, hasn't turned back, and I am concerned for his salvation.

Daniel Oostra said...

wow Zach great post....

JB said...

I concur. I have also come across several instances of apostasy among my Facebook reunions, which is disheartening. But remembering that they are in God's hands keeps everything in perspective.