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Apostasy: A “falling away,” usually a deliberate and total abandonment of the faith previously held. Apostate: One who departs from the faith.
Deliberate repudiation and abandonment of the faith that one has professed (Heb. 3:12). Apostasy differs in degree from heresy. The heretic denies some aspect of the Christian faith, but retains the Christian name. Again, the transfer of membership from one denomination to another of the same faith is not apostasy. It is also possible for a person to deny the faith, as Peter did, then reaffirm it at a later time.
Isaiah 1:2–4 and Jeremiah 2:1–9 offer illustrations typical of the numerous defections during the history of Israel. People jettisoned their faith for various forms of idolatry and immorality. Several examples are mentioned in the LXX also: Ahaz in 2 Chronicles 29:19 and Manasseh in 33:19.
Perhaps the most notorious NT example is Judas Iscariot. Others include Demas (2 Tim. 4:10) and Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20). Paul the Apostle was accused of teaching Jews to abandon their Mosaic religion (Acts 21:21). John encountered this problem (1 John 2:18–19). The apostles warned about the rise of apostasy in the church, culminating in the appearance of the man of sin (2 Thess. 2:3; 1 Tim. 4:1–3). The NT offers frequent warnings against the danger of apostasy, and several references to the consequences of falling away from the faith (Heb. 6:5–8; 10:26).
Ten periods of persecution intensified the problem for the early church. A public confession of guilt and repentance was required before the offenders could be pardoned. Emperor Julian (361–63), who renounced the Christian faith and then made a vigorous effort to reestablish paganism in the Roman Empire, became known as “the Apostate.”
Turning against God, as evidenced by abandonment and repudiation of former beliefs. The term generally refers to a deliberate renouncing of the faith by a once sincere believer, rather than a state of ignorance or mistaken knowledge. Apostasy is distinguished from heresy (denial of a part of the faith), and from transfer of allegiance from one religious body to another within the same faith. Also, it is possible to deny the faith, as Peter once did, and then at a later time reaffirm it.
Originally, “apostasy” meant literal rebellion. Thus, the Jews were described as “rebels” against King Artaxerxes (1 Esd 2:23) and Jason as a “rebel against the laws” (2 Mc 5:6–8). OT descriptions of spiritual rebellion include departure from the Law, forsaking temple worship, and willful disobedience toward God himself (Jos 22:22, rebellion or unfaithful act; 2 Chr 29:19, transgression KJV, or faithlessness; Jer 2:19, backslidings KJV, or apostasy). The prophetic writings of Isaiah and Jeremiah provide many examples of Israel’s defections (Is 1:2–4; Jer 2:19). Israelite kings were often guilty of apostasy (Rehoboam—1 Kgs 14:22–24; Ahab—1 Kgs 16:30–33; Ahaziah—1 Kgs 22:51–53; Jehoram—2 Chr 21:6, 10; Ahaz—2 Chr 28:1–4; Manasseh—2 Chr 33:1–19; Amon—2 Chr 33:21–23).
In NT times many disciples withdrew from Christ (Jn 6:66), the most notorious example being Judas Iscariot. The Greek word from which “apostasy” is derived appears in only two passages. The apostle Paul was accused of apostasy for being “against the laws of Moses” (Acts 21:21 lb). Apostasy was given an eschatological significance in 2 Thessalonians 2:3. Christians were warned not to be carried away and deceived in the widespread apostasy to come in the end times before the Lord’s return. That apostasy is linked to the rise of a “man of rebellion” who will be “Satan’s tool” (2 Thes 2:3–12 lb; cf. 1 Tm 4:1–3).
Many other NT passages, using different words, convey similar warnings. In the last days, tribulation and persecution will cause many to “fall away” (Mt. 24:9, 10); false prophets will arise and “lead many astray” (Mt 24:11). Other causes of apostasy include temptation (Lk 8:13) and unbelief (Heb 3:12). Paul cited Hymenaeus and Alexander as examples of those who had rejected the faith (1 Tm 1:20). The writer of Hebrews referred to those who had believed and then departed from the faith as being in a hopeless state with no possibility of further repentance (Heb 6:1–6). The consequences of willful sinning after receiving Christ are terrifying (Heb 10:26–31). The apostle Peter said that, for believers in Christ who knowingly turned away, “the last state has become worse for them than the first” (2 Pt 2:20–22). The apostle John addresses this same problem (1 Jn 2:18, 19).
Ten periods of persecution intensified the problem of apostasy during the first four centuries of the church’s existence. Repentance and public confession were required before offenders could be accepted again. The Roman emperor Julian (361–63) renounced the Christian faith and made such a vigorous effort to establish paganism in the empire that he became known as “the Apostate.” Apostasy continues to be a danger to the Christian church, especially where the church is undergoing persecution.
In the Christian tradition, apostasy refers to the process of turning away from Christianity and from one’s relationship with God. It is considered an egregious sin (2 Peter 2:20–21), synonymous with falling away from the faith and rebellion. The term apostasy is rarely used in the Bible (e.g., in the NASB only Jer. 2:19; 5:6; 2 Thess. 2:3); however, the concept can be found throughout Scripture.
The first apostasy occurred in heaven (Jude 6), but Adam and Eve’s primal sin became the first human apostasy. From the wanderings of the exodus to the fall of the monarchies of Judah and Israel, apostasy among the Old Testament people of God was a continual problem. Christ taught that some would receive God’s word gladly at first, only to fall away later in response to temptation or affliction (Matt. 13:21). The early church witnessed the falling away of some disciples (John 6:66; 1 John 2:19), including Judas, Hymenaeus, and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:19–20), and Demas (2 Tim. 4:10). Apostasy has been a tragic reality in the history of God’s people. With regard to the future, both Christ and the apostles warned that a great apostasy is coming which will precede the day of the Lord (Matt. 24:9–12; 2 Thess. 2:2–3; 1 Tim. 4:1–3; 2 Tim. 4:4).
The danger of apostasy comprises a main theme of the Book of Hebrews (Hughes, 1977). The author admonishes the readers to beware lest they possess evil, unbelieving hearts that lead them away from God (Heb. 3:12). He argues for the possibility that one can fall away even after one has been enlightened, tasted of the powers of the age to come, been made a partaker of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 6:4–5), and sanctified (Heb. 10:29). The author urgently warns against apostasy because once persons have fallen away “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:6, NASB), since they recrucify Christ and dishonor his sacrificial death (Heb. 6:6; 10:29). The state of those who turn away from God’s salvation is worse than if they had never known it (2 Peter 2:20–21).
Such teaching has been the source of much theological and pastoral controversy over the centuries. The possibility of apostasy has been thought to undermine or contradict God’s sovereign grace in salvation. As a result, some have argued that true Christians can lose their salvation, whereas others have argued that the passages about apostasy have relevance only to false Christians. Berkouwer (1958) believed that the Scriptures teach neither extreme. Many Scriptures make clear that God will lead his believing people to glory (Pss. 23:6; 55:22; John 10:27–28; Phil. 1:6). Faith and God’s sovereign grace are not mutually exclusive but correlative. The admonitions to persevere and to avoid shipwreck are necessary and applicable to believers because it is only through perseverance in faith and obedience that they will arrive in glory (Matt. 24:13; Rom. 2:7; cf. the “if” passages: John 15:6–7; 1 Cor. 15:2; Col. 1:23), a glory to which they have been ordained (Rom. 8:29–30). As Berkouwer stated: “Anyone who takes away any of this tension, this completely earnest admonition, this many-sided warning, from the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints would do the Scriptures a great injury and would cast the Church into the error of carelessness and sloth” (p. 110). God sovereignly preserves true believers through faith; therefore the warnings of apostasy must be taken seriously.
The issue of apostasy is a living one for pastors and Christian counselors. Depressed believers sometimes feel that they have committed the unpardonable sin or have become apostate. They may benefit from a careful consideration of the (imperfect) evidence that they are believers: for example, they are concerned about God; apostates are not. They may also need to be encouraged to continue to trust in God’s forgiving grace. Their sins and need for forgiveness should be taken seriously, but they will need corrective biblical teaching if their consciences are overly burdened or scrupulous. Christians who are living in evident sin (e.g., idolatry, adultery, homosexuality; 1 Cor. 6:9–10) and are unrepentant need to be warned that they are placing their souls in jeopardy and are in danger of being cut off (2 Tim. 2:12). “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31, NASB).
Richard Baxter (1673/1990), one of the great Puritan pastors, discussed some signs of growing apostasy: when sin’s delights are continually greater than the pleasures of holiness; when repentance is put off; when legitimate admonitions of others are resisted; when sin becomes easy and conscience offers no argument; and when sin is mentally and verbally defended. Baxter then offers some topics for meditation to help call the person back: consider that such a course brings hell into the present; recall the misery and folly of the non-Christian life; the guilt of the apostate is greater than any; God continues to demonstrate his love with his daily mercies; and one should not forsake the best friend one has ever had. Though God knows who is beyond repentance, humans never do, so the counselor’s response should always be to encourage faith in the God of all grace.
APOSTASY [Heb. mešûḇâ] (Jer. 2:19; 5:6); AV BACK-SLIDING; [GK. parapíptō] (He. 6:6); AV, NEB, FALL AWAY. Defection from the faith. The English word occurs only in the passages above (thrice in the RSV, twice in the NEB); the GK. apostasía occurs also in Acts 21:21 (“forsake”) and 2 Thess. 2:3 (“rebellion”; AV “falling away”). But the concept of apostasy is found throughout Scripture.
“Forsaking the Lord” was the characteristic and oft-recurring sin of the chosen people, especially in their contact with idolatrous nations. It constituted their supreme national peril. The tendency appeared in their earliest history, as abundantly seen in the warnings and prohibitions of the laws of Moses (Ex. 20:3f, 23; Dt. 6:14; 11:16). The fearful consequences of religious and moral apostasy appear in the curses pronounced against this sin, on Mt. Ebal, by the representatives of six of the tribes of Israel, elected by Moses (Dt. 27:13–26; 28:15–68). So wayward was the heart of Israel even in the years immediately following the national emancipation, in the wilderness, that Joshua found it necessary to repledge the entire nation to a new fidelity to the Lord and to their original covenant before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land (Josh. 24:1–28). Infidelity to this covenant blighted the nation’s prospects and growth during the time of the judges (Jgs. 2:11–15; 10:6, 10, 13; 1 S. 12:10). It was the cause of prolific and ever increasing evil, civic and moral, from Solomon’s day to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities. Many of the kings of the divided kingdom apostatized, leading the people, as in the case of Rehoboam, into the grossest forms of idolatry and immorality (1 K. 14:22–24; 2 Ch. 12:1). Conspicuous examples of such royal apostasy are Jeroboam (1 K. 12:28–32); Ahab (16:30–33); Ahaziah (22:51–53); Jehoram (2 Ch. 21:6, 10, 12–15); Ahaz (28:1–4); Manasseh (33:1–9); Amon (33:22). See Idolatry. Prophecy originated as a divine and imperative protest against this historic tendency to defection from the religion of the Lord.
Paul was falsely accused of teaching the Jews apostasy from Moses (Acts 21:21); he predicted the great apostasy from Christianity, foretold by Jesus (Mt. 24:10–12), which would precede “the Day of the Lord” (2 Thess. 2:2f). Apostasy, not in name but in fact, meets scathing rebuke in the Epistle of Jude, e.g., the apostasy of angels (v 6). It is foretold, with warnings, as sure to abound in the latter days (1 Tim. 4:1–3; 2 Thess. 2:3; 2 Pet. 3:17).
Causes of apostasy include persecution (Mt. 24:9f); false teachers (24:11); temptation (Lk. 8:13); worldliness (2 Tim. 4:4); defective knowledge of Christ (1 Jn. 2:19); moral lapse (He. 6:4–6); forsaking worship and spiritual living (10:25–31); unbelief (3:12).
Some additional biblical examples: Saul (1 S. 15:11); Amaziah (2 Ch. 25:14, 27); many disciples (Jn. 6:66); Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:19f); Demas (2 Tim. 4:10). For further illustration see Dt. 13:13; Zeph. 1:4–6; Gal. 5:4; 2 Pet. 2:20f.
In classical Greek, apostasy signified revolt from a military commander. In the Roman Catholic Church, it denotes abandonment of religious orders; renunciation of ecclesiastical authority; defection from the faith. The persecutions of the early Christian centuries forced many to deny Christian discipleship and to signify their apostasy by offering incense to a heathen deity or blaspheming the name of Christ. The emperor Julian, who probably never vitally embraced the Christian faith, is known in history as “the Apostate,” having renounced Christianity for paganism soon after his accession to the throne.
An apostate’s defection from the faith may be intellectual, as in the case of Ernst Haeckel, who, because of his materialistic philosophy, publicly and formally renounced Christianity and the Church; or it may be moral and spiritual, as with Judas, who barely betrayed his Lord.
- Baxter, R. (1990). The practical works of Richard Baxter: Vol. 1. A Christian directory. Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria. (Original work published 1673)
- Berkouwer, G. C. (1958). Faith and perseverance. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- D. M. Pratt, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988)
- Hughes, P. E. (1977). A commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- L. Johnson, ed. David G. Benner and Peter C. Hill, Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999)
- James D. Price and Luder G. Whitlock Jr., Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988)
- Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001)
- Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001)