How to Cope Theologically with Apostasy

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19 NIV).

One of my most memorable assignments in seminary was to write a paper discussing Calvinist and Arminian interpretations of a number of the key passages in the Bible that each group most cites to buttress their understanding of perseverance. We were particularly to focus on how Calvinists dealt with texts, like the warning passages in Hebrews, which most strongly seemed to teach the possibility of forfeiting salvation. We were likewise to focus on how Arminians dealt with texts, like the Johannine promises of security, which most strongly seemed to teach that God would always preserve his flock. A kairos moment of sorts hit me when I came to 1 John 2:19, cited above. This put all the pieces of the puzzle together for me. Phenomenologically, apostasy happens. Theologically, John explains how to interpret it. People can fool others and probably even fool themselves, up to a point. Yet only where they wind up at the end of their lives ultimately determines their final destiny — and their true spiritual nature all along. One can defend “eternal security,” but only for those who are truly Christ’s. And only with 20-20 hindsight can we fully determine who truly were his.

Sadly, I have watched people abandon professions of faith in Christ at a variety of times in my life. I have heard others tell their stories, whom I have encountered only after the fact. Over my 22 years of teaching at Denver Seminary, I am aware of four of our graduates who have done this; these are the stories that hurt the most. There are no doubt a handful of others I don’t know about, though overall the graduates I do hear from, like the survey results we receive from more systematic canvassing of our graduates, are extremely heartening.

As I have become more familiar with the blogworld, I have discovered that there are plenty of websites devoted to attacking Christianity or at least to pointing out everything that makes it hard for various people to accept it. Some are intellectually quite rigorous. I have had some fascinating response when I have joined in the conversations on such blogs–some encouraging, others less so. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate amount of the passion exercised against Christianity, especially historic, orthodox Christianity, seems to come from ex-evangelicals.

It would be easy to lash out with a torrent of invective against such individuals. After all, doesn’t John call them “antichrists” in 2:18 and 22? Yes, but he is not directly addressing them. If they are the ones who have left the church, then by definition they are not the ones present when this letter is read out to the local congregation of those who have “abided” or “remained” faithful to the truth. It is one thing to warn “the flock” in strong language against those who would ravage them; it is quite another to speak this way to the “wolves” themselves. In the blogworld, however, this seems to be Christians’ preferred modus operandi, and I can assure you from personal conversations with the ex-Christians, skeptics, and atheists that this does absolutely nothing but alienate them further and convince them their decisions were the right ones.

Robert Yarbrough’s outstanding new Baker Exegetical Commentary on 1-3 John has some profound reflections on 1 John 2:19. A woodenly literal translation of the last third of this verse reads “but in order that it might be shown that they are not all of us.” The thought is incomplete; the elliptical sentence has to be finished with something like “they went out.” The NIV, TNIV, NRSV, NAB and NLT mask entirely that there is purpose clause (using hina) here. The NJB and NET hint at the idea of purpose, but turn the passive voice verb “be shown” into an active one, easily creating the impression that the people leaving the church did so intentionally to demonstrate who they really were, when in fact John’s point is that this is God’sintention in the context, irrespective of the specific human motivations. For this verse, the HCSB, ESV, NASB and RSV get it right. Yarbrough explains, “God is continually at work showing forth his glory, and for his people this means their ongoing sifting and purifying. . .When ostensible members of the people of God turn away from the beliefs and practices authorized by God and subsequently depart the community, God is glorified in that the truth of who are his and who are not is revealed” (pp. 147-48).

But that can’t be where we stop. Just as not all who profess Christ are truly his, not all who claim to have given up the faith have truly defected. 2 Timothy 2:25-26 shows Paul holding out hope that some will return to the fold. In other instances, those who never were truly Christ’s will become so, now truly, for the first time. “The pain of an open parting of the ways. . .can be the necessary prelude to a higher level of community cohesion and doctrinal integrity” (p. 148), including among some who once were among us, left us and later came back. We have frequently seen this at Scum of the Earth Church in Denver with its particularly transient and needy population.

Yogi Berra had it right, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Let’s keep that in mind for ourselves, for our fellow church members and for all people elsewhere. There may be an unforgivable sin, but only God knows who has crossed that threshold. Our task is to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) to everyone. Just as we are surprised by some who apostatize, we will be surprised by some who repent.

Craig Blomberg

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