WE MUST START FROM THE 'GREAT POSITIVE STATEMENTS OF SCRIPTURE'
John Owen is one who has written comprehensively on this subject. I have,
therefore, taken his writings as the basis for what I want to say, while
drawing on the contribution of others here and there, and interjecting
some comments of my own.
By way of definition, Owen helpfully says that "apostasy is the
relinquishing of any important truth or way in religion; and heresy is
the embracing of any new distinctive opinion, or principle, or way in
the profession of it." A man may be an apostate by partial apostasy,
that is, depart from the profession of some truth he had formerly embraced,
or from the performance of some duty which he had engaged in, without
being a heretic, or choosing any new opinion which he did not before embrace.
Conversely, a man may be a heretic, that is, choose and embrace some new
false opinion, which he may invent out of his own imagination, without
a direct renunciation of any truth which he had held before.
On these grounds, Owen argued that the Church of Rome is both apostate
and heretical. Apostate because it has renounced the great truths of the
Gospel, and heretical because it has invented and coined many articles
of pretended faith, which the old Roman Church never had. We shall come
back to the subject of the Church of Rome later. For the moment the definition
of apostasy, and its distinction from heresy, is an important one to bear
I propose to divide this article into five parts. Firstly, Man's Apostasy
from God. Secondly, The Apostasy of the Church of Rome. Thirdly, The Causes
of Apostasy Amongst all Persons in all Ages. Fourthly, The Question Whether
a True Believer Can Fall from Grace and be Lost. Finally, some Directions
on How to Avoid the Prevailing Apostasy.
1. THE APOSTASY OF MAN FROM GOD - THE REJECTION BY MAN OF THE IMAGE OF
When God created man, He made him in His own image, and by so doing He
distinguished man from all the other works of creation. Genesis 1:26-27:
"And God said, Let us make man in our image . . . in the image of
God created he him." Nowhere else is there any such emphasis of expression
concerning any work of God. There was an involvement of all the Persons
of the Trinity. "Let us make man...." God intended three things
by this communication of His image to man. To make a representation of
His holiness and righteousness. "The heavens declare the glory of
God" - His eternal power and Godhead - but none of these things was
able to receive impressions of His righteousness and holiness. It was
this that God intended when He made man in His image. And when it was
lost in Adam it was restored in Christ.
2. It was meant to render actual glory to God. However wonderful and
beautiful the works of creation were, without the image of God here below,
there was nothing to understand and appreciate them.
3. It was intended to be the means to bring man to the eternal enjoyment
of God. This was to be done by way of obedience - "This do and live."
But we were only enabled to do it by the image of God in our natures.
The image of God in man was, therefore, the crowning expression of all
the outward works of God in nature. In man, made in the image of God,
the circle of creation was complete.
But the apostasy of man from God, by sin, defaced the image of God in
man, and at the same time subjected the whole creation to vanity or futility.
There is in consequence, no way left by which the glory of God might be
manifested in the creation to His praise and glory. The nature of man
alone was designed to that end and purpose. He, therefore, not only fell
himself, but dragged down the whole of creation. In his debased condition
he worshipped the heavenly bodies above as his gods, and those creatures
below he abused with his lusts. Therefore God was dishonoured in every
way, as Paul declared to the Romans, in chapter 1 of that great epistle.
When we consider the greatness of this apostasy from God, we have to
acknowledge that the recovery of a portion of mankind from this miserable
state was an act of free-will on the part of God. He had no obligation
to do so. It would not have been inconsistent with the nature of God's
righteousness to have left the whole of mankind to perish eternally. Therefore,
wherever there is any mention made in Scripture of the restoration of
mankind, it is constantly said to be of the mere sovereign grace and mercy
of God (Ephesians 1:3-11).
Those who make objection to this do not seem to understand the nature
of our original apostasy from God, nor the righteousness of God in dealing
with the angels that sinned. Man had voluntarily broken all the relations
of love and moral good between himself and God, had defaced His image
- the only representation of His holiness and righteousness in the lower
world - and deprived Him of all His glory from the works of His hands,
and had allied himself with the devil. What dishonour would it have been
to God if He had left man to His own choice, and the consequences of it?
Here, in the original apostasy of man from God we have the source of
all subsequent defection and falling away from God in the history of the
world and of the Church. It all partakes of this evil and rebellious character,
in seeking to frustrate and oppose the purposes of God. This brings us
to the second head of this paper -
2. THE APOSTASY OF THE CHURCH OF ROME
When God, in the fulness of time, put into execution His plan to save
and redeem a people, through His Son Jesus Christ, the second Adam, and
thereby to restore the fallen creation, the devil sought to counter and
overthrow that plan. This he did, and does, through the mystery of iniquity",
which he sets to work in the Church in opposition to the "mystery
of godliness". Even in the apostle Paul's days, Satan was initiating
that apostasy which, beginning in small ways in the Church, would in time
grow to be universal.
"A mystery," says Poole, in his commentary on this passage
in 2 Thessalonians, is something which is abstruse, intricate, and not
easily discerned. There are mysteries in doctrine and in practice, mysteries
of godliness and mysteries of iniquity; mysteries of the kingdom of God
and the devil's kingdom. So there are the deep things of God, and the
depths of Satan."
The mystery of iniquity is not open sin and wickedness, but dissembled
piety, specious errors, wickedness under a form of godliness cunningly
managed. It works specially to undermine Christianity and the peculiar
doctrines and practice of it. The early assaults on Christianity came
from without, in the form of the Gnostic heresies, arising from heathen
religion and philosophy, but this was to come from within, and to prove
to be far more insidious and pervasive. I am alluding, of course, to the
manifestation of this apostasy in the power of the Church of Rome, which
growing from small beginnings led to the almost universal corruption of
the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith in the medieval papacy.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in a sermon on Ephesians 6, spoke of the Church
of Rome as 'Satan's masterpiece' for this very reason, that it seeks to
overthrow Christianity not by open, frontal assault, but by counterfeiting
its doctrines, and presenting its own version to the world as the truth.
The differences, and yet apparent similarities, between the true catholic
Church of Scripture and the apostles, and the false Roman Catholic Church
is set out by Francis Turretin, the 17th century Protestant theologian
who most ably followed in Calvin's footsteps at Geneva. He wrote:
"Christ wills that sola Scriptura, inspired by God be received by
us as the perfect rule of faith and morals. The Pope denies Scripture
alone is an adequate rule of faith, unwritten traditions must be attached.
These traditions, together with Scripture, are to be equally adopted and
venerated. They are to be held alike as the means of influencing godliness.
"Christ wishes His Word to be believed on its own, because it does
not take its authority from man. In our estimation, the Pope wishes the
authority of the Word to be derived from his Church. Christ wishes no
supreme judge to be acknowledged in ruling on controversies other than
God speaking through Scripture. The Pope sacrilegiously claims this prerogative
"Furthermore, Christ teaches that He alone is the Mediator, appointed
by the Father, who alone is the way, the truth and the life, without whom
no man can Conic to the Father. Yet the Pope forces innumerable mediators
upon us. Mediators who, he says, are to reveal the way to heaven for us.
Also, Christ testifies that there is no other sacrifice apart from His
own; no other satisfaction by which we may obtain remission of sins and
the reward of salvation. But the Pope insists on human punishments and
satisfactions, while demanding a new propitiatory sacrifice called the
"Though Christ established that men are to be saved by grace through
faith alone. the Pope includes works as well. Whereas Christ institutes
only two sacraments, the Pope decrees seven. Christ ordains that no one
but God be the object of cult and adoration, yet the Pope worships creatures
as well. Christ declared Himself the sole Head and Groom of the Church,
but the Pope grants this to himself as well. Christ subjects Himself to
the magistrates, ordering His servants to be likewise subject. Nevertheless,
the Pope subjects the magistrates, rulers and emperors to himself.
"Can it truly be said that those who teach such doctrines and defend
such dogmas keep the faith of Christ? Or are they not adjudged guilty
by the deserts of defection and the fact of apostasy?"
Thus Turretin on the Roman Catholic apostasy. This was a view shared
by all the Reformers and Puritans.
It is true that the Church of Rome suffered a great setback at the Reformation,
and her deceptions were unmasked for very many. Bunyan, in Pilgrim's Progress,
depicts Giant Pope sitting at the mouth of his cave, an old man, grown
so crazy and stiff in his joints that he cannot come at pilgrims as they
go by, which was indeed true of the situation in England at the height
of the Reformation. But since then the Roman Catholic apostasy has revived.
The deadly wound which the beast received has been healed and the whole
world wonders after it. Today, the Church of Rome claims one billion members
world-wide, which makes its power greater than at the time of its ascendency
in Europe in the Middle Ages. And besides that we must take into account
its leading and dominating role in the ecumenical movement.
The Protestant Churches, having largely abandoned the biblical doctrines
of the Reformation, which were their raison d'être, are capitulating
to the leadership of the papacy and to Roman Catholic doctrine. There
are, indeed, other ways that men and Churches may apostatise from the
faith - into liberalism, for example, or other faiths - but Rome remains
the great threat to the Protestant churches, Satan's great masterpiece,
his counterfeit Christianity by which he deceives the nations.
Of course, the Church of Rome boasts that it cannot fall away because
it has the special privilege of indefectibility. But, as John Owen says:
"It has fallen out with Rome as it did with him from whom she falsely
claims to derive her indefectibility. When our Lord said that all men
would forsake Him, Peter claimed exemption for himself. However, Peter
was the only one who, in fact, forsook and denied his Lord. Likewise,
the Church of Rome, with its special claim, distinguishes itself with
a peculiar apostasy above all the Churches of the world."
He then adds what must possibly rate as the most damning indictment of
the Church of Rome that has ever appeared in print. "If the kingdom
of Christ - which once was a kingdom of light and truth and holiness,
separation in principles, affection and conversation from the world; of
communion with God and loving-kindness towards men; of righteousness and
peace and joy in the Holy Ghost may become and is become a kingdom of
darkness, pride, ignorance, ambition, persecution, blind superstition
and idolatry, then and not else doth it visibly remain among them [i.e.
the Romanists] and they have nothing apostatised from the laws and government
So much, then, for the Roman apostasy. Let us now turn to our third head.
3. THE CAUSES OF APOSTASY AMONGST ALL PERSONS
IN ALL AGES
The first cause, says Owen, is this: a rooted enmity in the minds of
men to spiritual things, remaining uncured under the profession of the
'The carnal mind is enmity against God" (Romans 8:7). Men take to
themselves the profession of the Gospel while this enmity remains in their
minds. Many will entertain evangelical truth in the mind, but resent it
when it begins to work in the conscience. They have received the truth,
but not the love of it. Thus where you have a merely intellectual or formal
profession of true religion you will have a great falling off from it,
when carnal interests begin to come into conflict with it. That is the
real test that we are witnessing today. With the growing influence of
the ecumenical movement and broad and liberal views of Christianity gaining
ground, the tide has turned in the churches from Reformed and Evangelical
religion. Those who look for worldly advantage in religion must begin
to look elsewhere. Loyalties are being tested and tried. If there has
not been a real work of grace in the heart there will be a falling away.
We have seen it happening. The evangelical constituency has changed profoundly
in my time, in the Church of England, which can only mean that there were
a great many whose profession was merely formal and superficial, when
it seemed the right and proper thing to be an evangelical, and even certain
advantages were to be gained from it.
Secondly, darkness in spiritual matters is another cause of apostasy
Man in his natural state stands in need of illumination. "The natural
man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness
unto him" (1 Corinthians 2:14). His mind must be transformed by grace;
and where men's minds have not been so transformed as to apprehend the
truth, they have no stable grounds on which to abide in the profession
of the truth. Here we have another cause of apostasy from the Gospel after
it has been professed. Owen says: 'We have seen, in all ages, men learned
and skilled in the doctrines of the truth, so as they might have been
looked on as pillars of it, yet to have been as forward as any unto apostasy
from it when they have been tried; yea, such have been the leaders of
others thereunto." Again, to my mind, this seems to account for the
defection of many evangelicals in recent years from the truth. Owen goes
on to say: "No man who forsakes the truth ever saw the glory of it,
or had experience of its power." They treat it with a degree of detachment
and objectivity; they will talk and dispute about it with the greatest
indifference as to what is true and false. They do not seem to recognise
the wickedness, the confusion and the heinousness of error. They appear
to regard truth and error with equanimity. They do not have that holy
love of truth and equally holy hatred of error that would secure them
I think this explains the ease with which many in recent years have been
able to enter into dialogue with Roman Catholics and even Muslims and
Hindus. It demands a certain detachment from the truth to be able to do
that. You are obliged to put a question mark over it, otherwise you are
not genuinely engaging in dialogue, which means, at least in principle,
you are prepared to change and qualify your beliefs. I think we must be
very careful to distinguish between dialogue and controversy. Dialogue
carries with it implicitly this assumption, that you will be prepared
to modify and change your position, in the light of the debate, if it
so requires you. But controversy, in which all the Reformers engaged,
is quite a different thing. You start from what you know and believe to
be the truth, and your object is to expose the error and confusion of
the opponent's position and, if possible, persuade him of the truth. It
was dialogue in which Satan engaged Eve in the garden. She would have
been safe if she had insisted on controversy. When men have not a fervent
love of the truth and no sense of abhorrence of error they are in the
anteroom of apostasy. It is said that the apostle John fled from the public
baths, where Cerinthus the heretic appeared, lest they should fall on
him. Today some evangelicals would be glad to stay and engage in friendly
The reason for this is that the truth does not hold and control them,
but they hold and control it, and therefore they think that they can change
and modify it. But if a man has been apprehended, arrested and captured
by the truth of God's Word, he has no power to do that, and therefore
is not in danger of falling away from it. For example, if justification
by faith is just one doctrine amongst many, which you happen to hold in
a theological system, you may feel quite relaxed about discussing it with
others who hold different views, and even making some concession in the
interest of agreement. But if justification by faith is the only ground
by which you can stand and exist before a holy and righteous God, and
any change in the terms of it would mean your damnation, then you will
not have such a relaxed attitude to it. It is the difference between holding
the truth existentially and merely intellectually.
Thirdly, ignorance is another cause of apostasy
Ignorance of any kind exposes people to great danger, and this is specially
true with regard to the Christian faith. "The ignorant," says
Owen, "are like children, 'tossed to and fro and carried about by
every wind of doctrine', a prey to seducers, and exposed to the blandishments
of Rome, which teaches a religion that is readily appreciated by an unregenerate
mind, by the natural man. When men are called to give an account of their
faith, they are at a loss, and can quite easily fall away to popery or
some other creed. Ignorance is therefore a fatal danger." In our
society today there is growing ignorance, a general lowering of standards,
a "dumbing down" process going on. People wish to be entertained,
not edified. There is resistance to any strenuous effort of the mind and
the will. And since this tendency is present generally in society it invades
the churches too. It is seen in the bland and trite songs that are replacing
hymns and psalms, in the dialogue and chat-show type of interviews that
replace sermons, and in the general relaxed and free-wheeling format of
The Reformation of the Church consisted in the deliverance of people
from darkness and ignorance, and if they are reduced to the same condition
again, they become a ready prey to popery. Is it any wonder that Rome
is making such remarkable advances amongst Anglicans, Lutherans and the
Free Churches? These are precisely the conditions in which she can flourish.
Some are surprised that she is able to call Protestants "separated
brethren" and think that this arises out of charity. In fact, it
is attributable to the Roman Catholic doctrine of "invincible ignorance".
Those Protestants who no longer understand their own faith (and that is
now the large majority) and therefore do not knowingly reject the teachings
of Rome, are technically in a state of "invincible ignorance"
and on those grounds may be termed "separated brethren". Of
course, those relatively few who are not in that position, and deliberately
and knowingly reject the pope and the teachings of Rome, are heretics
This is a very serious matter, for it shows the desperate condition into
which Protestantism has now fallen and the very real danger to which ignorance
has reduced the once live and flourishing Protestant Churches.
4. PRIDE AND VANITY
The innate pride and vanity of men's minds is, says Owen, another thing
that leads to a falling away from the faith. The design of the Gospel
is to "cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth
itself against the knowledge of God". But the mind of man would be
the measure of all things.
1. It exalts imaginations of its own which it loves and applauds. 2.
It makes itself the sole and absolute judge, without desire or expectation
of supernatural guidance or assistance.
Men cannot receive the Gospel where the former is not mortified and the
latter is not eradicated by spiritual light. The Gospel must not be received
as the word of man, but as the Word of God, which it is, with submission.
Unless we deny ourselves and become humble and teachable, we can never
be saved or acquainted with its mysteries. "The secret of the Lord
is with them that fear him."
There is nothing in revelation, says Owen, that is opposed to reason,
but there is much that is above it. There are divine mysteries in the
Word that we may understand, but which we cannot comprehend, for reason
is finite. "Can men by searching find out God?" This is not
because of the corruption of our nature but because of its constitution.
But there are things in the Gospel that are contradictory to reason as
it is corrupted. Reason is no longer just finite, but also depraved. It
is not able to judge spiritual things, and is subject to prejudices.
So first of all, the Gospel requires men to believe in things that are
above their comprehension, "things that eye hath not seen",
etc. And secondly, it requires men to believe in things that are opposed
to their corrupted reason, for their minds naturally act in contradiction
to the revealed will of God in the Gospel with enmity and hatred. Thus
the wise men of Athens rejected the doctrine of the apostle. The design
of the Gospel, in all its special truths and mysteries, is to bring every
thought into subjection to the obedience of faith. "If any man among
you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may
be wise" (I Corinthians 3:18). Thus, some when they have embraced
the outward profession of the Gospel, find it contrary to their corrupt
reason, and seek to re-enthrone reason. Some from the outworking of their
own rational faculties, withdraw their minds from a humble attitude. All
ancient heresies sprang from this root.
Such was the case, said Owen, with Socinianism. What is above reason
the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation - they reject as against
reason. The same is true, in our day, of liberalism. They bring to Scripture
the template of their philosophical presuppositions and their rationalistic
notions of God. If anything in the Bible agrees with what they think,
they accept it; if it disagrees, they reject it. In this way they make
to themselves an idol, and apostatise from revealed truth. The pride of
men's minds has been in all ages the great principle of opposition to,
and apostasy from evangelical truth. A humble subjection of the mind and
conscience to the authority of God in His Word is the only security against
such a tendency.
In these several ways which we have enumerated here are to be found the
chief causes of apostasy both in the past and the present. It is important
that we be aware of them and use them to test the soundness of the teachings
that are current in the churches today.
4. IS IT POSSIBLE FOR A BELIEVER TO APOSTATISE?
I must say something about this question. The locus classicus for this
is Hebrews 6:4-6, and John Owen deals with it in the following way. He
says that it is given as a warning and to stir up those to whom the apostle
is writing. The privileges referred to in the passage and enjoyed by those
who fall away, were "not such things as accompany salvation",
which he is assured of in those to whom he writes, and who give evidence
of persevering in the faith. "This whole description therefore,"
says Owen, "refers to some special Gospel privileges. which professors
(that is, those who made an outward profession of being Christians) in
those days were promiscuously
(generally) made partakers of." What were these privileges?
1. "Once enlightened." Owen considers this was baptism, which
in the early Church was called illumination. But it can also mean instruction
in the Gospel. 2. "Tasted of the heavenly gift," seems to refer
to the Holy Spirit, since in the New Testament The "gift of God"
is understood to be the Holy Spirit. 3. "And tasted of the good word
of God" - "to taste" is to make experiment of something,
but not to eat it fully. "The meaning, then, of the character given
to these apostates is, that they had some experience of the power of the
Holy Spirit from heaven, in Gospel administration and worship." But
in what sense were they said to be partakers of the Holy Spirit? Not,
says Owen, with regard to 'personal inhabitation", nor in respect
of "spiritual operations". In the first way the world cannot
receive Him, and therefore it cannot apply here; and in the second, since
Peter said to Simon Magus that he had no part in spiritual gifts, neither
does that apply. But since the Holy Spirit pervades Gospel ordinances,
to that degree they have been partakers of the Holy Spirit, but not in
the full sense. They are said to have "tasted of the word of God",
that is, they have heard the Gospel of Christ preached, but did not si
ncerely obey it. They took some delight in the Word of God, but were not
renewed by it. Lastly, "the powers of the world to come." This
can mean the days of the Messiah; the Gospel age. They would have witnessed
the things spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, but were not changed
Therefore, these are not true and sincere believers. There is no reference
to them being born again, or called according to God's purpose, or justified,
or sanctified. They are compared to ground that receives rain, but brings
forth nothing but weeds and briars. So there is nothing in this passage
to contradict the general teaching of the Bible on the indefectibility
of grace and the final perseverance of all true believers. Apostasy can
only take place in those who have never been truly renewed and justified.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, in his exposition of this passage, differs in
some details from Owen, but comes to the same conclusion. But before tackling
this passage, he lays down certain general principles for dealing with,
and interpreting all, such difficulties in Scripture, and it is worth
our while recalling them and keeping them constantly before us.
First; we must deal with Scripture alone - that is, we must keep to Scripture
and not allow philosophy to intrude. It is no good allowing human ideas
of what it might be thought appropriate for God to do, to influence our
thinking. Our minds must be moulded by the Word of God.
Second, there can be no contradictions in Scripture. We must compare
Scripture with Scripture to get the true interpretation. One part of Scripture
ought not to be so expounded as to be repugnant to another part. This
is called 'the analogy of faith".
Third, we must start from the 'great positive statements of Scripture'.
There are certain things that are clearly and unequivocally stated in
the Bible, and we must employ these to throw light upon the more difficult
and obscure passages. In this way Scripture is its own interpreter; a
principle laid down by the Reformers, which is further expression of the
analogy of faith, but often neglected today.
An illustration of this is, for example, John 10:27-29. Here we have
a clear unequivocal statement that the Lord will never allow His people,
His sheep, to perish; they can never fall away because their security
is guaranteed by God Himself. So it is an impossibility. Now it is from
such statements, and there are many of them in the Bible, that we must
proceed to interpret and understand those, such as the passage in Hebrews
6:4-6, that appear to present a difficulty. Lloyd Jones does this and
comes to a similar conclusion to Owen; namely, that the passage does not
refer to real believers, those who are truly regenerate, but those who
have experienced something of the privileges of Church membership, its
worship, preaching and ordinances, but are not grafted spiritually into
the body of Christ.
On one point he differs from Owen, and that is on the meaning of the
word 'tasted" - "have tasted of the heavenly gift". Of
this Lloyd Jones says: "Dr. Owen suggests that it means tasted but
never thoroughly masticated and swallowed. I cannot accept that suggestion."
He goes on to give his reason, which is a good and valid one. It is this:
the same apostle says that Jesus, "by the grace of God, tasted death
for every man". It is the same word exactly as in this passage. But
our Lord did not merely taste death in his mouth, as it were. He drained
the cup. "He experienced death in a manner that none other will ever
be called on to know. He knew it in all its fulness and bitterness, in
all its terrible character." I fully agree with that, and it makes
Owen's suggested interpretation untenable.
The word translated "tasted" means "being acquainted with"
and even "experiencing", and Lloyd Jones says we must give it
that value here. These people have experienced something of "the
heavenly gift". But what ever it was, on the principle of the analogy
of faith, and the clear statements elsewhere in Scripture on the final
perseverance of believers, we must conclude that it was not an experience
which resulted in the renovation and regeneration of their natures. It
fell short of the new and justifying faith.
"Nowhere are we told that these people were born again, that they
were regenerate; nowhere are we told that they were justified and sanctified;
nowhere are we told that they were sealed with the Spirit of God; nowhere
are we told that they were adopted into God's family.
"When reference is made to true believers, these are the terms that
are used in Scripture. For example, I Corinthians 6:9-11: 'Know ye not
that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived:
neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor
abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards,
nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And
such were some of you.' But you are no longer people who can be so described,
says Paul. Why? What does he say about them? Does he says, You were enlightened,
you have tasted of the heavenly gift, you have been made partakers of
the Holy Ghost, you have tasted of the good word of God and the powers
of the world to come? No! what he says is this: 'But ye are washed, but
ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus,
and by the Spirit of our God.' But not one of these terms is used in Hebrews
6. What we are told about these people is not that they are unregenerate,
not that they are justified, not that they are reconciled to God, but
that they have had certain experiences which have brought them into the
church and made them think, and made everyone else think, that they were
truly Christian. . . . That surely is the only adequate explanation of
this passage in the Hebrews."
Thus Martyn Lloyd Jones on the subject, and his conclusion, with the
exception of the point that we have mentioned about the meaning of the
word "tasted", is the same as that of John Owen. Those who apostatise,
who fall away from the faith, are not true and real believers. The consistent
testimony of the Word of God is that those who are truly God's children
by adoption and grace shall persevere to the end.
5. SOME DIRECTIONS CULLED FROM OWEN ON HOW TO AVOID THE PREVAILING APOSTASY
We live in such days ourselves. If Owen thought of his times as apostate,
what would he think of the state of things now? I see that the Archbishop
of Canterbury says that the tone of our society is now atheistic. We are
seeing a great forsaking in the land, and the enemy is coming in like
a flood. All the Churches have lost many members, and are no longer able
to disguise the fact or explain it away. All this would come as no surprise
to Owen, who said that where there was a prevailing nominal Christianity,
there would be, when circumstances changed to make it no longer of material
advantage to be known as Christian, a great falling away. What steps then
can be taken to avoid the prevailing apostasy? In such times, says Owen,
we should above all be concerned for the glory of God, as Moses was when
the Israelites rebelled in the wilderness, and Joshua later, when he said,
"What wilt thou do unto thy great name?". They were not so much
concerned for the people, but for God's glory in the world. Yet the concern
and preoccupation today seems to be with the church, the image of the
church, and how that will suffer. But what if the image of the church
is wrong, and God is judging it for its apostasy? Our first concern in
this situation should be for the glory of God, that His Name should be
vindicated and honoured.
If we do that we shall mourn for the present state of Christianity in
the world for the dishonour that it brings upon the Cause of God. "Rivers
of water run down mine eyes," says the Psalmist, "because they
keep not thy law." God sets a mark upon those who so mourn. The Lord
said to Ezekiel: "Go through the midst of the city, through the midst
of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and
that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof."
Likewise, our Lord said: 'Blessed are they that mourn." Is there
much of this spirit about in this present age of apostasy, or is there
not rather a vain self-confidence, that given a break and the right marketing
technique, some imaginative advertising, and some new gimmick, we can
crack the problem? What happened to that great new initiative that was
going to turn the tide - the Decade of Evangelism? The time for self-sufficiency
is not merely past, but never was for the true Church. When the enemy
comes in like a flood, it is only the Spirit of God that can raise up
a standard against him (Isaiah 59:19). And lie will do it through the
We should pray continually. There is nothing too hard for the Lord, and
He can save by many or by few. This is the way the Church of old was delivered.
"I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never
hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the Lord, keep
not silence, and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make
Jerusalem a praise in the earth" (Isaiah 62:6-7).
Then there is constancy of testimony: an open and avowed profession of,
and contending for the faith and the truth of the Gospel. "The public
contempt and scorn, that is by a prevalent fashion cast upon some evangelical
truths, is a cause of discouraging many from owning the profession of
them." How true that is. It only needs a few leading churchmen to
express disapproval of some particular teaching or to distance themselves
from a clear evangelical truth for many to back off from contending for
it. I have seen this happen, and it accounts for the weakness of the public
testimony in these days for the old paths. It also shows the astuteness
and cunning of the opponents of evangelical truth in going for the names
of evangelical leaders and involving them in such ecumenical initiatives
as Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Those who would be preserved from apostasy must also keep a careful watch
over their hearts. In the beginning the declension is in the heart. "Keep
thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life"
(Proverbs 4:23). Literally: "Above all keeping, keep thy heart."
Men show great diligence in keeping other things, but not their hearts.
The heart is deceitful and wayward, which is why it needs keeping and
constant watchfulness. We must keep our hearts awake and attentive to
Christ, for it is He alone that can keep us in the hour of temptation.
Do not trust, says Owen, to Church ordinances as ends in themselves. They
are only means to an end, which is union with Christ.
Finally, in times of apostasy, such as ours is, beware of the infection
of national vice's, for their commonness will take off the sense of their
guilt and remove shame. If we adopt indiscriminately the customs and habits
of the times we shall be carried down stream with them.
These are some of the directions that Owen gives for avoiding the prevalent
apostasy of the times. We have looked, then, at -
1. The beginning of apostasy in the fall of man.
2. Its continuation in the "mystery of iniquity" that is still
in the Church. I mean, of course, the visible Church.
3. Some of the causes of apostasy in all ages.
4. The question of whether it is possible for the true believer to
finally fall away.
And lastly, some of the directions that may help us to watch and guard
against the prevalent apostasy of these times.
Dr David N. Samuel, of Devizes.
(from the Gospel Magazine, September October 2001, edited by Edward Malcolm
[firstname.lastname@example.org], 15 Bridge Street, Knighton, Powys,
LD7 1BT, and used by permission.).