The Bible does teach apostasy, but it is important for us to know what this means. Apostasy does not refer to true believers who have eternal life and then fall away, which is a contradiction in terms. Instead, it refers to professing believers who showed that they never truly believed by later renouncing the faith. The apostle John explains in 1 John. 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”
Apostasy is a very real phenomenon and one against which we should be warned. It is not enough, the Bible says, to make an initial profession of faith. We must bear fruit and persevere by means of God’s preserving grace. Jesus said, in the parable of the soils, that it is our steadfastness in the face of temptation and trials that reveals true versus false faith. One type of person makes a profession of faith without there being any real root. “When tribulation or persecution arises… he falls away.” Of another, Jesus adds, “The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” Only the one who “bears fruit” is planted in good soil and endures for salvation (Matthew 13:21-23).
What, then, the question asks, do we make of King Saul, who received the Spirit and even prophesied, but seems not to have been saved in the end. The Bible makes clear that Saul was not saved. However, in the Old Testament, God often sent his Spirit to empower people for particular tasks without causing them to be born again. The best example is Balaam, who is explicitly condemned in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:5; Jude 11), but was used by God both to prophesy and bless Israel. It is in the New Testament age that the Holy Spirit’s coming is explicitly for regeneration; this is the whole point of Pentecost.
The passage that most strongly leads people to believe that true Christians can be lost is found in Hebrews 6:4-6. There, we read of people who were “once enlightened,” who “tasted the heavenly gift” and “shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” Such people are then said to have fallen away. Some Bible interpreters conclude that this is surely clear description of true and born again believers who go on to lose their salvation and even become beyond reclamation.
In this passage, however, the writer of Hebrews is still expositing Psalm 95, which tells of the Exodus generation which fell away through unbelief and died in the wilderness, never seeing the Promised Land. These were not true believers, but they were members of Israel. This is what the writer of Hebrews is talking about. Everything he says in 6:4-6 was true of the Exodus generation – they had seen the light, they had tasted the heavenly manna, they had interacted with the Holy Spirit and heard the very voice of God and been delivered by the powers of the age to come. But they still were not believers. The warning, then, is against those who are in the church but have never yielded their hearts to what they see around them. People are like this today in the church. The light is shining before them; God’s power is evident in changed lives and answered prayers; God’s Spirit is present where they are present. And if, in spite of that, they do not believe – as many do not – it is a dreadful thing. The hardness of heart that results endangers their ability ever to repent and believe.
We need to warn people against apostasy and the need to press on in the faith, bearing fruit as branches attached to the vine. Hebrews 3:12 therefore urges, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving hearts, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day… that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Rev. Richard Phillips is the chair of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church Coral Springs, Margate, Florida.