Apostasy and Backsliding Look Alike

Erik Raymond —  April 28, 2014

Many years ago I was driving across the country to visit my future wife. As you can imagine I was eager to arrive so I minimized stops and attempted to make the 26-hour drive all at once. Going nearly a full day without sleep and in spite of being fueled on more Mountain Dew than is advisable, I began to nod off. I soon meandered over into the other lane and was startled by an 18-wheeler’s lights and horn! I awoke and swerved back in my lane. That shook me. My pulse went through the roof. I lost my breath. I contemplated what would have happened if I didn’t wake up. I was good for another 5 hours. No problems. After my pulse descended to reasonable levels I remember getting mad at myself. “How could I be so careless?”

The Book of Hebrews often functions like the headlights of an 18-wheeler. With pastoral clarity it provides a number of warnings as well as reassurances. We are told do not neglect so great a salvation then we are told that we have an anchor of hope within the veil. We are warned about the danger of hardening our hearts through unbelief while also being reminded that Jesus has delivered his people from the bondage of death (cf chapters 2, 4, 6, 10, & 12 for warning passages).

The great concern is that some people have become dull of hearing (Heb. 5:11). This dullness literally means that they were apathetic and lazy about the Bible. Instead of being able to teach others they have need to repeat kindergarten. They have not progressed in their knowledge of God and his word.

You might say, “What’s the big deal about that? Not everyone is called to be a pastor.”

Right, but every Christian is called to grow (2 Pet. 3:18; Eph. 4).

More to the point, this spiritual laziness is the seedbed for disaster. There are two ways that you can get into trouble. The one is backsliding. This is the case where a Christian has fallen into sinful patterns, experiences stagnation, and various other symptoms of unhealthy Christianity. The other way is called apostasy. This is where someone rejects the faith by denying Christ. They had previously said that they follow Jesus and now they reject him.

I believe it was Sinclair Ferguson who said that the difficulty here is that both backsliding and apostasy look the same at the outset. In both cases there is spiritual apathy and indifference. People slowly stop reading their Bibles, talking about Jesus, praying, coming to church, and hanging around other Christians. You look at this and say, “Something is wrong.” And you would be right. The question though is whether or not this is backsliding or apostasy. The answer, at least at this stage has to be, “I don’t know. You can’t tell.” But isn’t this what is so sobering about it?

If both are unacceptable and if you can’t tell which is which, and if apostasy has seemingly irreversible consequences, then we should give this matter our full attention. What too often happens however, is that we relativize it. We look around and say, “A lot of people struggle spiritually. I’m not an anomaly.” This may be true but it is still not healthy! In fact, since you can’t tell where apathy will lead–whether to apostasy or back-sliding–and because both are very undesirable for us, then apathy should never be relativized but rather it should be quickly dealt with.

How do we shake off apathy? Nothing surprising here.

  1. Confession and Repentance. As soon as we get a whiff of apathy or laziness we should take time to confess it to God and repent over it. If you found a strange mark on your face how long would it take you to go to the doctor? It could be nothing but it could also be cancer. You have to catch it early.
  2. Reading the Bible. This prescribed practice will strengthen and sustain faith (Rom. 10:13). When we actively read through the Bible we have all kinds of blind spots exposed. God is talking to us through his Word for the purpose of teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
  3. Public Worship. This is not complicated, God tunes our hearts by his grace when we gather together. These ordinary means of grace serve to strengthen our faith while shaking us of apathy. The encounter with God through the preached Word and the taking of the Lord’s Table serve to speak into and through our apathy.
  4. Discipleship. Spending time with our Christians for the purposes of spiritual growth will shake off apathy. When you read the Bible, pray, and talk through implications for life (practical theology) then you encourage one another unto faithfulness by hating sin and loving Christ (i.e. Heb. 3:13; Col. 3:16).
  5. Evangelism. Nothing will shake you out of your apathy like looking into a lost person’s eyes and hearing them talk about how they don’t know or love Christ. It makes you remember the grace that was lavished upon you and the beauty of Christ your King.

The writer of Hebrews knows that the serious consequences for turning away from Christ. As a result, he lovingly pleads with us as we doze off to wake up and hear God’s word. Let’s not be careless.

Erik Raymond

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Erik has been writing at Ordinary Pastor since 2006. He lives in Omaha with his wife and kids while pastoring at Emmaus Bible Church. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/erikraymond

One response to Apostasy and Backsliding Look Alike

  1. I fear based upon the state of my heart right now. I feel dull and numb and my heart has grown cold. I have fell into a sinful pattern of sexual sin for a very long time now and I have not caught the early signs of myself turning from God’s Word and prayer at the right time like I should have. I was so dull of hearing that I kept on in sexual sin. I feel like I have to repeat kindergarten all over again. I have not progressed in my knowledge of God or His Word because I have turned to sexual sin time and time again. I don’t want to participate in this sexual sin and pornography no more yet there is still that pull to turn to that filth. When I try to get into God’s Word I get frustrated because I don’t seem to understand much of anything like I used to and I get so frustrated and it makes me want to give up because my mind is just not working like it used to. But I can’t give up because if I do what other hope do I have? There is no hope in myself! I have truly strayed so far away and I fear that I can’t return, that I can’t go back. I have become lazy and complacent and I don’t feel much of anything. Its all my fault and I did this to myself though there are times I cry out “Lord, where are you? Have you forgotten me forever? Has your patience ran out because of my persistent pattern of sexual sin and anger and unforgiveness? Is there any more hope for me?”