Can Apostates Be Christians?

The Missouri Baptist Convention has published a new resource called The Last Apologist: A Commentary on Jude for Defenders of the Christian Faith. The 275-page book is available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon, and in print from the MBC. But we also want to make each of the 16 chapters available online. This post features Chapter 11: Crossing the Line: Can Apostates Be Christians?

Previously: Is the Rebel Spirit Alive Today?


Of all the terms Jude uses to describe false teachers – ungodly, dreamers, dangerous reefs, waterless clouds, wild waves of the sea, wandering stars, and discontented grumblers, to name a few – he stops short of calling them apostates. Yet that is what they are. Hey Jude, what gives?

A closer look at the New Testament’s sparing use of this term may prove helpful, particularly as we broach the thorny subject of apostates’ standing with God. Are apostates backslidden Christians? Shameless pretenders? Or people who once knew Christ but now have willfully rejected Him, thus losing their salvation?

Originally, the Greek word apostasia meant rebellion against government. The Apocryphal book of 1 Esdras describes the Jews as “rebels” against King Artaxerxes (1 Esdras 2:23). Later, the term “apostate” is applied to “one who rebels against God.”

As Eugene E. Carpenter and Philip W. Comfort note, “Apostasy, therefore, is serious business. People who commit apostasy abandon their faith and repudiate their former beliefs. It is not heresy (denial of part of the faith), or the transfer of allegiance from one religious body to another within the same faith. Apostasy is a complete and final rejection of God.”

John MacArthur defines apostasy as “the sin of rejecting the gospel for which there is no forgiveness.” He further describes it as “an intentional falling away or withdrawal, a defection.” Apostates, he writes, “are people who move toward Christ, right up to the edge of saving belief,” but then “their interest in the things of God begins to wane, and the pressures and attractions of the world distract them further still, until they have no interest at all. They may turn to another religion or to no religion at all. Apostasy is determined by what you leave, not where you go after you leave. After a person leaves God, it makes little difference where he then goes.”

An apostate, then, is someone who has received the knowledge of the truth, but willfully and decisively rejects it.

Abandonment and antichrists

Apostasia appears only twice in the New Testament. The apostle Paul is accused of apostasy for teaching others to “abandon Moses, by telling them [Jews living among Gentiles] not to circumcise their children or to walk in our customs” (Acts 21:21b – emphasis added). And Paul warns the Thessalonians not to be deceived by those claiming that the Day of the Lord has already come. “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way,” he writes. “For that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thess. 2:3 – emphasis added).

Many other passages of Scripture describe people who abandon the faith, never to return. The apostle John writes of “antichrists” who “went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. However, they went out so that it might be made clear that none of them belongs to us” (1 John 2:19).

Paul points to Hymenaeus and Alexander as examples of those who have rejected “faith and a good conscience” and thus “have suffered the shipwreck of their faith.” The apostle informs Timothy that he has “delivered them to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:19-20).

Peter warns that those who profess faith in Christ and then walk away are like dogs returning to their vomit, and like sows who, after being washed, wallow in the mud. He writes, “For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them” (2 Peter 2:21).

The writer of Hebrews describes certain professing Jewish Christians who are beyond repentance because they have returned to the practice of offering animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins (Heb. 6:1-6). This is the same as trampling on the Son of God and regarding as profane the blood of the covenant (Heb. 10:1-31).

Distinguishing marks

These passages, and others like them, illuminate certain qualities that distinguish apostates from backslidden believers, as well as from unbelievers who have yet to hear the gospel.

First, apostates possess knowledge of the truth of the gospel and often initially profess belief in Christ. Like the seed cast on rocky soil, they spring up quickly, only to wilt under the scorching rays of pressure or persecution (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23).

Second, apostates willfully reject the gospel. They go beyond sincere doubt and deny the very doctrines that define true Christianity – particularly those beliefs having to do with the person and work of Jesus. It’s fair to say that all apostates are unbelievers, but not all unbelievers are apostates. Some unbelievers have yet to hear the gospel, and others are in various stages of wrestling with its truth.

Third, apostates have passed the point of no return. In particularly graphic terms, Peter describes them as dogs returning to their vomit, and sows returning to the muck. The writer of Hebrews says it is impossible to bring them back to the point of repentance (Heb. 6:4). Jesus and Paul at times speak of an apostate’s measure of sin that, once full, brings a swift and certain end to mercy, as well as the full weight of divine wrath (Matt. 23:31-32; 1 Thess. 2:16). And Jude speaks of the apostates’ damnation as already secured (Jude 4).

Finally, apostates are most dangerous when they remain in the church. John describes those who went outfrom among believers – to paganism, the cult of Caesar, vain philosophy, or some other false belief system (see 1 John 2:19). While their departure is tragic, these apostates no longer pose a direct threat to the body of Christ. However, those who have fully and finally rejected the faith, and yet continue to profess it, are apostates of the most dangerous kind.

As Ralph Earle writes in a commentary on 2 Thess. 2:3, “This emphasis on an apostasy from within takes on added significance in the light of recent developments in the church world. There was a day when the Bob Ingersolls railed and ranted against Christianity. [Ingersoll was a 19th century American orator known as ‘The Great Agnostic.’] Now this opposition comes from within the church. When teachers of theology in leading theological seminaries in America tell their ministerial students that God is dead, and when a prominent denominational leader declares that it is a sin to believe in individual salvation, it would seem that ‘The Apostasy’ has come.”

While passages such as Heb. 6:1-6 are difficult to interpret and are much debated, it nevertheless seems faithful to Scripture to conclude that apostates are unbelievers who were never justified by faith to begin with, and who, because of the collateral damage they cause to the church, are to be severely judged.

What causes apostasy?

But what factors contribute to a person’s “falling away”? There appear to be several. Certainly, one cause is the influence of false teachers in the church. Jesus tells His disciples, “Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matt. 24:11). Paul similarly warns Timothy of a coming day when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, “but according to their own desires, will accumulate teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new” (2 Tim. 4:3b).

Persecution is another contributor. “Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you,” says Jesus. “You will be hated by all nations because of My name. Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another” (Matt. 24:9-10).

Another cause of apostasy is temptation, particularly the temptation to pursue the things of this world. In explaining the parable of the sower, Jesus says, “As for the seed that fell among thorns, these are the ones who, when they have heard, go on their way and are choked with worries, riches, and pleasures of life, and produce no mature fruit” (Luke 8:14). Paul urges young Timothy to come to him soon, “for Demas has deserted me, because he loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10a).

Still another factor is resisting the Holy Spirit, or neglecting His call. Stephen speaks boldly to the religious leaders of his day, “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your forefathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51). And the writer of Hebrews asks rhetorically, “[H]ow will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Heb. 2:3a).

The apostate is more than a danger to the church, and more than a danger to the unbeliever who otherwise may be drawn to the gospel. In the end, the apostate strikes a fatal blow to himself, for he has passed the point of no return and – like the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day – brings upon himself “greater damnation” (Matt. 23:14b KJV).

Many passages on final judgment of the ungodly could be cited, but Paul’s depiction is a concise summary: “… it is righteous for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you … This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with His powerful angels, taking vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of everlasting destruction, away from the Lord’s presence and from His glorious strength” (2 Thess. 1:6-9).

Proportion and punishment

It appears that judgment of the wicked is in proportion to sin. For example, Jesus tells Pilate, “This is why the one who handed Me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11b). Both Pilate and Judas are unbelievers, but Judas is an apostate; therefore, his sin is greater than Pilate’s and carries harsher consequences.

In Luke 12:47-48, Jesus tells His disciples that judgment also is in proportion to knowledge and obedience: “And that slave who knew his master’s will and didn’t prepare himself or do it will be severely beaten. But the one who did not know and did things deserving of blows will be beaten lightly. Much will be required of everyone who has been given much. And even more will be expected of the one who has been entrusted with more.”

The writer of Hebrews adds, “How much worse punishment, do you think one will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, regarded as profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and insulted the spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:29).

Wayne Grudem, addressing the topic of the “unpardonable sin,” refers to Heb. 6:4-6 and writes, “There the persons who ‘commit apostasy’ have had all sorts of knowledge and conviction of the truth: they have ‘been enlightened’ and have ‘tasted the heavenly gift’; they have participated in some ways in the work of the Holy Spirit and ‘have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,’ yet they then willfully turn away from Christ and ‘hold him up to contempt’ (Heb. 6:6). They too have put themselves beyond the reach of God’s ordinary means of bringing people to repentance and faith. Knowing and being convinced of the truth, they willfully reject it.”

While “crossing the line” into apostasy is a troubling topic to consider, we should not allow the condemnation of those who have fallen away to drag us into despair about our own sincere doubts and spiritual setbacks. As Grudem cautions, “The fact that the unpardonable sin involves such extreme hardness of heart and lack of repentance indicates that those who fear they have committed it, yet still have sorrow for sin in their heart and desire to seek after God, certainly do not fall in the category of those who are guilty of it.”6

A final thought: It may be difficult at times to distinguish between an apostate and a backslidden believer. But ultimately, the role of deciding who’s in God’s kingdom and who’s not isn’t ours; it belongs to our sovereign Lord. For our part, we should concern ourselves first of all with our own relationship with Christ. As Paul writes, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Examine yourselves. Or do you not recognize for yourselves that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless you fail the test” (2 Cor. 13:5).

Next, we should embrace sound doctrine, earnestly contending for the faith delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 3). We should always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks us for a reason for the hope that is in us – doing so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16). And we should proclaim the message of Christ, persisting in it whether convenient or not, rebuking, correcting, and encouraging with great patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:2).

The apostates among us will never turn back; the gloom of eternal darkness awaits them (2 Peter 2:17b). Meanwhile, backslidden believers will never be lost, although they should be subject to church discipline and may fall under divine discipline, even to the point of premature death (see Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 11:27-32; Heb. 12:3-12). In the end, we can’t judge the human heart, but we can recognize apostates by their fruit – that is, their doctrines and lifestyles (Matt. 7:15-20).

Next: The Doom of False Teachers