Apostasy (1): Who the Apostate Is
Reformed Free Publishing Association
Image: Turnaway Resisting Evangelist, Pilgrim's Progress illustration by Frederick Barnard (1892)
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:26-29)
The text of Hebrews 10:26-29 is a warning against apostasy. In fact, the epistle to the Hebrews contains many pointed warnings against apostasy. Indeed, it contains some of the most chilling, most frightening, and most sobering passages of the New Testament on the subject of apostasy. In a number of blog posts I intend to explain and apply these warnings against apostasy.
Apostasy is the worst sin of which a person can be guilty. Apostasy is not a careless wandering into sin. Apostasy is not the yielding to a particular temptation, whether lying, stealing, or even adultery or murder. Apostasy is not even a prolonged walking in a particular sin for a time. David did not commit apostasy when he sinned with Bathsheba and when he murdered Uriah the Hittite. Samson did not commit apostasy when he betrayed his secret to Delilah and allowed her to cut off his hair. Not even Peter committed apostasy when he denied Jesus Christ three times in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest.
In verse 26 we read of one who “sins willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth.” In verse 29 we read of one who “treads underfoot the Son of God,” who “counts the blood of Jesus as an unholy thing,” and who “does despite to the Spirit of grace.” Those sins are much more serious than lying, theft, adultery, or murder. Those sins are the essence of fearful apostasy.
WHO THE APOSTATE IS
Definition: “Apostasy is the willful, persistent, final departure from the truth, and therefore from Christ and his church, by one who professed to know and believe the truth.”
First, apostasy is always willful. In Greek that word “willfully” is first in the sentence for emphasis: “If willfully we sin after we have received the knowledge of the truth” (v. 26). No one accidentally apostatizes. Apostasy is deliberate: there is always a conscious decision by the apostate to depart from the truth; there is always a conscious decision by the apostate to reject Jesus Christ.
Second, apostasy is always persistent. That comes out in the Greek grammar of the text also, where the verb in verse 26 is in the present tense. “If willfully we go on sinning” or “if willfully we keep on sinning” is the idea. The apostate persists in his sin: he refuses to repent despite warnings, despite admonitions, and despite pleadings. Fellow church members beg the apostate to reconsider, but he refuses to listen. The pastor or the elders seek to contact the apostate: either he rejects their calls and visits, or he listens for a while, and then hardens his heart against their counsel. There is, therefore, because of his persistence no remedy for the apostate. He rejects the only possible remedy, making his case hopeless. No other sin is hopeless except this one. “There remaineth,” verse 26 warns, “no more sacrifice for sins.” Of course, there is no more sacrifice for sins: if the apostate rejects the cross of Christ, there is nowhere else where he can find the pardon of sin.
Take note that there is always pardon of sin for the sinner who repents. But the apostate does not repent: he cannot repent and he cannot be convinced to repent. Whatever sin a Christian might fall into, he will find forgiveness in the way of repentance. A Christian might lie, steal, commit adultery, or even commit murder: he might even be imprisoned for his crime. Even in prison there is forgiveness of sins for the truly penitent sinner.
Consider king Manasseh, who was the son of godly king Hezekiah. Manasseh worshiped a multitude of idols; Manasseh killed the prophets of God; Manasseh sacrificed his children to idols; Manasseh filled Jerusalem with idols and with blood. If anyone seemed to be an apostate, surely it was Manasseh. Yet we read, after Manasseh was carried off into a Babylonian prison, “And when he was in affliction, he besought the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. And prayed unto him, and he was entreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD, he was God” (2 Chron. 33:12-13). Manasseh repented after a very deep fall into sin, but the apostate never repents.
“If we confess our sins—the apostate never confesses his sins after he departs from the truth—he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If Manasseh could find forgiveness in the way of repentance, so do we. The apostate does not, for he never repents. God does not forgive the apostate who never repents. Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all sin, but the apostate rejects Christ’s blood: for him there is no remedy. “There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins” (v. 26).
Third, apostasy is always final. It is possible to depart from the truth and from godliness for a time. Reformed churches have a form called “The Form for the Re-admittance of Excommunicated Persons” for that reason. There are prodigal sons and prodigal daughters who dwell in a far country with the swine for a time. They break the hearts of their fathers, mothers, and pastor; they grieve the elders and fellow church members. But they do return and great is the joy among the angels and in the church. The apostate never returns: he never repents. He is hardened in his sin, he goes on in his sin, and he perishes in his sin. In Hebrews 6:4-6 we read that it “impossible” to “renew” the apostate “again unto repentance.” He cannot repent, nobody can persuade him to repent, and God does not grant him repentance (2 Tim. 2:25). Having become ensnared in the snare of the devil, the apostate’s case is hopeless, and God does not recover him. Having rejected the only way of salvation, the apostate persists in his iniquity and perishes forever.
Fourth, and finally, apostasy is always departure from the truth by one who knows the truth. The apostate is always knowledgeable: he knows the truth, at least intellectually. He has read and studied the Scriptures. He has heard sermons—many sermons. He may even have preached sermons before his apostasy. He has sat through Bible studies and catechism lessons—many such studies and lessons. He may even have led such Bible studies and taught catechism lessons. He has read good literature. He has become proficient in the truth, even to the point of witnessing to the truth. Often he has made public confession and has been baptized. He may even have partaken of the Lord’s Supper and become an officebearer. Often such an apostate was born into the church and grew up in the church. Other apostates claimed to be converted later in life, but they reject the truth that they once confessed.
This comes out in verse 26: “If we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth.” The apostate has knowledge of the truth. The apostate knows who the true God is, he knows who Jesus is, he knows who the Holy Spirit is, and he knows what salvation is. The apostate knows about the cross, the resurrection, and the forgiveness of sins; he is familiar with justification and sanctification. In a sense, the apostate has received these things, not with true faith, but at least with the intellect. The other members of the church have no reason to question the apostate’s commitment to the truth until he reveals his apostasy. When he reveals his apostasy, the members of the church are usually shocked and dismayed. They did not see it coming.
This means that a Muslim, who does not know what Christianity is, is not an apostate. He is an unbeliever, but he is not an apostate. An atheist who rejects Christianity, but who has not heard the true gospel, is not an apostate. He is an unbeliever, but he is not an apostate. An apostate is always an ex-Christian. He tried Christianity for a time. He came very close to the Christian faith. He was heavily involved in Christianity. He professed to believe it—he even seemed to believe it—but he never truly believed in Jesus Christ from the heart. He was a hypocrite, who, when he apostatized, made his hypocrisy and unbelief clear. “They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19).
The immediate context in the epistle to the Hebrews is apostasy from the Christian faith by Hebrew Christians. The Hebrew Christians, Christians who had come out of Judaism in order to follow Jesus Christ, were sorely tempted to return to Judaism. The epistle was written to them to show them the superiority of Jesus Christ and to warn them not to reject Christ for unbelieving Judaism. If the Hebrew Christians want to return to the synagogues, the temple, and the way of life that they enjoyed as Jews, they must repudiate faith in Jesus Christ. They must denounce Christ as a false Messiah, as a cursed false prophet. If they did that, they would be received into the Jewish community: their friends and family would accept them again; and persecution would cease. That was the temptation of apostasy: a very sore temptation to the Hebrew Christians.
The modern equivalent is apostasy from true Christianity to the false church or the ungodly world. If a Reformed Christian returns to Romanism, he is an apostate: he rejects Christ’s finished work for the worthless Mass; he repudiates the gospel of grace for a religion of merit; he abandons the true worship of God for idolatry and superstition; he rejects the Word of God and the preaching of the truth for the traditions of men.
Now, be careful: if a member of the Protestant Reformed Churches leaves the denomination, that does not necessarily constitute apostasy. The Protestant Reformed Churches are not the only true churches in the world. Departure from our churches in order to become a member of another faithful church—and such do exist—is not departure “from the truth.” It has never been the official position of the Protestant Reformed Churches that those who leave our churches are apostates. "The Protestant Reformed Churches and their spokesmen have never dreamed of teaching that only members of these churches are saved" (David J. Engelsma, Federal Vision: Heresy at the Root [RFPA: 2012], pp. 180-181). Although some officebearers and members have certainly displayed a sinful attitude towards those who have left us, cutting them off, shunning them, and speaking evil of them, as if they were enemies or not even Christians, that has never been the official teaching of our churches. It is to our shame, however, and very likely a reason for God's chastening of our denomination in recent years, that we have allowed such sinful attitudes to manifest themselves in our midst without rebuke. To the man or woman who says, "Our churches are the only true churches," the response must be, "Do you not believe, in accordance with the confession we make every Lord's Day, an holy catholic church?" Thanks be to God that the Lord's catholic church is much greater than our often narrow perceptions of it! In the days of the apostles, departure from the church was apostasy; in our day, departure from one church to join another faithful church is not. At the same time, doctrinal precision is important: the question must be asked by one contemplating a change of church, “Is the preaching in the church that I plan to join faithful to the Scriptures; are the sacraments administered purely there; and is church discipline exercised faithfully there?”
In addition, if a Reformed Christian returns to the world, he is an apostate: he abandons a godly life in devotion to Christ for a life of sinful pleasures; he rejects Christ for the sake of family, friends, and promotion in the world. Demas was such an apostate: “Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world” (2 Tim. 4:10). He sinned after he received the knowledge of the truth.
Read the next section, Part Two, here.
Martyn McGeown is a pastor in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He is also the editor of the RFPA blog and the author of multiple RFPA publications.
Note 10/16/23: Minor edits made to the last few paragraphs.