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cross forbidden ucobserverorgDo you know of someone who has renounced their Christian beliefs and has said they’re now glad to ‘live in the real world’? 

Dr John MacArthur, Pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, does.  In an interview transcript entitled ‘When Believers Stop Believing: Portrait of an Apostate’, MacArthur tells us more about apostates.

The interview begins with a letter from a former Grace Community Church partner, a minister named Steve, who writes (emphasis mine throughout):

Over many years, I have been blessed to receive free tapes, CDs and books from your ministry. Thank you. At those times I really appreciated them. Now, I no longer believe in the God of the Bible or in Jesus Christ. Ten years of full-time ministry proved to me that there is no God and that the God of the Bible does not care. I now reject Christianity and have come to peace. What was at first a great loss has now turned to joy, peace and freedom. I did not leave the faith because of some extreme sin. I left because the God of the Bible, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are all a fantasy. I’m happy I now live in the real world. I only feel guilt about the many people whom I led to Christ and exposed them to the lies of Christianity. I’m not mad at Christians, I’m not mad at you. However, I am mad at myself for not being a more critical thinker. I won’t make this mistake again.

Again, thank you for the many years of help and teaching you all shared with me. I do appreciate what you all are trying to do with the knowledge you have. Please remove me from your mailing list. Save the money. Don’t waste it on an apostate like me. I was just giving your CDs away. But now my conscience can no longer can tolerate the further spread of a false hope and disappointment.


Steve… Agnostic

MacArthur says:

… apostasy can be defined as [when] someone who with full knowledge of the gospel, full knowledge of the message of Scripture turns against it in a final act of rejection … But you also have the people who simply walked away with a degree of disinterest. I think in either case, whether you’re talking about scorn and hostility against the gospel, or utter indifference to the gospel, in either case you have apostasy. It’s a full rejection, a final rejection of the truth known.

Many of us would be amazed to find a man of the cloth blatantly rejecting God.  However, MacArthur explains that Judas, too, was a minister of sorts who rejected Our Lord and His teachings after working with him continuously for three years.  But he adds this important point:

… whatever was going on on the outside, nothing was going on on the inside. And I think that’s what we have to understand about apostates. It isn’t that they once were saved and turned against that. It is that they never were. And if you ask the question … well, how could a guy minister for ten years? Then ask the question, how could Judas walk with Jesus … and with eleven men living in very intimate conditions day after day after day and they don’t even know that he’s a devil, that he is by nature a son of perdition?

So I don’t think you can draw conclusions because somebody functions in ministry. Again, this goes back to the parable that Jesus gave in Matthew 13 where He said, ‘The devil would sow the tares among the wheat … And you won’t be able to tell them apart.’

An apostate hides among the faithful until it is time for him to reveal himself: 

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)

Note the word ‘continued’ in that verse.  It also appears in John 8:31-32:

If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

The continuity of a relationship with God is what counts

MacArthur also believes there is generally a moral and a religious dimension to apostasy.  He has been looking at this topic since he wrote his university dissertation many years ago on Judas Iscariot:

So what’s going on in the non-believer during this process is hard to identify. But it was a concern to me that while there’s really no way to sort of prevent the apostate, that is the wilful person who comes in for all the wrong motives, the Judas-type person. There is a way to minimise the self-deceived and that is to get the gospel right … We just keep hitting at it, hitting at it and hitting at it every way we can because I just don’t want people to be self-deceived. I want them to be operating with the right biblical criteria to evaluate what true repentance and what true saving faith is.

He adds:

… you know, we’re not looking at perfection here. So I often will say to someone who struggles with assurance, you need to know two things. One, you need to go back and read Romans 8:31 to 39 that nothing will ever separate you from God, from Christ. And no one will ever successfully condemn you because Christ does not. He died to eliminate that condemnation. And then you need to read Romans 7 to understand that though you are secured, you’re sinful. And the combination of those two, I think, is a haven. At the same time, you say to a person, and I said to somebody, this was last Sunday morning, a guy came up to me, nice young man struggling with this very issue. And I said to him, the answer to your assurance is this, when you go through the severest trials possible, when you go through the most disappointing behaviors and thoughts and attitudes, when you repeat the same sins, when you succumb to the same temptations, do you come out of that denying Christ? Do you come out of that denying the gospel? Do you come out of that denying salvation by grace and faith?

He said no. I said, ‘That’s the evidence that your faith is real.’ That’s the proof. Peter calls it the proof of your faith. James says the same thing, count it joy. Why? Because this trial gives evidence that you have a faith that is supernatural. You know, this guy here, this Steve, he had a human faith…whatever it was. And when God didn’t save him from trials…he says essentially in the letter that He didn’t care about me. You know, which is to say I went through this, I went through that. And hey, let’s face it, ten years in the ministry, you can pick any ten years of my ministry and there would be incidents in those ten years that if I was just hanging on by human faith, I would abandon it.

Therefore, if one’s faith or interest in the church is purely on a human level, what MacArthur terms ‘a false faith’, we will not be able to pass the trials and tribulations that life throws at us.  Being a clergyman is no protection against a fundamentally weak faith.  However, a ‘saving’ or ‘supernatural’ faith, one steeped in the assurance of God’s salvation, can survive these slings and arrows. 

But, what about human nature?  Why are some of us so confident that we are saved and others, not apostates but people who might self-analyse a bit too much, are so unsure?  MacArthur says:

I think some people are just more melancholy and more fearful by nature. And sometimes only time will take care of that. If they go through enough trials and go through enough issues and go through enough struggles and their faith holds, and it’s anchored and it’s growing, and they know their love for the Lord is growing and they’re flourishing spiritually, they come to a comfort level that this is the real thing … But I would add … I think it is a massive tragedy for new believers to be in churches that are utterly incapable of arming them for trials, of taking them deep into the Word of God where they find their soul flourishing.

He explains:

You know, if go to a church where the worship exalts the Lord, where the Word of God is taught in depth, your soul resonates with that. Your heart embraces that. I see that week after week after week, people pouring into our church, opening their Bibles, writing down things, rejoicing in what they hear … Now you sit in a church where some guy is giving a superficial, shallow talk on who knows what…you may be a true Christian, I wouldn’t be surprised that you do doubt or wonder whether you’re saved because there’s nothing going on there that you really resonate with. In fact, in many cases people grow even indifferent and sometimes even bitter toward churches like that, that don’t give them anything.

(That’s ringing more than a few bells with me, by the way.)

So, a lack of spiritual stimulation from the pulpit can discourage people from pursuing Scripture and a desire for God.  The assurance is lacking and the faith becomes weak.  When times get tough, faith falls by the wayside:

I think apostates are less likely the more faithful the church is. The more the church is truly devoted to the Lord, the more the church is truly pure in its love for Christ, the more biblical the church is, the fewer apostates are there because there’s a certain reality that they have to face.

I would wonder, for example, what the post-church life of people who leave the emergent church is. It would be the same as those who leave the liberal church.

MacArthur goes on to discuss warning signs of apostasy:

  • Considering oneself a better judge of Scripture than two millenia of apostles, saints, scholars and theologians
  • Questioning of every piece of Biblical evidence presented
  • Turning from questioning to putting one’s own interpretation on that evidence to justify one’s own sin

He says, ‘Apostasy is a final rejection …When you had the full disclosure, you rejected it. And there can be no more revelation.’ Nothing more can be said to these people: no further Scripture quotations, no discussions, nothing. It will not do any good. Yet, some of these people, he adds, are best-selling religious authors.  Some are engaged in serious sin.  Some are pastors.  They call themselves Christians and are in leadership positions.  Therein lies the danger for the unaware.

He examines the Emergent Church:

I think it needs to be said that apostates who are still in the church will simply create more apostates. And what I think is happening…most of these guys that lead the Emerging Church Movement … are disaffected former fundamentalists … They once were in a evangelical fundamental church where they were taught the gospel, they threw that over, they kicked that over. That’s a form of apostasy. They reject that. They’re still in the church. And who is going to their church but more of those disaffected former fundamentalists. They prey on them. You know, if you’re sitting in a church and they telling you this and that and you’ve been exposed to legalism all your life … they write all this in their books. Those people are coming out. So it’s almost like a collection of apostates under an apostate pastor in some cases.

At the same time, MacArthur cautions us against judging a perceived loss of faith. It might just be a lapse, even if it goes on for some time. MacArthur offers the following cautionary story about a prominent pastor who was convinced his son was not among ‘the elect’:

I said, ‘How do you know who’s elect?’

He said, ‘I’m just convinced he’s not elect. I prayed for him and he’s just gone totally the wrong way and after being raised around the gospel.’

Three years later, maybe, he said to me, ‘By the way, my son is now serving the Lord in ministry.’

I know … parents who have children who are just in this situation and they’re trying to decide … do I have an apostate child here, or do I just have a prodigal, a rebellious child who is following the pursuits of sin? Do I continue to pray? And I would say, ‘Unless there is a prolific outspoken animosity toward the gospel, I’d just keep praying for them.’

Returning to Steve, he of the aforementioned letter, MacArthur said that were the man to appear before him and ask what to do, he would advise that if Steve truly wants to turn his faith around, he would need to humbly ask God for forgiveness and then truly repent (in word and deed). (Forgiveness is God’s to give, not ours to demand.) Unlike many evangelicals, MacArthur says there is no magic bullet prayer that will instantly transform the situation.  It’s not a ‘come to the altar and be healed’ moment.  It requires heartfelt contrition and a sincere request to God to help to set him on the right path.  

MacArthur says it is normal for all of us to have doubts about our faith.  Doubt is not denialIf you go through the trials of life and still believe in God, your faith is intact.  And, of course, we are all individuals and, as such, different.  He advises:

We all are short of 100 percent faith… And some people it might be 90 percent believe and ten percent, you know, doubt. And maybe some of us are 98 percent and two percent…but we all have that because, just like we aren’t perfect morally, we also aren’t perfect in our faith. So doubt is part of being still in a fallen condition…

Doubt … what’s still in doubt. You know, is God going to heal my husband of cancer? Is the Lord going to bring me a wife? Or whatever is on your mind … you can wrestle with those things. That’s just normal. But don’t let temptation turn into sin by making you doubt the things that are clearly promised and revealed in Scripture. 

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