This morning, we continue our series of messages on true and false conversions and assurance of salvation. We have sought to find answers from the bible to questions like, “How can I know if I am a follower of Christ who will go to be with him when I die?” Two weeks ago we looked at the parable of the soils seen in three of the gospels. There Jesus differentiates between three soils where the seed of the word of God falls and produces no fruit and one soil where the seed produces very much fruit. In Matthew 13, Mark chapter four and Luke chapter eight the seed falling on the rocky ground Jesus says represents those people who, quoting Mark, [v.17] “…have no root in themselves, but endure for awhile; then when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” These are people according to Jesus who have received the word in some way but when the going gets tough, they fall away. That is, produce no fruit. Jesus says much the same thing as he speaks of the seed that falls on the thorny ground. Of these people he says in Mark 4:18-19, “And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” These people, like the rocky ground hearers receive the word but they too allow an outside factor to cause them to be unfruitful. In light of the fact that Jesus contrasts these first three soils with the fourth, the fruitful soil, his point is that those who fall away and those who produce no fruit are in the same category. A word that is used to identify these people is apostate.
By apostate we mean a person who falls away from the faith after having initially been favorably disposed toward it. Jesus says of the rocky-ground hearers, they “immediately receive in with joy.” These folks don’t need to be convinced, they seize the word immediately and they do so with joy—oh, they are so glad to be “saved” and they endure for awhile. But when persecution or tribulations come on account of the word, they immediately check out. They have the word, but then they leave. This morning we want to spend some concentrated time thinking about what the Bible has to say about the differences between a true, fruit-bearing follower of Christ and an apostate or temporary adherent to Christianity.
The tricky part in applying this teaching today is there is such a low wattage, insipid level of Christian conduct called for by the church—all you have to do is occasionally come to church, understand the most rudimentary Christian doctrines and have a vaguely Christian testimony and you are considered in. That person will probably not meet with much persecution because they selectively live out the word of God only when it will not cause them too many problems. They don’t meet too many trials associated with the word because their life, if it were a liquid would have such a low level of concentration of the word of God, as to be barely apparent. These people therefore seldom overtly fall away or leave the church. They sit and soak in the lukewarm waters of unhealthy churches as false converts who sing the hymns and choruses, listen to the messages but whose lives don’t truly reflect Christ in any discernable way.
Those are false converts and there are many of them in churches. The question we must ask of ourselves to determine whether we are false converts is “is the word of God producing fruit that shows itself through the reality of the character and ministry of Christ in my life?” If there is, then there will be persecution and trials. These people are not apostate in the most flagrant sense. Apostates, I am using that term are people who after becoming adherents of Christ in some way, then fall away. There are so many New Testament texts that speak to this issue; virtually every New Testament author treats this topic. We have seen it in Jesus teaching in the gospels but just to give us a taste as to how prevalent this teaching is in Jesus’ teaching let’s look at a few more verses where he addresses this topic explicitly.
In John 15:5-6 he says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide (or remain) in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” Only those branches that abide or remain in fellowship with Christ and therefore produce fruit are spared eternal judgment. Those who do not remain are condemned. Perhaps the most explicit references Jesus makes to this necessity of remaining faithful are two texts that speak of the end times. In Matthew 24:9-13 Jesus is speaking of a future time of great tribulation and he warns the disciples, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” In the end time tribulation two things will happen negatively. First, so-called believers will experience intense persecution and many will fall away. Second, many will be so compromised by the powerful influence of a lawless world their love for God will grow cold. But Jesus says in contrast to those two groups, “…the one who endures to the end will be saved.” A parallel passage is Mark 13:13 where Jesus says, “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Saving faith is a faith that causes you to endure in the midst of persecution as we saw in the parable of the soils. It is those who do not fall away in the midst of tribulation—whose love does not grow cold in the midst of debauchery and lawlessness who will be saved. Jesus again emphasizes this truth when he speaks to the seven churches in Revelation after his ascension and glorification. He says in Revelation 2:10 to the church at Smyrna, “Do fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Jesus prophesies to this church that Satan will bring tribulation on them but the crown of life, Jesus’ way of saying eternal life, will be given only on the condition that they “be faithful unto death.” The clear implication is that if they fall away in the midst of the tribulation and become apostate, they will receive no crown.
In Revelation 2:17 he tells the church at Pergamum, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Again, we see Jesus using symbolic language representing eternal life and he says it will be given to the “one who conquers.” The word translated “conquers” means to overcome, to prevail. It’s a military term and assumes a context of conflict and opposition exists for the followers of Christ. Eternal life is given to those who overcome the opposition. To the churches at Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea eternal life is likewise promised only to him who “conquers.” Those who do not conquer—who do not overcome—who do not prevail against the spiritual onslaught are by implication, not granted eternal life. In the face of persecution and trials, only those who do not fall away are granted eternal life. The rest who fall away are condemned.
We see this same truth from Paul in Colossians in 1:21-23 where he writes to the church, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22he [Christ] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” Paul is consistent with Jesus here. He makes being presented holy and blameless and above reproach to Christ at the judgment contingent upon continuing in the faith, “…stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…” The author of Hebrews makes the same point in 3:14 when he says, “For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Again, we see the condition of remaining firm in faith to the end is placed on all those who are genuinely saved. I’m carpet-bombing you with texts because I want us to see how superficial the phrase “once saved, always saved” is to describe a person’s position on the eternal security of the believer. That expression, though scratching at the truth, does not express the truth these texts bring out. The eternal security of the believer is much more nuanced than simply “once saved, always saved.” We must see that through these texts that call us to endure.
This discussion begs the very reasonable question: Is it possible for a person who is genuinely born again to fall away from Christ? My position is the New Testament teaches that those who fall away, those who do not do not overcome, those who do not continue in the faith, those who do not endure to the end were never believers to begin with as we saw in the parable of the soils. There are a great many reasons to hold this position but let’s cut right to the heart of the matter textually by turning to a pinnacle text in First John. The text that is particularly important in this discussion is 1 John 2:18-19. John is speaking of false teachers who were originally ministering within the church but have since strayed and become false teachers or what John calls “antichrists.” He says, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They [the false teachers] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they are all not of us.”
This is an unambiguous statement from John on two points in verse 19. The first is seen when he says of these false teachers, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they have been of us, they would have continued with us.” The truth of this verse is found in the way the prepositions are translated. These were men who went OUT from the church--they left the church and the orthodox teaching of the church. John says that although they went out from the church—that is, they physically originated with the church, they were never OF the church--they were never a genuine part of the church. This phraseology is reminiscent of John’s gospel when he records Jesus’ words where he prays for his disciples in 17:14. He says, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Neither Jesus nor the disciples belonged to the kingdom of this world but rather the kingdom of God. They were simply temporarily stationed on this planet and placed in the midst of the kingdom of the world as agents of redemption—Jesus being the Redeemer, Himself.
The same idea is seen in this text in first John—though the false teachers has been associated with the church and doubtless met with the church and perhaps even taught the church, they nonetheless did not spiritually belong to the church and John says the reason we can know that is because THEY LEFT and went out from the church. They departed from orthodoxy. John goes even further in the second half of verse 19 when he says, “…But they went out, that it might become plain that they are all not of us.” John says the reason they, in the providence of God left the church was so that it would be evident that they had never truly been part of the church.
On the other side of the coin is the blessed promise that those who truly HAVE been born again, who have saving faith—those people will without exception endure to the end. We see this in texts like John 10:27-29 where Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. This is a wonderful promise and a powerful ground for assurance. Those who are genuinely saved by God are kept by God.
Another, more controversial text in Hebrews, although it also speaks to a slightly different issue, also implicitly confirms this idea that if you leave the church or orthodoxy, it is proof that you in fact never really belonged to the church. Chapter six, verses four through nine reads, “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame. 7For ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned. [In other words, these people never produced fruit and were burned like the non-abiding vines in John 15] 9But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. My understanding of this difficult text is much helped and informed by Wayne Grudem, who has written an outstanding article on it. This Hebrews six text is difficult in part because it describes people who have some very significant experiences with God and yet fall away. Because of the powerful words the author uses to describe their experience with Christ, many have used this verse to try to prove it is possible for a person who has been genuinely saved to lose their salvation. The problems with that view are manifold but two are first, it contradicts texts like 1 John 2:18-19 and John 10:27-29 which explicitly teach that true believers are kept by Christ and only those who are not true believers fall away. The other problem is that this text does not clearly speak about a group of people who have been truly saved. Let’s take a look at the words that the author uses to describe these people’s experience with Christ.
He says they have been enlightened. The word in the original is “photizo” and is never used in the New Testament to convey the idea of “believing the gospel” or coming to faith. It means according to Grudem, “learning and understanding.” These are clearly people that have learned and understood the gospel. The second experience these people have had is they have “tasted the heavenly gift.” The word “taste” implies a temporary experience. They had sampled Christ, if you will. In Matthew 27:34 we see this same word used for Jesus when he was on the cross. When offered the wine mixed with gall, he “tasted it, but did not drink it.” If the author would have wanted to convey a more enduring experience of Christ, he could have easily chosen a metaphor like “eaten or consumed.” Instead he deliberately chooses to describe their experience using a word like “tasted.”
The third experience these people have had is they have “shared in the Holy Spirit.” The word translated shared means “to be associated with in some way.” As Grudem points out, it cannot mean that each of these people have been given a share of the Holy Spirit because the Spirit is a Person and you cannot each grab off a piece of Him. For a person to SHARE in the Holy Spirit does not necessitate that they have been REGENERATED by the Spirit. That would have been easy enough to say but the author doesn’t say that. You can be convicted by the Holy Spirit, even gifted by the Holy Spirit without being regenerated. As proof of that I take you back to Matthew 7:22 where unsaved people testify, without correction from Jesus, that they “prophesied, cast out demons and did many miracles in his name.” That sounds like the Spirit’s activity to me. We know the Spirit of God came mightily upon Samson on many occasions but from my reading of Judges that carnal, self-seeking egomaniac is no child of God. The same can arguably be said for King Saul who had some powerful experiences with the Holy Spirit and even prophesied but who I do not believe is in the bosom of Abraham. Finally in this context, what about the wicked High Priest Caiaphas who in John 11 prophesied about the death of Jesus that it was “better for one man to die for the people?” The man was sharing in the Holy Spirit in some way and he was a supreme enemy of Christ. The point is--these people in Hebrews had doubtless participated or partaken of the benefits of the Holy Spirit, but the author stops short of saying they had been regenerated by the Spirit.
Fourth, these people had “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.” Again, could not the same be said of those rocky-ground hearers who received the word with joy but who later fell away? Those people had tasted the goodness of the word but Jesus makes clear they were never in the kingdom. And what of those who like Samson and those Jesus condemns in Matthew chapter seven who tasted of the powers of the age to come but were not in the kingdom? The point of all this is that the author in Hebrews six has several opportunities to say conclusively that these people were saved but he never does. All he would have had to say was these people were sealed with the Holy Spirit, they were born again, they were redeemed by the blood—he does not—he comes up to the very edge but never crosses the line conclusively. Finally, in verse nine, after speaking of these people who in their apostasy have trampled on the blood of Jesus and cannot be restored the author of the Hebrews contrasts them to the true church, 9But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.” Again, Grudem says it best when he comments on this verse, “If the author had meant to say that the people mentioned in verses 4-6 were truly saved, then it is very difficult to understand why he would say in verse nine that he is convinced of better things for his readers, that is, things that belong to salvation. In writing this he shows that the people he speaks of in verses 4-6, while they had many blessings, did not have salvation” [emphasis his].
What this text in Hebrews chapter six should do for us is in this context is NOT to cause us to question whether a genuinely saved person can lose their salvation but this text should rather in a very powerful way keep us from assuming that simply because we have had many satisfying experiences with God’s word, his power and with God himself that means we are saved. The ultimate test of salvation is not in our experiences with God, his word or even his gifts and power, the ultimate test of salvation is, as we read in Mark 13:13 and so many other texts. That is, “And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” This text in Hebrews chapter six is incredibly helpful in explaining why for example certain highly respected Christian leaders can fall away. A case in point is the commencement speaker for my seminary graduation ceremony. This man pastored what was then the largest conference church in America and had recently been moved to be the head of Church and Pastoral Services for the entire denomination. He had taught preaching at Bethel College and had written a much used, highly respected textbook on preaching. Shortly after leaving his pastorate this highly sought after preacher left his wife of 25 years and his children and ran off with his hair dresser and I have no information to tell you that he is still not an apostate. This text explains how this could happen.
This text should humble us. As we’ll see later in the series the bible teaches that if we are healthy believers we can and should have a strong sense of assurance. But we should never believe that because we have had so many wonderful experiences with God and in ministry that we do not have to be ever so vigilant about the condition of our souls. Even the apostle Paul in First Corinthians 9:27 says of himself, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Paul knew the ultimate test for assurance was enduring to the end. May God give us grace to do as Paul did--fight the fight, run the race and keep the faith, enduring to the end for the glory of God and for our eternal joy.
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