by Ramesh Richard
God has patiently put up with a history of leaders who defect—of whom I am one. I defect often. Although I am more aware of my sins of commission than omission, my every sin denies and defies allegiance to the Lord I love. I must return to the One I belong by confession, quickly and regularly, about attitudes and actions not aligned to His standards.
Two higher-profile defections in 2019—a mega-church pastor and a prominent worship leader—have generated a number of questions for those of us who are the lower-profile faithful. Before I provide biblical, theological and pastoral comment on our perplexity, here’s a short history on defectors in the Bible.
Spiritual defection began in heaven. Lucifer, the best among the best of God’s creation, turned traitor. He ran an insurgency against the Highest One. However, God’s Son, to whom all things have been handed by the Father, saw Satan thrown out of heaven (Luke 10:18; see also Rev. 12:7–10, Satan eventually thrown down to the earth).
Defection started in heaven and continues on earth. The first couple yielded to the tempter and locked the rest of humanity in a default rebellion and defection from divine intent.
In the Old Testament, Israel is more known for defections than faithfulness to God and His law. Her worship of idols was led by her kings (e.g., 1 Kings 14:22–24) and denounced by her prophets as spiritual adultery and apostasy (e.g., Jer. 8:5). Judgment always followed defection (e.g., the cycles of the book of Judges) while a remnant line preserved the promise of a renewed future (e.g., post-exilic prophets).
New Testament characters also fare poorly in spiritual fidelity. Judas, the best-known case and an unbelieving devil (John 6:64, 70), deserted the One he had followed and who had trained him for years.
Even when we have experienced spiritual regeneration, a defector tendency runs in us. Left to ourselves to persevere in faith, we defect to prior allegiances and act in propensity toward alternate commitments. But while the Father has not left us to ourselves and has delivered us from the kingdom of darkness, transferring us into the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13), He merely invites us to interact with his Spirit to mature in belief and behavior as citizens of a new kingdom; He does not force us to comply.
Since in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14), we have been rescued from our state of rebellion. That rescue, however, doesn’t keep former rebels from defecting from the ranks and deserting camp by falling into grievous sin. And what happens if a believer intentionally changes sides and turns traitor?
Well, those are some of the matters to ponder as we think about where our personal tendency fits in the ongoing history of defection.
Spiritual defection traverses a spectrum from doubt to denial to desertion. John the Baptizer’s doubt (Matt. 11:2–3) about Jesus’ messiahship or Thomas’ doubt expressed at our Lord’s resurrection (John 20:26–29) are classic cases that Jesus quickly assuaged with an early version of show-and-tell.
Indeed, there is spiritual defection every time we sin. Our spiritual fathers, both Abraham and David defected morally—a practical apostasy. As Christians we believingly confess our sins. The faithful and just God forgives and cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). He restores us to fellowship without asking us to guarantee a sin-free future. Spiritual doubt and defections happen all the time, but these are temporary. When leaders morally defect, consternation spreads among followers. My prayer is that I never use another’s sins to justify my own.
A subset of spiritual defection is ministry desertion. “In love with this present world,” Demas, a firm and former supporter of the apostle Paul, deserted him (2 Tim. 4:10; cf. Col. 4:14). Ministry desertion breaks the heart of fellow leaders and shocks relevant publics. Yet just as spiritual repair was extended to John (also called Mark), we will take the long view on any person’s ministry desertion. John/Mark was not only eventually welcomed back by Paul (2 Tim. 4:11), he likely became the Gospel writer with the apostolic backing of Peter, the denier. Peter extended to John/Mark the restoration he had experienced himself.
What, however, if core Christian convictions are repudiated, not just in heresy by the ignorant, but as doctrinal, Christological apostasy by the well-informed? And more urgently, how should we think of a defector’s previous fruitful ministry when he or she renounces all past beliefs and accomplishments?
All defection is sin, and all sin is defection. But not all defection is apostasy, though all apostasy is defection. There are greater and lesser sins (see John 19:11, of Caiaphas and Pilate). Apostasy of a permanent kind (e.g., false teachers, Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus, 1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:17) is a more grievous sin than an apostasy of a temporary kind. Both are sin, but permanent, blasphemous apostasy appears as unpardonable as a sin leading to death (1 John 5:16). While Jesus prays for forgiveness of those who do not know what they do to Him (Luke 23:34), He also speaks of unpardonable sin: attributing a demonic source to Jesus’ Spirit-credentialed works (Matt. 12:32). This sin the Pharisees were about to commit without remorse, regret or repentance reflects the hardened heart and calloused conscience of those repudiating the Jesus they once knew.
When we encounter this doctrinal apostasy, especially from leaders we respected and loved, how do we as ordinary but growing believers in Jesus respond to the questions that come to the fore? Let me identify and address five relevant questions.
1. Is Christianity even true at all?
There is only one right response, a prohibition and a pointer: Do not look to any Christian or leader, not even the best apologists, for your confidence in, corroboration of, or convictions about the Faith. Each of us as a fallen human being is capable of disappointing. Look to Jesus alone, and point others to Christ alone. He will not fail.
Why? Because, He is true and the truth. He will be true to you and is the truth for you and all people. A student asked Princeton philosopher Diogenes Allen about why he should go to church. “Because Christianity is true” came the astute reply. The truth of Christianity does not depend on whether anyone believes it or acts consistently, since no Christian is fully consistent. Christianity is true and truth because of Jesus the Christ, and exceptionally so because of His historically, verifiable and unique self-resurrection from the dead. Let Him be your only standard, the author and finisher of everyone’s faith (Heb. 12:2).
2. Is Christian conversion real?
All kinds of conversions go on, from political switching to fashion trends. This is one reason we do not probe the conditions, circumstances and causes of conversion to and from Christianity. There’s also something real about conversion within and between religions. As I write this, a Sikh young lady in Pakistan has turned Muslim “of my own freewill.” Christian Paul, too, was considered a Jewish apostate (Acts 21:21), as are “infidels” who leave their birth-faith to believe in Christ.
The reality of conversions makes no conviction true or untrue. Indeed, we know, see and hear incredible testimonies of changed lives as a result of coming to Jesus. These stories confirm what happens in a person who comes to God through Jesus, but they do not prove the Christian faith. We shall neither consider nor publicize high-profile conversions (nor defections) as enabling (or disabling) consideration of Christ. Testaments of conversion (or de-conversion) corroborate but neither verify nor falsify the faith (or its lack) to a potential convert or anyone else.
Personal, ongoing assurance of conversion arises from the declaration by Jesus that “he who hears My word and believes on Him who sent Me has eternal life” (John 5:24, emphasis added). The possession, not just the possibility of future eternal life, holds good through disaffection, dryness or defection. May I alert you to never base assurance of the reality of your conversion on anything other than God’s Word, not even on the presence of your good works? A prayerful, meditative life will experience subjective assurance of God’s Spirit, confirming God’s objective word that you are the child of God. With God’s Holy Spirit witnessing to the human spirit, let’s never get over the miracle of conversion. It will help overcome shorter-term dryness and prevent longer-term spiritual defection.
Defection started in heaven and continues on earth.
3. Is perceptible fruit necessary to prove the truth and reality of one’s salvation?
Recent defectors did once bear fruit—and much fruit—in pastoral and worship leadership, which accounts for our confusion. Just as we must nuance and extend questions in such discussion and debate, perhaps we will find help by slicing into smaller pieces this theological question about their betrayal of what they professed.
Here’s the knife we will use: “Prove one’s salvation to whom?”
3a. Is perceptible fruit the proof of salvation to God? No. God innately knows who is saved in His own way of intuitive and immediate knowing.
3b. Is perceptible fruit the proof of salvation to ourselves? Not at all. Merely our sins of omission would keep us uncertain about our salvation. The apostle John states that certitude about our salvation is based on what is written (1 John 5:13).
3c. Is perceptible fruit the proof of salvation to others? Yes indeed. Whether accurately or inaccurately, others may conclude that a person is not saved, has never been saved, or has lost his salvation by the lack of good works in the life of the believer. That is, you shall know them (others, not yourself) by their fruit
(Matt. 7:16, 20).
One can confidently know his or her own eternal salvation by Scripture but reasonably conclude that another is unsaved by his or her unchristian behavior. And since you don’t want to confuse others (not yourself), examine your behavior by Scripture, and seek to become like the Son by the Holy Spirit. Please do not confuse us by your unbiblical behavior as we will come to the wrong inference about your conversion. For God’s sake, change your behavior. Or change your behavior for the sake of the rest of us to prevent our erroneous conclusion about your lack of salvation.
All defection is sin, and all sin is defection. But not all defection is apostasy, though all apostasy is defection.
4. In view of the defection of Christian leaders, is Christ’s salvation permanent and safe forever?
Before we go into this answer, a biographical comment will allow for deeper understanding of the commentary.
Hindu parables on human relationship to deity, especially the role of meritorious works in salvation, began at least a century prior to the Protestant Reformation debates. Those frame well the consideration of this and the prior question in view of the superficial state of the contemporary church.
My salvation understanding began in India embracing a monkey school of justification and sanctification. An infant monkey clings to its mother even as the mom holds on to it. I was taught and believed that at some point, by some final sin, we can come to the end of God’s rope and our salvation becomes unraveled. For after all, Hebrews 6:4–6 seems to grant no possibility for those who fall away to be renewed again to repentance.
I now hold to the cat school of salvation and the spiritual life. A kitten is picked up and carried by the mother without the kitty clinging. Unafraid of getting dropped, the beloved kitty jerks and jolts through many a twist and turn, but is safe on its journey to the destination.
Similarly, knowing everything about me, my potential times and actual layers of belief and unbelief, the sovereign Savior picked me up, carries me now, and delivers me to an eternal destination. He finishes the good work He has begun in me (Phil. 1:6). I don’t have to be afraid of being dropped even when I object to His carrying me by my neck.
For every biblical text that creates doubts about one’s eternal salvation, another passage, by the very same author, confirms the permanence of salvation. For example,
• The confidence of Christ’s permanent priesthood and intercession as able to save us forever (Heb. 7:24–25) balances out the worry from the warnings of Hebrews 6:4–6. These warnings, examined independent of all else, prove and prevent too much, that once lost after being saved, one is always lost. But no theological position holds that there remains no second chance of repentance for a defector. We must hold to the definite perfection of the sanctified in Hebrews 10:14 while heeding the warnings of Hebrews 10:29–31. The evil, unbelieving heart (Heb. 3:12) is equalized by the sincere and believing heart (Heb. 10:22).
• One NT author’s dual tone of warning and assurance pervades his classic “epistle of apostasy.” Jude integrates the believer’s doctrine with behavior, but distributes God’s perseverance and protection of those called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus (v. 1). This “theology of keeping” exhorts believers to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (v. 21), though deniers have crept in to cause doubts and uncertainty (v. 4; vv. 6, 13 speak about kept and keeping for destruction and darkness). It climaxes with the magnificent doxology to the Only One who is able to keep them (a synonym) from stumbling into falsehood and to present faultless saints with joy in a fitting, future and final offering to
God (vv. 24–25).
Five relevant questions provoked by defectors:
1. Is Christianity even true at all?
2. Is Christian conversion real?
3. Is perceptible fruit necessary to prove the truth and reality of one’s salvation?
4. In view of the defection of His ministers, is Christ’s salvation permanent and safe forever?
5. Is an apostasy of the regenerate possible?
• Paul in Romans uses a prophetic past tense to indicate those justified as the exact ones glorified with no fumbling by God in the process. Yet, as Israel’s national apostasy caused them to lose their priority and place in the divine plan, the prideful unbelief of Gentile believers can also bring on the kindness and severity of God’s judgment (Rom. 11:1–25). Fortunately, just as national Israel will be restored to salvation (v. 26) at the fullness of the Gentiles (v. 25), the Gentile-justified, in a mix of belief and unbelief, will experience no permanent casting away but will be restored to salvation until they become the Gentile-glorified. No wonder we see the exuberance of yet another apostolic doxology at the end of God working out of His national and global plans in history and geography (Rom. 11:33–36)!
• The strength of the double negatives of the impossibility of being snatched out of God’s hand (John 10:28–29) overwhelms the pruning removal of the fruitless (John 15:2, 6) in order to bear more fruit. The withdrawal of “many” of His disciples (John 6:66) is possible, even among chosen followers (cf. 6:70–71), and yet one who is drawn by God to Jesus does not get lost. Jesus loses none of them (6:39) and raises them on the last day (6:44).
The clincher for me on the issue of eternal life is the very meaning of eternal in that life. If eternal life can be lost for any reason at all, it is not eternal by any definition. In addition is the question of proportionate contribution. To the extent to which one contributes to salvation, to that extent it can be undone. Contribute much to it, undo it easily. Contribute a little bit, undo it eventually, with one too many sins. Contribute nothing, and simply receive it as a gift of God’s unconditional grace and unmerited favor, and only the Giver can undo it. Faith is not an efficient cause of salvation. And since faith is only the instrumental means to salvation, it is powerless to create, source, give or return God’s unilaterally orchestrated salvation.
Does this eternal position lead to spiritual defection in belief/behavior? Actually, both positions on salvation security could lead me to spiritual defection, but not necessarily so. If I can spiritually defect and lose salvation with the option of being saved repeatedly, what prevents me from using (or abusing) that option repeatedly? If I cannot lose salvation, and thus intensify my defective belief and rebellion, the Bible still speaks of earthly and eternal losses: lack of spiritual vitality, joy, holiness and fellowship; loss of physical health or physical life; and the denial of future reward of royal reign (2 Tim. 1:12).
While none can snatch me out of God’s hand, I can choke myself to death by trying to wiggle out of His hand. God’s life grip becomes a death grip in the defector’s life. Any and all sin is terrifically serious and of infinite weight, which is why it took the infinite worth of the death of God’s Son to cover it.
5. Is an apostasy of the regenerate possible?
This last question never goes away. If we mean, is it possible to change sides and turn traitorous, yes. We have ample history in Jesus’ disciples and Paul’s coworkers. It is also a sign of the departure from biblical faith and practice in the last days, the latter times (1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Pet. 3:3), where we find ourselves in difficulty (2 Tim. 3:1). Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). Look up a list of former Christians and evangelicals, and you will find apostates aplenty.
Now who is an apostate? Not a mere backslider into moral debauchery, or one who relapses into former beliefs because of socio-economic persecution. No one holds to the truth perfectly in faith and practice. In fact, a believer can become hardhearted toward the Savior.
Since spiritual birth, like physical birth, happens at a point of time—a moment of crisis rather than a process—to ask a process question of a crisis event leads to category confusion. A process can be made up of a series of crises, but a crisis is not made up of processes. So, a daily conversion from unbelief to belief is part of the present process of a past point
While the past aspect of regeneration cannot be undone, the present can go awry—and therefore we have need to spiritually grow. Thus, a hardhearted believer is not an apostate.
Instead, an apostate is one who publicly announces and intentionally renounces belief in who Jesus is and other previous beliefs and actions done for Jesus and in Jesus’ name; the apostate advocates a contrary faith.
The Jury and the Mat
Our options then are clear: An apostate is either regenerate or unregenerate.
By apostolic pattern, a regenerated apostate is to be disciplined and excommunicated from the church. A person’s high-risk behavior may result in premature death, but his spirit is preserved (1 Cor. 5:5). Our works may be burned at the final assessment, but we ourselves are saved as through fire (1 Cor. 3:15). Should we repent, publicly, we can be received into fellowship—and if quickly, potentially into public leadership. Peter, the example of the believer apostate, was reinstated by Jesus Himself. Sinful disaffection was not considered a desertion since he did not join a group opposed to Jesus to publicly voice a new allegiance. Here’s the “bad” news for regenerated apostates: The baby is carried by the mother despite its denials of belonging. It is never severed from the mother’s loving hold.
Here is the decisive test question to apostates:
While we acknowledge that you have publicly announced and intentionally renounced your faith in the Faith, did you believe in and once receive the Lord Jesus as the Only God who saved you from your sins and gave you eternal life?
However, if an apostate continues to deny the Christian faith and advocates another faith till his last breath, he was never regenerated, despite all his ministry efforts. Judas presents an example of the unregenerate follower. The Lord, too, talked about those who called Him “Lord, Lord,” who prophesied, exorcized and worked miracles in His name, but Jesus never knew them (Matt. 7:21–23). The baby was clinging to the wrong mother, even claimed to belong, but the mother had not known this baby nor claimed the baby as hers. It would have been better, as with Judas, never to have been born (Matt. 26:24). Like scheming false prophets who secretly bring in destructive teachings, an apostate denies the Master who bought him (2 Pet. 2:1).
Presently, from a human point of view, the jury is out on all potential apostates. I pray that Jesus will prevent and forbid me from ever taking a path of apostasy, even temporarily.
In terms of the two earlier mentioned brothers, the church pastor and worship leader, I would dare to think them brothers and consider them as dishonorable vessels in the household of faith until their death. They have chosen to go out from us and have become the subjects of tears and scorn mixed with invitations to return to the fold and derisive debarring—all rightly so.
I fall on the softer edge of waiting for them. The welcome mat is out to all apostates. One kissed dating, his wife, and the Faith goodbye, but God hasn’t necessarily kissed him goodbye.
It’s best to prayerfully contend for the faith of the defector and denier since we don’t know their end date or state. Jesus has asked us to love our enemies and pray for those who despise us (Matt. 5:44). Even as we publicly contend for the Faith (Jude 3) in view of a deserter’s doubts about hell, evil and miracles, we leave open their return to fellowship with Christ until their final breath. Paul assures us, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful” (2 Tim. 2:13).
If defectors repent from apostate belief and reprobate behavior, not knowing when their end will be, they mimic the prodigal who realized better (Luke 15:17).
If deniers renounce their apostate belief and the renunciation of their faith, and reaffirm their love for Jesus, they are reinstated into a new spiritual trajectory by Christ, whether we like or trust them or not. They must return and press on to maturity. Until then, like the writer to the fledgling and wavering believers of Hebrews, we apply warnings as a persuasive means to maturity. Come back from squandering your salvation and being judged. Let us both press on to maturity. “This we shall do if God permits” (Heb. 6:2–3), since we are “convinced of better things” (Heb. 6:9) concerning you.
If deserters keep crucifying the Son of God afresh and holding Him up to contempt (Heb. 6:6) till they breathe their last, they were never regenerated in the first place. Their ministry did give life to some, but their departure stumbled many a young believer and confused many more. Indeed, they had called Him “Lord, Lord,” in their fruit-bearing years, but He answered, “I never knew you.” The Jesus they once claimed to know in public ministry had never known them in saving relationship.
Here is the decisive test question for apostates:
While we acknowledge that you have publicly announced and intentionally renounced your faith in the Christian faith, did you believe in and once receive the Lord Jesus as the Only God who saved you from your sins and gave you eternal life?
If a firm negative, he was never a confessor, only a professor, at best representing the third, thorny ground in the parable of the soils (Luke 8:4–8, 11–15). The Lord never knew him even though people benefited by his work. He is an unregenerate apostate.
In apostolic conclusion, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they are all not of us” (1 John 2:19, emphasis added). In military parlance, the defector revealed his real allegiance and his network catalyzed his apostasy. The defector’s “faith” was a defective one. He had not believed in the Jesus of the Bible. The biblical Jesus is the ongoing litmus test and the christological fundamental of the five foundational “alone” principles of an evangelical faith: in Christ alone, on Scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, and to God’s glory alone. Without Jesus Christ, the one and only Son of God, there is no Savior.
If a firm positive, then we ask, “Though you are presently against Jesus, are you open to reconsidering your decision against Him?” If again a “yes” to this clarifying question, we consider you a renegade and reprobate but are not willing to write you off as an unregenerate apostate. As those equal in sin and at the cross, we humbly await your return as salvageable, and will not wish a premature death upon you. Do not please die in your sin of unbelief.
The Lord Jesus asks these central questions to each of us, the same two questions that went out to Peter, a believing, but temporary apostate:
“Who do you say that I am?” Before our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection, Peter’s personal confession about the Christ as the rock on which Jesus builds His (not our) church is revealed by heaven. Sadly, Peter’s serious denials as the rooster crowed reflect what we are capable of in temporary unbelief and misbehavior. Peter had been sifted like wheat by a Satan who is strategically, powerfully and constantly active against God’s servants.
“Do you love Me more than these?” Here we have our Lord’s post-crucifixion and resurrection invitation to Peter: With less self-confidence and more self-diffidence, this time without competition or comparison with fellow disciples, Peter’s unequivocal reaffirmation of love provides for his spiritual reinstatement and ministry responsibility (John 21:15–17).
Jesus’ latter invitation goes out to all who have betrayed Him with a goodbye kiss, so they might “kiss [do homage to] the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled” (Ps. 2:12a–c, ESV). There will be a future day when the Son kisses the unrepentant, unregenerate apostate goodbye. Fortunately for any and all of us who are repentant, “Blessed are all who take refuge in Him” (Ps. 2:12d, ESV).
I bless thee that thou wilt keep the sinner thou hast loved, and hast engaged that he will not forsake thee, else I would never get to heaven. I wrong the work of grace in my heart if I deny my new nature and my eternal life.
(“Assurance,” The Valley of Vision, A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions p. 92)