You may have noticed in the past few weeks a number of well-known Christians have renounced the faith publicly on social media. It is always discouraging to see, and we mourn their loss. The Bible describes this as a real danger for those who profess Christ, something we should guard against. Some, like Peter, deny Christ publicly, but are gently brought back to faith. Others, like Judas, never return. A question we should consider is, ‘how does apostasy happen?’ It doesn’t happen overnight. It is a path slowly taken, and we need to be watchful.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, the classic allegorical work by Puritan John Bunyan, the main character, Christian, traces nine steps people take on the path to apostasy. You may find them insightful.
- Backsliders first resist all thoughts of God, death, and the judgment to come. The first thing to go is a high view of God and thoughts on the end of life. They do not want to think about such things.
- Then by degrees they cast off private duties, as closet prayer, curbing their lusts, watching their souls, sorrow for sin, and the like. Little by little the disciplines of the Christian life, the ordinary means of grace, are set aside. Bible reading, personal prayer, repentance, become infrequent and eventually are entirely abandoned.
- They begin to shun the company of lively and warm Christians. Those whose hearts grow cold towards God soon also grow cold towards his people, particularly ‘lively and warm’ Christians. Do you value the companionship and friendships of other believers?
- After that, they grow cold to public duty, as hearing, reading, and assembling together with other Christians. They no longer desire Christian community. They become burdensome rather than life-giving.
- They start to abandon the assembly of believers, finding fault with other Christians, often naming them hypocrites, in order to provide an excuse for leaving them. Eventually they stop going to church, Bible studies, prayer meetings, etc. Bunyan points out that those who will soon apostatize become increasingly critical and demeaning to godly Christians. This is a means by which people justify themselves for breaking away.
- Then they begin to draw close to, and associate themselves with, fleshly, loose, greedy, lewd, and unruly men. We all desire the company of like-minded people. It should be no surprise that those who abandon Christ will seek the company of those who likewise reject the Lord.
- This new company tempts them to give way to fleshly and lewd practices, at first in secret. They begin to dabble with sins in secret that they had not participated in or even discussed before.
- After this season of private sin, they begin to play with little sins openly. They no longer feel that such sin is shameful, so they will begin to sin boldly and even mock Christians who call them out for it.
- Finally then, being hardened, they show themselves for what they are. Then they are launched again into the gulf of misery, and unless a miracle of grace prevent it, they perish forever in their own deceit. This is when a former professing Christian publicly renounces the faith. They may write a book, blog, or social media post. They may simply no longer make any pretense to faith, claiming another identity instead, any identity at all, except Christian. They are hardened and destined for judgment, having abandoned the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25). This is truly a terrible end. Yet we may pray that such a person is not entirely lost, only wandering far, and God might by his grace bring them back.
This is a sad progression even to read about, because we have seen this same path taken by many whom we formerly called brother or sister. Yet it is instructive to guard us from falling into unbelief. Notice that apostasy always begins in secret. Do not forsake your secret daily time with the Lord, and do not let your heart grow cold to him. Do not abandon fellowship with faithful Christians who can speak into your life, challenge you, and encourage you. Pray also for one another, as Jesus prayed (John 17:11), Holy Father, Keep us in your name!
“Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.” -2 Peter 1:10