Apostatising is a general characteristic of the end-time. The Spirit of truth Himself warns us against the increased and devastating work of Satan’s spirit of error: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1; NKJV). A person must first be established in the true faith before he can depart from it. Paul therefore refers to Christians who are backsliding.
Two matters are evident from this scripture: Firstly, it is clearly stated that increasingly in the end-time many people will completely abandon their faith in the God of the Bible. This scripture specifically refers to believers who apostatise. Secondly, the reason for the widespread backsliding is mentioned, namely that it is being caused by the deception of Satan and his demons. The context suggests that they work through the mediation of human agents to proclaim heretical teachings in terms of which a biblical faith is questioned and ultimately completely rejected. In 1 Timothy 4:2 these hypocrites are called liars with a seared conscience.
What is the nature of the false doctrines by which the authenticity of God and His Word are denied? The following are the most common of these fallacious doctrines:
The Universal God. A doctrine which is increasingly proclaimed in our day is that there is not a Triune God who is only associated with Christianity only, but a universal God of all faiths. This God is Yahweh to the Christians and Jews, Allah to the Muslims and Brahman to the Hindus. He does not have a son and revealed himself through a great number of prophets such as Buddha, Krishna, Jesus and Mohammed. When Christians who once believed in the Triune God, accept this unbiblical concept of God, they depart from a true faith and end up with a false faith. There are indeed such people, also among theologians.
A Jesus who is not God or God’s Son, but only a prophet. It is now generally proclaimed, also in the Protestant world, that Jesus was not born of a virgin, He is not God or God’s Son, His crucifixion is not related to the forgiving of sins, and He did not rise from the dead and ascended to heaven. He is merely viewed as a prophet who is not only associated with Christianity but also with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths. This strange Jesus who will, according to the Bible, indeed make his appearance in the end-time to be accepted and worshipped by all religions (cf. Matt. 24:4-5; Rev. 13:3-4) will be the Antichrist. All former Christians who have become deceived to the extent of believing in him have departed from a biblical faith to adhere to the doctrines of devils.
A spirit who performs signs and wonders with a view to large-scale deception. There are clear warnings in the Bible that deceiving spirits from Satan will imitate the Holy Spirit to give people strange experiences, deceive them spiritually and ultimately induce them to follow and worship the Antichrist and false prophet (Matt. 24:11,24; 2 Cor. 11:3-4; 2 Thess. 2:7-12; Rev. 13:11-15). The spirit of error will glorify the Antichrist and convince people to believe in him. All Christians who open themselves up to these deceiving spirits grieve the Holy Spirit, sin against Him and ultimately quench Him (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). The Spirit of grace departs from a person when He is persistently resisted and insulted.
The Bible is questioned and rejected as a unique revelation of God. One of the forms of apostatising is the rejection of God’s Word. This opens the way to all sorts of outlandish religious books through which the Lord does not express Himself as they are the products of deceiving spirits. We should reject multireligious thought, consistently stick with the Bible as God’s inspired and inerrant Word, and see to it that we do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left (Josh. 1:7-8). The psalmist says: “With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You… Make me walk in the path of Your commandments” (Ps. 119:10-11,35). But the backslider does not honour the Word of the Lord and keeps on changing it at will by his own interpretations, or in new translations which differ from the original text. Complete apostatising is the end result of this process: “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the book life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:18-19). A person who has already obtained a share in God’s kingdom, with his name written the book of life, can loose these great privileges because of spiritual backsliding. When he heeds the doctrines of devils he denies his Christian witness and loses it.
A life which conforms to humanly-determined rules and laws. Many of the people who defected from the Lord and His Word subject themselves to humanly-determined values and ways of life. Being humanistic in nature these values are not based upon the righteousness of Christ. When Christians follow these ways they turn their backs upon an evangelical lifestyle which is founded upon the Bible. They deviate from the path of the Lord and lapse into spiritual darkness. At present, there is also a world-wide tendency to replace a pure Christian way of life by a legalistic, Old Testament lifestyle. Such people revert to Israel’s feasts, Sabbath-observance, and other legalistic practices, being deceived into thinking that they in so doing they please God. However, in this way they jeopardise Jesus Christ’s gospel of the cross and render themselves abominable in God’s eyes. Paul warns them, “You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). This is a sure and very common way of apostatising.
The deception of the prosperity gospel. Materialism and the love of money are some of the major reasons why many people utterly depart from the faith. Worldly-minded people often depict wealth as a blessing from the Lord, while the Bible describes the love of money as a cancer of the soul: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:9-10). Such people were initially in the faith, but in consequence to pursuing wealth they have strayed from a life of faith and are now under the control of Mammon. Even if they were previously followers of Christ He will reject them because they glory in their riches rather than His work of atonement. The result is that they grow cold to the point of losing their faith. Jesus says, “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. Because you say, I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing – and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked” (Rev. 3:16-17). They are spiritually bankrupt and only glory in their material wealth.
Apart from backsliding into this condition, there are also rich people who were never saved and only have a form of godliness, but nevertheless identify with the kingdom of God as one day they want to go to heaven. They regard their wealth as a divine blessing, make substantial contributions to the church and declare themselves to be justified before God. But the Lord Jesus does not accept such people as His disciples: “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. And He said to them, You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15). Their wealth and pride which made them such highly esteemed people in society are despised by the Lord. They want the best of two worlds, but do not realise that they have to make a choice between the true God of the Bible and Mammon (the god of money) and then surrender themselves to die to the world, its riches and honour, and instead start laying up treasures in heaven.
A human kingdom on earth. A modern tower of Babel is presently being erected by many churches, and this movement is driven by the objective of a united world (globalism). The participants in this project have rejected the biblical principle of the self-determination of nations (cf. Acts 17:26). They now pursue religious globalism through the ecumenical movement, which will lead to the formation of an alliance of world religions. They also advance the idea of political globalism which will pave the way towards the establishment of a world government. The pope has recently said that we need a world government with the capacity to solve global problems. It is certain that other ecumenically-minded religious leaders will support his call. According to the Bible, the Antichrist will head up this world government and world religion (Rev. 13:1-4). A person who becomes a co-builder of the modern tower of Babel, explicitly rejects biblical Christianity and joins hands with other religions to promote an antichristian new world order. They want to have dominion in their self-established kingdom. This is clearly a doctrine of demons as it will only benefit the kingdom of darkness. The protagonists of global reforms are supporters of the “angel of light’s” counterfeit kingdom, even though they may previously have been followers of the true Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 11:13-15). The kingdom of Christ on earth will only be revealed after His second coming – not during the church dispensation.
A culture of unrestricted human freedom. Modern man does not subject himself to the strict moral norms of the Bible. He wants to be free and live as he pleases. A permissive morality is at variance with the Bible and is called “sin” by the Lord. Modern, liberated man disregards the Bible and committed himself to advance a culture of sin in the world. The end-time will indeed be characterised by a far-reaching process of moral collapse (2 Tim. 3:1-5). That will lead to the revelation of the Antichrist who will be the personification of sin: “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thess. 2:3-4). The whole world will follow him in amazement and share in his immorality (Rev. 13:3-4). He will also deify himself and grant his followers the right to declare themselves little gods who have the right to determine their own lifestyle and be the masters of their own destiny.
Apostatising is the inevitable result of a sinful lifestyle. Many of the early Jewish Christians in the first century have lost their faith because of apostatising. Paul said to these deceived “brethren” that, should they become slaves of sin, the faith in their hearts would be replaced by evil inclinations and unbelief. Such people are on a dangerous downward course and should be seriously warned against their actions: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called Today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13). They are among those who did not persevere on the way of the Lord Jesus, and for that reason they have backslidden and ended up in sin. In that condition they no longer have any part in Christ: “For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (Heb. 3:14). The backsliders failed to persevere on this way and turned off on the ways of unrighteousness. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 16:25).
Paul also exhorted Timothy to have “faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck” (1 Tim. 1:19). When someone allows sin into his life he no longer has a good conscience. If he persists with his sin and fails to confess and forsake it (cf. 1 John 1:7,9) it will eventually separate him from the Lord and destroy his faith like a ship that loses the right course and is shipwrecked.
Large-scale falling away in Christian churches
The consequence of proclaiming demonic doctrines to deceived Christians is disastrous. It may bring about the end of the Christian church within the next generation or so. This is the view of Prof. Scott McKnight of the Department of New Testament at the North Park University in Chicago, USA. On May, 11th 2009 he read a paper at the University of Pretoria in which he explained the reasons why so many people are forsaking the Christian faith.
According to McKnight the number of young people who are leaving Christian churches in the US has grown to such proportions that it threatens the survival of the church. He interviewed many of the defectors and found that there are five main reasons why most of them have come to a point of crisis with regard to their Christian convictions:
1. They no longer accept the rigid doctrine on the Bible as the inerrant Word of God which was dictated to men. The humanity of many of the Bible’s authors is evident from their writings.
2. Tenets of faith are in conflict with science, particularly the Genesis account on the origin of the world. Modern people prefer scientific explanations such as the evolution theory.
3. The immoral way in which certain church leaders live, particularly the sexual scandals in which many Roman Catholic priests were involved in the USA, caused many people to conclude that they can no longer, with integrity, be part of the church.
4. The belief in hell is not accepted. They argue that it is unreasonable of God to punish someone forever in the lake of fire for the sins which he has committed in a life of about 75 years. They feel that the punishment should be in accordance with the trespasses.
5. People are scared away by the God of the Bible. They argue that if He is almighty He cannot be good as He would not have allowed the world to be so full of evil. If God is good He cannot be almighty since He would then have averted evil.
Prof. McKnight’s recommendation for the handling of this situation is postmodern in nature and virtually in support of the agnostics. He feels that room should be made for the views of these people and they should be engaged in dialogue. He says that the church should not stand very strong on doctrine, by for instance taking a firm stand on the resurrection of Christ. In the interviews that he conducted, conflicting points of view on the resurrection of Jesus were not the cause of any crisis. The faith of the new generation of believers is based upon moral rather than doctrinal issues.
The restoration of backsliders
The Bible clearly states that most backsliders can be spiritually restored. In Like 15 there are three parables in which the Lord Jesus assigns to His disciples a ministry among backsliders. In the first parable the flock of the Lord is compared with 100 sheep of which one wandered away and got lost. The shepherd of the flock is commanded to go and find the lost sheep and restore him to the flock. There was great joy in the faithful shepherd’s heart, “for I have found my sheep which was lost!” (Luke 15:6). It was initially his sheep but it afterwards became lost. The Lord Jesus then applies this situation spiritually: “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7). The backslider who completely lost contact with the shepherd and the flock should, like any unsaved sinner, repent anew to be reunited with the body of Christ.
The same principles also apply in the case of the lost coin which was to be looked for until it was eventually found. Do not write off the backsliders and lapsed church members, but pray for their restoration and call them back from their wrong ways.
In the parable of the lost son it is clearly evident that he was initially in his father’s house, and afterwards yielded to temptations to lead a licentious life of a rich man in the world. Because of this desire he claimed his inheritance, turned his back upon his father and immersed himself in sinful lusts. During this time he was spiritually dead and lost, and had to repent again if he wished to be reconciled with his father. That is exactly what he did after realising what a great mess he had made of his life: “I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:18-19).
His sonship was restored because of his true repentance. The same principle applies to backsliders who have completely lost their faith and salvation. They have to be quickened spiritually for a second time. After the lost son was fully restored his father said: “[he] was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32). During the time when he served the world and sin he was not physically dead, but spiritually. The expression “alive again” is one word in Greek, like “revive” in English, and refers to a person who was alive, died afterwards, and was then made alive again.
There is only a very limited group of backsliders who cannot be spiritually restored. They are the people who were formerly saved but who deliberately rejected Christ, despised the blood of the atonement and defamed the Holy Spirit. Paul says it is impossible “to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (Heb. 6:6). They were not only overcome and carried away by moral sins but committed treason against Jesus Christ and His kingdom. They despised and rejected the only Saviour that there is, and for that reason there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins. “Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:26-29). When the Holy Spirit has departed from a person he cannot come under the conviction of his sins again and therefore never again be spiritually revived. By his own actions and rebellion he is eternally lost.
Esau was a profane person who sold the great privileges of his birthright for bread and stew of lentils (Gen. 25:34). By so doing he demonstrated his disregard and low esteem of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and their posterity. This act had very severe consequences: “For you know that afterwards, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears” (Heb. 12:17). He experienced self-pity as regards to that which he had lost because of his thoughtless actions, but not godly sorrow over sin because he has resisted and rejected God (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10).
The same situation will also prevail during the coming tribulation period among those who concluded a covenant with the Antichrist and accepted his number. They will shut the door to their spiritual restoration because of having deliberately rejected the true Christ and His work of grace in order to enter into a covenant with the biggest blasphemer of all time (Rev. 13:5-6). A covenant with him will demand that a person denounce the living God and His Son, followed by the signing of an oath of allegiance to the Antichrist to secure financial privileges, thereby selling his soul to the devil (cf. Rev. 13:16-18; 14:9-11).
All other backsliders who missed the rapture because of their sin and low spiritual standards can still be saved – provided they have not denounced Christ and His atoning death and have refrained from signing a covenant with the Antichrist. The omnipresent Holy Spirit will not be taken away from the world, therefore repentant sinners can still be saved. There is a commonly held misconception that during the rapture the Holy Spirit will, in terms of 2 Thessalonians 2:6-8, be removed from the earth. However, the expression “he who now restrains” refers to the church as the body of Christ. The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19; 1 John 4:4), but the Spirit of God is not restricted to the church in His activities – He also convicts the unsaved world of their sins and of the righteousness of Christ. Without His intervention no person can be saved.
In Revelation 7 we read about 144 000 Jews, as well as a great multitude from all peoples and nations who will be saved during the time of the tribulation and will have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They will die as martyrs but the way to heaven will have remained open to them. In Revelation 6:9-11 mention is made of them, underlining the fact that they will certainly arrive in heaven after having died a martyr’s death.
The five foolish virgins of Matthew 25:1-13 are also among the backsliders and those who grew cold in their love (cf. Matt. 24:12; Rev. 2:4-5). They will, after the rapture, search after the oil of the Holy Spirit which is lacking in their lives, and find it. Rather settle your case with the Lord now, live holy and ensure that you appear spotless before the heavenly Bridegroom. Surrender yourself completely to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, guard against sin and spiritual deception, and pray always (Luke 21:36; 1 Thess. 5:23-24).