“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you…” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
WHO IS A SINNER?
Before I go into this exposition, I believe it is necessary to make clear some definitions.
A sinner is someone who is in need of salvation and will likely die in their sins if they do not repent and receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
A sinner can attend church or they can reject religion. Being a sinner means that they are lord of their own lives and do not submit to God. They may actually believe that God exists, they may regard religion as worthwhile, but they never actually surrender their lives to God to redeem and to guide.
Unless a sinner repents, they will perish and be eternally separated from God (Luke 13:3). God’s desire is to turn every sinner to a saint…
WHAT IS A SAINT?
A saint is a believer whose life is surrendered to God, through faith in Jesus Christ. All saints were all previously sinners. A saint, though no longer a sinner, is not a perfect person.
A saint may still struggle with their sinful nature (what Christians call ‘the Flesh’), which must be daily subjected to crucifixion. A saint is not ever comfortable with their sin. They desire to be more like their Saviour, and with His help, they overcome sinful habits and learn new and better ways of living as witnesses of God.
Among saints, you will find backsliders.
WHO ARE BACKSLIDERS?
These are believers who stray for a while, but with the help of other saints and God’s grace, can be restored to fellowship with God and His Church.
They are like the person Paul is referring to in his letter to the Corinthians, who he calls them to judge and expel from their midst. Why? Because “…a little leaven leavens the whole lump!” (Galatians 5:9).
Later in 2 Corinthians, he asked the Church to reach out to this same person, comfort them, and restore them, lest they be discouraged and fall away completely, which is what the devil wants (2 Corinthians 2:4-11). Those who succumb to such behaviour are called apostates.
WHAT IS AN APOSTATE?
An apostate is someone who was in the company of the saints, recognised as a believer, who practiced the faith but later forsook it for some earthly gain. That gain may simply be the rebellion (freedom, in their eyes) to do things their own way. They deny the faith they once professed and may even attack it.
Someone who becomes an atheist after professing faith in Christ, or who turns away to another religion, denying the authority of Christ, is an apostate.
The Bible says some hard things about apostacy, which is tantamount to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, the only unforgivable sin cited by Jesus Christ (Matthew 12:31-32). The writer of Hebrews says that for such to return to Christ, it would be like crucifying Him all over again and putting Him to public disgrace. This is because they treat as petty and despised what is sacred and invaluable.
Peter said concerning these:
“If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.‘” (2 Peter 2:20-22).
WHAT ABOUT THE PRODIGALS?
Are prodigals apostates? No, they are not. Even though the story is about a son who left his father’s home, this is a story about a SINNER, not a Christian.
All of us, as we are, our true identity is that we are CHILDREN OF GOD. Even those who do not believe in God. God chases after ALL of us. When we understand who we are, we come back home to Him. We surrender to His love and submit to His discipline.
The prodigals are not backsliders. They might have been raised in the church but never actually given their lives to Christ. The brother who stayed with his father was probably a backslider, because though he was in his father’s house, he didn’t truly appreciate his position. He resented his brother, the sinner, whom their father celebrated elaborately when he returned home…
Many saints, Christians, are like the older brother. They do not enjoy their intimacy with the Father nor do they seek to reconcile the lost to God. They do not have the Father’s love.
WHO THEN ARE THE FAITHFUL?
These are the Christians, the saints, who will finish the race to receive the crown of glory.
At one point or the other, they may have been among the backsliders, but they repented and encouraged themselves in the Lord, they turned their hearts wholly to God, and He renewed their strength.
There will be many among the faithful who were stedfast, who were true, who abided in Jesus and have a good report among men and angels, even though they were never perfect. Their lives were exemplary, and by their witness, many were saved, including those saints around them who backslid.
All saints want to be counted among the faithful. No saint expects to hear, “Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity…I never knew you!” (Matthew 7:22-23). But there are many, who were thought to be saints, who will be given a place among the unbelievers (the sinners) (Luke 12:42-48). They may not even be apostate when they die. They are the disobedient (the goats and the foolish virgins who were turned away) (Matthew 25).
Like Jesus said, “It is not all who call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will be saved; only those who do the will of My Father…” (Matthew 7:21).
So, I recently came across a teaching that apostates were never Christian; that is, they were never saved. This teaching supports the belief in the eternal security of those who are truly saved. So, it goes, if you are truly saved, you will never become apostate, and if you do, then you were never saved in the first place.
Hmmm… This seems like a win-win theory to me. It is a teaching conveniently constructed to win arguments, but it doesn’t stack up against 2 Peter 2 or the rest of scripture that teaches otherwise.
But what troubles me about this is the assumption that those whom the writer of Hebrews spoke of as having tasted of the Holy Spirit, referred to people who had been among believers, like sinners who attend church and decide it’s not for them. To say that it is impossible for such to ever come to Christ seems horrid to me! They are the whole reason we preach Christ crucified!
This is the context:
“It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned…” (Hebrews 6:4-8).
I think the only time it is too late for a sinner to turn to God is when he or she is laid in their coffin. Until then, God is perpetually seeking to restore that child to his or her rightful place in His Kingdom.
There are many such unbelievers who are seeking God, and who have dwelt among believers for a time… Many have even been offended by these believers and thought, “No way are they practicing the way, the truth, and the life…” and walked away, going deeper into sin than ever before. With this teaching that such cannot be reconciled to Christ because of how much ‘exposure’ they have had, that is a horrific judgement of the lost!
But Paul, in the verse I referenced at the beginning, enjoins us to judge those IN the Church. They are the ones who, through their witness, put Christ to public ridicule! If they are not challenged to repent and live worthy of their high-calling in Christ, they will cause many to fall away after them… They will make Christ’s sacrifice look like a joke.
I believe the writer of Hebrews and Peter in 2 Peter 2 are talking about actual believers, who were counted among the saints. Yes, they turned out to be tares not wheat, but that is a judgement that God will ultimately make (Matthew 13:24-43). While we can, we must admonish them, reminding them that “…the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God…Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God…” (1 Cor 6:9-10).
But the grace of God is such that, even though we are rebuked and cast out, there is room again for us to be reconciled, as we also see in scripture, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the brother again, to forgive him.
But then, it seems unthinkable that the grace that keeps us will ever run out, such that we will ever be among those called apostates, for whom there is only damnation waiting. Why should a believer ever live in fear of such?
Yet, in Biblical Christianity, we are thus chastened, not only by the apostles, but by Jesus too (Romans 11:19-21, John 5:1-5). Why? Because “…to whom much is given, much shall be required…” (Luke 12:48).
Yet, we are comforted in this…
“Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised…” (Hebrews 6:9-12).
The apostles have a better expectation of us…of you, that you will not be among those who fall away unto perdition (an affirmation that such is possible), but who persevere to attain eternal life (Hebrews 10:35-39, Romans 2:7-8, 1 Corinthians 9:27).
Because of the commonality and prevalance of backsliders, I will never regard any living person as an apostate, because such judgement is reserved for God. Only God knew the genuinty of their conversion. Only He knows the mercies He has bestowed on them. Only God knows when enough is enough. As long as there is life in them, hope remains and grace should always be extended for them to be reconciled to God.
Yes, even for that Atheist who once professed to be a Christian. I know God is that merciful.
“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion…” (Romans 9:15).
“Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you…” (Philippians 3:12-15).
“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 1:6).
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