Monday, March 20, 2006

Apologetics, Evangelism, and Apostasy

From an evangelistic standpoint, how should Christians view apostates? Should Christians’ posture towards apostates be equal to their posture towards other unbelievers? How is the gospel to be presented, and what expectations should the Christian have?

Apostates and the Gospel

Merely from an experiential standpoint, it should be evident to Christians that the apostate’s posture toward the gospel is not equal to the ignorant unbeliever’s posture toward the gospel. It is not as if ignorant unbelievers are neutral when it comes to spiritual matters; no, the Bible makes clear that even they “suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18ff) and are at enmity with God (Rom 8:7-8). However, the hearts of apostates are usually hardened to an extent that the normative means of presenting the gospel is ineffective. It would be terribly unbiblical to suggest that any person is beyond the reaching of grace. It isn’t that God’s hand is too short to save. Rather, it’s that sin has created a separation between man and God (Is 59:1-2). While this is the case for all of unregenerate humanity, the Bible specifies some as having hearts that are so hardened that any ordinary means of bringing a sinner to repentance has already been rejected. I’m sure you Christians see this distinction in your daily lives, and we have certainly seen it here. Hopefully John Loftus will permit me to use him as an example (since he has set himself up as an example for so many, and has made a great attempt to mount a biographical defense for atheism). What is the ordinary means of bringing a sinner to repentance? I’m sure many of you have had the joy of being used in the evangelization of the lost. What do you do? Well, you tell him of the reality of his sin, of God’s infinite wrath against sin, of the cross and the person and work of Christ, of the gospel’s reception by faith, of the necessity of his repentance, etc. Now, imagine if I did that to John Loftus. I’m sure some already have in his comments section. What would be his response? He might be kind to the person and say “I’m sorry, but I’ve experienced your faith and its bunk,” or he might simply laugh at the person and say “I can’t believe I used to believe this junk!” Loftus might go so far, as he has in the past, to attribute God’s work to a Satan-like entity, telling us that the God of the Bible is “a devil.” Now, doesn’t this all sound strangely familiar? Perhaps a famous Bible passage comes to mind:

Matthew 12 22Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

The context of this passage is the accusation made by the Pharisees, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of the demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24). The Pharisees experienced the clear demonstrations of the work of the Holy Spirit in front of their eyes, and yet they not only rejected Jesus’ authority and his teaching, but then attributed it to the work of a demon (We can hear the apostates’ statement that the God of the Bible is “a devil” ringing in the back of our minds now, can we not?) ! The context indicates that Jesus is speaking about a sin that is not simply unbelief or rejection of Christ, but one that includes:

1) a clear knowledge of who Christ is
2) knowledge that the Holy Spirit is working through him
3) a willful rejection of these facts
4) slanderously attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ to the power of Satan.

This sin is unpardonable, not because it is so horrible that it could not be covered by Christ’s redemptive work, but because the hardness of the heart would be so great that any ordinary means of bringing a sinner to repentance (persuasion of the truth, demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit) would have already been rejected. Now, I don’t believe Scripture would allow us to make some absolute connection between what is here referred to as “blaspheming the Spirit” and apostasy. But the effects certainly seem to be similar. The apostate gains a set of presuppositions that prohibit him from accepting the gospel apart from a radical revision of his presuppositions and assumptions.

Dr. Gordon Stein, in his legendary debate with Dr. Greg Bahnsen, in answering the last audience question (a question that prides me in whoever thought to ask it), “What for you personally would constitute adequate evidence for God’s existence?” made this now-famous statement:

Well it’s very simple. I could give you two examples. If that podium suddenly rose into the air five feet, stayed there for a minute, and then dropped right down again, I would say that that was evidence of a supernatural because it would violate everything we knew about the laws of physics and chemistry. Assuming that there wasn’t an engine under there or a wire attached to it. I mean you can make those obvious exclusions. That would be evidence for a supernatural, violation of the laws. It might be, I’d call it a miracle right in front of your eyes. That would be evidence I would accept. Any kind of supernatural being putting in an appearance and doing miracles that could not be stage magic would also be evidence that I would accept.

Dr. Greg Bahnsen, however, so appropriately answered:

Yes, Dr. Stein I think is really not reflecting on the true nature of atheism and human nature when he says all it would take is a miracle in my very presence to believe in God. History is replete with first of all, things which would be apparently miracles to people. Now from an atheistic or naturalistic standpoint, I will grant in terms of hypothesis that that’s because they were ignorant of all the causal factors, and so it appeared to be miraculous. But you see that didn’t make everybody into a theist. In fact the Scripture tells us there are instances of people who witnessed miracles who all the more hardened their heart and eventually crucified the Lord of Glory. They saw his miracles. That didn’t change their mind. People are not made theists by miracles. People must change their worldview. Their hearts must be changed. They need to be converted. That’s what it takes, and that’s what it would take for Dr. Stein to finally believe in it. If this podium rose up five feet off the ground and stayed there, Dr. Stein would eventually have in the future some naturalistic explanation. Cause you see, they believe things on faith, by which I mean they believe things they have not proven as yet by their senses.

Are we not reminded of yet one more passage of Scripture?

Luke 16 19″There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house– 28for I have five brothers –so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Abraham here tells us, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” This is ever so the case for apostates, who have heard much of “Moses and the Prophets.” Why should they be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead? Presuppositions can be a dangerous thing, and apart from a radical reworking of such presuppositions, an event that Scripture calls regeneration, no one will be convinced.

Apostates and Christians

How, then, should Christians be postured towards apostates? They should be viewed as those who are radically opposed to the gospel message. They should be viewed as those whose hearts, perhaps, are so hardened that they are beyond the reaching of the ordinary means of the gospel. They should be viewed as those who, apart from a working of God’s Spirit alone, cannot be argued into the faith. It really doesn’t matter whether or not the atheist grasps the transcendental argument. He will continually suppress the truth apart from God’s work.

But, when a Christian comes across an apostate in an apologetic vehicle, it should be viewed as an opportunity. Perhaps, to be used to reach to this person’s life, but more so to portray the goodness of the gospel to those who are watching. It isn’t for my own benefit that I show the opposition to the faith to be the foolishness that it is. And it might not even be for the benefit of the opponent. However, in all of this the Christian faith will come out looking glorious to those who watch. Christians will be strengthened; religious seekers will find a home in Christ. The gospel will be proclaimed. Though it will harden some (which is, we must not forget, God’s work as well), it will save God’s chosen.

Evan May.

7 comments:

  1. Amazing post. This very subject has been on my mind lately for some reason. But I would question whether God's mercy could extend to an apostate.

    In 1 John 5:16, he forbids Christians to pray for them, suggesting their sin won't be forgiven, regardless of their repentance. This is telling, since the Lord told Christians to pray even for their persecutors . . . however, unlike aposates the persecutors acted in ignorance, so forgiveness remains possible (1 Tim. 1:13).

    In his second letter, John forbids Christians to welcome apostates into their homes or greet them. Clearly, apostasy is the unforgivable sin and it seems Christians should not try to bring apostates back into the fold.

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  2. Hey, Hello. Just a couple of things:

    1. Yes, God's mercy can extend to an apostate. I state in my post:

    It would be terribly unbiblical to suggest that any person is beyond the reaching of grace. It isn’t that God’s hand is too short to save. Rather, it’s that sin has created a separation between man and God (Is 59:1-2). While this is the case for all of unregenerate humanity, the Bible specifies some as having hearts that are so hardened that any ordinary means of bringing a sinner to repentance has already been rejected.

    The question, therefore, lies not in "Can God's mercy extend to an apostate?" but "Will an apostate receive God's mercy?" The obvious answer to this question is "Not apart from regeneration." But then again, this is the case for all of humanity, not just apostates. The question then goes back to "Has God elected some of those whom he has caused to have spurious faith, apostate from the faith, and then return to the faith after regeneration?" My answer to the question, though we do not know the secret will of God, is "sure."

    2. 1 John 5:16 is a difficult passage with varying interpretations. Commentaries have historically varied. I don't believe it is strong basis for not praying for apostates.

    3. Apostates, on the other hand, should be treated as radical opposition of the true faith, and the Scriptures tell us how to view them (the book of Jude, for instance).

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  3. Very well. I'm still not too clear on why it's harder for an apostate to convert then for a regular unbeliever, since both have total depravity, and both reject the gospel through normative means apart from Irresistible grace. But I suppose that will remain a mystery this side of Heaven.

    As I read this post, a few things came to mind. 1. There seem to be 2 groups of apostates. One group is the Loftus kind, that stops believing the faith they used to hold. The other group is those who deny Christ under persecution while still knowing that Christianity is true, as in the days of the early church. This brings about an interesting question -- does apostasy pertain to unbelief, or is it simply an outward act of defection?
    just wondering aloud

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  4. Very well. I’m still not too clear on why it’s harder for an apostate to convert then for a regular unbeliever, since both have total depravity, and both reject the gospel through normative means apart from Irresistible grace. But I suppose that will remain a mystery this side of Heaven.

    The difference between apostates and other unbelievers is not the necessity of grace (they both need grace), but the mode of grace. Both require regeneration, but the mode of the presentation of the gospel is different. An ignorant pagan might be convinced only after hearing the gospel for the first time (by the Holy Spirit, of course). An apostate will not be convinced by such ordinary means.

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  5. Can we interpret Heb 6:4-6 to mean that God chooses never to regenerate apostates?

    Do we know of a single apostate who, as far as we can tell, has later received salvific grace?

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  6. I was raised in a nominally Roman Catholic home, but I didn't hear the gospel until the age of 14, when I attended an evangelical church with a friend. I believed and was baptized and, after little less than a year, I self-consciously renounced the faith. For ten years, I walked in unbelief, opposing the gospel, until I was finally genuinely converted (indirectly through my continued friendship with the same friend with whom I'd first attended church in my early teens.)

    All to the glory of God!

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  7. Thanks for that, Ree, and glory to God indeed!

    "For it is impossible … if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, …" (Heb 6:4-6, NKJV)

    Here the word "since" is implicitly rather than explicitly in the Greek, and could be substituted for by "while", according to a note in the NET bible. The "impossible" then need not be for all time. Of course we shouldn't rip these verses from their context - I doubt you were enticed back to Jewish Temple sacrifices, (or even the RC mass).

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