Free Grace people are united in saying that born again people are not immune to backsliding. Even Lordship Salvation people agree, though they would say that backsliding can’t last too long (but they don’t know how long is too long).
But Free Grace people are not quite united on the question of apostasy. Do born again people ever apostatize? Is apostasy possible for the person with the Spirit of God indwelling him?
A friend just emailed me a devotional by H. A. Ironside, whom I’d identify as a Free Grace pioneer (though some Lordship Salvation people claim he held their view—but I believe they are guilty of selectively quoting him). In the April 8 devotional, Ironside is discussing Peter’s three denials of Christ. He writes, “No matter how genuine one’s Christianity may be, he is never beyond the possibility of failure or backsliding while in the world…” That is a great statement.
Then he continues, “…but no real believer will ever become an apostate, for that involves a definite turning away from the truth of Christ, and His redemptive work.”
The Bible does not support Ironside’s claim regarding apostasy. There are two Biblical answers to his objection.
First, not all apostasy involves turning away from Christ’s redemptive work. That was clearly the issue that the author of Hebrews was concerned about (Heb 6:6; 10:29). However, Paul states that if some say “that the resurrection is already past,” then they have “strayed concerning the truth” and “overthrow the faith of some” (2 Tim 2:18). This suggests that when a believer strays concerning any fundamental Bible truth, then he has apostatized. Fundamental truths include the deity of Christ, His substitutionary death, His bodily resurrection, His virgin birth, and justification by faith alone.
So, Ironside is too narrow in his understanding of what apostasy is.
Second, the New Testament shows that genuine born again people can and do commit apostasy. Hebrews 6:4-5 is one of the strongest statements of what a Christian is. It speaks of people who have been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift (that is, salvation), have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, have tasted the good word of God, and they have tasted the powers of the age to come. Unbelievers have not experienced any of that. Yet the author of Hebrews indicates that apostasy is possible for such people. He is talking about his readers who were Jewish believers considering returning to animal sacrifices to deal with their sins.
Paul in 2 Tim 2:17-18 talks about two men, Hymenaeus and Philetus, who had strayed concerning the truth of the resurrection. While he does not directly call them believers, it is evident that Paul implies that. For one thing, an unbeliever cannot stray concerning the truth. Only a believer can stray from the truth. For another, Paul is talking about “everyone who names the name of Christ” (2 Tim 2:19). If these two men did not, then why would he use them as examples?
James ends his epistle with a warning about believers who “wander from the truth” (Jas 5:19). While that could refer to moral failure, the language James uses certainly suggests doctrinal defection. Wandering from the truth is another way of speaking of apostasy.
So, Ironside is not correct that born again people cannot apostatize.
Ironside does not mention any verses which say that a believer cannot commit apostasy. I don’t believe there are any such verses.
I would find it very difficult to defend the idea that born again people cannot apostatize. At least from Scripture. I could quote people in church history who say that apostasy is not possible for the believer. I might suggest that God will not allow believers to fall that much. Though that would be hard to prove since God even allowed King Solomon, an author of multiple books of the Bible, to become an idolater at the end of his life (cf. 1 Kgs 11:1-13). And there are clear examples in the New Testament of born again people who apostatized.
If our theology does not allow for the possibility of apostasy, then it gives us a more tenuous grasp on the Free Grace position. If God won’t allow major doctrinal failure, then why would He allow semi-major doctrinal failure? If He won’t allow major doctrinal defection, why would He allow major moral defection?
In my opinion, there are born again people who have become Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and just about any religion or philosophy. I read an article years ago that said that in the U.S. over 300 Baptists a week become Mormons. Are we to understand that all those people are not born again?
When I was teaching at Multnomah University (the School of the Bible), a former student was interviewed by the student paper. In the article he said that he was now an atheist. After graduating from Multnomah, he went on to study philosophy in graduate school, and there he lost his faith. He said in the article that he once believed that Jesus was his Savior and that he would spend eternity with Jesus and His people in His kingdom. But now he considers those things myths.
Before I came to Victor Street Bible Chapel, one of the men in the preaching rotation there was a DTS graduate. Over time he became angry with God and eventually started drifting. He left the church and became a professed agnostic. He ended up getting a Ph.D. and teaching as an avowed agnostic in a public university.
Let’s say it is true that apostates prove they were never born again in the first place. Then what does this do to your assurance? It makes assurance impossible. You or I could apostatize. There is no guarantee in the Bible that we will not. If we do, then we’d prove we were not born again if born again people don’t do that.
I pray I remain faithful to Christ, both morally and doctrinally. But I’m not guaranteed that I will. Neither are you. What we are guaranteed, and this is truly good news, is that because we’ve believed in Jesus for everlasting life, we will never die spiritually (John 11:26), we will never hunger or thirst (John 6:35), we will never perish (John 3:16), and we will never come into judgment concerning our eternal destiny (John 5:24).