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Saving Faith and Apostasy: Do Believers Ever Stop Believing?

by Bob Wilkin

Apostasy is a renunciation of one's faith. It is not strictly a religious term. For example, since Ronald Reagan is a former Democrat, he is an apostate in terms of his former political beliefs.

The question is, do genuine Christians ever stop believing in Christ?

The answer is, yes.

The Scriptures give a number of examples.

Hymenaeus and Alexander, we are told by the Apostle Paul, "concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck" (1 Tim 1:19-20). Of course one can't be shipwrecked unless he is on board the ship.

Likewise, Hymenaeus and Philetus "strayed concerning the truth, saying the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some" (2 Tim 2:18). Clearly they must be believers, for unbelievers have no faith to stray from. Notice, too, that they actually "overthrow the faith of some." Again, only a person with faith can have his faith overthrown.

Some theologians are saying that if a person stops believing then he never was saved in the first place. They point to the present tense of the verb believe in John 3:16 and say that to be saving one's faith must be continuous. Thus if a person stops believing they say that whatever they had, it wasn't "the right stuff."

This argument is grammatically and theologically specious.

The fact that a present tense is used in John 3:16 does not mean that one must continuously believe in order to be saved. In Acts 16:31 Paul used an aorist tense to tell the Philippian jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." Likewise, Jesus told the woman at the well that if she had but one drink of the living water He offered she would never thirst again. He did not say that she had to keep drinking and drinking. One drink would forever quench her thirst.

The present tense in Greek often does not refer to continuous action. In John 6, for example, the Lord Jesus used a present tense verb to say that He had come down from heaven (vv 33, 50). He clearly did not mean that He was continuously coming down from heaven!

The present tense can refer to one-time actions (e.g., "Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you" [Acts 9:34]), to actions which repeat at regular intervals (e.g., the sun rises), and to continuous action (e.g., God the Father loves God the Son).

Jesus Christ saves people the very moment they believe. It is not eternal faith that appropriates salvation; it is faith that appropriates eternal salvation.

I went to seminary with a young man who snapped psychologically. He was a mega-perfectionist who drove himself until he crashed. He still was saved, but he was no longer believing in Christ.

I know of a number of cases where graduates of conservative evangelical schools went off to get doctorates and lost their faith. Liberal schools and their slick arguments can trip up even some well taught believers.

Even John the Baptist went through a time of doubting. When he was in prison he sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" (Luke 7:19). This is the same person who earlier saw the Spirit descend on Jesus and who pointed others to faith in Him. If John the Baptist could go through a time of doubting, so can anyone. And if the doubting persists, it can lead to out and out apostasy.

How does this apply to us? It means that we need to cultivate and nurture our faith. It needs daily attention. We feed our faith with Bible study and memorization, fellowshipping with other Christians, praying, hearing the Word taught, sharing our faith, etc.

Make no mistake. Unless we guard our faith and feed it, it can fail. After all, did not the Lord tell Peter, "I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail, and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren" (Luke 22:32)?

While our salvation is guaranteed from the moment we trust in Christ, our faith is not. That is why Paul told Timothy in 1 Tim 4:16, "Take heed to yourself and to your doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you [from the false doctrines of false teachers, cf. 4:1-3]." Saved people need clear Bible teaching in order to be saved from falling prey to false teachings.

Keep the faith!

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