9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. – Matthew 24: 9-10
What can the followers of Christ expect up until the end of the age? In a word, troubles. Troubles without, from the world, as we spoke of in the last post. And also, many troubles emerging from within the church.
Many will fall away. Jesus had just previously said that many will be led astray; falling away has the sound of something more final. Jesus prepares us to expect that there will be many who, at one point, had confessed Jesus in baptism and were members of a church, but will eventually turn away from the church and Christ. On the road to the coming age, the surrounding terrain includes a lot of apostasy. And suggested in this sermon: at the end of the age that apostasy will reach dizzying levels.
Those who are dropping out almost never frame their apostasy in terms of betrayal or anything that sounds like failure. Rather, leaving behind Christ feels good, like freedom – freedom from their narrow upbringing, from unscientific and childish superstition, from the dominant paradigm (which actually has never been dominant). Apostasy is thus normally accompanied by phrases about ‘coming clean,’ ‘growing up,’ ’becoming honest with myself,’ ‘breaking free,’ etc. So, from the Christian defector, don’t expect words of rancor; you’ll perhaps hear something more virtuous and sad: e.g., Leaving Christ is regretful, but the ethical and courageous thing to do.
I have witnessed people falling away from the Lord and it’s tough to watch. As a pastor, I’ve blamed myself, and after some reflection, indeed I’m sure that I do bear some of the blame. I’ve noticed that apostasy almost always occurs gradually. I’ve also noticed that it’s very rare that Christianity is forsaken for intellectual reasons –for instance, a stumbled upon argument against God or the resurrection. No, normally people give up on Christ because Christianity is hard. G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” These days, a lot of what makes Christianity seem hard is its rules on whom you’re allowed to fall in love with.
As we’ve already seen, being equipped by Jesus with enlightenment about the future brings Christ-followers before a new set of snags. One of those snags that’s connected to the warning of apostasy is the temptation to over-interpret people’s actions. For instance, when someone leaves my church, the tendency is to denounce him for doing something much more momentous and malignant. But hold on: leaving my church is not the same as leaving Christianity! In fact, that former member might very well be on his way to upgrading his church experience.
On the other hand, the sense of the reality of apostasy shouldn’t be blunted by a particular understanding of eternal security. Sometimes, when X stops attending church, renounces his faith and baptism, perhaps even takes up a caustic and antagonistic stance toward religion, some well-intended Christians (who carry memories of X’s child-hood profession) hold on to the idea that X is yet a Christian because ‘once saved, always saved.’ Not so. X has verily fallen away. From a practical point of view, the doctrine of The Perseverance of the Saints means this: It’s only those whose faith endures to their end who truly were chosen by God; their continued trust reveals that they’d been grasped by the grip that won’t let them go.