Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Leaving the Faith

We face an assortment of discouragements during these hard times that promise persecution. We are grieved by the performance of the church, our own often dismal performance, and apostasy (people falling away from the faith.) We grieve for lost friends, brothers and sisters in the Lord, and we grieve for ourselves. If they could depart from the faith, isn’t it possible that I too might fall away?

This problem – trying to remain confident in the face of apostasy – has confronted the Church from the time of its inception. Therefore, there is much Biblical counsel from which we can draw comfort. For one thing, apostasy has not blind-sided the Church. It has been prophesied from the start, beginning with Moses, who gave his Israelites a song that would remind them of their betrayal. In the midst of their successes, they would turn their back on their God to their great loss (Deut. 32). Nevertheless, in the end, God would restore Israel.

Likewise, Jesus warned about the great and final apostasy. The masses would be deceived by miraculous manifestations, but that He would keep His people from this deception (Matthew 24:24).

Paul brings the discouragement of apostasy even closer to home. When he visited the elders at the church at Ephesus for the last time, he prophesied that “savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:29).

Our first reaction to apostasy is to think that something is horribly wrong, that the trust we had placed in God had somehow been misplaced! Instead, apostasy is part of God’s plan to purify the Church by removing those who are not truly brothers (Hebrews 12:26-27). (I too grieve. Even the removal of dead branches can be painful!)

God uses trials to shake loose from the Church those things that aren’t part of its architecture. Paul even names names – Hymenaeus and Philetus. I’m sure that they were very esteemed. They apparently were fully accepted among the brethren, trusted enough to be heard and to “upset the faith of some” through their deviant gospel.

In the face of this falling away, how could those who remained be sure that they were in the right or that they would even remain in the true Gospel? Paul assured the church through Timothy that the Church the Lord has built “stands firm,” because “the Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19). Evidently, Hymenaeus and Philetus were never His, despite the fact that they had appeared to be genuine Brethren.

Our confidence tends to easily surrender to anxiety. After Jesus had warned His flock that one of them would betray Him, each nervously began to question whether it might be he who would do the betrayal. They never once thought, “Oh, I know who will betray Jesus. It’s that Judas! I always had a bad feeling about him!” No one dreamed that Judas wasn’t truly one of them (John 17:12). Apostasy will blind-side us again, for only God can read the heart.

We often join religions and cults – even the very demanding ones – because they fulfill our need for self-righteousness, our appetite to feel special and superior to others, the outsiders. Jesus prophesied that many would come to Him and declare that they deserved His blessings, reciting a list of their spiritual accomplishments. Jesus’ response was shocking:

“Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
(Matthew 7:23).

For years, I had been horrified by His response. If they, who had performed great spiritual deeds, weren’t worthy of Jesus’ salvation, what hope did I have. Like them, I too had been unwilling and perhaps unable to let go of the illusion that somehow I was worthy of Jesus’ free gift of life. It required years for me to face the fact that I was totally unworthy of even His “thank you” (Luke 17:10). However, with my breakdown and the final resignation to this realization – that I came to Him empty-handed, without any valid claim upon His mercy – I found peace and an understanding of the simplicity of the Gospel. I also came to realize that we’re all “evildoers” (Eph. 2:1-3) who need His free gift of life. However, this fact is repugnant to us.

I’ve become thoroughly convinced that this understanding must come as a gift. It’s just too unnatural for us to lay aside our cherished belief that we are deserving of Him. I think that this is at the heart of apostasy – we believe too much in ourselves and our own foolish ideas to be receptive to the truths of God. We believe too strongly in ourselves to believe in Him.

If we do grasp the Gospel, and consequently our own unworthiness and hopelessness, we realize that without Him we have nothing and nowhere else to go! According to the Apostle John, this had not been the case of those who had departed from the faith:

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19).

Had they been believers, they would have remained, perceiving the green pastures they had in the Gospel. Never truly having been believers, they had no idea what they were leaving behind. Instead, they trusted that they could do better elsewhere. When we know the Gospel, we know that there isn’t an “elsewhere!” If the God of the Gospel isn’t for us, we have nothing and are nothing (Gal. 6:3). It takes only the smallest measure of faith, true faith, to comprehend this, but the vast majority of humankind is destitute of this dust-sized faith, filled instead with an imitation – an edifice of self-trust.

I thank God that He has whittled away my edifice. If only we would all pray, “Teach us the truth, no matter how painful!” Apostasies will come, but our Savior knows those who are His!

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