Note: For all Biblical quotations, the NKJV is used, unless I am citing the Greek Old Testament (LXX), for which the NETS is used. The italics in Biblical quotations are from the translators to note words added for clarity that are not present in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.
Among the things in which the early church was in universal agreement that are debated today are three: people can apostatize from their faith; the Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ; and baptism truly brings saving grace to the recipient (cit. Dr. Jordan B Cooper, Sola Fide in the Church Fathers).
Debate surrounding apostasy and perseverance has been around since the early days of Protestantism. As the magisterial reformation came about, the Reformed tradition came to embrace a doctrine known as Perseverance of the Saints, which teaches that those whom God elects cannot fall away from the faith, IE the saints will persevere. The Lutheran tradition (alongside all non-Reformed Christians at the time, IE Rome, the Eastern churches, Moravians, Anabaptists, and later, the Remonstrants/Arminians and Wesleyans) denied this, holding that those who are truly Christians can fall away from the faith if they later reject God (apostasy). There are now two extant groups that believe that believe that Christians cannot apostatize: Calvinists and Once-Saved-Always-Saved (OSAS) Arminians.
Some believers in Perseverance of the Saints, along with Calvin himself, in an attempt to reconcile both their personal experiences and scripture passages which speak of apostasy believe in an idea known as “evanescent grace,” that is, a grace that is given temporarily and without forgiveness of sins or adoption of Christ. This idea is not found in any Reformed or Arminian confessions, however, so it is not binding to Reformed denominations. Calvin defines this in the Institutes as follows:
…experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way so similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them…. but the Lord, the better to convict them, and leave them without excuse, instills into their minds such a sense of his goodness as can be felt without the Spirit of adoption…. though there is a great resemblance and affinity between the elect of God and those who are impressed for a time with a fading faith…. But in this there is nothing to prevent an inferior operation of the Spirit from taking its course in the reprobate…. under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace; but that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition…. He only gives them a manifestation of his present mercy. In the elect alone he implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end…. There is nothing inconsistent in this with the fact of his enlightening some with a present sense of grace, which afterwards proves evanescent.3.2.11, Institutes of Christian Religion
Regarding apostasy, the Lutheran confessions state the following:
Thus many receive the Word with joy, but afterwards fall away again, Luke 8:13. But the cause is not as though God were unwilling to grant grace for perseverance to those in whom He has begun the good work, for that is contrary to St. Paul, Phil. 1:6; but the cause is that they willfully turn away again from the holy commandment [of God], grieve and embitter the Holy Ghost, implicate themselves again in the filth of the world, and garnish again the habitation of the heart for the devil. With them the last state is worse than the first, 2 Pet. 2:10. 20; Eph. 4:30; Heb. 10:26; Luke 11:25.Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article XI: Election, 42
Scriptural Apology for Apostasy
General Examples and Warnings of Apostasy in Scripture
Jeremiah 17:5-6 reads, “Cursed is the man who trusts in manAnd makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert,And shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land which is not inhabited.”
Ezekiel 3:20 reads, “Again, when a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you did not give him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand.”
Luke 12:42-46 reads, “And the Lord said, “Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all that he has. But if that servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and be drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.”
John 15:5-6 reads, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.”
Romans 11:19-22 reads, “You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off.”
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 reads, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
1 Corinthians 10:11-12 reads, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
2 Corinthians 11:2-3 reads, “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”
Galatians 5:3-4 reads, “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.”
1 Timothy 3:2,6-7 reads, “A bishop then must be blameless…. not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
1 Timothy 4:1-3 reads, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.”
1 Timothy 5:11-12 reads, “But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith.”
1 Timothy 5:14-15 reads, “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some have already turned aside after Satan. ”
1 Timothy 6:9-10 reads, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
1 Timothy 6:20-21 reads, “O Timothy! Guard what was committed to your trust, avoiding the profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge— by professing it some have strayed concerning the faith.”
2 Peter 2:12-15 reads, “But these, like natural brute beasts made to be caught and destroyed, speak evil of the things they do not understand, and will utterly perish in their own corruption, and will receive the wages of unrighteousness, as those who count it pleasure to carouse in the daytime. They are spots and blemishes, carousing in their own deceptions while they feast with you, having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin, enticing unstable souls. They have a heart trained in covetous practices, and are accursed children. They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness.”
2 Peter 2:18-21 reads, “For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them.”
Hebrews 6:4-6 reads, “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, [as long as] they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”
Hebrews 10:26-27 reads, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.”
James 5:19-20 reads, “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.”
Revelation 2:1-5 reads, “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.’”
Revelation 3:3-5 reads, “Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life.”
Revelation 22:18-19 reads, “For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
Specific Accounts of Apostasy in Scripture
1 Samuel 15:10-11 reads, “Now the word of the LORD came to Samuel, saying, 11 “I greatly regret that I have set up Saul as king, for he has turned back from following Me, and has not performed My commandments.” And it grieved Samuel, and he cried out to the LORD all night.”
1 Timothy 1:18-20 reads, “This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
2 Timothy 2:17-18 reads, “And their message will spread like cancer. Hymenaeus and Philetus are of this sort, who have strayed concerning the truth, saying that the resurrection is already past; and they overthrow the faith of some.”
2 Timothy 4:6-7, 10 reads, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…. Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica.”
Warnings Against Deception and False Teaching
Texts regarding false teachers and deception of churches are meaningless without a true possibility of apostasy, unless they all are speaking hypothetically.
Matthew 24:9-13 reads, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.”
Matthew 24:23-25 (cf. Mark 13:22) reads, “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.”
Romans 16:17-18 reads, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple.”
Colossians 2:18-19 reads, “Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God.”
2 Peter 2:1-3 reads, “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.”
Exhortations to Endurance and Overcoming Trial
Texts regarding endurance and overcoming trial in the faith are meaningless without a true possibility of apostasy, unless they are only speaking for the sake of emotional encouragement.
Matthew 10:21-22 reads, “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.”
1 Corinthians 15:1-2 reads, “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
Galatians 6:7-9 reads, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
Colossians 1:21-23 reads, “And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.”
1 Peter 5:8-9 reads, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world.”
Hebrews 3:12-14 reads, “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end.”
Hebrews 10:36-39 reads, “For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, And He who is coming will come and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith; But if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him’ (Hab. 2:3-4). But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.”
James 1:12 reads, “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”
Revelation 2:10-11 reads, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”
Revelation 3:11-12 reads, “Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more.”
Revelation 3:15,19-21 reads, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot…. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.”
Perseverance of the Eternally Elect – Augustinians, Calvinists, and Scripture
Regarding perseverance, the Lutheran confessions state the following:
The eternal election of God, however, not only foresees and foreknows the salvation of the elect, but is also, from the gracious will and pleasure of God in Christ Jesus, a cause which procures, works, helps, and promotes our salvation and what pertains thereto; and upon this [divine predestination] our salvation is so founded that “the gates of hell cannot prevail against it,” (Matt. 16:18), as is written (John 10:28): “Neither shall any man pluck My sheep out of My hand.” And again, (Acts 13:48): “And as many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.”Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration XI.8
The Formula of Concord is precise when it speaks of predestination and election in that it states that while apostasy is possible, the eternally elect (AKA the predestined) will persevere, that is to say, predestined means predestined. This is rooted in the Augustinian tradition, which believed that apostasy is possible, yet the predestined persevere. Apostasy alongside Perseverance of the Eternally Elect is found in Augustine, as demonstrated below, as well as Fulgentius of Ruspe (To Peter on the Faith, §37 p83), Prosper of Acquitaine (The Call of All Nations, Book I, 121), Aquinas (ST I:II:112:3), and others.
Therefore, of two infants, equally bound by original sin, why the one is taken and the other left; and of two wicked men of already mature years, why this one should be so called as to follow Him that calleth, while that one is either not called at all, or is not called in such a manner – the judgments of God are unsearchable. But of two pious men, why to the one should be given perseverance unto the end, and to the other it should not be given, God’s judgments are even more unsearchable. Yet to believers it ought to be a most certain fact that the former is of the predestinated, the latter is not.Augustine, The Gift of Perseverance, Chapter 21
To the saints predestinated to the kingdom of God by God’s grace, the aid of perseverance that is given is not such as the former, but such that to them perseverance itself is bestowed; not only so that without that gift they cannot persevere, but, moreover, so that by means of this gift they cannot help persevering. For not only did He say, “Without me ye can do nothing,” but He also said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain.” By which words He showed that He had given them not only righteousness, but perseverance therein.Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 34
Scriptural Apology for Perseverance of the Eternally Elect
Jeremiah 32:38-40 reads, “They shall be My people, and I will be their God; then I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me.”
John 6:35-40 reads, “And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.’”
John 10:27-29 reads, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.”
John 15:16 reads, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.”
1 Peter 1:3-5 reads, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Calvinism and Perseverance of the Saints
Calvinists will read the above passages as proof of Perseverance of the Saints, but such an interpretation forces passages about apostasy to be obscured against their natural reading and the universal attestation in the church fathers. A more natural reading of passages on perseverance is the interpretation of the Augustinian tradition, from Augustine’s On Grace and Free Will to Chemnitz’s Formula of Concord Epitome XI as shown above, which is compatible with a natural reading of scripture and the fathers on apostasy.
To further support the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, Calvinists cite passages such as Psalm 55:22 (“Cast your burden on the LORD, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved,”) and Psalm 121:3-8 (“He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; The LORD is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; He shall preserve your soul. The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.”)
Such an interpretation not only fails in context, as the focus of the surrounding context in these passages is exhortation to reliance and trust in the Lord, but also fails in historical validity, as Augustine writes on Psalm 121:3, “Sing therefore what followeth; if thou wish to hear how thou mayest most securely set thy feet on the steps, so that thou mayest not be fatigued in that ascent, nor stumble and fall: pray in these words: ‘Suffer not my foot to be moved!’ (ver. 3). Whereby are feet moved; whereby was the foot of him who was in Paradise moved? But first consider whereby the feet of him who was among the Angels were moved: who when his feet were moved fell, and from an Angel became a devil: for when his feet were moved he fell. Seek whereby he fell: he fell through pride. Nothing then moveth the feet, save pride: nothing moveth the feet to a fall, save pride. Charity moveth them to walk and to improve and to ascend; pride moveth them to fall …Rightly therefore the Psalmist, hearing how he may ascend and may not fall, prayeth unto God that he may profit from the vale of misery, and may not fail in the swelling of pride, in these words, ‘Suffer not my feet to be moved!'” Rather than take this as support for doctrine of perseverance, it is taken to be exhortation to not apostatize in pride.
Similarly, in Romans 11:29 (“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”), the verse is about God’s faithfulness rather than perseverance. The word for “irrevocable” in Greek, “ametamelētos,” means that God (or the gifts and calling of God) will not change His mind. In the KJV it is rendered, perhaps more accurately, though challenging to read, as “without repentance.” A more readable, yet accurate, translation may be “unregretted.” Another interpretation of the passage lends itself to Lutheran theology in that there is a universal gift of grace and universal calling of God which do not necessarily lead to salvation. These gifts and calling will never be revoked from the world.
Another frequently cited passage by Calvinists for support of their doctrine is 1 John 2:18-19 which reads, “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” Yet to read this passage into all others about those who have departed from the faith is to take a descriptive text as prescriptive. It is possible that this is one example where people in the church were not ever among the saved, but it does not follow that this is the case in every passage in scripture, as plain reading and the interpretation by the fathers suggests. Furthermore, the text does not say that “they were never of us,” but rather that “none of them were us.”
It should be concluded from the plain reading of scripture and the universal attestation of the fathers that apostasy is a true doctrine. While a number of passages speak about perseverance, the Augustinian position holds a faithful reading to the text as it plainly speaks without pitting it against passages on apostasy. Christians can look to God’s monergistic election and forgiveness of sins for assurance while simultaneously affirming the truth of scripture and tradition regarding apostasy.