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The Danger of Apostasy

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 23, 2024 12:01 am

The Danger of Apostasy

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 23, 2024 12:01 am

Many of us know people who once professed to believe in Christ but later renounced their faith. Can a true Christian lose his salvation? Today, R.C. Sproul examines a challenging passage in Scripture on the danger of apostasy.

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R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was known for his ability to winsomely and clearly communicate deep, practical truths from God's Word. He was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine.

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Nathan W. Bingham is vice president of ministry engagement for Ligonier Ministries, executive producer and host of Renewing Your Mind, host of the Ask Ligonier podcast, and a graduate of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Nathan joined Ligonier in 2012 and lives in Central Florida with his wife and four children.

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Renewing Your Mind
R.C. Sproul

The pagan has never made any profession of faith or any pretense of being a believer, but an apostate is somebody who has in fact made a profession of faith, has joined the church, and then later repudiates that faith. Nature is clear. As we read its pages, we can understand the good news of the Gospel, but that doesn't mean that all passages in the Bible are equally easy to understand.

There are, as R.C. Sproul called them, hard sayings, and today we'll be considering one such passage. This is the Thursday edition of Renewing Your Mind, and I'm glad you're joining us today. Throughout his ministry, Dr. Sproul was committed to helping Christians understand the Word of God, and he taught with great clarity. That's why he recorded four teaching series dealing with various hard sayings of Scripture, and today and tomorrow only you can request access to all four series, plus his companion book based on them, when you give a gift of any amount at So what is today's hard saying? R.C. Sproul will address the question of apostasy, and the strong language that's found in Hebrews.

Here's Dr. Sproul. As we continue our study of the hard sayings of the Bible, the problem I want to address today is the problem that we find in the book of Hebrews in the sixth chapter. Now I've always said that if I were locked up in prison and could only have one book of the Bible with me in prison, I would want it to be the book of Hebrews.

That's how highly I regard that book and how much I love that book. And part of the reason I would want to have that book with me is because it gives such a wonderful recapitulation of the essence of the Old Testament as well as all of the glorious teaching of the New Testament, all conjoined together in that book. And yet one of the remarkable points of church history was that in the early church, when the church was engaged with the discussion of seeking to discover and recognize which of the individual writings that had survived the apostolic age were genuinely apostolic and which were apocryphal or fraudulent, because in the second century there was a plethora of literature that was produced by a heretical group known as Gnostics who tried to pass off their literature as being apostolic. And so the church had to study this matter and to debate what were the books that were clearly apostolic.

Now don't get alarmed by that if you're not aware of that process in church history. Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of the books in the New Testament never had any question about them at all. But one of the books that was debated was the book of Hebrews. And the main reason it was debated was because of what Hebrews teaches in the sixth chapter of Hebrews, which we will be looking at today. And so what I'm saying is that the controversy that attends the sixth chapter of Hebrews is no small matter.

It was one that the early church itself had to struggle with. And one of the ironies of that historical period is that the thing that made it decisive that Hebrews be included in the New Testament canon was the church's conviction that it had been written by the Apostle Paul. And yet in today's environment in modern New Testament scholarship, I don't know a handful of people anywhere in the New Testament world who still would argue that Paul wrote Hebrews. People were not saying that Hebrews isn't apostolic. Most of the scholars would certainly affirm that it's apostolic, but they think it was written by someone other than Paul, perhaps Apollos or Luke or a friend of Luke's or something of that sort.

And everybody recognizes the magnificent literary achievement that it is and so on. But as I say, there's almost no one in the world remaining who still believes that Paul wrote Hebrews. In fact, the only person I know who still believes that Paul wrote Hebrews is talking to you right now.

And that's just one of those little quirks and idiosyncrasies of me, and I don't have time to tell you why, but I still think he did. I think Paul wrote Hebrews, and like I say, I'm probably – this isn't just a minority report. This doesn't even make it in the committee as a report at all. It's so obscure in this day and age. But we will see in a few moments that the question of authorship is very important to understanding this problematic text. But let's look at the text that has caused so much controversy. We're looking at chapter 6 of Hebrews, and I'll begin at verse 4 and just jump right in to the hard saying. 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, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God and put Him to an open shame.

Finally we can feel the weight of this hard saying. This hard saying deals with the problem of apostasy. Apostasy is not the same thing as paganism. An apostate is distinguished from a pagan in this regard.

The pagan has never made any profession of faith or any pretense of being a believer, but an apostate is somebody who has in fact made a profession of faith, has joined the church, and then later repudiates that faith. Now there are many Christians who believe that a person who is truly born of the Spirit of God and is truly converted and truly justified and in a state of grace, that those people can and do fall away, that it is possible, in other words, for a Christian to commit apostasy. There are others in the church who believe that once a person is in a state of grace and has been reborn of the Spirit, that that person will never fall away, and that is sometimes called eternal security, or others call it the perseverance of the saints.

I hold that view myself. Namely, I don't believe that a Christian can ever fully and finally fall away. I believe that Christians can sin and can sin radically, can fall and can fall radically, but not fully and finally.

I hold the view that if you have it, you never lose it, and if you lose it, you never had it. Like John says in the New Testament, those who went out from us were never really among us. No, they were among them. They had made professions of faith. They pretended to be Christians, but then they later repudiated the faith. But let's leave that question aside for now, whether a Christian can or cannot lose their salvation. What is immediately addressed by this text is the impossibility of an apostate being restored. It's impossible to renew them again to repentance if after they have been enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift and participated in the Holy Spirit and so on, that if they commit apostasy, it's impossible to renew them again to repentance.

Well, the difficulty of this text, first of all, is with this question of what kind of person is the author of Hebrews – you see, I almost said Paul – of what kind of person is the author of Hebrews speaking here? Is he speaking of a Christian who commits apostasy, or is he speaking of someone who made a false profession of faith? Again, let me remind you, I'm going to go to my little blackboard here, and those of you that are listening who are not present will have to imagine this blackboard in their minds, and I'm going to draw a big circle on the blackboard, and that circle represents the church, the visible church. Now, everything outside that visible church refers to those who are unchurched, obviously, and for purposes of our discussion here, I'm going to refer to those outside this circle as unbelievers, or pagans, if you will.

Now, please, I don't have time to qualify everything here. I agree with Augustine that there is the remote possibility that there are true believers who, for one reason or the other, are outside the pale of the church, but that the believers exist substantially and fundamentally within the church, and I don't want to get into that debate now, but just for the purposes of this illustration, we think of those people, unbelievers, who are outside the church. Then I'm going to draw a line in the middle of that circle dissecting it, and I'm going to say on one side of the line are the believers within the church, or what Christ calls the wheat. Then you have on the other side of the line the unbelievers who are the tares. We remember that Jesus described His church as being a mixed body, what Saint Augustine described as a corpus per mixedum, that the church, the visible church, is always made up of true believers and false professors, that is, people who make a false profession of faith. As Jesus said, it was possible to do.

This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Paul labors the point in Romans that not everybody who was in Israel was of Israel, that not all the Jews in the Old Testament were believers. Some were, some were not, even though they were all within the common wealth of Israel and all within the covenant community. Now, the question is, of which of these three groups is the apostle speaking when he says, 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. Now, first of all, let's note what the apostle does not say here. He does not say it is impossible for a believer if that believer commits apostasy to be restored. He doesn't say that, nor does he say it is impossible for those who have been converted to Christ if they should commit apostasy to be restored again. What he does is he gives us a string of descriptive clauses by which this group, for whom it is impossible to be restored again to repentance, is being described.

And again, I'll read you that description. These people are said to be people who were once enlightened, they have tasted the heavenly gift, they have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and they have tasted the good Word of God. Now, that certainly sounds on the surface like the apostle is describing Christians here, isn't it? Because who else has been enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, become partakers of the Holy Ghost, and tasted the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come?

Who else but Christians? Well, there is somebody else of whom it could be said that they have been enlightened, they have tasted of the heavenly gift, they have been participants in the Holy Spirit, and so on. And that would be these unbelievers in the church, because the unbeliever in the church sits under the preaching of the gospel and has access and exposure to the light of the gospel, and so it could be said in a certain sense of them that they are enlightened by the Word of God. Well, tasted of the heavenly gift? Well, they participate in the sacrament. They taste the bread and the wine. They taste the Word of God with their ears, if you will. They get a taste of the truth. They get a taste of it figuratively and literally in terms of the sacrament and the Word. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're converted. Partakers in the Holy Spirit. Now, that's a little bit more difficult, but again the church is called the Haggioi, the holy ones, who have been consecrated or set apart by the Holy Spirit. The church is the primary focal point of the sanctifying activity of the Holy Ghost, so that anybody who is present in the assembly, in worship, and in the life of the church is participating in some way in the present work of the Holy Spirit.

It might be bouncing off of them and so on, but they are partaking as non-involved or non-committed participants. And, of course, they've also could be said that they've tasted the good Word of God and the powers of the age to come. Now frankly, when I first started the struggle with this passage many years ago, I came to the conclusion that that is what is being described here, the unbeliever who is present within the church, and that those people certainly are capable of apostasy and certainly are capable of renouncing Christ, whom they once professed. And so, I took the position at one time that that's probably what was meant here.

I've since changed my mind. That's a dangerous thing because I'm still not absolutely sure about this text. But I've now come to the conclusion that the author is describing Christians, which makes this an excruciatingly difficult passage for one who believes that Christians will persevere and will not fall away and once you have it, you can't lose it and so on. Now, if a person doesn't believe in the perseverance of the saints, if a Christian doesn't believe in eternal security, he doesn't have to struggle with this text the way I have to struggle with it, but I still hold firmly to the idea that a Christian cannot lose their salvation.

So, how in the world can I come to the conclusion that the apostle is describing the Christian here? Well, the thing that is pivotal for me is his statement that it is impossible to renew them again to repentance. Now, to renew somebody again to repentance presupposes that they've at least once previously repented. Now, I'll hedge my bet a little bit because the Bible speaks of two different kinds of repentance. There is the repentance of godliness that is, I believe, a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit within a person in conversion. But there's also what this same author speaks of, of the repentance of Esau, who though he repented in tears was not restored because his repentance was the repentance that we call the repentance of attrition rather than contrition. Contrition is repentance motivated by a broken and contrite heart. Attrition is that repentance that is motivated by a fear of punishment, where somebody repents in order to get a ticket out of hell. It's like your little child when you catch them with their hands in the cookie jar and they say, oh, I'm so sorry, sorry, sorry.

They're sorry they got caught, and they're going to have to face the consequences, not that they're really sorry that they have done something wrong. So, I mean, I'll hedge my bet at that point, but there's no reason for me really to assume here in this text that the author is speaking about anything else than authentic repentance. And if they are speaking about authentic repentance, then I think he must be speaking about Christians.

So, what do I do with it? Well, first thing, let me say this, that I sure wish I knew who wrote this book, and I wish I knew for sure to whom it was written. But even more importantly, I wish I knew what the issue was that the author was addressing, because there are several possibilities of this, not the least of which was the threat and the so-called lapsy controversy where there were those Christians who gave their lives as martyrs out of loyalty to Christ, became human torches in the gardens of Nero and animal meat in the arena, and so on. But not everybody was faithful. There were those who recanted. There were those who denied Christ, and not only did they deny Christ, but they betrayed their fellow Christians. And then after the heat settled down, one of the big problems that the early church had to deal with was, what do we do with these people who have betrayed others who now want to come back in the church?

Can they be restored? That was a major issue that the church had to face in the early years. Now, maybe that's what the issue is here. You know, the author says you have not yet resisted unto blood and so on. The other possibility, or another possibility, is that the same issue that plagued the Galatians and that plagued almost every church that was founded in the early church was the issue here, namely, the Judaizing heresy that called people back to Old Testament ceremonial Judaism, back to being bound to carry out all of those rituals of the Old Testament as a matter of faith, where Paul put his curse on that heresy in the Galatians epistle because it fundamentally was a denial of the finished work of Christ. Now, one of the things that Paul does, and certainly the other apostles as well do, is argue in ad hominem fashion.

That is, let's take the position of our opponent and take that argument to its logical conclusion. Now, suppose the author of Hebrews is addressing people who have been pled with by the Judaizers to embrace the Judaizing heresy. I can conceive of the author saying, think about this. If now, after you've been enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, that is, after you're in Christ, you now go back to Judaism, if you repudiate the cross and that's salvation, what other salvation is left?

There's no possibility of finding salvation by going back there, going back to Egypt, you're finished. And perhaps that's what we have here in this text. Now, with the few seconds I have left, let me say what gives me the ultimate relief here is that what the author says, beginning in verse 9, but, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Here I hear the author acknowledging that he's speaking in a certain manner, and not the normal manner, obviously. And what he's saying is also, but I'm persuaded of better things than you.

I said, whoosh, you mean you don't really think these people are going to do this. But I'm persuaded of better things of you, things that accompany salvation. In other words, he says, if you did repudiate Christ, there'd be no hope for you, but I'm not worried that you will really repudiate Christ or really commit apostasy.

Why? Because I'm persuaded that you really are Christians and I am persuaded that you will do better things than this. Though this passage in Hebrews 6 may instill terror in our soul, I commend to you that you take the time this day to read this chapter, and not just read this particular passage that is so troublesome, but read the entire chapter, because the last part of chapter 6 of Hebrews is one of the most assuring passages that we find anywhere in Scripture of the promise of God to keep His promise of covenant and of His faithfulness to His people. And so if there's any text that gives us comfort and rest in our souls and gives us the confidence that we will not become apostates in the final analysis, it's the sixth chapter of Hebrews. Read it carefully today. What a joy it is that a text that could cause distress and confusion, a hard saying, is actually a text that should bring us comfort.

That was R.C. Sproul, the founder of Ligonier Ministries from his series, The Hard Sayings of the Apostles. Thanks for joining us for Renewing Your Mind. In addition to this series, he also recorded the hard sayings of the prophets, the hard sayings of the Bible, and the hard sayings of Jesus. You can request lifetime digital access to these four teaching series, plus we'll send you his hardcover companion book simply titled, Hard Sayings, when you give a donation of any amount by calling us at 800 435 4343, visiting, or clicking the link in the podcast show notes. Your support is helping Christians around the world better understand God's word through Renewing Your Mind and the global outreach of Ligonier Ministries. So give your gift while there's still time at

When we experience suffering, is it always as punishment for our sin? R.C. Sproul will consider this tomorrow when he addresses another hard saying here on Renewing Your Mind. R.C. Sproul will consider this tomorrow when he addresses another hard saying here on Renewing
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-23 02:32:54 / 2024-05-23 02:41:24 / 9

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