Many years ago I was driving across the country to visit my future wife. As you can imagine I was eager to arrive, so I minimized stops and attempted to make the 26-hour drive all at once. Going nearly a full day without sleep and in spite of being fueled on more Mountain Dew than is advisable, I began to nod off. I soon meandered over into the other lane and was startled by an 18-wheeler’s lights and horn! I awoke and swerved back in my lane. That shook me. My pulse went through the roof. I lost my breath. I contemplated what would have happened if I didn’t wake up. I was good for another five hours. No problems. After my pulse descended to reasonable levels I remember getting mad at myself. “How could I be so careless?”

The Book of Hebrews often functions like the headlights of an 18-wheeler. With pastoral clarity it provides a number of warnings as well as reassurances. We are told do not neglect so great a salvation then we are told that we have an anchor of hope within the veil. We are warned about the danger of hardening our hearts through unbelief while also being reminded that Jesus has delivered his people from the bondage of death (cf chapters 2, 4, 6, 10, and 12 for warning passages).

The great concern is that some people have become dull of hearing (Heb. 5:11). This dullness literally means that they were apathetic and lazy about the Bible. Instead of being able to teach others they need to repeat kindergarten. They have not progressed in their knowledge of God and his Word.

You might say, “What’s the big deal about that? Not everyone is called to be a pastor.”

Right, but every Christian is called to grow (2 Pet. 3:18; Eph. 4).

More to the point, this spiritual laziness is the seedbed for disaster. There are two ways that you can get into trouble. The one is backsliding. This is the case where a Christian has fallen into sinful patterns, experiences stagnation, and various other symptoms of unhealthy Christianity. The other way is called apostasy. This is where someone rejects the faith by denying Christ. They had previously said that they follow Jesus and now they reject him.

I believe it was Sinclair Ferguson who said that the difficulty here is that both backsliding and apostasy look the same at the outset. In both cases there is spiritual apathy and indifference. People slowly stop reading their Bibles, talking about Jesus, praying, coming to church, and hanging around other Christians. You look at this and say, “Something is wrong.” And you would be right. The question though is whether or not this is backsliding or apostasy. The answer, at least at this stage has to be, “I don’t know. You can’t tell.” But isn’t this what is so sobering about it?

If both are unacceptable, and if you can’t tell which is which, and if apostasy has seemingly irreversible consequences, then we should give this matter our full attention. What too often happens however, is that we relativize it. We look around and say, “A lot of people struggle spiritually. I’m not an anomaly.” This may be true, but it is still not healthy! In fact, since you can’t tell where apathy will lead—whether to apostasy or back-sliding—and because both are very undesirable for us, then apathy should never be relativized, but rather it should be quickly dealt with.

How do we shake off apathy? Nothing surprising here.

  1. Confession and Repentance. As soon as we get a whiff of apathy or laziness we should take time to confess it to God and repent over it. If you found a strange mark on your face, how long would it take you to go to the doctor? It could be nothing, but it could also be cancer. You have to catch it early.
  2. Reading the Bible. This prescribed practice will strengthen and sustain faith (Rom. 10:13). When we actively read through the Bible we have all kinds of blind spots exposed. God is talking to us through his Word for the purpose of teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16).
  3. Public Worship. This is not complicated, God tunes our hearts by his grace when we gather together. These ordinary means of grace serve to strengthen our faith while shaking us of apathy. The encounter with God through the preached Word and the taking of the Lord’s Table serve to speak into and through our apathy.
  4. Discipleship. Spending time with other Christians for the purposes of spiritual growth will shake off apathy. When you read the Bible, pray, and talk through implications for life (practical theology) then you encourage one another unto faithfulness by hating sin and loving Christ (i.e. Heb. 3:13; Col. 3:16).
  5. Evangelism. Nothing will shake you out of your apathy like looking into a lost person’s eyes and hearing them talk about how they don’t know or love Christ. It makes you remember the grace that was lavished upon you and the beauty of Christ your King.

The writer of Hebrews knows that the serious consequences for turning away from Christ. As a result, he lovingly pleads with us as we doze off to wake up and hear God’s Word. Let’s not be careless.

View Comments


4 thoughts on “Apostasy and Backsliding Look Alike”

  1. doug sayers says:

    Thanks for this one Erik. We need these reminders. We have a race to finish.

  2. Chuckt says:

    People need to be disciplined in their life because they don’t just fall into sin. It is sort of like our screen saver. What does the computer do when it isn’t doing anything? The screen saver runs. Our screensaver is our old man and people just don’t fall into sin; people start walking towards the edge of the cliff seeing how close they can get before they fall off. Hopefully, Christ catches them.

  3. Sam says:

    Thank you for your article! I’m genuinely curious, and feel a tension, between warning and reassurance found in the book of Hebrews. I’m struggling to see why we would receive warnings if there is no danger? For example, why would the writer of Hebrew warn us about hardening our hearts if we believe in the perseverance of the saints? Thank you again!

    1. EricF says:

      Good thought Sam. The scripture contains warnings. Therefore, there are dangers which will end in something that is so awful that God Himself will warn you about it. Therefore, perseverance of the saints is not biblical as long as it means that there is no danger of a person hardening their own heart and falling away from the Lord. If it does mean that, then that is a message that tickles our ears and it is a false doctrine. Therefore the phrase and saying “the perseverance of the saints” is utterly meaningless in itself. I am not proclaiming the opposite, I am merely saying that there is a huge gap in our understanding of how to live when our own statement about what we believe contradicts how we are behaving. Will the saints persevere? yes… why? because their faith is in Jesus. Can anything less be asked of a saint than that they simply put their faith completely in Jesus? Is there a lower standard? According to the Lord if you lower the standard and stop having faith which God has supplied and begin to do works to save yourself there is not anything else that He can offer you. What else could He give to a man who does not want Him as Lord and does not want to completely abandon their old way of living.

      Therefore, Hebrews says be warned God has done everything and we need only walk in faith, do not think that he will force you to be saved or submit to Him. Don’t think that you will be saved by any lower standard than by having faith and responding by submitting.
      Hebrews Warning: The unbelieving are not going to be counted as believing, be sure you are of the believing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Search this blog


Erik Raymond photo

Erik Raymond

Erik Raymond is senior pastor of Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Ne. He and his wife Christie have six children. You can follow him on Twitter.

Erik Raymond's Books