How Not to Fall Away
"I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is 'deconstruction,' the biblical phrase is 'falling away.' By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian." So was the recent confession by former pastor, Joshua Harris. It is not uncommon for people to fall away from Christianity. But Harris' recent announcement is particularly troubling. It is hard when a seemingly humble and genuine follower of Jesus, a gifted author, and a pastor of a large congregation falls out of love with the God of Scripture and renounces the faith. It is impossible to say whether Harris's rejection of the Christian faith is evidence of an unregenerate heart or of serious backsliding of a true Christian. Still, this is a learning moment for us.
Paul used particular instances of apostasy to warn the church and urge believers to press on. He mentioned Hymenaeus and Alexander who had blasphemed and "concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck" (1 Tim. 1:19-20). What a terrible image. But Paul wasn't exaggerating. He had been shipwrecked (2 Cor. 11:25). He knew that apostasy was no less tragic than the sinking of a vessel on which people's lives depended. These particular apostates punctuate Paul's charge to the church to "wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience" (19). How can we learn from others' failures in order to be diligent to resist falling away?
Take Heed Lest You Fall
The surest way to fall away from the faith is to assume you are immune to falling away (1 Cor. 10:12). "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" (Heb. 3:12-13). Jesus charged his closest friends: "Abide in Me... 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 (John 15:6)."We have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end" (Heb. 3:14).
Understand the End of Apostasy
Apostasy is not simply a different way to practice faith. Apostates turn off the path that leads to eternal life. Those who renounce faith will be cut off from the tree of life (Rom. 11:22). "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" (2 Peter 2:20-21).
Not everyone publishes their apostasy in carefully postured social media posts. Some who have professed the Christian faith quietly stop coming to church and bearing fruit but continue to identify as Christians. They want to avoid a public scandal. But they simply postpone the most scandalous confrontation imaginable. On the Day of Judgment Jesus will say to all apostates: "I never knew you; depart form Me, you who practice lawlessness" (Matt. 7:23).
Beware of the "Wrong-Side-of-History" Narrative
It isn't hard to read in Harris' announcement that he was rattled by the worldview clash that Christianity demands. The world will always see serious Christians as being on the wrong side of history; biblical morality seems ignorant and contrary to human progress. Christians will face "the tribulations and persecutions on account of the world" (Matt. 13:21).
So be careful what you repent of. Harris quotes Luther on the life of believers being a life of repentance. That's true. And Harris's list is a fine place for us to start repenting: self-righteousness, a fear-based approach to life, mistreatment of women (or men), faulty parenting, bigotry toward those with different sexual understanding and practice. But genuine repentance is sorrow over sin and the practice of new ideas and actions that more clearly reflect God (2 Cor. 7:10).
The "wrong-side-of-history" motif is like trying to solve a constantly changing maze. To be politically or socially fashionable you will have to change your religious boundary markers and risk apostasy.
Ground Your Hope in Jesus Not Laws
Many have pointed out that the courtship movement that Harris once promoted could easily become a version of the prosperity gospel; it centralized a sexually fulfilling marriage while marginalizing organic union with Christ. Sexual purity is a good thing that God requires. But if we make premarital virginity and marital sex our chief ends they become idols. Idols--rather than restrain the flesh--actually fuel ungodliness and encourage apostasy. The biblical model for a God-glorifying life is to build your hope on nothing more nor nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
Beware of Gradual Drift
Harris probably didn't undergo a sudden, Damascus-road-type de-conversion. Studies indicate that a strong majority of those who leave the faith do so gradually. Every time we ignore the urging of our conscience we smooth and broaden the path of apostasy. We need to develop the kind of spiritual disciplines and friendships that will help ensure that if we begin to drift church leaders, family, and friends will notice and take action.
In his documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Harris seems undone by the revelation that the theology and ethics of his early years were too simplistic. Of course they were. Maturity guarantees some level of worldview deconstruction. Those raised in a covenant home begin by believing everything they learn from parents and other close influencers. But maturity happens when we scrutinize the faith we have inherited (1 Cor. 13:11) by searching the Scriptures and searching our souls. Parents and church leaders should welcome the intimidating, genuine questions of their children.If you enter a phase of confusion over who you are and where you are headed don't assume you have fallen away.
Confess the Historic Faith
Sound, time-tested public theological formulations ground believers in truth that is bigger than our own, fluctuating ideas. Historic confessions help us know what we must believe as God's children. We must trust that God is, that he has revealed himself both in nature and Scripture, and that he will reject those who reject him and reward those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6). Confessions allow for significant latitude of expression while providing a solid biblical foundation on which to build, and boundaries within which to work.
Trust God to Keep You from Stumbling
Writing to Christians who seemed to be on the brink of apostasy the apostle to the Hebrews was still optimistic: "We are not of those who draw back to perdition but of those who believe to the saving of the soul" (Heb. 10:39). He's teaching us to be hopeful. Don't agonize over the weakness of your faith, the holes in your understanding, or the unbelief mixed in with your faith. Be confident in Christ. It is not your faith that makes you lovely to God but only Christ's righteousness. Life is complicated. We are all tempted to compromise our faith. But we have a simplicity in Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). Hidden in Christ alone we are safe. He "is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 25).