The epistle of James addresses a variety of significant themes beneficial to helping Christians remain faithful under intense persecution. Having never entertained the delusion of “Once Saved – Always Saved,” James issues approximately fifty-four commands related to patience, wisdom, avoidance of worldliness, faithful obedience, respect of persons, judging one another, etc. We will confine the study at hand to the closing verses of the epistle where James strikes hard, though unknowingly, at the modern day heresy of the impossibility of apostasy.
James writes, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20).
The language indicates the discussion involves a Christian who “strays from the truth.” It is not possible to “stray” from that which one does not belong. To be of the truth is to be a Christian (cf. 3 John 2-3). The dust up caused by Calvinists claiming the departing brother is not a genuine Christian is a perversion of the text. A non-Christian is not “in the truth” and thus cannot “stray from the truth.” James is speaking to “brethren,” exhorting them to care for one another, recognizing the blessing to be incurred by seeking to restore an erring brother.
If a fellow Christian “turns” – epistrepse, “to change one’s manner of life in a particular direction, with the implication of turning back to God—‘to change one’s ways, to turn to God, repentance’” (Louw, 1996) – the wayward brother “from the error of his way,” he will “save his soul from death.” For Calvinists who concede a Christian is under discussion, but who then allege his straying from the truth is not the loss of eternal salvation, James uses the word “save,” implying that he was “lost” while straying from the truth, but is returned to salvation through repentance.
To “save his soul from death” refers, not to physical death, but to eternal death in the lake of fire (cf. Revelation 20:14; cf. 2:11). The restored brother has “a multitude of sins” covered by the blood of Christ (cf. 1 John 1:7). The intended goal of the exhortation is to remind Christians of the gravity of falling “away from the Living God” (cf. Hebrews 3:12-19). Christians must take care of themselves, but also take care of each other. The danger of apostasy is an ever present concern.
Warnings from Jude
Jude directs his epistle “To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ” (v. 1). It is indubitable that Jude is writing to Christians. Calvinists often point to the word “kept” in this verse, insisting that those “kept” cannot fall away as to be lost, even if they desired to do so. The error of this allegation is made manifest by Jude near the close of the letter when his readers are admonished to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (v. 21). While it is impossible for any external power to remove a Christian from God’s love and grace, each Christian is ultimately responsible for maintaining purity of faith through devoted obedience to God’s scheme of salvation.
This is why Jude exhorts, “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (v. 3). The expression, “the faith” (found many times in the New Testament), admits of a unified body of truth that is essential to human salvation. The “common salvation” mentioned earlier in this verse signifies the universal benefits derived from the body of truth which comprises “the faith.” The saved will all be saved in the same manner and by the same truth – not by the various and conflicting means espoused across denominationalism.
Why must Christians be admonished to “contend earnestly for the faith”? On the Calvinistic hypothesis, such would appear ludicrous; but Jude immediately discusses “certain men” who are bent on deceiving the faithful by turning “the grace of God into licentiousness” (v. 4). Obviously, some were teaching that the bestowal of God’s grace was a license to sin without discretion. Christians are warned to guard against false doctrine by contending for the faith that results in salvation, not allowing perverse teaching to draw them away from the gospel preached by the apostles (cf. Jude 17).
These “certain men” were attempting to influence Christian doctrine and morality by condoning sin as profitable to increasing God’s grace, i.e., the more one sins, the more God will be glorified for extending grace. This is a perversion of the gospel, and Paul flatly objected to such a distortion by exclaiming, “God Forbid!” (Romans 6:1-2). Jude also implores Christians to not be led away by this unprincipled perversion.
In dramatic fashion, Jude introduces two historic examples of disobedience and the resultant divine justice that followed, establishing the ancient reality of, and the present possibility of, falling away from the grace of God and into a state of everlasting condemnation. The two examples emphasize the broad scope of application:
(1) The nation of Israel had been saved from slavery in Egypt, but God subsequently destroyed those that did not continue in belief (v. 5). Similarly, Jude is fully aware that although Christians have been saved from slavery to the devil, they may subsequently be lost due to unfaithfulness. If this is not true, what relevance does the ancient example have for the Christian?
(2) Angels who once were in heaven, but abandoned “their own domain,” were summarily consigned to “eternal bonds under darkness” (v. 6). Whatever this situation may have involved, it is certain that the rebellion was an overt act of willful disobedience that constituted apostasy by the angels. Although angelic beings are described as “sons of God” who rejoiced at the creation of the earth (Job 38:7), those involved in apostasy have been condemned by God and joined by the wicked from Sodom and Gomorrah “as an example in undergoing [present tense] the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
Following these ancient examples of disobedience and just recompense, Jude returns his thoughts to the false teachers who were compromising Christianity with their ungodly fleshly indulgence and arrogant speech (v. 16). Jude comprehends the genuine danger these false teachers present to the church. In illustration of the theological and moral corruptness of these perverse teachers, Jude again draws from Old Testament examples to reveal the immanent danger these men pose to the church:(1) These teachers had pursued the way of Cain (Jude 11) who refused to worship God “by faith” (Hebrews 11:4). Although Cain was a child of God seeking to worship, he was ultimately banished, “Because his deeds were evil” (1 John 3:12). Failure to worship God in accordance with divine instructions is commensurate with the sin of Cain.
(2) “For pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam” (Jude 11). Balaam began as a faithful servant of God (Numbers 22:9-18) and was called a “prophet” by Peter (2 Peter 2:15-16), but he sold out his prophetic integrity for money, even encouraging Israel to sin against God (Numbers 22-24). The false teachers described by Jude were engaging the same sin as Balaam, and if this activity posed no danger to the church, why bring it up?
(3) These false teachers were also compared to Korah (Jude 11), who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron (thus against God Himself) (Numbers 16). Like those who perished on that occasion, the apostates described by Jude who were rebelling against the apostles’ doctrine, and thus against God, also stood condemned.
Jude is warning of the ominous peril these wicked men pose to the spiritual safety of the church as they revel in their shameless deeds, persuading others to join them in their ambition for personal glory, gain, and sinful indulgence. The church is exhorted to “contend earnestly for the faith” (v. 3), to “remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 17), “building yourselves up on your most holy faith” (v. 20), and to “keep yourselves in the love of God” (v. 21).
Each Christian is responsible for maintaining his own salvation through careful attendance to the apostles’ doctrine (cf. Acts 2:42). Jude fully grasps the possibility of apostasy from the faith that saves, and thus his letter repeatedly emphasizes the looming probability of apostasy if false teachers are allowed a foothold in the church. This warning is equally applicable to the church today, and to ensure our own salvation, we must “contend earnestly for the faith.” Apostasy is a real danger.
Warnings from Jesus to the Churches of Asia Minor
The book of Revelation is written to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). Before receiving the grand visions which would constitute the greater part of the book, John saw Jesus “in the middle” of “seven golden lampstands,” which represented “the seven churches” (1:12-20) to which he was instructed to write. Christ identified Himself as “the One who walks [present tense] among the seven golden lampstands” (2:1). The implication is that the Lord is intimately aware of what transpires in His churches, and throughout His address, He repeatedly expresses that He does, indeed, “know” the details of each congregation’s activities – whether they are faithful or unfaithful in their love and obedience.
(1) The church in Ephesus was acknowledged for having not tolerated evil men, even proving some to be “false apostles” (2:2). They were commended for rejecting “the deeds of the Nicolaitans” (2:6 – an apostate sect not specifically identified). The church had labored with great perseverance, enduring persecution for the Lord’s name (2:3); however, the church in Ephesus had allowed its love for Christ to “grow cold” (2:4; cf. Matthew 24:12). Here is a real danger threatening all of the Lord’s people.
Christ admonished them to “remember from where you have fallen, and repent” (2:5). It is unfeasible to argue these were not Christians. They are the “church in Ephesus” (2:1). But the Lord says they have “fallen,” using the word, peptokas, meaning “fall to one’s ruin or destruction” (Newman, 1993). They are thus commanded to “repent and do the deeds you did at first,” indicating the “fall” could only be recovered through repentance, overcoming the sin which entangled them.
Their sin was one of apathy – allowing their love for Christ and His service to grow cold. It is important to note that, while they were still assembling as the church in Ephesus, their faith had slowly deteriorated to a point where only repentance could spare them. Christ sternly warned that failure to repent by re-engaging the deeds they did at first (indicating Christian obedience is inherently connected to salvation; cf. James 2:14-26) would result in their being disowned as a church belonging to Christ.
Careful attention should attend His warning: “repent…or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place–unless you repent” (2:5). Removing the lampstand signaled the loss of their status as a church belonging to Christ. Implied in such a statement is the fact that although they might continue to meet together, claiming to be the church of Christ, they were, in reality, no longer His people. This point will be readdressed in the conclusion.
The church in Ephesus had “fallen” from favor with Christ, and subsequently needed to repent, returning to do the deeds they had abandoned. If they failed to repent, Christ promises to disown them as His people. They are encouraged to listen to the message of the Spirit, i.e., the inspired words written by John containing the warning from Jesus. The address to the church in Ephesus concludes with the promise: “To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God” (2:7).
Two possible outcomes are clearly discernable for the Christians in Ephesus: 1) they could repent, overcoming the fall they had experienced and thus be granted pardon that leads to life, or 2) they could refuse to repent, suffering the loss of their status as a church which belonged to Christ. Of these two possible outcomes, the first denotes eventual salvation for the church in Ephesus, while the second indicates the eternal death knell as they are rejected by Christ. No clearer warning of apostasy has been examined.
(2) The church in Smyrna had not succumbed to the error associated with the church in Ephesus. Christ comforted this church by expressing awareness of the “tribulation” they were experiencing. Although they had been reduced to acute material poverty, likely by the confiscation of their possessions from the enemies of Christ, they were “rich” with treasures in heaven (cf. Matthew 5:11-12).
Here is proof that the modern day “Prosperity Promise” by celebrated preacher, Joel Osteen, has no basis in New Testament truth, but is derived from the covetous “help me, help you, to help me” scam commonly employed by those who peddle the gospel for personal prosperity, saying anything that will bring in the masses with their wallets open. In contradistinction to Osteen’s promise that God wants to make Christians wealthy, many of the earliest Christians suffered extreme poverty (cf. Romans 15:26).
The church in Smyrna was being persecuted by Jews who blasphemed the name of Christ, claiming to be the people of God, but Jesus said they “are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). Despite the horrific tribulation coming upon them, the church in Smyrna was faithful to Christ, and He exhorted them, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). What would happen if these Christians did not remain “faithful until death”? Obviously, Christ would not give them “the crown of life.” The negative is implied as an opposite truth to the positive affirmation. Apostasy was a real and constant danger.
(3) The church in Pergamum received commendation for holding fast the name of Christ, even as one of their own was martyred. However, Christ noted that some “hold the teaching of Balaam” (2:14), and others “hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans” (2:15). Here is evidence that Christ does not allow His people to practice any doctrine other than that preached by the apostles (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). In lieu of their doctrinal perversion, Christ commands them to “repent; or else I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:16).
An important lesson resides here that censures the modern belief that “one church is as good as another.” If the church is not owned by Christ, it is no church at all; and clearly comprehensible from Revelation 2:14-15 is the fact that Christian doctrine does matter; notwithstanding the position held by Osteen, who prescribes no biblical doctrine as a matter of importance whatsoever (except the doctrine of giving to his ministry). Christ demonstrates that sound doctrine is crucial to salvation, and if the doctrine preached by the apostles is not being followed, that church has no part in Christ.
These are lessons that sorely need to be taught among the denominational and non-denominational sectarian entities. The sign by the road does not make an assembly the church of Christ. Every self-styled church honestly desiring to please Christ should give the more earnest heed to the doctrine preached by the apostles for attaining salvation, maintaining salvation, and finally obtaining salvation. The things frequently embraced in the modern mega church have no semblance to the teachings of the apostles in the church of the New Testament. If Christ was so stern with the church in Pergamum concerning false doctrines being espoused, commanding them to repent, what would He say today?
(4) The church in Thyatira was commended for their love, service, perseverance, and increasing good deeds, but a serious problem was noted: The church was allowing a false “prophetess” to lead them into sexual corruptness and idolatry. Consistent with the Lord’s design of salvation, she had been given “time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality” (2:21). Although every child of God sins (1 John 1:8, 10), provision has been made in the gospel for the Christian to deal with sin (1 John 1:9 - 2:2).
The grace of Christ grants time for repentance in even the most depraved instances of sin, however, “Everyone who practices sin [a sustained state in unrestrained fashion] also practices lawlessness” (I John 3:4), and “the one who practices sin is of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The “one who practices righteousness [a sustained effort to walk in obedient faith] is righteous, just as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7).
Christ will not tolerate a lifestyle of determined sin, but demands repentance. In the case of Jezebel the false “prophetess,” He warned, “Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill all her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:22-23). The time of grace for Jezebel and her rabble had reached its end, and the Lord promised to deal with the unrepentant.
Sinful activity is not to be tolerated in the church, yet modern Christianity has embraced many sins, including adultery and fornication among its members through illicit marital unions (cf. Matthew 5:31-32), and even homosexuality has become acceptable as a demonstration of “Christian tolerance” (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). It is interesting to note that Christ rebuked the church in Thyatira on account of their tolerant attitude concerning wickedness. He said, “I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess” (Revelation 2:20; emp. added). Increasing tolerance for sin has now become the template of apostate Christianity. For shame!
If the church in Thyatira was deserving of reproof by Christ for tolerating sin in the first century, what has changed in the apostles’ doctrine that now grants exemption from repentance, allowing open indulgence in the most decadent acts of human sexual deviance in the modern church? Nothing has changed for the true church of Christ – but manmade entities led by those calling themselves “prophets” and “prophetesses” have gone the way of Cain, Balaam, Korah, and Jezebel. The claim that it is impossible to fall away from Christ is the explicit evidence that the authority of the New Testament has been abandoned in favor of unrestrictive human philosophy.
Jesus commands Christians to repent of their sins, or else. The “or else” always includes the coming of Christ for the purpose of punishment, dealing with “each one of you according to your deeds” (2:23). The language of Christ does not acquit Christians who are guilty of abandoning moral restraint while continuing to profess Christianity. Those refusing to repent will incur the wrath of Christ.
Despite the widespread influence of Jezebel, the church in Thyatira also had members present who had not accepted her false teachings and lewd behavior. Christ encouraged these faithful servants, saying, “hold fast until I come” (2:25). No “other burden” (2:24) was to be borne by the faithful remnant accept continuance in the way of righteousness. It is of utmost importance to realize from Christ’s address to Thyatira that although a solitary congregation may be steeped in wickedness and false teaching, Christ judges each Christian individually.
Even though an elder or evangelist of a local congregation may be teaching erroneously, his teaching and individual practice does not constitute blanket rejection of the whole congregation. Some, who are powerless to change the situation, but who do not agree with the error espoused by another, may remain faithful to the Lord, even while others in the same congregation are teaching false doctrine and practicing gross immorality. Too many have engaged in uprooting the wheat along with the tares in direct opposition to the Lord’s instructions (Matthew 13:24-30). The Lord deals with sin on an individual basis – and so should His church.
(5) The church in Sardis was also known intimately by the Lord, and although they considered themselves a thriving church, they were spiritually dead (Revelation 3:1). This indicates that opinions of men as to what constitutes a faithful church has no bearing upon what the Lord holds as true. The Lord called on those in Sardis to “wake up,” strengthening “the things that remain, which were about to die, for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent” (3:2-3).
The church in Sardis had “received” the truth, but through serious apathy, they had failed to fully comply with all that Christ requires of His people. He exhorts these lethargic Christians to “remember” what they had received, “and keep it.” The entire address reveals the individual responsibility of Christians to remain obedient to the teachings of Christ. Jesus knows nothing of salvation by “faith alone,” but commands those who have not “completed” their obedience in the sight of God to “repent.” If these refuse to “repent,” the Lord will come suddenly upon them “like a thief” (3:3), taking back what had been given in grace (cf. Matthew 18:23-35).
Similar to the church in Thyatira, there remained a faithful remnant in Sardis “who have not soiled their garments.” Despite the shadow of spiritual death lingering over the majority of the church, a faithful few persisted, receiving assurance from the Lord that “they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy” (3:4). These were deemed “worthy” based upon their continued submission and obedience to the will of Christ.
In addition, the Lord also promised, “He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; And I will not erase his name from the book of life” (3:5). Those previously rebuked by the Lord could “overcome” their present state of unfaithfulness through repentance, turning back to the Lord in humble obedience, whereby Christ promised, “I will not erase his name from the book of life.” By implication, this statement indicates the names of those remaining unfaithful would be erased from the book of life. Here is the stake through the heart of Calvinism – Christ will erase the names of the unfaithful from the Lamb’s book of life.
The “book of life” records the names of those who belong to Christ (cf. Revelation 21:27; 20:15). Unfaithfulness to the Lord in allegiance, doctrinal purity, submissive obedience, or proper moral conduct can result in a Christian’s name being erased from the book of life. Repentance is the only remedy for all these spiritual ailments. A failure to repent will result in forfeiture of eternal life, as Christ erases a previously written name from the book of life. The child of God can most certainly apostatize and be lost. Those currently teaching otherwise are handling the word of God deceitfully.
(6) The church in Philadelphia received nothing but praise from the Lord, but a word of caution appears in the instructions to “hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (3:11). Jesus warned Christians to remain faithful, not allowing false teachers who were robbing the crowns of the righteous through perverted doctrine and gross immorality to also prevail in Philadelphia.
This is firm testimony from Christ that even the most faithful church must remain vigilant, “contending earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3). The grave possibility of apostasy ceases not throughout the Christian’s life, thus the encouragement by Christ to “hold fast what you have.” If the child of God could not fall away, these exhortations are meaningless drivel; but Christ has spoken – let us give heed to Christ.
(7) The church in Laodicea was the antithesis of the church in Philadelphia – not one word of praise was given to Laodicea. Here was a church that completely nauseated the Lord. Great wealth and affluent living had blinded this congregation to the desperation of their true spiritual situation. In contrast to their own opinion, the Lord described them as “wretched,” “miserable,” “poor,” “blind,” and “naked” (3:17).
One must not lose sight that this address pertains not to alien sinners outside the body of Christ, but to a church – a blood bought people for His own possession. Herein is the catalyst to the Lord’s anticipated expulsion of these unfaithful Christians in the same manner as one eliminates any unsatisfying or distasteful thing. The Lord was about to “emeo, ‘to vomit’ (Vine, 1996, p. 592) this church out of His body.
However, before eliminating them, Christ reiterates His love, saying, “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent” (3:19). The letter of warning penned by John was their discipline and reproof. The church was called upon to “repent.” Although their current attitude was nauseating to the Lord, He nonetheless appealed to them to act responsibly. The Lord is never swift to break off the wicked, but patiently stands at the door and knocks, desiring to continue in fellowship with the people He died to save.
An interesting possibility seems to emerge from the Lord’s statement: “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (3:20). While most denominationalists quote this verse with reference to alien sinners being asked to open the door of their heart to Jesus in order to become a Christian, the Lord made this specific statement to those who were already His church, but who had locked Christ out of their fellowship. Based upon the language and the existing situation in Laodicea, it seems reasonable to conclude the Lord is expressing His desire to be readmitted to the congregation’s weekly observance of the sacred supper.
The Lord appeals to “anyone” at Laodicea to hear His voice and open the door, allowing Him to re-enter the worship of the church and participate in the communion fellowship of the Lord’s Supper. How significant is the Lord’s Supper to Christ and His church if this is, in reality, the true meaning of His words in this passage? To discontinue the weekly observance of the sacred supper is to reject and eject Christ from the assembly. The peril of such an arrangement appears vividly in Christ’s declaration that He would “vomit” the church in Laodicea out of His mouth (3:16). Apostasy is abhorrent to the Lord.
Conclusion (of Part IV)
The warnings from James, Jude and Jesus are equally comprehensible concerning the possibility of a child of God, even an entire church, falling away from the grace offered by the Lord. It is important to recognize from these warnings that an apostate from the faith does not always disappear from the assembly of the local congregation. Jude warned of those who “feast with you without fear” (v. 12), and Jesus indicated that it is possible for the majority of Christians in one congregation to become so corrupt as to incur His rejection and wrath.
The churches at Ephesus and Laodicea were in danger of total congregational apostasy, and absent repentance, they would be summarily removed as a body of the Lord’s people. The removal of the lampstand signifies that ownership of the church by Christ was terminated. Although apostate Christians might continue to assemble as a church indefinitely, even possessing a name of being “alive” by those ill-informed, their former status as a church of Christ would cease, barring repentance and a return to the truth. This category of churches envelopes most of modern Christendom – the great apostasy from the faith into a false system of religious corruption prophesied by Paul (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 Timothy 4) has long ago appeared as a rival to New Testament Christianity.
The churches at Thyatira, Sardis, and possibly Pergamum (cf. 2:16 – “you” / “them”) were examples of congregations that consisted of some who were faithful, while others were grossly unfaithful – whether in doctrine or in personal conduct. The faithful were to “hold fast,” not allowing the activities of the unfaithful to drag them into apostasy. The unfaithful were commanded to “repent.” Here was a situation that was quite common in the earliest times of Christianity when only one congregation of the Lord’s church was present in a given city. Although in many regions the presence of multiple churches coupled with convenient travel capabilities have aided in separating the doctrinally faithful from the unfaithful, it remains possible under certain situations for both to still reside in the same assembly. The Lord will handle the logistics of separation.
The churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia should be our pattern today. Here are examples of those who served the Lord faithfully, remaining pure in allegiance to Christ, pure in the apostles’ doctrine, pure in submissive obedience, and pure in moral conduct. This does not mean the individual Christians never sinned, but that they persevered in repenting and confessing their sins to Christ, seeking to live according to all that Christ commanded through His holy apostles without additions or subtractions from the faith.
Apostasy is a clear and present danger. Individual Christians can fall away; partial congregations can fall away; entire congregations can fall away. The very need for such a study as the one presently undertaken evinces apostasy on behalf of some from the teachings of the New Testament. Granted, the depth of apostasy has sunk so low that the majority who now claim Christianity have never even obeyed the most rudimentary steps of obedience to become a child of God – despite their vehement claims to the contrary.
The reality for these is that they have never been raised with Christ from whence they can fall, but their denial of the possibility of apostasy is like a cancer unleashed – it spreads uncontrollably throughout all of Christendom, affecting the faithful remnant in the same way the false doctrines of the Nicolaitans, Balaam, and Jezebel ate away at the true churches addressed by Christ. Apostasy is a real possibility. He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene Albert Nida (1996), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament:
Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible
Newman, Barclay M., Jr. (1993), A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart,
Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft; United Bible Societies).
Vine, W. E. (1996), Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers).