Apostasy and Backsliding
by W. E. Nunnally
By W.E. Nunnally
Apostasy and backsliding. These seemingly innocuous words have been the subject of endless controversy in the church for the last 1,500 years. In the 5th century these words pitted Augustine against his detractors; in the 16th and 17th centuries the followers of John Calvin and Jacobus Arminius engaged a battle that continues today. So contentious is this issue that Dale Moody once described it in terms that suggest it is the most divisive point of doctrine among Christians today.1
For clergy and interested laypersons, the standard sources of information on this doctrinal issue usually further confuse the issue. English translations of the Bible vary widely in their use of apostasy and backsliding. For example, the KJV never employs the word apostasy (and its cognates), whereas the NASB uses it (and its cognates) 12 times in its attempt to capture the intent of the original languages of Scripture. Similarly, the KJV uses the term backsliding (and its cognates) 17 times, while the NRSV employs it only once.
A comparison of Jeremiah 8:5 in multiple translations yields multiple translation options: “apostasy,” NASB; “turn away,” NIV; “backsliding,” KJV, NKJV. In the vast majority of other places and other words where terminological differences exist between translations, the different words are demonstrably synonymous. But given the intensity of the theological discourse surrounding apostasy and backsliding — and the difference in translations — the same cannot be said of these two words.
To understand apostasy and backsliding, we usually look to Hebrew and Greek lexicons. We discover that the original terms behind these two biblical words yield mixed results. Many of these works define the relevant biblical terms with language that suggests apostasy and backsliding refer to the same spiritual status. This leaves students with the sense that lexicographers view these terms as synonymous. Yet, students have an awareness that passages cited by the lexicons in support of their definitions appear to be describing two different spiritual states with two different outcomes.
Finally, the student of Scripture sometimes exercises the “nuclear option” of biblical studies. He consults Bible dictionaries and theological wordbooks in a last-ditch attempt to comprehend with clarity what the Bible is trying to communicate when it uses these two words. Here as well, however, we see the same ambiguity encountered in the various translations and lexicons. By this point in the study, it has become increasingly evident that the authors of these various works, as good and helpful as they are, are engaged in the above-mentioned war that grips the study of apostasy and backsliding. Unfortunately, more often than not, the authors’ theological persuasions shape their conclusions regarding the meanings of the biblical words that lie behind apostasy and backsliding.
For serious students of Scripture, this is frustrating. We are seeking biblical clarity that we can translate into godly living and effective communication. So, if after surveying the best translations, consulting the relevant lexicons, Bible dictionaries, and theological wordbooks the answer is not clear, must we simply settle for biblical ambiguity? On the other hand, should we begin to count the resources that take a certain position and simply choose the one that has the most proponents? Or should we assume a position based on the visibility, influence, education, or denominational affiliation of a favorite author with whose opinion we are most comfortable? This is far too arbitrary for such an important subject. The nature of absolute truth is such that neither the popularity of a position nor the persuasiveness of its promoter is sufficient to establish it as fact.
What, then, is the recourse of the pastor or lay leader? In struggling with this dilemma, we come to the nature of truth, the priesthood of every believer, and the principles of communication. With respect to truth, God has so composed our world and so created our minds that we usually recognize truth by means of the evidence that supports it. Regarding the priesthood of the believer, God has gifted us to read and understand the message of Scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit. As to communication, from our mother’s lap we have been honing our ability to receive and process verbal and written messages with a view toward understanding the intended meaning of the speaker/author.
Every day we receive and understand hundreds and thousands of words that come from sources such as phone, fax machine, radio, TV, pulpit, Post-it® Note, and mail. Incredibly, we understand most of this onslaught of verbal and written information. We truly are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NASB2).
In defense of translations, lexicons, Bible dictionaries, and theological wordbooks, they usually do an incredible job helping us more clearly apprehend the language of Scripture. In this instance, however, we have asked more of them than we should expect given the nature of the biblical evidence and the intensity of the Calvinist/Arminian, debate.
The biblical words behind the English apostasy and backsliding are sometimes, indeed, the same word. At other times, the same Greek or Hebrew word can give us two different shades of meaning. Consider, for example, the English word reservation. Most of us could think of at least four or five different nuances of this word. The same can be said of trunk, level, stop, and a myriad of other words. All languages contain this same dynamic. The key to understanding which of all the possible meanings a speaker/author intends is simply context. With context, we have at our disposal a resource that is more powerful than any lexicon or dictionary that can only provide abstract definitions. Context enables us to narrow the possible meanings of a word from many to few, and usually to only one.
The goal of communication is to communicate clearly. Therefore, communicators provide contextual clues within the larger framework of their statements that interlock and support the thought that the speaker/author is trying to convey. This is the case in all forms of communication from all time periods. Thus we can bring to bear on the sacred communications of Scripture all the practice and skill we have amassed since infancy. But it gets better: not only do we have built-in and finely honed skills of contextualization, we also have an exceptionally large body of material — the Bible — from which we can extract relevant data.
We need to ask: Are we willing to go beyond the limitations inherent within the lexicons, Bible dictionaries, and theological wordbooks? Is it possible that we as nonspecialists can go beyond the experts and achieve the clarity we seek? Are we willing to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty in the difficult work of reading large and diverse portions of our Bibles in context, think carefully and clearly about what the author is trying to tell us, and come to our own independent conclusions? A note of encouragement is in order: Jesus, Saul/Paul, Stephen, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Apollos were willing to do this … and look at the result. An unwavering commitment and hard work are the only things preventing us from taking our place in that noble list of tireless, fearless contextualizers (who, by the way, had no lexicons, Bible dictionaries, or theological wordbooks) that we read about in the New Testament.
A Methodological Way Forward
With such a daunting task before us, where do we start? Here is where we come back to the question of whether there is a real, substantive difference between the biblical concepts of apostasy and backsliding or not. Since we have already consulted the standard tools of biblical study, it would make sense to make use of information gleaned from them.
Going back to our notes, we find that not only do we have a long list of possible meanings for the various biblical words in question, we also have a tremendous list of Scripture passages available to us as we consult various translations and their concordances. Similarly, we have many additional passages that lexicons, Bible dictionaries, and theological wordbooks list. In many of these passages, the key words do not appear, but do not disregard these passages — most will address the same issue using other words. In this way, even these passages become incredibly helpful in clarifying the meaning(s) of the words in question. In this way the Bible is acting as its own theological wordbook, defining its own terms, a reality we refer to as “Scripture interprets Scripture.”
Having found these passages, write or type the references in canonical order. As you do, look them up in a study Bible and add to your list any cross-references that might remotely be related to the issue. If you own Bible software or have access to the Internet, paste in the entire passage associated with each verse.
After you have completed your list, the real brainwork begins. Read each passage independently of one another, allowing that author to say what he wants to say, not what we want him to say. As noted above, this study is challenging because some of the biblical words have more than one meaning and can mean both backsliding and apostasy.
As with English words that have multiple meanings, however, we can still find the meaning intended by the original author by reading those words in the larger contexts in which they appear. When we do this, clues to the author’s intended meaning should be there in terms of historical context, word associations, synonyms used to clarify, and descriptions of the spiritual status and the results of that status (judgment or forgiveness, acceptance of sacrifice or rejection of sacrifice, etc.). Last, label each passage as referring to apostasy, backsliding, or unclear. Resist the temptation to force a passage into one of the two preferred categories. Your passages will not all be equally clear, but there is such a large amount of material to work with that you can still be honest and expect a sufficient number of passages to address your issue. What follows in the next two sections is a representative list of passages from my personal study of apostasy and backsliding. (You can do your own study by consulting the more complete list of Scripture references in the worksheet.)
Old Testament Texts
The Torah/Pentateuch/Law of Moses contains dozens of instances where Israel falls into sin, comes into disfavor with God, repents, and is restored (e.g., Exodus 32:1–14; Leviticus 4:1–35; Numbers 14:1–20; etc.). Whether our English translation of the Bible employs the word backsliding or not, all the component parts of what we know to be backsliding are present: a temporary disruption in our relationship with God due to temporary disobedience, which we resolve by repentance, and then a restoration of fellowship with no eternal consequences.
On the other hand, there are many passages in the Torah in which the outcome is not as positive. For example, Numbers 15:30 describes the fate of one who commits premeditated, obstinate, unrepentant rebellion: “But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from among his people.” The verb “cut off” (karat)used here cannot mean “put to death physically” as an atonement for his own sin, as many in the eternal security camp suggest. Moses uses the same root in the phrase “certificate of divorce” (Deuteronomy 24:1). There it means legal and physical separation, not execution, whether carried out by God or man.
In addition, the broader context of Numbers 15 juxtaposes this person (notice the introductory word “But,” verse 30) to the person who sins inadvertently, acknowledges his sin, offers a sacrifice, and is forgiven (verses 24–28, and especially 29). In comparison, the one who “acts with a high hand” (a literal translation of verse 30) is “cut off” (divorced, excommunicated) from the nation (same root used again in verse 31), and “his guilt [iniquity] shall be upon him” (verse 31). In other words, quite the opposite of the guilty party’s death ensuring his atonement, he must leave the camp bearing his own sin.
This picture is in stark contrast to the “scapegoat” which, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest sent into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:21,22) “bear[ing, nasa] on itself all their iniquities.” Further, the prophet Ezekiel employs the same image (even using the same verb) of apostate Israel in his day, “Because you have forgotten Me and cast Me behind your back, bear (nasa) now the punishment of your lewdness and your harlotries” (23:35). See also Isaiah’s use of the root nasa in his description of the Suffering Servant, who “bore the sin of many” (53:12).
The Bible contrasts repentance and restoration experienced by the wayward (backslider) with the harshness and finality with which God treats the “person who acts with a high hand.” Therefore, whether the word apostate is used or not, the Pentateuch teaches that there is a substantive difference between the spiritual status of the two persons, the options each has, and their final estate. (For further study, see study notes on Numbers 14:25–46; Deuteronomy 13:12–18; 29:18–20; 31:16–18; and 32:15–43 in the worksheet.)
Jeremiah is most representative of the words of the prophets because he deals so extensively with the problem of God’s wayward covenant community. In one passage, he states that God gave “faithless [backsliding or apostate,m’shuvah] Israel” her “certificate of divorce” and “sent her away” (3:8, NIV). The rest of the passage, however, reveals that God commanded Jeremiah to proclaim, “Return, faithless (m’shuvah) Israel … I am gracious. … Only acknowledge your iniquity … and I will take you [back]. … nor will they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart. … I will heal your faithlessness” (verses 12–14,17,22). The word m’shuvah here must be translated “backsliding” since it is God who holds out for them the possibility of repentance and reconciliation.In other words, the larger literary context defines the meaning of the word by the clues it provides concerning the status of the nation in God’s eyes.
As noted in this article’s introduction, however, words in all languages are capable of embodying multiple meanings. This is easily seen elsewhere in Jeremiah. For example, Jeremiah 5:6 declares that destruction will overtake the people “because … their apostasies (m’shuvot, plural of m’shuvah) are numerous.” Destruction? Yes, and verse 7 asks the rhetorical question, “Why should I pardon you?” The expected answer is, “You shouldn’t!” God then says that when He rebuked them, they only got worse, and the next rhetorical question follows, “Shall I not punish these people … and on a nation such as this shall I not avenge Myself?” (verse 9). Logically, the next verse details God’s command to destroy the mutinous element of the people in judgment (verses 10–13), but to leave a small, presumably righteous remnant (verse 10) about which the prophets speak elsewhere.
In Jeremiah 14:10, the Lord returns to His description of this irreconcilable people, “They have loved to wander. … Therefore the Lord does not accept them; now He will remember their iniquity and call their sins to account.” Then He commanded the prophet Jeremiah, “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. When they fast, I am not going to listen to their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I am not going to accept them. Rather I am going to make an end of them” (verses 11,12). The people have crossed a threshold with no turning back. God declares that the time for mercy is past and the time for judgment has come (cf. the language “now He will remember their iniquity and call their sins to account,” verse 10). Only destruction can follow, since they have squandered all opportunities for forgiveness and all avenues to forgiveness and reconciliation (fasting, prayer, sacrifice) are closed (verse 12). Even the prayers of one of God’s most celebrated spokesmen were expressly forbidden (and not only here — cf. Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; cf. also 1 John 5:16 and my article “God Looks at All Sin the Same: Sound Biblical Teaching or Sloppy Bumper-Sticker Theology?”3
In Jeremiah 7:16 and 11:14, not only is the decree of judgment irreversible, but the previous calls to repent, God’s mercies, His restoration of the wayward, and any of the reconciliatory language of chapter 3 are conspicuously absent. Therefore, because of the contextual indicators in chapters 5 and 14 that speak of judgment and destruction rather than repentance and reconciliation, it is not appropriate to translate the m’shuvah of 5:6 as “backsliding” as it was in 3:8. Instead it should be rendered “apostasies,” because the larger literary context indicates that the breach between God and His people at this point is irreparable. (For further study and to practice contextualizing Scripture, see additional passages and study notes in the worksheet.)
In the section of the Hebrew Bible called the “Writings,” the word m’shuvah appears in Proverbs 1:32, “The m’shuvah [waywardness] of the naïve shall kill them.” But the next verse holds out the promise that “he who listens to me shall live securely.” From the larger context, it would appear that the author believes those involved in this m’shuvah are still redeemable.
In another wisdom text, however, the utterly unredeemable scream at God, “Depart from us! We do not even desire the knowledge of your ways!” (Job 21:14). The same divinely inspired author then inveighs against them, “Let him drink from the wrath of the Almighty” (verse 20). Therefore, as in the Torah and the Prophets, the wise teachers of ancient Israel were acutely aware that there are two classes of people who are out of fellowship with God: those who are yet redeemable and those who are not. Whether we employ the words backsliders and apostates or some other pair of words, the reality remains that throughout the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, its divinely inspired authors regularly referred to both and left clues sufficient for careful readers to discriminate between the two.
New Testament Texts
With an awareness of the Hebrew Scriptures, it should not be surprising that New Testament personalities are also aware of the distinction made in the Old Testament and amplify it. For example, Jesus makes a clear distinction between the misdeeds of one class of sinners and the misdeeds of another. He taught “any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31,32). Whatever constitutes blasphemy against the Spirit, Jesus declares this sin unforgivable, whereas He classifies other sins as forgivable. Thus, Jesus’ teaching is no different from what the Torah, Prophets, and Writings teach. However, He underlines the importance of this distinction by stating the truth twice. To ignore His words is peril; to ameliorate them invites disaster (Matthew 5:19; cf. Revelation 2:20–23). Further, the remainder of teaching in the Gospels accords with this basic teaching of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:62; 13:27,28; John 6:66; 15:6, etc.). To continue this study, see the Scriptures and study notes in the worksheet.
The apostle Paul continues in the same vein, insisting that God can restore certain wayward saints (“backsliders,” Galatians 6:1). Writing to the Romans, however, he insists that after knowing God (Romans 1:21), knowing the truth (verse 25, “exchanged”), acknowledging God (verse 28, “they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer”), and “doing instinctively the things of the law” (i.e., obeying God, 2:14), some refused “to honor [glorify, NASB margin] Him as God” (1:21, cf. also verse 28), resorted to idolatrous substitutes (verses 23,25), substituted a lie for the truth (verse 25), and descended into the most vile forms of immorality (verses 24,26,27). They did these things despite the fact they knew God has consigned those who do such things to death (verse 32). Having descended to this point, God simply gave them the desires of their hearts: their thoughts became futile and their hearts were darkened (verse 21), they became fools (verse 22); and they were given over to “lusts” and “degrading passions” (verses 24,26). Ultimately, He “gave them over to a depraved (“reprobate,” KJV) mind” (verse 28).
Paul uses similar language in Ephesians 4:17–19 to describe those who have “become callous” (verse 19) and who are therefore “excluded from the life of God” (verse 18). He refers to this same status as being “seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). According to Paul, these people lead others astray, stating, “some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (verse 1). Not only consistent with the teachings of the Old Testament and Jesus, Paul is consistent with his teaching in Romans 1 throughout his letters. He applies the same two categories to Israel and the Church in Romans 11:5–23, to believers in Galatia who have added to the way of salvation (Galatians 1:6–9; 5:4), and to other recipients of his letters (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Timothy 1:19; 4:1; 2 Timothy 2:1–21, etc.; cf. Additional Scriptures and study notes are in the worksheet.)
Irrespective of the vocabulary one chooses to represent these two classes of people, Paul recognizes that some errant saints are reconcilable, while others have moved far beyond that point. The decisions they have made, the lifestyles they have chosen, and the state of mind they have adopted (their hearts having become “dull,” “hardened,” their consciences “callous” and “seared”) precludes the possibility of them receiving the conviction of the Spirit and His wooing to repentance and restoration.
Representative of the remainder of New Testament, John picks up precisely where Paul has taken the study. John recognizes there are those for whom restoration is still possible, but there also is another group for whom this is no longer an option. In 1 John 5:16, he notes, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this” (italics added). In addition to this text, there are other texts that make the same point (Hebrews 3:12; 4:11; 6:4–6; 10:26–31; 12:15–17,25; 2 Peter 2:20. See a longer list with study notes at in the worksheet.)
In this study I have attempted to bypass the logjam of terminology and the endless rhetoric associated with the approach in which each side merely parrots the conclusions of its favorite lexicographers and commentators. In the spirit of Dale Moody, I have attempted an approach grounded in a fresh, contextualized reading of Scripture that allows it to define its own terms.
I conclude that the entire Bible consistently teaches the existence of two distinct groups who are outside the fellowship God intends to have with His covenant people: one which we can still reach, and another which has insulated itself from the gentle, merciful, convicting power of God’s Spirit, whose purpose it is to correct and restore.
God’s people seldom hear this distinction articulated today. Consequently, the many students and laypeople with whom I work are often completely unaware of this biblical reality and the Scriptures on which it is founded. While there are still those among us who are redeemable, and in light of the fearful prospect of judgment awaiting those who are approaching a seared, callous conscience, let us “have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire … hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 23).
1. Dale Moody, The Word of Truth: A Summary of Christian Doctrine Based on Biblical Revelation. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 348.
2. Unless noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).
3. W.E. Nunnally, “God Looks at All Sin the Same: Sound Biblical Teaching or Sloppy Bumper Sticker Theology?” Enrichment journal 13, no 1 (Winter 2008): 110–114, or at http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200801/200801_110_GodLooksSin.cfm.