Forsaking the Faith

feature-article.gifDuring recess in elementary school a favorite activity of ours was a good, vigorous game of soccer. What made it vigorous, of course, was the lack of referees! This also made for an interesting and regularly occurring phenomenon: players that would, during the course of the game, defect to the other side! This definitely made the game more interesting, as one team would soon outnumber the other.The defection of loved ones, friends, and church members to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Lutheranism has seemed to increase in recent years. The most recent, high-profile defection from evangelical ranks to Catholicism is Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a professional society of Bible scholars, teachers, and pastors. Additionally, much of evangelicalism has come to view adherents of these religious “traditions” as brothers and sisters in Christ.

What motivates professing believers to leave for these religious groups? Why is this a growing trend? Should those who now identify with Catholic, Orthodox, or possibly even Lutheran churches still be viewed as Christians? Is there anything fundamental churches can do about it?

Attractions to Apostasy
One reason given for going over to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Lutheranism is their liturgy. Many like the formality of worship, aura of “spirituality,” use of images, and observance of the sacraments. In Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy Mary and the saints are objects of veneration and honor. Independent churches are allegedly too focused on one individual (the pastor/preacher) rather than “Christ.”

Another reason is the emphasis these churches place on the sacraments. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are essentially the same in their belief regarding the number of sacraments and their belief that by simply receiving a particular rite they receive God’s grace. They view baptism as washing away original sin and the elements of the Lord’s Supper as becoming the actual body and blood of Christ (called transubstantiation). Lutheranism sees the baptized individual as entering God’s family and in the Lord’s Supper Christ’s actual body is mystically present every time and every place it is observed (consubstantiation). Indeed, the sacraments are often the most important reason professing Christians defect to these churches, as they feel the need to continue receiving Christ’s work through these means.

An additional motive for leaving independent or other Protestant churches is the desire to have a definite connection with “historic” Christianity. What is meant by this is the ability to connect oneself with the various church fathers and councils of the past. Those considering leaving are bothered by feeling disconnected from New Testament times. They believe that simply basing their faith and practice on “the Bible says” is too simplistic. One allegedly needs to be able to trace his church’s beliefs to the apostles, and so by joining the Catholic, Orthodox, or Lutheran church, that needed connection is allegedly made.

What would cause a believer who at one time professed Jesus as his only Mediator to subscribe to a religious system that prays to Mary, saints, and uses human priests? Why would someone who at one time believed solely on the finished work of Christ for salvation now say they continually need to partake of the sacraments in order to receive Christ’s work? How could someone turn their back on the sufficiency of Scripture for creeds, councils, and confessions?

There is no one single answer for every individual who changes his direction, but there are at least three common reasons that definitely bring about the defection. Sometimes it is just one of these reasons; other times it is a combination of all three.

A Clean Pig Is Still a Pig
A first important reason why apparently strong, healthy Christians eventually turned away from the faith is set forth in 2 Peter 2:22: “but it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” In context, the passage describes false teachers who were never true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. The principle here is clear: you can wash a pig, but it will still be a pig.

An unbeliever can say he believes in Christ, talk like a Christian, and even serve and fellowship with Christians, but if there has not been a radical change of nature within the heart, he is still an unbeliever. His life might have been greatly cleaned up, but without experiencing the new birth he will eventually act in line with his true, unregenerate nature.

Such individuals are easy prey for those who would lure them back to the theological mud from which they came, and Catholicism has busied itself with such attempts. The Catholic Church currently promotes a six-week series called “Catholics Returning Home” with this end in view. A similar effort aimed at Protestant clergy is called the “Coming Home Network.” Professing Christians fall prey to these attempts ultimately because they are without the Spirit-given ability to discern these errors.

Holes in the Fence
A second factor that has influenced many to defect is the effect of new evangelicalism. While this movement initially stood against Catholicism, its willingness to be open to opposing ideas on fundamental, cardinal doctrines made it easy for false teachers and doctrine to introduce their destructive teachings. The referral of converts from evangelistic campaigns to the church of their choice sent lambs into the dens of wolves. Formal efforts to bring “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” have definitely brought evangelicals closer to Catholicism and strengthened a sense of brotherliness between the two.

God established separation to serve as a fence whereby the flock would be protected from ravenous wolves, especially those who disguise themselves in sheep’s clothing (2 Cor 6:14–7:1). It is sad to watch those who fancy themselves shepherds of God’s sheep tear down the fence they should have sought diligently to strengthen. What does a believer in Jesus Christ have in common with a worshiper of Mary? What fellowship should there be with those who see grace communicated through rituals?

A Look in the Mirror
A final cause for these departures from the true faith is found by looking into the mirror of our own local churches. Christ gave the church gifted men to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry so the body would be edified, matured, and protected from “every wind of doctrine, the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness” (Eph 4:11–14 ). Too many pulpits, Sunday school lecterns, and ministry programs fail to disciple hearers in the whole counsel of God. Believers refuse to use their spiritual gifts (1 Pet 4:11), stimulate each other to do right (Heb 10:24), and exhort one another to persevere in the faith (Heb 3:12–13).

God has established the church as the means for evangelism and edification, but this does not mean that everything done under its auspices accomplishes those objectives. When the church fails to give out the true gospel, firmly establish its members in the faith, and cry out against clear dangers, we should not be surprised to see professing believers leave the true gospel for a false one.

While we cannot bring about the necessary spiritual change in men’s hearts nor stop the continued downward slide of evangelicalism, there is something we can do about our local churches. In Acts 20, Paul instructed the Ephesian elders to fulfill their calling as overseers and shepherds of God’s flock (20:28):

  • They must preach a gospel that calls for repentance and faith (20:21).
  • They must declare the whole counsel of God (20:27).
  • They must protect the flock from wolves without and within (20:28–30).
  • They must rely solely on God’s grace for spiritual growth and eternal life (20:32).

Helping the saints grow in the faith and protecting them from error is not just the responsibility of spiritual leadership. Every believer is given at least one spiritual gift for the edification of the body (1 Cor 12:7). Every believer should be praying for other believers (Eph 6:18). Every believer should reach out to those who are doubting and snatch them out of the fire (Jude 22–23).

Are We Even on the Same Team?
Let’s go back to the playground of my elementary school days, specifically my schoolmates who switched teams the middle of a soccer game. When this happened, what opinion would you expect a team to have of one who went to the other side? They would consider him their opponent, not their teammate!

Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Lutheranism are religious faiths identified as part of Christendom. For one to switch to one of these faiths is seen as more akin to changing field positions than changing sides. But is this really the case?

If one believes that he must pray to an individual in addition to Jesus Christ, is that Christianity? “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Even if one prays to Mary, Jesus’ mother, another mediator between God and men has been introduced, and that is not Christianity.

If someone believes that he must continue to receive the benefits of Jesus’ work through baptism or the Lord’s Supper, is that true Christianity? “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8–9). These are not sacraments—rites that actually convey grace to the participant. They are ordinances, means by which one testifies he has turned to Christ and remembers Christ’s death on his behalf. Even if one depends on Christian activities for grace, another means of gaining acceptance with God has been introduced, and that is not Christianity.

Those who at one time were my teammates but went over to the other side had many similarities with me: they were boys and in the same grade. But on that particular occasion the similarities stopped there, because they willingly became my opponent. It does not matter what resemblances there may be among some “Christian” churches; similar and identical are not the same thing. One is acceptable to God through faith alone in Christ alone.

Those who forsake biblical Christianity are working against the truth of the gospel and cannot be embraced as brothers—or “teammates.”

Why Do People Defect to the Other Side?
These defections often occur because individuals were never truly on the right side to begin with! They may have tasted the word, but they demonstrated their true colors by eventually falling away from the faith (Heb 6:4–8).

Sometimes they leave because they were continually exposed to false teachers so that their simple hearts were deceived by “good words and fair speeches” (Rom 16:17–18). Such teachers should have been clearly marked and avoided, but instead they were invited in as brethren and given the pulpit.

Furthermore, there is the problem of the church not fulfilling her Christ-given responsibilities. Each church, no matter its size, is able through the all-sufficient Word of God and the Holy Spirit to effectively proclaim the gospel message and help its members mature in the faith.

Let us determine to preach the true gospel, ground believers in the faith, involve them in the local church, and vigorously contend for the faith by exposing false teachers and those who coddle them.

October/November 2007

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