‘Apostasy’ - from the writings of John Owen
BY BISHOP DAVID N. SAMUEL
John Owen is one who has written comprehensively on this subject. I have, therefore, taken his writings as the basis for what I want to say, while drawing on the contribution of others here and there, and interjecting some comments of my own.
By way of definition, Owen helpfully says that ‘apostasy is the relinquishing of any important truth or way in religion; and heresy is the embracing of any new distinctive opinion, or principle, or way in the profession of it.’ A man may be an apostate by partial apostasy, that is, depart from the profession of some truth he had formerly embraced, or from the performance of some duty which he had engaged in, without being a heretic, or choosing any new opinion which he did not before embrace. Conversely, a man may be a heretic, that is, choose and embrace some new false opinion, which he may invent out of his own imagination, without a direct renunciation of any truth which he had held before.
On these grounds, Owen argued that the Church of Rome is both apostate and heretical. Apostate because it has renounced the great truths of the Gospel, and heretical because it has invented and coined many articles of pretended faith, which the old Roman Church never had. We shall come back to the subject of the Church of Rome later. For the moment the definition of apostasy, and its distinction from heresy, is an important one to bear in mind.
I propose to divide this article into five parts. Firstly, Man’s Apostasy from God. Secondly, The Apostasy of the Church of Rome. Thirdly, The Causes of Apostasy Amongst all Persons in all Ages. Fourthly, The Question Whether a True Believer Can Fall from Grace and be Lost. Finally, Some Directions on How to Avoid the Prevailing Apostasy.
1. THE APOSTASY OF MAN FROM GOD – THE REJECTION BY MAN OF THE IMAGE OF GOD
When God created man, He made him in His own image, and by so doing He distinguished man from all the other works of creation. Genesis 1:26-27: And God said, Let us make man in our image … in the image of God created he him. Nowhere else is there any such emphasis of expression concerning any work of God. There was an involvement of all the Persons of the Trinity. Let us make man… God intended three things by this communication of His image to man.
1. To make a representation of His holiness and righteousness. The heavens declare the glory of God – His eternal power and Godhead – but none of these things was able to receive impressions of His righteousness and holiness. It was this that God intended when He made man in His image. And when it was lost in Adam it was restored in Christ.
2. It was meant to render actual glory to God. However wonderful and beautiful the works of creation were, without the image of God here below, there was nothing to understand and appreciate them.
3. It was intended to be the means to bring man to the eternal enjoyment of God. This was to be done by way of obedience – This do and live. But we were only enabled to do it by the image of God in our natures. The image of God in man was, therefore, the crowning expression of all the outward works of God in nature. In man, made in the image of God, the circle of creation was complete.
But the apostasy of man from God, by sin, defaced the image of God in man, and at the same time subjected the whole creation to vanity or futility. There is, in consequence, no way left by which the glory of God might be manifested in the creation to His praise and glory. The nature of man alone was designed to that end and purpose. He, therefore, not only fell himself, but dragged down the whole of creation. In his debased condition he worshipped the heavenly bodies above as his gods, and those creatures below he abused with his lusts. Therefore God was dishonoured in every way, as Paul declared to the Romans, in chapter 1 of that great epistle.
When we consider the greatness of this apostasy from God, we have to acknowledge that the recovery of a portion of mankind from this miserable state was an act of free will on the part of God. He had no obligation to do so. It would not have been inconsistent with the nature of God’s righteousness to have left the whole of mankind to perish eternally. Therefore, wherever there is any mention made in Scripture of the restoration of mankind, it is constantly said to be of the mere sovereign grace and mercy of God (Ephesians 1:3-11).
Those who make objection to this do not seem to understand the nature of our original apostasy from God, nor the righteousness of God in dealing with the angels that sinned. Man had voluntarily broken all the relations of love and moral good between himself and God, had defaced His image – the only representation of His holiness and righteousness in the lower world – and deprived Him of all His glory from the works of His hands, and had allied himself with the devil. What dishonour would it have been to God if He had left man to His own choice, and the consequences of it?
Here, in the original apostasy of man from God we have the source of all subsequent defection and falling away from God in the history of the world and of the Church. It all partakes of this evil and rebellious character, in seeking to frustrate and oppose the purposes of God. This brings us to the second head of this paper –
2. THE APOSTASY OF THE CHURCH OF ROME
When God, in the fulness of time, put into execution His plan to save and redeem a people, through His Son Jesus Christ, the second Adam, and thereby to restore the fallen creation, the devil sought to counter and overthrow that plan. This he did, and does, through the “mystery of iniquity”, which he sets to work in the Church in opposition to the “mystery of godliness”. Even in the apostle Paul’s days, Satan was initiating that apostasy which, beginning in small ways in the Church, would in time grow to be universal.
‘A mystery,’ says Poole, in his commentary on this passage in 2 Thessalonians, ‘is something which is abstruse, intricate, and not easily discerned. There are mysteries in doctrine and in practice, mysteries of godliness and mysteries of iniquity; mysteries of the kingdom of God and the devil’s kingdom. So there are the deep things of God, and the depths of Satan.’
The mystery of iniquity is not open sin and wickedness, but dissembled piety, specious errors, wickedness under a form of godliness cunningly managed. It works specially to undermine Christianity and the peculiar doctrines and practice of it. The early assaults on Christianity came from without, in the form of the Gnostic heresies, arising from heathen religion and philosophy, but this was to come from within, and to prove to be far more insidious and pervasive. I am alluding, of course, to the manifestation of this apostasy in the power of the Church of Rome, which growing from small beginnings led to the almost universal corruption of the doctrines and practices of the Christian faith in the medieval papacy.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones, in a sermon on Ephesians 6, spoke of the Church of Rome as ‘Satan’s masterpiece’ for this very reason, that it seeks to overthrow Christianity not by open, frontal assault, but by counterfeiting its doctrines, and presenting its own version to the world as the truth. The differences, and yet apparent similarities, between the true catholic Church of Scripture and the apostles, and the false Roman Catholic Church is set out by Francis Turretin, the 17th century Protestant theologian who most ably followed in Calvin’s footsteps at Geneva. He wrote:
“Christ wills that sola Scriptura, inspired by God, be received by us as the perfect rule of faith and morals. The Pope denies Scripture alone is an adequate rule of faith, unwritten traditions must be attached. These traditions, together with Scripture, are to be equally adopted and venerated. They are to be held alike as the means of influencing godliness.
“Christ wishes His Word to be believed on its own, because it does not take its authority from man. In our estimation, the Pope wishes the authority of the Word to be derived from his Church. Christ wishes no supreme judge to be acknowledged in ruling on controversies other than God speaking through Scripture. The Pope sacrilegiously claims this prerogative for himself.
“Furthermore, Christ teaches that He alone is the Mediator, appointed by the Father, who alone is the way, the truth and the life, without whom no man can come to the Father. Yet the Pope forces innumerable mediators upon us. Mediators who, he says, are to reveal the way to heaven for us. Also, Christ testifies that there is no other sacrifice apart from His own; no other satisfaction by which we may obtain remission of sins and the reward of salvation. But the Pope insists on human punishments and satisfactions, while demanding a new propitiatory sacrifice called the Mass.
“Though Christ established that men are to be saved by grace through faith alone, the Pope includes works as well. Whereas Christ institutes only two sacraments, the Pope decrees seven. Christ ordains that no one but God be the object of cult and adoration, yet the Pope worships creatures as well. Christ declared Himself the sole Head and Groom of the Church, but the Pope grants this to himself as well. Christ subjects Himself to the magistrates, ordering His servants to be likewise subject. Nevertheless, the Pope subjects the magistrates, rulers and emperors to himself.
“Can it truly be said that those who teach such doctrines and defend such dogmas keep the faith of Christ? Or are they not adjudged guilty by the deserts of defection and the fact of apostasy?”
Thus Turretin on the Roman Catholic apostasy. This was a view shared by all the Reformers and Puritans.
It is true that the Church of Rome suffered a great setback at the Reformation, and her deceptions were unmasked for very many. Bunyan, in Pilgrim’s Progress, depicts Giant Pope sitting at the mouth of his cave, an old man, grown so crazy and stiff in his joints that he cannot come at pilgrims as they go by, which was indeed true of the situation in England at the height of the Reformation. But since then the Roman Catholic apostasy has revived. The deadly wound which the beast received has been healed and the whole world wonders after it. Today, the Church of Rome claims one billion members world-wide, which makes its power greater than at the time of its ascendancy in Europe in the Middle Ages. And besides that we must take into account its leading and dominating role in the ecumenical movement.
The Protestant Churches, having largely abandoned the biblical doctrines of the Reformation, which were their raison d’être, are capitulating to the leadership of the papacy and to Roman Catholic doctrine. There are, indeed, other ways that men and Churches may apostatise from the faith – into liberalism, for example, or other faiths – but Rome remains the great threat to the Protestant churches, Satan’s great masterpiece, his counterfeit Christianity by which he deceives the nations.
Of course, the Church of Rome boasts that it cannot fall away because it has the special privilege of indefectibility. But, as John Owen says: “It has fallen out with Rome as it did with him from whom she falsely claims to derive her indefectibility. When our Lord said that all men would forsake Him, Peter claimed exemption for himself. However, Peter was the only one who, in fact, forsook and denied his Lord. Likewise, the Church of Rome, with its special claim, distinguishes itself with a peculiar apostasy above all the Churches of the world.”
He then adds what must possibly rate as the most damning indictment of the Church of Rome that has ever appeared in print. “If the kingdom of Christ – which once was a kingdom of light and truth and holiness, separation in principles, affection and conversation from the world; of communion with God and lovingkindness towards men; of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost – may become and is become a kingdom of darkness, pride, ignorance, ambition, persecution, blind superstition and idolatry, then and not else doth it visibly remain among them [i.e. the Romanists] and they have nothing apostatised from the laws and government of it.”
So much, then, for the Roman apostasy. Let us now turn to our third head.
3. THE CAUSES OF APOSTASY AMONGST ALL PERSONS IN ALL AGES
The first cause, says Owen, is this: ‘a rooted enmity in the minds of men to spiritual things, remaining uncured under the profession of the Gospel.’The carnal mind is enmity against God (Romans 8:7). Men take to themselves the profession of the Gospel while this enmity remains in their minds. Many will entertain evangelical truth in the mind, but resent it when it begins to work in the conscience. They have received the truth, but not the love of it. Thus where you have a merely intellectual or formal profession of true religion you will have a great falling off from it, when carnal interests begin to come into conflict with it. That is the real test that we are witnessing today. With the growing influence of the ecumenical movement and broad and liberal views of Christianity gaining ground, the tide has turned in the churches from Reformed and Evangelical religion. Those who look for worldly advantage in religion must begin to look elsewhere. Loyalties are being tested and tried.
If there has not been a real work of grace in the heart there will be a falling away. We have seen it happening. The evangelical constituency has changed profoundly in my time, in the Church of England, which can only mean that there were a great many whose profession was merely formal and superficial, when it seemed the right and proper thing to be an evangelical, and even certain advantages were to be gained from it.
Secondly, darkness in spiritual matters is another cause of apostasyMan in his natural state stands in need of illumination. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him” (I Corinthians 2:14). His mind must be transformed by grace; and where men’s minds have not been so transformed as to apprehend the truth, they have no stable grounds on which to abide in the profession of the truth. Here we have another cause of apostasy from the Gospel after it has been professed. Owen says: ‘We have seen, in all ages, men learned and skilled in the doctrines of the truth, so as they might have been looked on as pillars of it, yet to have been as forward as any unto apostasy from it when they have been tried; yea, such have been the leaders of others thereunto.’ Again, to my mind, this seems to account for the defection of many evangelicals in recent years from the truth.
Owen goes on to say: ‘No man who forsakes the truth ever saw the glory of it, or had experience of its power.’ They treat it with a degree of detachment and objectivity; they will talk and dispute about it with the greatest indifference as to what is true and false. They do not seem to recognise the wickedness, the confusion and the heinousness of error. They appear to regard truth and error with equanimity. They do not have that holy love of truth and equally holy hatred of error that would secure them against apostasy.
I think this explains the case with which many in recent years have been able to enter into dialogue with Roman Catholics and even Muslims and Hindus. It demands a certain detachment from the truth to be able to do that. You are obliged to put a question mark over it, otherwise you are not genuinely engaging in dialogue, which means, at least in principle, you are prepared to change and qualify your beliefs. I think we must be very careful to distinguish between dialogue and controversy. Dialogue carries with it implicitly this assumption, that you will be prepared to modify and change your position, in the light of the debate, if it so requires you. But controversy, in which all the Reformers engaged, is quite a different thing. You start from what you know and believe to be the truth, and your object is to expose the error and confusion of the opponent’s position and, if possible, persuade him of the truth. It was dialogue in which Satan engaged Eve in the garden. She would have been safe if she had insisted on controversy. When men have not a fervent love of the truth and no sense of abhorrence of error they are in the anteroom of apostasy. It is said that the apostle John fled from the public baths, where Cerinthus the heretic appeared, lest they should fall on him. Today some evangelicals would be glad to stay and engage in friendly dialogue.
The reason for this is that the truth does not hold and control them, but they hold and control it, and therefore they think that they can change and modify it. But if a man has been apprehended, arrested and captured by the truth of God’s Word, he has no power to do that, and therefore is not in danger of falling away from it. For example, if justification by faith is just one doctrine amongst many, which you happen to hold in a theological system, you may feel quite relaxed about discussing it with others who hold different views, and even making some concession in the interest of agreement. But if justification by faith is the only ground by which you can stand and exist before a holy and righteous God, and any change in the terms of it would mean your damnation, then you will not have such a relaxed attitude to it. It is the difference between holding the truth existentially and merely intellectually.
Thirdly, ignorance is another cause of apostasyIgnorance of any kind exposes people to great danger, and this is specially true with regard to the Christian faith. ‘The ignorant,’ says Owen, ‘are like children “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine”, a prey to seducers, and exposed to the blandishments of Rome, which teaches a religion that is readily appreciated by an unregenerate mind, by the natural man. When men are called to give an account of their faith, they are at a loss, and can quite easily fall away to popery or some other creed. Ignorance is therefore a fatal danger.”
In our society today there is growing ignorance, a general lowering of standards, a ‘dumbing down’ process going on. People wish to be entertained, not edified. There is resistance to any strenuous effort of the mind and the will. And since this tendency is present generally in society it invades the churches too. It is seen in the bland and trite songs that are replacing hymns and psalms, in the dialogue and chat-show type of interviews that replace sermons, and in the general relaxed and free-wheeling format of worship generally.
The Reformation of the Church consisted in the deliverance of people from darkness and ignorance, and if they are reduced to the same condition again, they become a ready prey to popery. Is it any wonder that Rome is making such remarkable advances amongst Anglicans, Lutherans and the Free Churches? These are precisely the conditions in which she can flourish. Some are surprised that she is able to call Protestants ‘separated brethren’ and think that this arises out of charity. In fact, it is attributable to the Roman Catholic doctrine of ‘invincible ignorance’. Those Protestants who no longer understand their own faith (and that is now the large majority) and therefore do not knowingly reject the teachings of Rome, are technically in a state of ‘invincible ignorance’ and on those grounds may be termed ‘separated brethren’. Of course, those relatively few who are not in that position, and deliberately and knowingly reject the pope and the teachings of Rome, are heretics still.
This is a very serious matter, for it shows the desperate condition into which Protestantism has now fallen and the very real danger to which ignorance has reduced the once live and flourishing Protestant Churches.
Fourthly, pride and vanityThe innate pride and vanity of men’s minds is, says Owen, another thing that leads to a falling away from the faith. The design of the Gospel is to “cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God”. But the mind of man would be the measure of all things.
1. It exalts imaginations of its own which it loves and applauds.
2. It makes itself the sole and absolute judge, without desire or expectation of supernatural guidance or assistance.
Men cannot receive the Gospel where the former is not mortified and the latter is not eradicated by spiritual light. The Gospel must not be received as the word of man, but as the Word of God, which it is, with submission. Unless we deny ourselves and become humble and teachable, we can never be saved or acquainted with its mysteries. The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him.
‘There is nothing in revelation,’ says Owen, ‘that is opposed to reason, but there is much that is above it. There are divine mysteries in the Word that we may understand, but which we cannot comprehend, for reason is finite. Can men by searching find out God? This is not because of the corruption of our nature but because of its constitution. But there are things in the Gospel that are contradictory to reason as it is corrupted. Reason is no longer just finite, but also depraved. It is not able to judge spiritual things, and is subject to prejudices.’
So first of all, the Gospel requires men to believe in things that are above their comprehension, things that eye hath not seen, etc. And secondly, it requires men to believe in things that are opposed to their corrupted reason, for their minds naturally act in contradiction to the revealed will of God in the Gospel with enmity and hatred. Thus the wise men of Athens rejected the doctrine of the apostle. The design of the Gospel, in all its special truths and mysteries, is to bring every thought into subjection to the obedience of faith. “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise” (I Corinthians 3:18). Thus, some when they have embraced the outward profession of the Gospel, find it contrary to their corrupt reason, and seek to re-enthrone reason. Some from the outworking of their own rational faculties, withdraw their minds from a humble attitude. All ancient heresies sprang from this root.
‘Such was the case,’ said Owen, ‘with Socinianism. What is above reason – the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation – they reject as against reason.’ The same is true, in our day, of liberalism. They bring to Scripture the template of their philosophical presuppositions and their rationalistic notions of God. If anything in the Bible agrees with what they think, they accept it; if it disagrees, they reject it. In this way they make to themselves an idol, and apostatise from revealed truth. The pride of men’s minds has been in all ages the great principle of opposition to, and apostasy from evangelical truth. A humble subjection of the mind and conscience to the authority of God in His Word is the only security against such a tendency.
In these several ways which we have enumerated here are to be found the chief causes of apostasy both in the past and the present. It is important that we be aware of them and use them to test the soundness of the teachings that are current in the churches today.
4. IS IT POSSIBLE FOR A BELIEVER TO APOSTATISE?
I must say something about this question. The locus classicus for this is Hebrews 6:4-6, and Owen deals with it in the following way. He says that it is given as a warning and to stir up those to whom the apostle is writing. The privileges referred to in the passage and enjoyed by those who fall away, were ‘not such things as accompany salvation’, which he is assured of in those to whom he writes, and who give evidence of persevering in the faith. ‘This whole description therefore,’ says Owen, ‘refers to some special Gospel privileges, which professors (that is, those who made an outward profession of being Christians) in those days were promiscuously (generally) made partakers of.’ What were these privileges?
1. “Once enlightened.” Owen considers this was baptism, which in the early Church was called illumination. But it can also mean instruction in the Gospel.
2. “Tasted of the heavenly gift,” seems to refer to the Holy Spirit, since in the New Testament “the gift of God” is understood to be the Holy Spirit.
3. “And tasted of the good word of God” – ‘to taste’ is to make experiment of something, but not to eat it fully. ‘The meaning, then, of the character given to these apostates is, that they had some experience of the power of the Holy Spirit from heaven, in Gospel administration and worship.’ But in what sense were they said to be partakers of the Holy Spirit? Not, says Owen, with regard to ‘personal inhabitation’, nor in respect of ‘spiritual operations’. In the first way the world cannot receive Him, and therefore it cannot apply here; and in the second, since Peter said to Simon Magus that he had no part in spiritual gifts, neither does that apply. But since the Holy Spirit pervades Gospel ordinances, to that degree they have been partakers of the Holy Spirit, but not in the full sense. They are said to have “tasted of the word of God”, that is, they have heard the Gospel of Christ preached, but did not sincerely obey it. They took some delight in the Word of God, but were not renewed by it.
4. Lastly, “the powers of the world to come.” This can mean the days of the Messiah; the Gospel age. They would have witnessed the things spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles, but were not changed by them.
Therefore, these are not true and sincere believers. There is no reference to them being born again, or called according to God’s purpose, or justified, or sanctified. They are compared to ground that receives rain, but brings forth nothing but weeds and briars. So there is nothing in this passage to contradict the general teaching of the Bible on the indefectibility of grace and the final perseverance of all true believers. Apostasy can only take place in those who have never been truly renewed and justified.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his exposition of this passage, differs in some details from Owen, but comes to the same conclusion. But before tackling this passage, he lays down certain general principles for dealing with, and interpreting all, such difficulties in Scripture, and it is worth our while recalling them and keeping them constantly before us.
First, we must deal with Scripture alone – that is, we must keep to Scripture and not allow philosophy to intrude. It is no good allowing human ideas of what it might be thought appropriate for God to do, to influence our thinking. Our minds must be moulded by the Word of God.
Second, there can be no contradictions in Scripture. We must compare Scripture with Scripture to get the true interpretation. One part of Scripture ought not to be so expounded as to be repugnant to another part. This is called ‘the analogy of faith’.
Third, we must start from the great positive statements of Scripture. There are certain things that are clearly and unequivocally stated in the Bible, and we must employ these to throw light upon the more difficult and obscure passages. In this way Scripture is its own interpreter; a principle laid down by the Reformers, which is further expression of the analogy of faith, but often neglected today.
An illustration of this is, for example, John 10:27-29. Here we have a clear unequivocal statement that the Lord will never allow His people, His sheep, to perish; they can never fall away because their security is guaranteed by God Himself. So it is an impossibility. Now it is from such statements, and there are many of them in the Bible, that we must proceed to interpret and understand those, such as the passage in Hebrews 6:4-6, that appear to present a difficulty. Lloyd-Jones does this and comes to a similar conclusion to Owen; namely, that the passage does not refer to real believers, those who are truly regenerate, but those who have experienced something of the privileges of Church membership, its worship, preaching and ordinances, but are not grafted spiritually into the body of Christ.
On one point he differs from Owen, and that is on the meaning of the word ‘tasted’ – “have tasted of the heavenly gift”. Of this Lloyd-Jones says: ‘Dr. Owen suggests that it means tasted but never thoroughly masticated and swallowed. I cannot accept that suggestion.’ He goes on to give his reason, which is a good and valid one. It is this: the same apostle says that Jesus, “by the grace of God, tasted death for every man.” It is the same word exactly as in this passage. But our Lord did not merely taste death in his mouth, as it were. He drained the cup. ‘He experienced death in a manner that none other will ever be called on to know. He knew it in all its fullness and bitterness, in all its terrible character.’ I fully agree with that, and it makes Owen’s suggested interpretation untenable.
The word translated ‘tasted’ means ‘being acquainted with’ and even ‘experiencing’, and Lloyd-Jones says we must give it that value here. These people have experienced something of ‘the heavenly gift’. But whatever it was, on the principle of the analogy of faith, and the clear statements elsewhere in Scripture on the final perseverance of believers, we must conclude that it was not an experience which resulted in the renovation and regeneration of their natures. It fell short of the new and justifying faith.
‘Nowhere are we told that these people were born again, that they were regenerate; nowhere are we told that they were justified and sanctified; nowhere are we told that they were sealed with the Spirit of God; nowhere are we told that they were adopted into God’s family.’
‘When reference is made to true believers, these are the terms that are used in Scripture. For example, I Corinthians 6:9-11: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you.” But you are no longer people who can be so described, says Paul. Why? What does he say about them? Does he say, You were enlightened, you have tasted of the heavenly gift, you have been made partakers of the Holy Ghost, you have tasted of the good word of God and the powers of the world to come? No! what he says is this: “But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” But not one of these terms is used in Hebrews 6. What we are told about these people is not that they are unregenerate, not that they are justified, not that they are reconciled to God, but that they have had certain experiences which have brought them into the church and made them think, and made everyone else think, that they were truly Christian…. That surely is the only adequate explanation of this passage in the Hebrews.’
Thus Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the subject, and his conclusion, with the exception of the point that we have mentioned about the meaning of the word ‘tasted’, is the same as that of John Owen. Those who apostatise, who fall away from the faith, are not true and real believers. The consistent testimony of the Word of God is that those who are truly God’s children by adoption and grace shall persevere to the end.<
5. SOME DIRECTIONS CULLED FROM OWEN ON HOW TO AVOID THE PREVAILING APOSTASY
We live in such days ourselves. If Owen thought of his times as apostate, what would he think of the state of things now? I see that the Archbishop of Canterbury says that the tone of our society is now atheistic. We are seeing a great forsaking in the land, and the enemy is coming in like a flood. All the Churches have lost many members, and are no longer able to disguise the fact or explain it away. All this would come as no surprise to Owen, who said that where there was a prevailing nominal Christianity, there would be, when circumstances changed to make it no longer of material advantage to be known as Christian, a great falling away. What steps then can be taken to avoid the prevailing apostasy?
In such times, says Owen, we should above all be concerned for the glory of God, as Moses was when the Israelites rebelled in the wilderness, and Joshua later, when he said, What wilt thou do unto thy great name?. They were not so much concerned for the people, but for God’s glory in the world. Yet the concern and preoccupation today seems to be with the church, the image of the church, and how that will suffer. But what if the image of the church is wrong, and God is judging it for its apostasy? Our first concern in this situation should be for the glory of God, that His Name should be vindicated and honoured.
If we do that we shall mourn for the present state of Christianity in the world for the dishonour that it brings upon the Cause of God. “Rivers of water run down mine eyes,” says the Psalmist, “because they keep not thy law.” God sets a mark upon those who so mourn. The Lord said to Ezekiel: “Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.” Likewise, our Lord said: “Blessed are they that mourn.” Is there much of this spirit about in this present age of apostasy, or is there not rather a vain self-confidence, that given a break and the right marketing technique, some imaginative advertising, and some new gimmick, we can crack the problem? What happened to that great new initiative that was going to turn the tide – the Decade of Evangelism? The time for self-sufficiency is not merely past, but never was for the true Church. When the enemy comes in like a flood, it is only the Spirit of God that can raise up a standard against him (Isaiah 59:19). And He will do it through the meanest instruments.
We should pray continually. There is nothing too hard for the Lord, and He can save by many or by few. This is the way the Church of old was delivered. “I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the Lord, keep not silence, and give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.” (Isaiah 62:6-7)
Then there is constancy of testimony: an open and avowed profession of, and contending for the faith and the truth of the Gospel. ‘The public contempt and scorn, that is by a prevalent fashion cast upon some evangelical truths, is a cause of discouraging many from owning the profession of them.’ How true that is. It only needs a few leading churchmen to express disapproval of some particular teaching or to distance themselves from a clear evangelical truth for many to back off from contending for it. I have seen this happen, and it accounts for the weakness of the public testimony in these days for the old paths. It also shows the astuteness, and cunning of the opponents of evangelical truth in going for the names of evangelical leaders and involving them in such ecumenical initiatives as Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Those who would be preserved from apostasy must also keep a careful watch over their hearts. In the beginning the declension is in the heart. “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Literally: ‘Above all keeping, keep thy heart.’ Men show great diligence in keeping other things, but not their hearts. The heart is deceitful and wayward, which is why it needs keeping and constant watchfulness. We must keep our hearts awake and attentive to Christ, for it is He alone that can keep us in the hour of temptation. ‘Do not trust,’ says Owen, ‘to Church ordinances as ends in themselves. They are only means to an end, which is union with Christ.’
Finally, in times of apostasy, such as ours is, beware of the infection of national vices, for their commonness will take off the sense of their guilt and remove shame. If we adopt indiscriminately the customs and habits of the times we shall be carried down stream with them.
These are some of the directions that Owen gives for avoiding the prevalent apostasy of the times.