Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Great Falling Away (Apostasy)
by Rev. Rodney Kleyn
Message: The Great Apostasy
Sermon Broadcast date: April 3, 2016
Speaker: Rev. Rodney Kleyn
Dear radio friends,
We know that Jesus is coming, not only because He has promised this but also because He gives us signs of His coming.
In our last message in this series, we looked at the sign of “abounding lawlessness,” or “abounding iniquity” as Jesus speaks of it in Matthew 24. This is a sign outside of the church, which happens in society. Today we are going to look at the corresponding sign in the church itself, what is called in II Thessalonians 2 a great falling away, sometimes known as “apostasy.” This is one of the most obvious signs of the coming of Jesus Christ. It is pointed out in the Scriptures as very obvious. II Thessalonians 2:3 says this: “That day [that is, the coming of Jesus Christ] shall not come, except there come a falling away first.” Then in I Timothy 4:1, 2 Paul says this: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron.” Similarly, in Matthew 24 Jesus speaks of it in verses 11 and 12 in connection with false teaching. He says, “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” There are many other references: Acts 20:29-31; II Timothy 3:1-5; II Peter 2:1-3; and so on.
But not only is this sign obvious in Scripture, it is also obvious all around us in what is known as Christianity in the world today. It is important for us to be aware of this so that we are not deceived by false teachers that are a part of this great apostasy.
So what do we mean by apostasy? Apostasy, or falling away, as Paul describes it in II Thessalonians 2, is departure from the truth of God’s Word by those who once, in a certain sense, held to that truth. This means that apostasy is not something that happens outside of the church. It is not something that happens to pagans and atheists, but to those who were once known as Christians. They fall away. They once stood for the Christian faith. They once stood with the church and the people of God, but they no longer hold to the truths of God’s Word but oppose them and hate them. This is active departure. In I Timothy 4:1 Paul says, “some shall depart from the faith,” that is, they will walk away from it. An outstanding instance of this in Scripture is the ten northern tribes who rebelled against the rule of king Rehoboam. They came to Rehoboam to ask that their taxes be reduced. Rehoboam is rough in his answer to them. So they say in the end, “We will have nothing to do with Rehoboam,” and they reject the Word of God and they reject the worship of God, and from that day on, the ten tribes, the northern kingdom, depart until they are wholly overtaken with idolatry and finally destroyed by God. This is what apostasy, or falling away, is. It is departure from the truth of God’s Word by those who once, in a certain sense, held to that truth.
But now, apostasy is not simply departure from truth, from objective truth, it is departure, in the end, from Christ Himself, the way of salvation—because the truth of God’s Word revealed in Scripture is not just ideas. It is not just ‘something,’ but it refers to salvation. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Falling away is falling away from Christ and opposition to Christ, and, in the end, that was true of the northern kingdom. They said in I Kings 12: “What portion have we in David? What inheritance have we in Jesse? To your tents, O Israel.” They were done with David and they were done with the promise of the coming Messiah. And the result was not only destruction but no salvation. This is where departure and apostasy leads—in the end, to damnation.
Now, that raises a question—can one actually fall away from Christ? Is the grace of God something that can be resisted by the will of man, or does God preserve His own? It is important to be very clear here. It is true, from Scripture, that not one of God’s elect, whom He has chosen eternally unto salvation and who are joined by faith to Jesus Christ, can ever fall away. In Matthew 24:24 Jesus says concerning the last times that “if it were possible, the very elect would be deceived.” That implies that it is not possible for the elect to be deceived. That is because of Jesus’ Word in John 10 that no man is able to pluck these sheep from His Father’s hand because His Father is greater than all. The grace of God is so strong that it is impossible for those once saved to fall away from the faith.
Instead, those who apparently fall away or apostatize were never truly God’s people. In fact, I John 2:19 says this: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” That tells us that there are always in the church hypocrites, people who outwardly make a profession, who intellectually grasp the truth of God’s Word, but their faith is not real and their love is not true. In the end, Jesus Christ exposes them as hypocrites. That also tells us that, as believers, we do not have to fear or worry that we will fall away. Yes, we have to be warned and we have to watch so that this does not take place in our generations, but it is impossible for those who are united to Jesus Christ actually to fall away.
So, apostasy is departure from Christ and the truth and the Word of God and from the church by those who once, in some sense, identified with this cause. This can happen to an individual. When I John 2 says, “they went out,” John has in mind certain individuals. So you can think, in the Bible, of people like Saul, who once stood with the prophets and was a leader of Israel but was a hypocrite. Or you can think of Judas, who stood with the other disciples, and the other disciples had no idea that Judas was a farce and a hypocrite. There is a special sadness as you think about such individuals. You think that you know someone. They are with you in church; they stand with you against false teaching. And suddenly, or over a period of time, they leave all this. You can think in the Scriptures of the grief of Samuel over Saul’s departure. This is a special grief that comes to parents who have raised their children in the faith.
But more often this departure happens in families and in generations. There are parents who do not love the truth dearly, who do not prioritize the life of the people of God together in the church of God. They do not put an emphasis on the means of grace and on worship with God’s people. They allow into their life compromise in little areas. The children grow up without an example of love and commitment to the Word and truth of God. And in a generation there is departure from Jesus Christ. Judges 2 speaks of the generation that arose after the death of Joshua who knew not the Lord, nor the things that He had done.
So, we see this apostasy taking place in generations. But also, it can happen to groups of people—to churches and denominations. A church that was once faithful, that loved and confessed the truth, that preached God’s Word, that disciplined those who walked in sin, falls away. Little by little the truth is given away, piece-by-piece, and discipline falls away. Finally false teachers come into the church, and a whole group of people departs together. This is what is described in the letters in Revelation 2 and 3 to the churches in Asia Minor. The church at Ephesus had left her first love; there was false teaching in the church; there was not discipline as there should have been, and, in the end, Christ removes the candlestick and He calls such churches departing to go back to their first love and to repent and go to their first works.
So, there is a sign that Jesus gives that in the last days many shall depart from the faith. And there is a warning here, a warning for all of us as God’s people—as individuals, as the church, and as families—that we should realize that we are never immune to falling away from the faith in our generations and that we should realize that we cannot persevere and we cannot stand in our own strength and that, in the end, departure is departure from Christ. So we need to kindle and rekindle our love for Him and our faith in Him.
Now, to see the seriousness of falling away as it is described in II Thessalonians 2:3, we should understand how it comes. That is where the passage in Matthew 24:11 and 12 helps us, because immediately before the description of the love of many waxing cold, we are told in verse 11 that “many false prophets shall rise and shall deceive many.” To understand what a false prophet is, we have to understand what a prophet is. A prophet is someone who is sent by God to speak the word of God. God saves His people by the work and the word of the prophet. The prophet brings the gospel, the gospel of love and salvation, the gospel of Jesus Christ for sinners who believe. It is by the word of the gospel that is preached and proclaimed in the mouth of a prophet, a preacher, that God saves His people. By that preaching He brings His people to Jesus Christ and to salvation in Him. That is because, in the end, Jesus Christ is the chief Prophet. It is important here that we understand that a prophet is more than just someone who foretells the future. A prophet is someone who brings God’s Word—the office of the minister of the gospel in the New Testament church today.
Now, what is a false prophet as the agent that will bring this departure? A false prophet is someone who comes claiming to be sent by Christ and claiming to bring the Word of God, claiming to preach Jesus Christ; but, in fact, he comes on his own authority or even the authority of the devil and he brings his own word. Jesus says that “many shall come in my name.” Paul says of these false teachers that they will transform themselves into apostles of Christ and ministers of light. This is what makes a false teacher so deceitful and so difficult to deal with. He may have a personality; he may be a nice man; he may like people; he may seem to care about the people of God; he might be a popular person and the church may well fall in love with him. But as Jesus says, these false teachers are wolves in sheep’s clothes and ministers of Satan. A false teacher is one who, in the end, denies Jesus Christ and is against the gospel and Jesus Christ.
This is at the bottom of all false teaching because, in the end, all of the Word of God and all of our faith, center on this: Jesus Christ and the gospel of the cross. You can think of many false teachings that have arisen in the history of the church. Where did Liberalism begin? It began with the denial of the miracle of the Virgin birth. And now Liberalism, liberal Christianity, denies almost every doctrine and every miracle in Scripture. There is a denial by false teachers of Scripture as the Word of God. They speak of the Scriptures as of human origin, and they look at the authors rather than at God and trusting the Word of God as authoritative. There is a denial of creation. Man, by his scientific discoveries, is able, according to these false teachers, to discover the origin of this world, rather than taking God at His Word in Scripture.
You see this also in the errors with regard to salvation. Man is put on the foreground. False teachers say that salvation is not by the work of God’s grace and the result of God’s sovereign election. Salvation is simply made possible by Jesus Christ but is left, in the end, up to the will of man. Or, errors with regard to the church. There is a rejection of Jesus Christ in the church and man is exalted and, in the end, man sits on the throne in the church. Think, for example, of the pope and the papacy in Roman Catholicism. Or, there are the errors with regard to the end times and the teaching of the end time, which say that the kingdom is not Christ’s heavenly kingdom but a kingdom here on earth for man. Or, you can even think of modern, moral issues—abortion and homosexuality. It is all left up to man’s choice, and it is according to man’s pleasure to determine whether something is right or wrong. These are false teachings that stand up against the Word of God. The false teacher comes instead of Jesus Christ. He sets himself up as the center of his teaching. Instead of a biblical church, there is a mega-church. Instead of a church that follows the Word of God, there is a church that follows a man who is a celebrity-pastor—he sees the flock and he sees wealth and fame and influence.
II Peter 2 speaks of these false teachers in verses 3 and 15 as covetous men who make merchandise of the people of God and follow the error of Balaam in the Old Testament. So this is the false teacher. In the end he comes and he sets himself up in the place of Jesus Christ. There is no salvation proclaimed through faith in the cross of Jesus Christ, but people are told to follow a man and what he says. In the end, the false teacher promotes the worship of man. He promotes a religion of man. He is not only concerned for himself and his own wealth and his own fame and name, but he is concerned to please the people, to give them what they want. In rejection of Christ he promotes and idolizes man himself, not only in pleasure but in a denial of what the Scriptures say about man and man’s depravity and sin. He does not want to hurt the ego of man.
Now, if we look at the Scriptures, we see that, in the end, this is the religion of Antichrist. II Thessalonians 2:3 points to the fact that these false teachers will in fact serve the coming of the kingdom of Antichrist. “That day [that is, the day of Jesus Christ] shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed.” So the falling away is a precursor and a foundation, a stage, on which Antichrist will come. He will come as a man and he will say, “Worship me.” And the whole world, we are told in Revelation 13, will wonder after the beast. So, this is how apostasy comes. And it leads, in the end, to the kingdom of Antichrist.
But now, let us understand that the relationship between the false teacher and his followers is a reciprocal relationship. How do false teachers get followers? They get followers because people themselves do not love the truth and they do not know the truth. They like a religion in which man is central. They want permissiveness. They do not see a distinction anymore between the people of God and the world. They give heed to seducing doctrines. The love of many waxes cold because iniquity abounds. And they desire this iniquity, this lawlessness. II Timothy 4:3 says that in the last days people will not endure sound doctrine but, having itching ears, they will heap up to themselves teachers that suit their own lust and their own desire.
There is an important warning again for the true church and the people of God that when the Word comes and confronts us in our sin and exposes our guilt and empties us of ourselves and points us to Jesus Christ and calls us to repentance and faith, we should not resist that word but heed it.
But now, it is important for us to understand, about apostasy and false teaching, that these are also a sign that Jesus Christ is coming, and thus, a sign that Jesus Christ Himself sends. That comes out in II Thessalonians 2:10 and 11 when it says that “because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved…for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.” Here the Bible is teaching us that God gives wicked people over to their wickedness. He gives unbelievers over to their unbelief. This is what happened in the example that I gave of the northern kingdom of Israel. The whole nation departed. He sent prophets to them for the elect’s sake, but, in the end, the whole nation was destroyed. And that is the judgment of God. Because they did not love the truth, God sent them strong delusion.
What is delusion? Delusion is this: to think you are doing one thing when, in fact, you are doing another. They think that, because of their religion, they are worshiping God when, in fact, what they are doing is worshiping someone else—the devil. They think that they are doing God’s will, they believe that they are doing God a service, but in truth, they believe a lie and they are not doing the will of God at all.
Just imagine that. You go to church; you sing praises in the name of Jesus; you leave; you say, “Wasn’t that wonderful?” You open your Bible, or a preacher does, and he brings a message that stirs and invigorates, and everyone goes home pumped, and the elders or leaders of the church say, “That was a good meeting,” when, in fact, it was all in the service of Antichrist and the devil. This is the strong delusion and this is the judgment of God that comes on those who reject the gospel and follow false teaching.
But there is also comfort in this, that Jesus sends this sign, because it tells us that this apostasy does not come in the church, and this departure from Christ does not come, apart from the rule of Jesus Christ. When we see this taking place, we do not throw up our hands and say, “What’s happening to Christianity?” But we say, “Jesus is coming.” Jesus is coming by preparing the world for the kingdom of Antichrist, the final stage on which He Himself will come. And it tells us also that the world is filling up the cup of iniquity and becoming more and more ripe for the day of judgment. In that way it serves the good of God’s people and church as well.
As we think about this sign of departure and falling away, we should remember to love the truth of God’s Word, to love Jesus Christ Himself, to put our faith in Him. As we do this, know and love for truth, to test for false teaching. That does not mean that we should be suspicious but we should evaluate the Word of God ourselves, like the Bereans who searched the Scriptures themselves to see whether the things that they heard were true. And we should impart the truth of God’s Word and the love for God’s Word to the generation that follows not only by teaching, but also by example. Then, as we see these things taking place, we should not be fearful and afraid. For even this departure is a sign that Jesus Christ Himself is coming.
So, we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, yea, come quickly.”
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for the promise of the coming of Jesus Christ. We thank Thee for the truth. We are saddened by the departure of many from Thy Word and truth. But we pray, Lord, that this too will serve the church that is faithful by calling her back to her first love and keeping Thy people faithful until the day of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Rev. Rodney Kleyn is the pastor of The First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He was born and raised in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Burnie, Tasmania, Australia. In 1995 he moved to the USA and graduated from the PR Theological Seminary in May, 2002. He previously served as pastor of Trinity PRC in Hudsonville, MI, from 2002-2009, and of Covenant of Grace PRC in Spokane, WA, from 2009-2021. This article was originally published in the Reformed Witness Hour Sermons in Print.