I agree with author and political commentator Matt Walsh when he says, “There are many Christians who mourn the fact that our numbers are dwindling…but I also much prefer that unbelievers declare themselves unaffiliated — renounce their faith openly and align themselves with some other belief system — then take the other approach, which is to continue identifying themselves as Christians even while rejecting nearly every essential aspect of Christianity. In other words, I’ll take apostasy over heresy, any day of the week.”
Apostasy, in both the Old and New Testaments, is defined as a turning away, a defection, and the abandonment of something. While it hurts to see a person renounce the faith, the apostle John tells us to not be surprised when it happens because, “they went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
Scripture defines heresy, on the other hand, as the practice of espousing beliefs that depart from foundational doctrines while the person remains in their chosen faith. But in the same way that John says you can tell a fake from a true believer when they fully abandon the faith, Paul says heresies also identify counterfeit believers: “For there must also be factions [heresies] among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Cor. 11:19).
While the Bible discusses both apostasy and heresy in many places, in my opinion, the second to last book of Scripture – Jude – does the best job of describing both as well as what constitutes a true believer. In fact, you get the latter in just the first two verses of the book.
The church under fire
The author of Jude is none other than Jesus’ half-brother (Matt. 13:55), with his book probably being written before his brother James’ murder in A.D. 62. The primary thrust of the work is to address the church that is under fire from heresies, most likely of a gnostic nature.
Jude starts out like this:
“Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy and peace and love be multiplied to you” (Jude 1-2).
Clearly, Jude has come around from the time when “not even His brothers were believing in Him” (John 7:5) and now he calls himself a “bond-servant” of his half-brother, which is polite language for “slave” (doulos): someone who is under the complete control of another. Interestingly, the Bible says all of us are either slaves of God or His antithesis: “At that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods” (Gal. 4:8).
In his first two verses, Jude gives us three attributes of legitimate believers.
Jude begins by identifying true Christians as those who have been “called”.
Like Jude, Paul starts off his letter to the Romans by describing his readers as, “the called of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:6). Later in the book, in what is referred to as the ‘golden chain of salvation’, Paul says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:29-30, my emphasis).
Notice all of Paul’s verbs are in the past tense, signifying God decreed these actions for His saints before time began.
But isn’t everyone called by God in that sense? No; the Bible clearly delineates between Jews/Gentiles who hear the gospel and reject it as foolish (the uncalled) and the same two groups who accept it (the called): “we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24, my emphasis).
The Bible tells us throughout its pages that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that He loves His people. Much like ancient Israel, we’re not beloved because of anything we’ve done, but because He fixed His affection on us and keeps us with His unconditional promise: “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers” (Deut. 7:7-8; cf. Eph. 1:3-6).
Jude says the last attribute of a true believer is they are “kept” by God. The little Greek word used – tēreō – is literally translated as “having been kept” (again, a past tense usage) and means to retain in custody and preserve. Paul describes his own salvation the same way when, although he no doubt has his physical imprisonment in mind, he also spiritually calls himself, “a prisoner of Jesus Christ” in multiple places (Philemon 1:1, Eph. 3:1).
Unlike apostates who defect from the faith, true believers are kept by the Lord because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). Like an old song by Casting Crowns (East to West) says: “I'm not holding on to you, but you’re holding on to me”.
A little leaven
The separation of apostates from the church is sad to watch, but as Matt Walsh said, I’d prefer that over tares among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30) and bad leaven that stays in a body of believers, contaminating it with false beliefs (Gal. 5:7-9). On that subject, no doubt having Jesus’ statement of the blind leading the blind in view (Matt. 15:14), Søren Kierkegaard said, “For it has never yet been known to fail that one fool, when he goes astray, takes several others with him.”
Jude tells us those with saving faith never walk away from Christ, but instead persevere and are “kept” by God to the end. The reason for that is that they have responded to His efficacious call to salvation, have been loved by Him from eternity past, and are His bond-servants who remain both in the faith and immune to heretical false teaching.
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.