Come winter, the ice forms almost imperceptibly on the lake near our home. After the first few cold nights, a bit of skim ice may be noticed by the observant passerby. Gradually, ever so gradually, the ice thickens as the cold takes its grip on our northern Indiana community. By the dead of winter, fisherman labor at drilling through two feet of hard ice to get through to the warmer waters below.
Sin is like that. A heart that once seemed warm cools so gradually that only the especially perceptive friend or pastor notices skim ice forming on the soul of the church member. The person who once evidenced a warm, experiential trust in Christ gradually, ever so gradually, cools toward the matters of eternity. The appetite to read God’s Word lessens, prayer becomes sporadic, worship becomes boring, and all kind of excuses are found not to be with Christian friends. The ice thickens. The heart gets colder and colder. The voice of Christ no longer has its former effect. Instead, the call of the world draws. The beauty of Christ no longer entices. The world begins to look more appealing. One sin leads to the next. The second becomes easier than the first. Then, another and another. Eventually, the church realizes that one of her own has been overtaken by “an evil, unbelieving heart,” leading a church member “to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).
How does this happen? How does a person who has evidenced apparent faith in Christ and faithfulness to Him apostatize — “fall away from the living God”? More important, what can be done to guard against apostasy in the church? What should be done?
Several key lessons from Hebrews 3:12–14 must be lived out in our churches if we are going to battle apostasy: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
First, we need to wake up to the reality that unbelief can overtake the heart of any professing Christian — including our own. We must not be lulled to sleep by false assurance in some “decision” made or prayer prayed in times past. As we see in Hebrews 3, two key marks of a Christian are faith and faithfulness. We must “take care” that both faith and faithfulness are being cultivated and evidenced in our own lives and in the lives of our fellow church members. The sin of unbelief can overcome the heart so gradually that we don’t notice until a professing Christian is living a life of blatant unfaithfulness to Christ. In love, we must resist spiritual naiveté. We must “take care.”
Second, we must realize that the fight against apostasy is every Christian’s concern, not just that of the church’s pastors. The author of Hebrews says, “Take care, brothers.” The battle against apostasy and the quest for ongoing faith in Christ and faithfulness to Christ is a “community project.” Every Christian should be mustered and trained for this battle for souls.
Third, our churches must develop a “culture” that values the daily care of one another’s souls and provides practical ways for that to happen. Hebrews 3:13 instructs us to “exhort one another every day.” While we continue to hold out the primacy of preaching in the life of the church, the battle against apostasy must be fought beyond our Sunday morning events. The members of our churches must be given opportunities to move away from isolation and toward loving, deep involvement in one another’s lives. Church leaders must teach church members the crucial importance of faith-building relationships. No one can intimately know everyone in the church family. But we must all be involved very personally with some of the church body. And these interpersonal relationships in small groups must move beyond trivial, superficial conversations if we are going to carry out the directive to “exhort one another every day.” Church leaders need to model and teach a mutual “soul care” that, over time, begins to get traction in the normal life of the church. Church members can help fight against the cold winds of unbelief that threaten to ice up the souls of their friends by reminding them of the dangers of sin and the joy, hope, and satisfaction we have in Christ alone. Over time, the conversations can and should become gospel-saturated, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered, and faith-building. The battle against apostasy in our churches is fought as one Christian exhorts another Christian to treasure Christ above all that Satan, sin, and the world have to offer.
Last, Hebrews 3:12–14 teaches us that this ministry is urgent: “As long as it is called ‘today.’” The day of Christ’s return and subsequent judgment is coming. We must not carelessly assume that “someday” our church will take up the battle against apostasy. While we say “someday,” God says “today.” For the glory of Christ and the care of souls, let us all take up the battle against apostasy