On (Not) Fearing Apostasy

The older I get the more I see many of my friends abandon the faith. This is a terrifying reality, especially in the light of Hebrews 6. What is the most frightening about this is the possibility that we ourselves may eventually abandon Christ. How can we know? It seems that little solace can be sought in our theological systems. If you’re an Arminian, you can eventually leave the faith of your own free will. If you’re a Calvinist, it’s possible in the end that the church discovers that your faith was not a persevering faith and thus you were never part of God’s decretal elect from the beginning. It was all a facade.

Into the gap stands Peter Leithart and a more robust theology of baptism which you can read about in his The Baptized Body. Leithart’s thesis in The Baptized Body is threefold: 1) When the bible mentions baptism it means baptism; 2) When the bible refers to Christ’s body it’s referring to the visible church (not just the eschatological/invisible church); 3) Apostasy is real. I think Leithart’s exegesis does the best justice to all the pertinent texts in matters relating to the reality of baptism and apostasy. Leithart’s theology of baptism provides unique resources for assurance which I’ve found helpful as I’ve struggled with seeing people who I never thought would fall away … fall away.

I can’t recommend the book enough. If you want to get a flavour of what Leithart is all about, read his “Tale of three servants” which I’ve provided below:  

Once there were three young men who served a great King. On the recommendation of the Crown Prince, each was brought to the palace, given a ritual bath, clothed in the garments of a page, and placed in the King’s service.

The King accepted them warmly and treated them as if they were his own sons. When he met with them, he told them the history of the kingdom and, through authorized tutors, taught them the ways of the court. As he spoke, they not only learned how to behave as courtiers, but also grew to love and trust the wise king more and more. Often they served table at royal feasts, but occasionally the King would invite them to sit down and join the merriment. Life in court was abundant with joy and peace.

As the three young men grew in skill, they accompanied the King on military campaigns and diplomatic missions. Each fought bravely, and through their prowess and leadership the King came to rule a larger and larger territory. One of the young men became a herald. The King sent him on diplomatic missions and trusted him to negotiate with rulers in the surrounding countries. The three became very famous in the kingdom.

But the three were not all of one mind about the King and the privilege of being in his service. The first servant was, in fact, a spy for a neighboring kingdom. He entered the King’s service in order to disrupt his court and undermine his plans for conquest. He listened to the King and, to maintain his cover, conformed his conduct to the King’s desires. Inwardly he chafed when the King spoke. Instead of growing in his love and devotion to the King, he found the King’s words and habits increasingly irksome. For some years, the King suspected him of treachery and was cautious about sending him on royal missions. Yet the King continued to show him every kindness and treated him with such friendly warmth that no observer could have guessed the King’s suspicions. Eventually, the servant was discovered sneaking out of the palace by night to send a report to his true master. Grieved and angry, the King ordered him to be imprisoned and later signed an execution order.

The second servant had come from a poor and insignificant family and was delighted to be a member of the court. He learned all he could about court life and fighting and looked forward with great eagerness to the times when the King would invite him to sit at his table and share a meal. He trusted and loved the King, and that love and trust seemed to be deepening with every passing month.

It did not last. The servant began to turn against the King when he accompanied the first, treacherous servant on a diplomatic mission. As they traveled, the first servant spoke about the King’s conquests. First he only asked questions, but soon he made bold assertions about the King’s cruelty. The second servant defended the justice of the King, but through a combination of lies, cleverly chosen omissions, and misleading innuendos, the treacherous servant was able to shake his friend’s confidence.

As suspicions grew in the second servant, the King’s words no longer sounded as innocent or wise as they had once, and the servant began to wonder what the King really wanted when he invited the servants to dine with him. He thought of talking with the King about the first servant’s charges, but when the first servant was imprisoned, it seemed that all the suspicions had proven true and he was afraid to reveal himself. Late one night, he slipped out of the palace and ran away to a neighboring court, where he served the rest of his life.

The third servant was at first the least promising of the three. He had no lack of natural skill and intelligence, but there was a belligerent streak that led to continuous strife with the other courtiers, and often with the King himself. He was initially suspicious  of the King’s favor, questioned the King’s advice, and ate little when he sat with a surly frown at the King’s table.

Yet, whenever he failed at some task, or was caught in some fight, or insulted the King, the King showed superhuman forbearance. He forgave him completely and continued to teach and talk to him. During the second year of his service, the servant’s heart began to melt and he began to delight in the King’s company, his words, and his table. He learned to show the same patience and kindness toward his fellow courtiers that the King had shown him. He served the King loyally for many decades, became a great man at court, and fought and won many battles for the King, including one against an opposing army led by the fallen second servant who had left the court. When he became an old man, he taught the younger courtiers the ways of the court. He had a special gift for bringing unruly pages into line. When he died, full of years, he received a lavish state funeral and was greatly grieved and missed by the court.

Shortly before he died, the third servant lay on his bed. The spring shone through the great window of his room in the palace. His grandson, now a page to the very same, ageless King, was sitting beside him. His mind wandered, as old men’s minds do, to his youth, and to the two pages who had begun their service with him.

“But the first servant was never a servant of the King,” his grandson was saying.

“Yes, that is true. He was a traitor from the beginning,” the old man replied. “And yet, as soon as he was dressed in the very garments you now wear, he was a King’s servant. In spite of himself, he even did the King good service.”

“But he didn’t really know the King.”

“Not as he should have, certainly. But the King shared with him as lavishly as he shared with the rest of us. He sat at the King’s table, learned from the King, wore the King’s livery, carried the King’s banners. He lived as abundantly as we all did. All the while there was treachery in his heart. Yet I am sure there were times when his heart bent to the King and he recognized his treachery as the evil it was. I can remember times when there was a gleam of a tear in his eye, and times when he laughed heartily and sincerely I think, at the King’s stories. He would have had to be inhumanly hard to not melt a little before the King’s warmth.”

“And the second servant was just like the first. He too turned traitor.”

“Oh, no, no, no. His story is quite different. The end is the same, surely, but the path toward that end is another story altogether. You see, he loved the King and trusted him. He loved the King better than I.”

“At the beginning … ”

“Yes, at the beginning. If the King had passed judgment during that first year, I am sure I would have been cast out of the palace and the second servant would have been honored above all the servants of the house. I am happy the King does not pass judgment so quickly. I made myself such an annoyance. I still feel pain at the memory, though the King seems to have forgotten it completely.”

“But how could that servant turn so completely? Surely he knew nothing of the King’s spirit.”

The old man smiled. “You are very young. Everything looks very plain, very neat and clean, to a young man. But it was not neat and clean. The second servant knew the King’s spirit. He tasted the King’s spirit, and that spirit inspired him to great things, great things for the King. But then he forgot. He pushed down the King’s spirit. Something happened deep in his soul, and somehow he forgot all the kindness, all the laughter, all the words, all the feasts. He began to suspect the King’s kindness. He began to think the King was laying traps for him, and so he foolishly thought he would lay a trap for the King.”

The bright afternoon deepened to crimson. Neither the old man nor his grandson spoke for a long time. Evening sounds and the aroma of the early honeysuckle came through the window on the cooling air.

“How could they have done it?” the young man said at last. “They had everything they could have asked for, an abundant life in the service of the King. What were they looking for?”

Breathing heavily, his grandfather answered, “I do not know. It is a great mystery. And yet it happened.”

The grandson shivered. “It is very frightening,” he said quietly.

“What is?”

“It is frightening to think that someone who received so much, someone who was so loyal, could turn so completely. I am afraid I might do the same.”

The old man reached and touched his grandson’s hand. “Do no fear. The King will keep you. Stay near him. Trust what he says. Do not be suspicious of him. Enjoy his feasts. Spend time with the other pages and the old courtiers. You wear the livery of a royal servant, and that is a sign of his favor. Keep faith with the King and all will be well.”

And it was.