A friend recently shared his frustration after reading about Israel’s cycle of sin, discipline, repentance and deliverance—only to repeat the whole dreary cycle.
The obvious question was, “How could Israel stumble so severely after witnessing all of the miracles God had done? The Jordan River crossing and the walls of Jericho capitulating before them should have been sufficient to keep them on track. The answer is revealed in Judges 2:10. Joshua’s generation had been eyewitnesses, but their grandchildren no longer “knew the Lord nor the things He had done.” Their parents failed to pass their faith on to their children.
Israel’s addiction to sin wasn’t unique to the time of the Judges. If anybody has felt frustration like my friend after reading Judges, it was Nehemiah. After enduring 70 years under Babylonian oppression, Israel continued to stumble after being liberated.
Nehemiah traveled over 800 miles back to Jerusalem to lead the reconstruction of the city walls, and after placing trusted men to maintain law and order in his absence, Nehemiah was shocked to learn that his reformation movement had disintegrated. The city walls were still standing, but it seemed that everything else he had accomplished had been discarded. His teaching and his strong example had been shelved. It was business as usual.
The same problem has also persisted throughout history of Christianity. Churches planted by Paul drifted away from sound teaching. In his letter to the Galatian church, Paul exclaimed, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are returning to a different gospel…” Paul was deeply grieved, even angry, over their behavior. It would surely have broken the apostle’s heart if he could have known that each of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3—churches planted by him or his team—no longer even exist today. All that remains are scattered stones and tiles—some still bearing the symbol of the fish.
Our pastor has been preaching through Hebrews, a letter addressing the problem of abandoning the gospel to avoid persecution. At least these believers had a motive for abandoning the Faith.
If we fail to learn from church history, we will continue to repeat it. Are we any different than those who have lived before us? Are we better trained and discipled? Consider the colleges and universities founded to train and equip men to preach God’s Word—and have now utterly turned their backs on faith in Christ. Harvard and Princeton are obvious examples, but the list is much longer and continues to grow. Consider major church denominations that, less than a hundred years ago, were bastions of biblical theology, but today have “deserted” the gospel just like the Galatian Christians before them. They have followed the culture rather than Scripture. Some even deny the deity of Christ and His resurrection, but still call themselves “Christian churches.”
How about television and radio preachers or seminary professors who have moved away from their roots—some ignoring or even apologizing for the Old Testament. Claiming to be “woke” they justify homosexual marriages.
How can this be? Why would anybody, claiming to be a Christian, ignore biblical teaching?
Here are a few possible reasons people desert the Faith:
1) Sometimes the message is wrong.
The false teachers in Galatians had gutted the gospel by adding the requirement of circumcision to the pure message of grace. If the message proclaimed from pulpits today is wrong, those sitting in the seats on Sunday will be vulnerable to error.
2) Sometimes the messenger is responsible.
When messengers fail to speak the whole truth in an effort to please people or to identify with our secular culture, they have become the worthless salt that Jesus warned against. If the listener is not taught truth, he will follow a lie.
Perhaps the messenger has failed to apply the truth in his or her own life. When their lives don’t match what their lips proclaim, they become stumbling blocks. Consider the pastor or TV evangelist who has been caught in an adulterous affair or guilty of fraud with money that has been donated in good faith. The verbal message of these preachers may be correct, but their personal duplicity provides an excuse for others to reject it.
3) Every time a professing Christian abandons the faith, that individual was already predisposed toward desertion.
Although the deserter may offer either or both of the above excuses for leaving the faith, the deeper problem is not the message or even the messenger. It is a problem of the heart. Jeremiah nailed it when he wrote, “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:5,9). When Eve was deceived by Satan’s distortion of God’s Word, something changed in her heart. And then, of course, everything changed, and all of Adam’s descendants are now predisposed to go our own way and “choose our own truth.”
From the time Paul wrote Galatians and John wrote The Revelation, churches have been drifting away—or even intentionally walking away—from the unchanging truth of God’s Word.
Why do denominations and seminaries abandon the truth of God’s Word? Why does a young man who grew up in the church turn away from the faith of his parents? If the message is true and relevant, I ask why? If a messenger has been a faithful example, why do his listeners desert?
Why? Because the heart of the problem is a heart problem.
I offer two biblical examples as evidence of the depravity of the human heart and our predisposition to desert:
Consider Noah. God, who knows our hearts best, called Noah “righteous and blameless” in Genesis 6:5,11. Noah’s life—in both words and actions—was evidence of his authenticity. Although the surrounding culture was marked by wickedness and filled with violence, Noah remained blameless. That’s the way God said it.
Although neighbors and relatives mocked him, Noah never stopped preaching and warning about impending judgment, but continued building an ark—to float in an ocean that didn’t yet exist. Tragically, all of Noah’s peers, neighbors and relatives missed the boat. He left behind all of his siblings, every uncle, every cousin and every nephew. Not to mention his neighbors and acquaintances.
The problem in that tragic era was neither the message nor the messenger. God diagnosed the heart problem in Genesis 6:5: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” After the flood waters had receded, the Lord promised Noah, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).
The psalmist also diagnosed the problem when he wrote, “The fool says in his heart ‘there is no God.’ They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good” (Psalm 53:1). That’s God’s indictment against human history.
Nothing has changed. Men, women and youth still choose to disregard the God of the Bible simply because, as Peter Hitchens admitted in his book The Rage against God, he simply didn’t want there to be a God. He didn’t want any divine accountability, so he could be free to pursue his youthful lusts. Hitchens, now a believer, exposes the motive driving most of the people who deny God or walk away from the Faith they once claimed.
For the clearest example of the ultimate motive behind every decision to desert the faith, consider Jesus’ ministry. He was sinless, faithful to the mission and the message. His claims were validated through miracles, not the least of which was the day He victoriously burst from the tomb. Yet after three years of listening to Jesus teach, witnessing His miracles and after going on several short-term mission trips, Judas eventually deserted Jesus for a handful of coins. Jesus had previously diagnosed Judas’ heart problem—his predisposition to betray and desert. Reclining around the table, Jesus said to the twelve disciples, “One of you is a devil” (John 13:21).
So, when it seems that many who once claimed to believe but have turned away, I ask myself, “Do I share responsibility? Have I failed to proclaim the Truth—the whole truth? Have I, by my personal example, given them the excuse that they sought?”
Or is it a heart problem?
Is there any hope?
Of course! Fervent prayer for our friends and members of our family.
In our home Bible study of ten adults, each couple has shared prayer requests for our children and grandchildren to remain in or return to the Faith. Since there is power in prayer, might there be greater power in corporate prayer? Acts 2:42-47 describes a vibrant church that had captured the attention of those outside the church because they were devoted to sound biblical teaching, authentic fellowship and praying together.