Differences between apostasy and backsliding

Written by Paul J Bucknell on July, 27, 2019

Backsliding and Apostasy (1 Cor 10:12; Heb 3:12; John 6:60)

The Question on Backsliding

Do the references to backsliding and apostate/apostasy have the same meaning or how are we to understand their interrelationship? (1 Cor 10:12, Heb 3:12, John 6:60-66)

Pre-Discussion on Backsliding

The issue of backsliding is often associated with the assurance of salvation and therefore spurs the bulk of discussions among Christians from suggested passages like above and Hebrews 6.

Our point is not to argue but to express what the scriptures state. This theme gains extra attention because it, in some people’s perspective, determines the authenticity of a person’s salvation.

Certain passages are vague and can be taken to support one position or another, perhaps, both ways. So it’s important to discover what Jesus and the apostles clearly stated and interpret the murky passages in light of what is clear.

Definitions of Backsliding and Apostasy

The first course to clarify how backsliding relates to apostasy is to define the words. Definitions have their limitations for they provide English-speaking conclusions while the biblical or original languages might not as clearly define the two categories. For example, one of the chief Greek root words for ‘falling away” (skandal*; be a stumbling block) occupies 18 full pages in the TDNT and has a rich biblical history.


Backsliding refers to Christian believers who, due to one or more pursuits or doubts about one’s faith, slide backward. To backslide, then, refers to pulling away from one’s prior commitment or faith in Jesus, acknowledging that the truths that once meant much have now lost that same significance.

To backslide’ from Merriam-Webster

1: to lapse morally or in the practice of religion

2: to revert to a worse condition : RETROGRESS


Apostasy describes those that once believed but now deny the faith. They have not just withdrawn from activities consistent with their Christian faith but now pursue other thoughts or faiths, often denying what they once believed.

Apostasy’ from Merriam-Webster

1: an act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith

2: abandonment of a previous loyalty : DEFECTION

Backsliding suggests the possibility of recovery

Simple Conclusion

A comparison of the two English words, backslider and apostasy, shows some overlap. Apostasy, though, always refers to those who have perilously strayed from the faith, sadly not leaving any ‘heqrt’ doors open for their return.

1 Corinthians 10:12

“Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor 10:12).

1 Corinthians 10:12 is only a warning not to backslide or apostatize—not an actual description about falling away. Paul warns believers that the church must exercise caution not to turn away from the Lord. There are some who make most of that precaution—“that he does not fall”—to indicate that Christians can fall and lose their salvation, but that conclusion is speculative—at least from this verse. As we look closely at the text, we discover that professing Christians can fall or lose their zest in following Jesus, but we should be careful not to draw the conclusion that they have lost their salvation. This passage does not clarify the results of what happens to these professing believers but only hints that without sensible precaution, believers can fall away.

Should we take this to affirm that believers can backslide? Yes, that would be fair, but this verse does not address what that condition of falling away might look like. For example, it does not differentiate the genuine believer (that God alone can know) from professing believers (we can witness their baptism and church attendance) so we cannot use such verses to draw statements about the loss of faith except that it can occur.

Hebrews 3:12

“Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God” (Heb 3:12).

Similar to 1 Corinthians 10:12, Hebrews 3:12 warns (i.e., “take care”) professing believers (genuine Christians are included) from not falling away. The brief inclusion of a description of what happens when a person falls away provides further insights.

The Term “Fall away”

The term “fall away” is used 15 times in the New Testament, most of the time having a similar meaning to this verse. Three times they are used with the Parable of the Sower, depicting the sad state of the professing believer to “fall away” due to opposition and affliction (Mat 13:21; Mark 4:17; Luke 8:13). The remaining five gospel usages are connected to the disciples fleeing when Jesus was crucified (Mat 24:10; 26:31; 26:33; Mark 14:27; 14:29). Jesus’ key disciples failed Him when Jesus most needed their support.

Several Greek words are used:
An Evil Heart

  • skandalizo: (Mat and Mark references): offend, be a stumbling block, block, be offended; be displeased)
  • aphistemi (Luke 8:13; 1 Tim 4:1): literally “away” and “standing”; away from the position of standing,
  • parapipto (Heb 6:16): to fall or slip aside; to error
  • ekpipto (2 Peter 3:17): fall down or off; perish; fall from one’s position

An evil heart (“an evil, unbelieving heart”) evidently plays the key part in falling away. The lack of a deeper inclination ruins one’s faith as it does not withstand the troubles that challenge that faith. The Greek word (aphistemi) adds a stronger sense to the falling away, as it, from the Book of Hebrews, vividly reminds us of the wilderness wanderings where the evil-hearted and unbelievers found God’s condemnation. The wider context presents an increased threat, suggesting that they, like the unbelieving Israelites in the OT, will not enter the kingdom of God but be judged. Only the believers, Joshua and Caleb, from that generation, entered the Promised Land. It is here that we can enter one discussion on the loss of salvation.

The Result: away from the Living God

John’s straightforward assertion in 1 John 2:18-20 aptly describes this scenario of those who had at once confessed had left the faith.

18 Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. 19 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. 20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know” (1 John 2:18-20).

The departure from the faith was anticipated, even back in John’s time. John intimates, and this is important, that all those that “went out from us” superficially attached themselves to Christ or the church and later left. By their exodus, they uncover that they never genuinely believed. It is not a losing of salvation but a proving they never knew the Lord—otherwise, “They would have remained with us.” Like tares which at first look like wheat, their true colors only become apparent at the end near the harvest. I extend the quote (2:19) to show that contrast with those who do believe because they, like Christ, have an anointing.

John 6:60-65 and Backsliding

60 Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? 62 What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. 65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” (John 6:60-65)

John 6:61 and its surrounding verses serve as an excellent place to close our discussion. The Greek term (skandalous from which our ‘scandal’ is taken) originates in the Old Testament from two Hebrew terms presenting the idea of a falling or turning away. The term is purposely decisive leaving only one or the other option like getting trapped in a snare. There is no in-between stage of commitment and belief; either one follows Jesus or not.

Jesus (John obviously followed Jesus’ teaching in explanation) speaks of those who do or do not believe. Some reach a point of offense where they can take no more. Jesus, in verse 64, points them out as “But there are some of you who do not believe.” It is not whether they did believe and then did not believe, but that they never had saving faith or as Jesus said: “who did not believe.” Jesus knew their unbelieving hearts from the beginning but allowed them to enter their fellowship as trolls.

Jesus’ final statement (6:65), therefore, becomes conclusive, “No one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” Faith comes from the Lord.


While the term backslider hints at a dullness of heart which Jesus addresses the believers attending the churches in Revelation, there is a call to revival and restoration.

“Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you indwell remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent” (Rev 2:5).

Apostasy, however, is seen as a final result or climax of disbelief, which leaves no regard to what level of belief one formerly held. Judas, the former apostle, serves as a case scenario for this. In the end, he revealed his unbelief. There was no mercy left for him but only destruction.

Falling away, then, is a term, that appears to refer more to apostasy than what we usually call backsliding. Backsliding can happen to all of us when our faith goes lackluster, but it can and should be renewed. Jesus, rather conclusively, sets the standard in John 6, depicting some professors of faith as never having a believing heart while others who do, though they drift in profession of faith, thy will always return to their faith and belief in Christ because God secures their faith.

The warning from these verses, therefore, should be taken seriously. Yes, God will preserve our faith, but our confidence that our faith is preserved by his grace is seen in the perseverance of that faith.

“I will set no worthless thing before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; It shall not fasten its grip on me” (Psalm 101:3).

“The backslider in heart will have his fill of his own ways, But a good man will be satisfied with his” (Proverbs 14:14).

OT and NT study questions

Discussion Questions for Apostasy and Backslider

  1. What are we all warned of in 1 Cor 10:12 and Heb 3;12?
  2. What is backsliding? In what aspects can we see backsliding in Revelation 2 and 3?
  3. What is apostasy? How does it ever differ from backsliding?
  4. Have you ever backslid? What brought you back to the Lord?
  5. Relate one or two cases where someone you knew apostatized.
  6. Look over the verses from John 6:60-65. Describe the two kinds of people described there.
  7. Having read these verses, what could you say to a believer who says that he wants to come back to the Lord?
  8. What would you say to the believer who no longer has any interested in spiritual things and has turned from the Lord?
  9. What light does 1 John 2:18-20 shed on the thought of a person losing salvation?


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