Seventy Years Without Shipwreck
Five Reasons That Some Fall Away
Commencement Address | Bethlehem College & Seminary | Minneapolis
My aim in these next few minutes is to provide another incentive for the perseverance of your faith and your fruitfulness for the next seventy years. To say it another way, my aim is to sharpen your sword so that you will be able to fend off the forces that threaten to make you faithless and fruitless for the next seventy years.
I chose the number seventy not only because a few of you will live that long, but also because this year — 2022 — marks the 70th anniversary of my becoming a Christian. I have been pondering, with a kind of trembling thankfulness and wonder, how God has held me fast for so long. That’s what I want for you. Will you endure to the end, or not?
Be Tree-Like, Not Trendy
The word deconversion is not in the Oxford English Dictionary. At least, not yet. Words are created to name reality, not the other way around. But we didn’t need the word deconversion. The Bible abounds with words and descriptions of some forsaking Christ:
- apostasy (2 Thessalonians 2:3)
- falling away (Matthew 24:10)
- shipwreck of faith (1 Timothy 1:19)
- turning back from following the Lord (Zephaniah 1:6)
- trampling underfoot the Son of God (Hebrews 10:29)
- going out from us (1 John 2:19)
- cutting off of a branch (John 15:2)
- becoming disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:27)
- turning away from listening to the truth (2 Timothy 4:4)
- denying the Master who bought them (2 Peter 2:1)
We didn’t need a new word. My guess is that the new word deconversion came into existence so that the old, foolish, tragic, heart-breaking reality could feel as trendy as the word. How shrewd is our enemy.
If it lay in my power, I would spare you this trendy tragedy. It is a wonderful thing to remain a Christian for seventy years — and more. To stand like Polycarp on the day of his martyrdom in AD 155 and say, “For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” For some of you, that would be sixty years from now. Would it not be glorious to say that when you turn eighty-six?
“Be like a tree: old, gnarly, battered winter after winter, storm after storm — and still standing.”
Did you know that the Fortingall Yew tree in Scotland may be five thousand years old — the oldest living thing in Britain? It’s still standing after millennia. You won’t live five thousand years on earth. But many of you will live three, four, five, six, seven more decades. I hope you feel that it is a wonderful thing to be like a tree, not like “a reed shaken by the wind” (Luke 7:24). Not like a reed, but like a tree: old, gnarly, battered winter after winter, storm after storm — and still standing. Become that kind of tree.
How Sin Shipwrecks Faith
The incentive that I want to give you for your endurance, or the sword-sharpening that I offer to help you to fend off the forces of apostasy, falling away, making shipwreck of your faith, and being part of the trendy tragedy of deconversion, is this: be aware that the shipwreck of Christian faith is owing most deeply not to the mind’s problems with history, science, logic, or ethics, but to the heart’s overpowering desire for something that does not fit with Christian faith.
We stumble over the cliff of apostasy not because there is no light, but because we love the dark. “Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).
This came home to me recently when someone asked me what it means to “make shipwreck” of your faith. I went looking for biblical examples. Let me give you five illustrations of what I found. Time after time the ship of faith floundered not on the rock of ignorance, but on the rock of sin.
1. Life’s Cares, Riches, and Pleasures
In the parable of the soils, Jesus says that the third soil represents those who make a beginning in discipleship and then fall away: “As for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). So there they were, making a good beginning. But something went wrong. What was their downfall? “The cares and riches and pleasures of life.” Whatever the presenting issues, Jesus says that the fear of losing things, and the desire to gain things, and the craving for the pleasures of the world — these are the rocks where the ship of faith shattered.
2. Love for the Present Age
The apostle Paul says in Philemon 1:24 that Demas was a fellow worker. He lists him right beside Luke. So Demas must have looked enough like a true Christian to actually pass muster for Paul to approve him on his team, even though Paul’s standards were so high that John Mark was excluded (Acts 15:38). But then later, in 2 Timothy 4:10, Paul writes: “Demas, in love with this present age, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” What happened? Paul says it was an issue of love. Desire. Passion. In love with this present age, Demas quit.
3. Rejecting a Good Conscience
In 1 Timothy 1:18–20, Paul tells Timothy, “Wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this [a good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander.” How did Hymenaeus and Alexander make shipwreck of their faith? They rejected a good conscience. Their consciences were testifying to them, “These desires that you have for sin are not the way of Christ, not the way of life. Listen! You cannot navigate those rocks!” And they rejected the voice of conscience and wrecked their lives on the desire for sin.
4. Re-Entangled in Worldly Defilements
In 2 Peter 2:20, Peter says, “If, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” In other words, their knowledge of Christ and their beginnings of sanctification — aborted. Why? Like Lot’s wife, they looked back with overpowering desire and became entangled again in the defilements of the world.
5. Deceitfulness of Sin
Finally, now that we have seen Jesus and Paul and Peter testify about what causes the shipwreck of faith, what about the book of Hebrews? Here’s Hebrews 3:12–14:
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.
What is the danger? What could lead to the hardening of the heart and the falling away from the living God? Answer: the deceitfulness of sin. Sin, the heart’s preference for this world over God. So, in sum:
- The shipwreck of the third soil is owing to the riches and pleasures of life.
- The shipwreck of Demas is owing to his love for the present age.
- The shipwreck of Hymenaeus and Alexander is owing to rejecting a good conscience.
- The shipwreck of those who escaped the defilements of the world is that they become entangled with them again.
- The warning against shipwreck in Hebrews 3 is a warning against the deceitfulness of sin.
“The root cause of apostasy is not the failure to detect truth, but the failure to desire holiness.”
I don’t think you will find any exceptions to this in the Bible. The root cause of apostasy, or falling away, or making shipwreck of faith, or deconversion, is not the failure to detect truth, but the failure to desire holiness. Not the absence of light, but the love for the dark. Not the problems of science, but the preference for sin.
Remember how Jesus said in John 7:17, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” If the inclination of the heart is right, the illumination of the mind will be bright.
We all know — you have been well taught — that God never loses any of his elect. Not one of his predestined children is ever lost. “For those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). None of them deconverts finally. The ship of saving faith always makes it to the haven. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).
“Be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10). God is faithful. Those whom he calls he keeps. He will do it (1 Corinthians 1:9; 1 Thessalonians 5:24) — and he uses means. You will be kept from shipwreck not only by seeing the way of truth, but by savoring the way of holiness. Because without the savoring of holiness, the seeing of truth is lost (Hebrews 12:14).