By Elizabeth Prata
In part 1 I looked at definitions of false doctrine and heresy and whether they were two sides of the same coin, or totally different theological issues. In Part 2 I looked at heresy and named some examples of old and heresies coming around again repackaged, naming some modern people who teach them.
In this part I’ll focus on the issue of repentance for the false teacher and the heretic. Does a false teacher or a heretic ever repent? Can they? Should we even pray for them?
After our salvation, some of us become teachers. It’s a weighty and sober task, for teachers will be judged more strictly.
And because we are all human, sometimes even teachers of the Bible sin. They may sin by teaching error, or promote someone who is a false teacher themselves. It is here that the path diverges. Some of these teachers, when alerted to their error, repent publicly. I have read occasionally of these teachers publicly repenting of their false teaching and/or promotion of false teachers. It’s always encouraging to see this.
Others double down and continue teaching the false. Their path marches ever onward toward destruction. Purposeful persistence in error would seem to indicate a hardening of heart of that person. Repentance becomes more distant possibility, but it’s never out of the realm of possibility- because there is only 1 sin that is eternal, and that is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
But is there a moment on that path when a teacher who has taught falsely can return? At what point does God give them over to their error? We know God does this, Romans 1:18-32 describes a hardening process. We know He gave Pharaoh over to his persistent refusal to see or accept God’s truth. We know in the end, judgment comes upon the ungodly heretics (Jude 1:4).
We read of Hymenaeus, who is mentioned twice in the New Testament. The first time is in 1 Timothy, written in about A.D. 62-64.
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may fight the good fight, keeping faith and a good conscience, which some, having rejected, suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20)
We learn that Hymenaeus rejected the faith, made a shipwreck of it, and didn’t keep it. Is he restorable? More on that question in a minute. We learn that Paul put him out of the church for his false teaching.
The second time we read of Hymenaeus it’s a couple of years later in 2 Timothy. This book was written in about 66-67 AD.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid godless and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their word will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:15–18).
Hymenaeus is lumped in with people who promote empty and godless chatter, and what he was teaching was poison (gangrene, other translations, cancer. The Greek word is literally gaggraina). He has gone astray from the truth and is teaching something totally false.
But in the first verse, Paul put Hymenaeus out of the church for a reason. The reason is always restoration. Paul said “so he may be taught not to blaspheme.” So it seems if one can be taught something, there is wiggle room. If someone can be taught something there is room for the light to come and error to be repented of. If he can be taught, the door to restoration isn’t shut, it would seem. Hymenaeus is being punished with a hope for restoration in mind.
Paul didn’t write, “I put him out so he may be condemned.” Excommunication was a last resort to be sure, a serious consequence of Hymenaeus’ error, but this punishment had the purpose of possibly Hymenaeus learning the truth and perhaps changing his ways.
To that end I have no doubt Paul prayed for Hymenaeus. Paul was a prayer, and a carer of souls.
The situation does not look to be improved a couple years later, Hymenaeus is not recorded as having been restored to the church, but is worse in his teaching. He is persisting in error. This is one of the marks of a false teacher and a heretic.
We also read in 2 Timothy 2:25,
with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may give them repentance leading to the full knowledge of the truth,[underline mine]
This word “if” does not refer to God dithering about whether to grant repentance that a person is begging for. He is not in heaven saying, ‘Hymenaeus is repenting, hmmm, shall I accept it? He did make me pretty mad…’Maybe, maybe not…”
It is simply an acknowledgement from the writer that repentance is in the hands of God. (Acts 11:18). HE gives the person a spirit of repentance. We do not know on our side of heaven which false teacher will be given the opportunity to repent and which will persist unto death and condemnation. So we pray for the person who is in error.
“Repentance of the heart is the work of God the Holy Spirit.” ~Sproul
It is a weighty situation when we see someone sliding into error and then apostasy. We do know that at some point, God gives them over to their error. They will remain in their sin since that is what they have persistently and continuously striven for. God gave Pharaoh over. He gave Saul over. Perhaps He gave Hymenaeus over in between the Books of 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy.
And we know this too, Hebrews 6:4-6 NIV says it is impossible to restore some:
For in the case of those once having been enlightened and having tasted of the heavenly gift and having become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and having tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and having fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.
These verses do NOT mean a person who is saved and has the Holy Spirit indwelling them, can lose their salvation. No. The New Testament is replete with assurances that faith, once given to a penitent, is of God and will never be snatched away by anyone or anything, including God.
You notice the words in the Hebrews verse- the person was enlightened (had cognitive knowledge) was ‘partaking’ of the heavenly gift, (around Godly events, but not indwelled), and ‘tasted’ (not digested, or consumed). These descriptions describe only a surface believer. Remember, many will say to Jesus on the Day, didn’t we do many works in your name? And He will cast them away because He never knew them.
It’s these people, the surface workers, not the committed believers, who will fall away. If a false teacher is genuine, they WILL repent. Same with a heretic. Of the sad people who ‘deconstruct’ their faith and make a once for all rejection of it, they are impossible to restore. They came close to the Light but turned away to darkness, never to see the Light again.
Should we pray for them?
So, if we accept that the spirit of repentance is a gift from above, and if we accept that some are impossible to restore, and we know that God gives some over to their sin, should we pray for false teachers, heretics, and apostates?
There is only 1 unforgivable sin, and that rejecting Jesus and dying in one’s sin. Jesus prayed to the Father for forgiveness of those blaspheming Him and mocking and spitting on Him on the cross. But if one blasphemes the Holy Spirit & dies outside of the door of Jesus, then…his sin is eternal. Until the person dies, we never know what his or her heart is doing, and we never know what God has in store for them. False teachers, heretics, and apostates are in SUCH danger, we should actually pray for them more!
Throughout his letter, the author of Hebrews warns his audience of this danger. In the past, they have professed faith in Jesus and claimed to embrace him. Now, because of pressure and persecution from unbelieving Jews, they are tempted to abandon Jesus to restore their peace and comfort. They have experienced remarkable measures of grace in association with the new-covenant people of God (Hebrews 6:4–5), but now they are nearing the brink of falling away from Christ — and Hebrews warns them of the peril: having known the truth, and rejected it, are they now coming into a kind of settled hardness of heart from which they no longer will be able to repent and thus be forgiven?
For Christians today, we need not fear a specific moment of sin, but a kind of hardness of heart that would see Jesus as true and yet walk away — with a kind of hardness of heart incapable of repenting. Again, it’s not that forgiveness isn’t granted, but that it’s not sought. The heart has become so recalcitrant, and at such odds with God’s Spirit, that it’s become incapable of true repentance. ~Dave Mathis
Has one persisted so long in their sin that they have become seared to it? THAT person cannot repent.
But do WE know when that moment is? No. When Pharaoh rebelled after the first plague, was he unredeemable? No. Or the second, third, fourth? We do not know the exact moment when God gives a person over to their sin, so we continue to pray.
Prayer changes US. It acknowledges we are finite, helpless creatures who need God to do anything. It also puts the other person on our mind instead of our own selves, prayer in this way helps us be humble and other-centered.
If you see a person sliding into falsity, or someone who has been church-disciplined and put out, pray for them. It is a serious, serious situation with their eternal soul at risk.
Republished with permission from Blogs.crossmap.com, featuring inspiring Bible verses about Heresy and false doctrine part 3: Can they repent? Will they repent?.