Deconversion And Covenant Theology

In the wake of Josh Harris’ announcement of his apostasy a group of leaders in the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed movement (YRR) or New Calvinism has written of his “deconversion.” If one searches the history of Christianity one will probably not find the Fathers, Medievals, Reformers, or Protestant Orthodox theologians using this term since it seems to have entered the English language sometime in the early 1980s, in the sociology of religion, e.g., Anne Carson Daly, “Conversion and Deconversion: A Spiritual Palimpsest,” Faith & Reason 9 (Spr 1983) 32–38. It became more prominent about a decade later in John D. Barbour, Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith (Charlotttesville, University of Virginia Press, 1994). Since the early 2000s and especially in the last year or two the word seems to have gained traction in the evangelical and Reformed worlds, e.g., Michael Kruger, “Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories” (2018). The word is sufficiently novel or technical that it did not appear in the 3rd edition (revised) of the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary(1993) nor does it appear in the more recent Oxford American Dictionary. When I have opportunity, I will consult the MOAD (Mother of All [English] Dictionaries), the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

A New Problematic Term

Suffice it to say that the term deconversion is fairly new but is the idea? Yes and no. In the broad sense of what is implied in the word deconversion, no. Broadly, the word suggests or connotes apostasyfrom the Christian faith. This is not a new idea at all. The word apostasy does not occur often in English translations of Scripture. The RSV uses “apostasy” to translate a Hebrew noun (מְשׁוּבָה) in Jeremiah 2:19 and 5:6 and in Hebrews 6:6 to translate a Greek verb (παραπίπτω), which verb occurs in the LXX (a Greek translation of the Old Testament, which influenced the NT) in Ezekiel 14:13; 15:8; 20:27 in the sense of apostasy, to fall away and in the early Christian epistle 1 Clement 51:1. In these cases the sense is that falling away from the practice and confession of the revealed faith or religion.

There is, however, a potential problem with the term deconversion. As it happens I did some work earlier this summer on the tern conversion for a forthcoming reference work. I was impressed with some of the difficulties attached to the word. For one thing, when the Reformed use the word “conversion,” they tend to mean one thing and when Evangelicals, who have a background in the revivalist traditions, use the word they tend to mean something rather different. The Reformed use the word in two senses. In the first sense, it refers to those who have been granted new life (regeneration) and true faith, and who, by the Holy Spirit, are united to Christ. We use the word in this sense in Heidelberg Catechism 84 where we distinguish between “unbelievers and hypocrites” on the one side and those who are “converted” on the other. In Heidelberg 88–90, however, the Reformed speak of conversion as a synonym for sanctification and the Christian life. In that sense it is a lifelong process of mortification (dying to sin) and vivification (being made alive to Christ). In the first sense, there are those who are converted definitively and those who are not. In the second sense, however, no believer is fully converted (i.e., sanctified) in this life. It was in that sense that Caspar Olevianus, one of the contributors to the catechism, said that believers are never completely regenerate in this life.

When evangelicals from the revivalist traditions speak of “conversion,” however, they tend to think of an event, often a dramatic event rather than the quiet, mysterious working of the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel. They might think of the Northampton revivals in the 18th century, the Finneyite revivals (and the anxious bench) of the 19th century, or the Billy Graham revivals of the 20th century. In those contexts, insofar as the 19th and 20th century revivals tended to be Arminian, conversion was as thought to be much the work of the subject as much as the work of the Spirit. To the extent that the word deconversion might suggest that one is truly united to Christ and yet may fall away, we should reject it.

So, there are two different paradigms here. In the Reformed paradigm, the Spirit is thought to grant new life to dead sinners and with that comes true faith, union with Christ, and consequent, progressive sanctification by the grace of the Spirit. In the revivalist paradigm, particularly in the Wesleyan, Finneyite, and following traditions (as in Romanism), a conversion is something that might be undone if one refuses to cooperate sufficiently with grace. For confessional (e.g., Book of Concord) Lutheranism, grace is something that can be resisted and thus conversion might be undone. Certainly the Federal Visionists teach this when they confess (2007), “apostasy is a terrifying reality for many baptized Christians. All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace.” As the orthodox Reformed rejected the Remonstrant doctrine of apostasy in the Canons of Dort so too they have rejected the confessional Lutheran and Federal Vision doctrines of apostasy.

Two Ways, One Covenant

In distinction from the Wesleyan, Holiness, and Revivalist traditions, the Reformed have tended to think about apostasy in covenantal terms. The Federal Visionists have done this but they have their own covenant theology which is substantially much more like that of the Remonstrants than it is like the Reformed doctrine. In the Reformed understanding of the church and apostasy, there are two ways of relating to the visible church and to the covenant of grace. This is because there are two aspects to the covenant of grace: the internal and the external. The latter is our way of speaking about the administration of the covenant of grace. This refers to the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments and discipline. The internal refers to the substance of the covenant of grace. Only believers have both the substance (Christ and his benefits) and the administration. Hypocrites and unbelievers participate in the external administrationof the covenant of grace but they never receive what the administration offers and gives to the elect: Christ and his benefits.

We see this distinction in Romans 2:28–29 where Paul says, “For one is not a Jew, who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is external, in the flesh but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” There have always been those who were outward members of the people of God but whose hearts were unconverted (see above) by the Spirit of God. They were external members of the covenant of grace. They heard the Word preached. They may have received the sign of entrance into the visible covenant community (circumcision, baptism) and they may even have made profession of faith and participated either in the Old Testament feasts or in the New Testament Lord’s Table (Holy Communion). As Paul says, “not all who are of Israel are Israel” (emphasis added; Rom 9:6).

The writer to the Jewish Christians faced this problem squarely. Some in the congregation were tempted to go back to the Mosaic types and shadows. They were tempted to leave Christ for Moses. For more on Hebrews take a listen to this complete (free) audio commentary by my colleagues. Some were in danger of having been “enlightened,” having “tasted of the heavenly gift,” of having participated in the Holy Spirit, of having “tasted of the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age” and then apostatizing. Those who fit this category cannot be restored again to repentance since they are “re-crucifying the Son of God” and holding him up to ridicule” (Heb 6:4–6).

This is obviously a difficult passage but if we read this passage against its Old Testament background and if we remember the internal/external and substance/administration distinctions we can make sense of it. The pastor writing to the congregation explains himself as he goes. It is important to let later clauses, where he elaborates, explain the prior clauses. The expression “enlightened” is cryptic but it need not refer to the act of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. First of all, the verb is frequently used in the New Testament in the objectivesense rather than the subjective. If I shine a light on a dark path but one of the persons walking with me is blind, it will not help her. That is the objective sense of “enlightened” (φωτίζω). We see this sense of the verb in John 1:9. Now, there are difficulties with this approach (e.g., the voice of the verb, i.e., passive v. active). Yet in Hebrews 10:32 the very same verb, in the same (passive) voice seems to refer more to their “coming to an understanding” than “coming to new life.” In other words, there are those who participate in the life of the congregation, who even participate in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, but who were never believers but who could give an account of the faith (they understood it intellectually) and even made profession of faith. In some cases, some of those were even leaders in the church. Luke names some who participated outwardly in the New Covenant church. Ananias and Sapphire were members of the church (Acts 5:1–11) and yet they lied to the Spirit and suffered the most serious church discipline ever recorded. Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Philetus are named as apostates (1 Tim 1;20; 2 Tim 2:17). It seems likely that Hymenaeus and Philetus were teachers in the church. There were others such as Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9–24) and those to whom Jude referred as “waterless clouds” and “shepherds feeding themselves” (Jude 12).

All these participated externally in the life of the church, the visible covenant community. At one point they made a credible profession of faith in the church and were received as members of the church. Yet, the church later found out that they were, in fact, hypocrites. They professed what they did not actually believe. They were in Israel, as it were, but they were never of Israel. The Apostle John warned the churches in Asia Minor about this very phenomenon:

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 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. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son (1 John 2:18–22; ESV).

The test that John applies here is perseverance. Contra the Lutherans, the Remonstrants, and the FV, the hypocrites were never actually regenerate nor united to Christ. John does not say that they were of us and then they were not of us. They were never “of us.” This shows us that the FV teaching—that one can actually, truly be united to Christ and yet fall away because one did not cooperate sufficiently with grace—is contrary to the Word of God. According to John, the apostates went out because they never had the substance of the covenant of grace: Christ and his benefits. To use the language of Hebrews, they tasted but were not fed. To combine the categories of Hebrews with John, the apostates were those those were illumined but remained in the darkness. In John’s case, these showed themselves to be antichrist because they denied his incarnation. Hypocrites leave because they cannot persevere and they cannot because they were never actually united to the vine in the first place. A hypocrite is, by definition, one who makes a false profession.

This covenantal context helps us in Hebrews 10 also where the pastor urges the members to hold fast to the faith that they had already professed, to continue to attend public worship services, and to continue encouraging the brothers and sisters (Heb 10:22–25). The pastor to the Hebrew Christians warns them about the jeopardy of making a false, hypocritical profession and then walking away from that profession:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses.How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb 10:26–29; ESV).

The knowledge of which the pastor writes in v. 26 helps us to understand the illumination of which he wrote in chapter 6. It is an intellectual assent but it is not true faith. It knows but it does not actually believe and trust. Those who make such professions place themselves in grave jeopardy. This is why Reformed churches take membership and discipline so seriously (or should). It is no light thing to stand before the congregation, the elders, and God and take sacred vows. Those vows come with consequences and jeopardy. Those who repudiate Christ put him back on the cross. They become, as it were, like the soldiers who mocked him. Jesus will remember those who took his name in vain, in a false profession. Hebrews invokes the language of Old Testament covenant breaking to describe the reality of apostasy from the New Covenant congregation. Their participation in the visible covenant community was real and so is their jeopardy in their apostasy. In that apostasy they have trampled underfoot the Son of God—what a remarkable thing to say—and have made common the sacred blood of Christ. It is hard not to think that these hypocrites, like Judas, had come to the Lord’s Table. He is the paradigm for such hypocrites is he not? Did he not “outrage the Spirit of grace”?

It is not for us to say that one is eternally lost but it is for us to say that, as far the visible church can determine, one has become apostate. We pray for that one. We pray that God will convict him of his sin and need for the Savior. We pray that God the Spirit will soften his heart and draw him to Christ, that the Spirit will grant him new life and eyes to see Jesus for who he and what he is: the Savior for needy sinners.

The Josh Harris case and others like his are not new. We have always had such sad episodes but it helps when we have the right categories to understand it (as best finite minds are able to understand such mysteries). In light of all we know, it is perhaps best not to speak of deconversion but rather to use the more traditional and biblical language of apostasy. God knows who are truly converted and who shall be. He shall save all his elect. Of that we should be confident. Believer, you should trust in Jesus and in his promises. Mortify your sins and attend to the due use of the means of grace (worship, sacraments, and prayer). The apostasy of a high-profile evangelical celebrity is a cause for sadness but it should not rock your faith. Your trust is not in celebrities but in Christ as it should be, where it must be.



1. A palimpsest is “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain” (Oxford American Dictionary).

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  1. Further, those who professed a belief, but later deviated in a false direction have a great judgement to bear and should be paying serious attention to passages in the synoptic gospels that advise that those who have deceived “little ones” (those with new faith or struggling with their faith) will be better off to tie a millstone around their necks and jump into the sea. Beyond the subject at hand, I think of people like Ehrman who not only have rejected their once professed faith (based, of course, on a subjective conversion experience) but who go around spreading their atheistic propaganda to dig themselves in even deeper.

  2. “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 ESV

  3. They were in the external administration of the covenant of grace but failed to receive the substance. Scary to think about

  4. Some may hold out hope for Josh Harris. Unless I am misinterpreting Hebrews 6:4-6 I’m not sure there is much.
    “4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 and who have fallen[a] away, to be brought back to repentance.“ Hebrews 6:4-6 NIV

    • Bob,

      We should take the warning seriously but without putting ourselves in the place of God. Let’s pray and hope or a work of the Spirit on his heart.

    • For whom was Hebrews 6:4-6 written? Who was being referenced and does “impossible” have its usual meaning? I’m not trying to play God but something was being communicated in this passage. Is this the same as 1 John 5:16 which references a “sin unto death” that we are told not to pray for?

      • Bob,

        There is a difference between saying “there may be such people” or there are such people and saying “so and so is one of those people described in Hebrews 6:4-6.” That last sentence crosses the line.

        1. If anyone is to say such a thing it must be the visible church in her assemblies making a solemn announcement.

        2. Certainly a magazine comment box is not a place to publish a condemnation.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you! May the Lord continue to give you strength and wisdom while you fight the good fight.

    In Christ,

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