But does this imply, as supposed by many, that apostacy from christian truth in the case of such as have once made it their principle of life, a falling from the state of regeneration, is a thing impossible? This can by no means be deduced from these words. A false interpretation is given to them by those who stretch the sense so far; who make of the Apostle's declaration in regard to a particular case, a principle of universal application. The word of God guards us against such a view, by enjoining watchfulness, even upon hill who has made greatest advancement, so long as the conflict of the earthly life shall endure; and by warning him who is confident that he stands fast, to take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. x.12). So too the Apostle Paul, that mature believer, speaks of his conflicts and strivings, -- lest he, who had preached to others, should himself be found a castaway. Such an apostacy cannot, indeed, be supposed to take place suddenly. But it may happen, that through lack of true watchfulness over himself, or through false self-reliance, a lack of humility, he who has once attained to the christian state, may gradually fall again under the dominion of that sin, which though subdued by faith still cleaves to him; may sink down again from the height to which he had thus risen, and so lose the divine life once received, but not faithfully guarded and nurtured. The Apostle John by no means denies such a possibility; he is only asserting what was the fact in this particular case. He only states the grounds upon which this specific occurrence is to be explained; which by no means justifies us in deducing from it a universal law, for the development of the christian life. What he, says is no more than this: no such radical change has ever been experienced by these persons of whom he is speaking. What now appears, openly and visibly, had always really existed though under concealment and disguise. Even while still attached to the church, they had been strangers to the christian truth which is its vital principle. Under the mask of a christian profession, they had concealed the same views and feelings, which now manifest themselves in open opposition to the pure christian truth.
By this explanation of the true grounds of an occurrence, which seemed likely to perplex the minds of many, the Apostle seeks to counteract its influence upon those whom he addresses in this Letter. He shows them that what so awakens their surprise is nothing new, but has already been long preparing. He teaches them, moreover, that although the causes from which it proceeded were indeed something to be deplored, yet that the occurrence is in itself a salutary necessity in the development-process of Christianity. It served to bring out in a clear and convincing manner the truth, that not all who seem to belong to the church, belong to it in reality; to separate the genuine and spurious members from one another; to discriminate between what is truly christian, and what under the christian name belongs strictly to another principle; to carry out a sifting process in the development of the church. With this is to be compared Paul's declaration, that there must be heresies, in order that it may be made manifest who are the genuine members of the church. (1 Cor. xi.19.) That which produces heresies is indeed an evil, is something, to be deplored. But that, being present, it should thus develop itself; that the hidden should be brought to light, and what is kindred in spirit coalesce in one; this is a wholesome necessity, and is founded in the course of development ordained by divine wisdom: as in the diseased body, it may be necessary that the morbid elements should break forth in specific crises, in order that they may be cast out and subdued by the principle of healthful life. What the divine word here teaches, is a law which can be traced through the whole history of the church. By that divine word we are raised to a stand-point, for the contemplation of history and of life, whence we perceive in evil at once freedom of action, personal guilt, and that higher law of divine all-directing wisdom, to which evil itself, when it comes forth to light, is made subservient.
What the Apostle here says, is susceptible of a manifold application to the moral phenomena of our own times, and may tranquillize us when disquieted and perplexed in view of them. We see the contrariety, between christian truth and the errors which oppose it, becoming more and more clearly defined; the Divine and the Undivine, Christianity and World-worship, encountering each other more and more openly in the avowed convictions of men. To many this seems to have broken forth suddenly; and they know not how to account for it, that darkness should be permitted to gain such an ascendency. But a deeper scrutiny shows us, that what the Apostle taught in regard to the moral phenomena of his own times is true also here; viz. that the cause of these inauspicious symptoms could have no sudden origin, but had long existed in the hidden germ. It is not strange that it should fill us with disquietude and grief, when we see those who have appeared to us zealous advocates of the same christian truth which we profess, whom we had with reason believed to be truly of us, suddenly go over to the camp of the enemy. Whence this change? How could they apostatize from the truth, after having received the same divine experiences of its power as we? How could the grace of God suffer them to fall? How could that faithfulness and truth of God deny itself? Should not He complete the work which he had himself begun in them? But the Apostle's words furnish the true solution of this difficulty, and relieve our perplexity. It is but bringing to light that which was concealed. Such, though seemingly of us, belonged not to us. Nor had they ever held the same ground of faith, the same divine truth with us, though making the same profession; and whatever zeal they might have shown for it, it was still a dead form under which they concealed another meaning. Their views had been always the same radically, though cloaked as yet under the christian garb, unrevealed to others, perhaps even to themselves. Such persons, living in a less active period, when these contrarieties had not yet broken out openly, might have gone on quietly in their natural course of development. Their profession would indeed, as now, have been mere pretence; they would have had the shell only without the kernel; not the pure element of christian truth, but its opposite, would still have been the vital element of their belief; but this would have been unobserved and unknown. Now, however, in this period filled and agitated by so many and openly manifested antichristian elements, the kindred element in them is attracted by this influence, and is impelled to throw off the disguise -- to become conscious to itself, and to seek for itself an open expression.
But there may be still another case. These persons who seemed to belong to us, may have been really affected by the influence of the same christian truth which we profess. They may have enjoyed experiences of its divine power. But with this, there co-existed in them the anti-christian principle predominant in the age; and hence a conflict of opposite tendencies. But that in them which was allied to the anti-christian spirit of the age, at length so gained the mastery as to overcome the genuine christian element. And thus they themselves became sceptical, in regard to their own former experiences of the higher life; and at length were carried so far, as to impugn that for which they had once been witnesses. They belong to that class, in the Saviour's parable of the sower, in whom the seed of the divine word springs up quickly, -- all the more quickly because it takes no deep root, -- and through the hostile agency of the adverse spirit is as soon destroyed. Of such also it may be said, "They went out from us, because they were not truly of us." Of this class Judas Iscariot stands as a fearful example. He, it may be, once experienced emotions of the higher life. He may, at times, have received divine impressions from intercourse with the Saviour. When Judas first numbered himself among the disciples, Christ had already perceived what was in him, -- that carnal tendency which looked for a temporal Messiah. Yet he did not thrust him away, but drew him to himself with a love which sought to exert a saving influence upon him. The other disciples, surrendering themselves to the Lord, and to his purifying and sanctifying influence, were by degrees freed from the power of this carnal spirit of the age. With Judas, on the contrary, that false spirit gained more and more the preponderance, repressing more and more those higher impressions, till at length they were lost to him altogether. Thus it was that from a disciple of the Lord, he became his most malignant enemy and his betrayer.
Thus enlightened by the words of John, in respect to the cause and the necessity of such occurrences, we shall be enabled to regard them, though not without grief yet without perplexity, and even to derive profit from them for the furtherance of our faith and of our salvation. We see that it is a needful sifting. We live in an age of sifting. Those who have the reality and those who have only the show, of Christianity, those who belong to God and those who belong to the world, must be more and more separated from each other. This time of sifting summons each one to decide for himself between these two contrary tendencies, no longer to be reconciled with each other, but standing out in a more and more sharply defined antagonism. Each one is summoned to put to himself the momentous and decisive question: Under which banner shall I fight? He will perceive the deep significance of the words of the Lord; "He that is not for me is against me." He will learn to watch vigilantly over himself, lest the bitter root in his own nature, furthered in its growth by the kindred but poisonous breath in the life of the age, shoot up and increase, and choke the good seed. It is plain that an encounter with the open manifestations of the antichristian spirit merely, will not here suffice; it is the hidden root from which they spring, against which above all we must turn the sword of the Spirit.