The Doctrine of Salvation (part 11)

July 27, 2009     Time: 00:33:44

We’ve been looking at the subject of the perseverance of the saints. Last week we talked about the Calvinistic perspective on this issue. We saw that according to this perspective you cannot fall away and lose your salvation. Having once been regenerated and justified by God, it is impossible to fall away. You will persevere to the end and be saved. With respect to the warnings in Scripture about the danger of falling away, these are either interpreted to be warnings directed toward non-Christians (not genuine regenerate believers) or else, if they are directed to believers, the warnings are themselves the very means by which God ensures perseverance. Hearing these warnings one is startled and alerted to the danger and so these warnings ensure that one will not in fact fall away.

The Arminian perspective is quite different. That is what we turn to today. On the Arminian perspective, though the elect as a corporate body are secure and certainly will go to heaven, the individual salvation is contingent and can be lost. There is a corporate body (remember which on the Arminian view is predestined to justification and glorification and all the rest) that will make it. But whether or not you are part of that corporate group as an individual is contingent upon your faith. It is the person who believes in Christ who will be saved.

For example, I had an Arminian friend who was a Wesleyan Methodist. He said, Oh, yeah, I believe in the eternal security of the believer. He said, Yes, I believe in the eternal security of the believer. But if a person ceases to be a believer – if he commits apostasy – then he has given up salvation.

Let’s look at a couple of passages that would undergird this point of view.

Romans 8:33-39 – this will be a passage interpreted to be about God’s elect as a corporate group:

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So the Arminian would take this to say that God’s elect as a group are secure. They will definitely be saved and go to heaven. But, on an individual level, it is contingent upon your having faith and persevering. Now turn over to Romans 11:17-36 – the same book where Paul has just talked about how nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ. Here he is using the image of the olive tree. The olive tree is a sort of symbol of the church, and the branches are individual believers – Gentile or natural branches which would be Jewish branches that grew out of the tree. The Gentiles would be the branches that have been artificially grafted in.[1] He says,

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches [that is, the Jews], neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off. And even the others, if they do not persist in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,

“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;
“and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”

As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

Here what Paul says is that if you are grafted into Christ, it is through your faith that you stand firm. But if you fall away, if you go into unbelief, if you commit apostasy, you will be broken off and will fall under the severe judgment of God.

Robert Shank, whom I’ve quoted before on the subject of election from an Arminian point of view, has a good passage in his book Elect in the Son on page 49 that I thought I would read to you that bear out this contrast between corporate security but an individual contingent sort of security. He says,

The possibility of apostasy posits the corporate nature of the election. The Scriptures bear witness to actual instances of apostasy and abound with solemn warnings against the peril, which (contrary to the assumptions of some) is real rather than hypothetical. Consider the following.[2]

Here he quotes a couple of verses. God’s eternal purpose in grace – Ephesians 1:4, “He chose us in Christ that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Colossians 1:22, “He reconciled us to himself in Christ through his death to present us holy and blameless before him.” That is God's eternal purpose in grace – to present us holy and blameless before Christ (before himself).The corporate fulfillment, he says, is certain. Here he quotes Ephesians 5:27: “Christ will present the church to Himself holy and blameless.” But the fulfillment individually is contingent. Colossians 1:23: “He will present us holy and blameless before Him – if we continue in the faith grounded and settled and be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel.” That is a quotation from Colossians 1:23.[3]

On the Arminian view, the church (the elect body of Christ) is secure and will experience glorification and salvation. But on an individual level, it is contingent upon faith – upon remaining a believer. So the Arminian takes very seriously and at face value the warnings against the danger of apostasy in the New Testament. We've already looked at some of these, and I want to revisit those in the book of Hebrews. But I think that the first point to the Arminian wants to make is that these warnings are definitely given to Christians. There is simply no plausible way that you could interpret these warnings as being directed toward non-Christian persons. Let's back up and look at Hebrews 3:1 and then some other verses leading up to chapter 6 where we find these warnings. Hebrews 3:1, “Therefore, holy brethren, who share in a heavenly call, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” There it is very clear he is writing to Christians - “holy brethren” and they “share in the heavenly call” and “this is our confession.” Then in verse 6 of chapter 3: “Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope.” Here he speaks of how we are the dwelling place of Christ. Christ dwells within us if we hold fast our confidence and pride in our hope. Then verses 12 to 14:

Take care, brethren, 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 share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.

Here I think it is, again, very clear he is writing to Christian believers whom he calls brethren, and he alerts them to the danger of having this unbelieving heart within them which might lead them to fall away from Christ. He says you are going to share in Christ only if you hold your confidence firm to the end.

Finally, Hebrews 10:32-36. This is given after the warnings in chapter 6 and 10:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.

Here he is reminding these Hebrew Christians of the former days – earlier times of persecution – when apparently some of them were thrown into prison, others apparently had their property confiscated, and he said, You were one with those prisoners, you were united with them, you yourselves endured abuse publicly, you were afflicted. And why did you do this? Because you knew you had a better possession – an abiding possession – so don't throw this away under the present duress they are going through. Stay firm to the end.

How ever we interpret these passages, I think the Arminian is quite right in saying these are certainly written to Christians. There is just no way you can think that these are unbelievers that are the recipients of these warnings.

When you look at the warnings I think that they indicate . . . the Arminian . . . I am giving away my own views obviously! I think that they do indicate a real possibility of falling away.[4] This is something that is a real possibility for the Christian. Look at Hebrews 3:12-19. We've already read versus 12-14 where he says:

Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.

Then 14 says, “we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end, while it is said.” Reading further in 15 is an Old Testament quotation:

“Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

Who were they that heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? And with whom was he provoked forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? [He is talking about those people in the Exodus that were unfaithful and how God killed them off in Sinai and wouldn't let them go into the Promised Land.] And to whom did he swear that they should never enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

He is warning them against this unbelieving heart that would prevent them from entering into God's promised rest or heaven.

Turn over to Hebrews 6:1-8. This is one of the passages where the warnings occur. For example, we've read it before but in verse 4 he says,

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened [like the persons to whom he is writing], who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.

What he is talking about here is not just someone who is sort of sinning. We all sin in our Christian lives and we need to constantly confess to the Lord. But he is talking here about someone who falls away and renounces Christ – who rejects Christ out of his life. Someone who says, I am no longer a Christian. Someone like a Bart Ehrman, for example, or a Dan Barker, or Robert Price on the contemporary scene. There are a number of folks like this out there in the Internet world who are former evangelicals who have now renounced Jesus Christ and to all appearances, at least, have committed apostasy. That is what he is warning against here.

Flip over to Hebrews 10:26-31,

For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God [this is someone who once was a Christian and knew Christ and now spurns Christ; turns his back on him and throws Christ out of his life], and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace [the indwelling Holy Spirit that he had within him]? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

These warnings are graphic and severe and I think need to be taken at face value. It is not just the author of Hebrews that has some of these warnings. Once you begin to look at the passages in Scripture from an Arminian point of view these warnings start popping out at you all over the place in the New Testament. For example, turn over to 2 Peter:20-22.[5]

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ [these are people who have come to faith in Christ; they come to know Christ as Lord and Savior], they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.

Again these graphic images of the dog eating his own vomit or the sow that has been washed going back to wallow in the filth again; he says it would have been better for these people never to have become Christians than to have become a Christian and then now commit apostasy and fall away.

Or the Gospel of John 15:1-6. This is the famous parable of the vine and the branches. Jesus says,

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.

There, again, you have, like in the book of Hebrews, this image of the brambles being burned. Here it is the dead, dried branches that are broken off that are gathered together and burned.

Finally, one last passage. James 5:19-20. James says,

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

I think the lesson that this passage from James has for us is that it shows that we can never know when someone has crossed that invisible line of no return that the book of Hebrews talks about when it says it is impossible to restore again to repentance someone who has been enlightened and trampled under foot the Son of God. Peter denied Christ three times and yet Peter came back. In his heart there was still faith. He still believed in Christ even though he was weak and verbally denied him. Similarly, we never know, I think, when someone who has wondered away from the truth and no longer following Christ has crossed that invisible line of apostasy and no return. We should always assume that there is hope and try to bring that person back. So it is appropriate to pray for a Bart Ehrman or a Dan Barker or someone to hope that God will work in their lives yet and that they haven't crossed that point of no return and can still come back.

Those are some of the passages that the Arminian would appeal to to try to put together the understanding of perseverance, yes, on a corporate level but on an individual level we will persevere through God's power, through the Holy Spirit, if we continue in faith.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is the Calvinistic view. You are certainly right in saying that there were undoubtedly mixed groups in these churches; there were some who were just seekers and not real believers and maybe there were even hypocrites. Who knows?[6] I think the question is going to be (and I'm not going to try to settle this for you): these descriptions that they give of someone who has been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, come to the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, can those be descriptions of these pseudo-Christians that you mention? That is going to be the issue, I think.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Certainly, that is true. I think one other thing that is going to be key here is the difference between the new covenant and the old covenant in that the Holy Spirit since Pentecost is given as the permanent possession of the believer. You are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. These Old Testament believers, I take it, were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would just come upon people of the Old Testament sporadically to do some great act. But it is only since Pentecost that we had this permanent indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. So the question, I think, is, again, as I said earlier, these descriptions of the people who fall away – is that consistent with someone who is an unregenerate Christian? Or are these descriptions describing a person who has actually come to know Christ?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Let me read that passage – 1 Corinthians 9:27. Paul talks about how he is running the race to win the prize. He says, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Isn't it in Philippians where he says, I do not yet consider that I have attained it, but one thing I do is I press on toward the mark of the upward call of God and Christ Jesus. I can say to you, frankly, as a minister of the Gospel myself, this verse is one that I resonate with. I think God help me that after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. If Paul thinks that can happen to him, who am I to think otherwise.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think you are absolutely right. The warnings themselves show that it is possible to fall away because if it was impossible why give the warnings? Why do you warn somebody for whom it is impossible that he could fall away. This view that Calvinists sometimes say – that the warnings are the means by which perseverance is achieved – is really a Molinist view. What that is saying is that God knew that if you were given the warnings you would freely heed them and persevere. So it presupposes that you have the ability to fall away but by giving the warnings you will in fact persevere. A Molinist could actually say, Yes, I believe that it is possible for someone who is saved to fall away, but in fact none of them will. They all persevere freely because they heed the warnings. God gives them warnings and gifts of grace that ensures they will all freely persevere. The possibility of apostasy doesn't necessarily mean it is actually achieved, though I think we do have examples in Scripture that suggest that it is. I am thinking of people like Demas and Hymenaeus that Paul talks about in 1 and 2 Timothy where he says They left me; they've fallen away. People are named in Scripture who fit this description. So I think you are right. The very fact that warnings are given show that this is possible. That gets back to the question: who are the persons being warned? Are these, in fact, unregenerate people – pseudo-Christians, the tares among the wheat – or is he actually warning born-again believers. I'll leave you to meditate on these passages and decide.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, where he talks about, I'll spew you out of my mouth. As I say, once you begin to look at Scripture from this point of view, it jumps out at you everywhere.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, the passages in John where he talks about the sheep.[7] I think that the best spin to put on passages like that is that the sheep as a group are secure. They are corporately secure, but a person who apostatizes is no longer a sheep. He is no longer a follower of Christ. So nobody has snatched him out of God's hand; he has jumped out of his hand himself by apostatizing. So he ceased to be a sheep. Christ says, My sheep hear my voice and follow me. The apostate doesn't do that.


Let me close with just a couple of thoughts that I think are important. Turn to Hebrews 3:12. This is the practical value, if you will, of what we are talking about. What is the practical application of what we talked about? Well, Hebrews 3:12 says this, “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” It is a call to self-examination. A good time to do this especially is whenever we take the Lord's Supper. Paul says, When you take the Lord's Supper, let a man examine himself and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. It is good, I think, especially when we celebrate the Lord's Supper to examine ourselves to see if there is this evil, unbelieving heart in us that could lead us to fall away.

The second thing, look at verse 13: “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.” In other words, there is the mutual encouragement that is necessary as well. Not only the personal self-examination, but encouraging one another. In chapter 10 of Hebrews he says, Don't neglect to meet together as is the habit of some. Encourage one another. Meet together and all the more as you see the day drawing near. We need one another to help us persevere in the faith.

Those are two very practical applications that come out of this lesson. Let's all be constantly examining ourselves, and our motives, and our hearts, and then let's also be praying for one another and encouraging one another, especially if we see one person kind of going off the path or maybe not coming to class or there is something wrong in his life. We need to help come along side that brother or sister and try to help bring them back.[8]

[1] 4:40

[2] Robert Shank, Elect in the Son (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1989), p. 49.

[3] 10:04

[4] 15:10

[5] 19:58

[6] 25:08

[7] 30:00

[8] Total Running Time: 33:44 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)