Doctrine of Salvation (Part 13)

April 06, 2014     Time: 00:33:57

Perseverance

We are going through a section of Christian doctrine on the Doctrine of Salvation. We’ve looked at such topics as God’s election, regeneration, justification, and now we come to the subject of perseverance. This is often called in popular piety “eternal security.” Maybe you’ve heard of it under that label rather than the perseverance of the saints.

The question here that we confront is whether or not a person who has been genuinely regenerated by the Holy Spirit, declared righteous by God, forgiven of sins, can lose his salvation and fall away and wind up, in fact, damned with his lot with the unbelievers and the non-elect? So the question is: if you become a Christian, will you inevitably persevere until your death and go to be with God so that you will be saved? Or is it possible for you, having once become a Christian, to fall away so that in fact you lose the salvation that you once had?

As with other issues that we’ve previously discussed under the Doctrine of Salvation, there are at least two broad perspectives on this question. One would be the perspective of Calvinism or Reformed theology, such as you would have, for example, in the Reformed churches – Presbyterian Church, Anglican Church, and so forth. The other perspective would be the Arminian perspective which would characterize groups like the Methodist denomination and, although Arminius was later, Lutheran theology and Catholic theology would also hold the perspective that a person can lose salvation. We will look broadly at Calvinism and Arminianism as our test cases of this doctrine.

Calvinism

The Elect Cannot Fall Away

With respect to Calvinist theology, the Calvinist theologian holds that the elect cannot fall away. This could be more clearly stated by saying, “Elect individuals cannot fall away.” If you are an individual person who is elected and predestined by God, regenerated, declared righteous by him, it is impossible for you to fall away from the faith and to lose your salvation.

What are some of the passages to which the Calvinist could appeal to support such a view? Look at John 6:39-40. Here Jesus says,

. . . this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”

Here Jesus says that everyone that the Father has given to him will not be lost, but rather on the resurrection day Jesus will raise this person to eternal life. So if a person is someone who is elect of God, it is not possible for you to lose your salvation and to perish. You will be raised to eternal life.

Turn over a couple of chapters to John 10:27-30. Here Jesus says,

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

Here Jesus says if you are truly a member of his fold then you will not be snatched away.[1] You will be given eternal life. You shall not perish. No one shall snatch you out of Christ or God the Father’s hand. You are secure in him.

Look at John 17 for another reiteration of this truth. John 17:11. Jesus is praying for the church and he says,

And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

Here Jesus himself prays for you. He prays for the church that they will be kept by the power of God. So we have the prayers of Jesus himself on behalf of the church that they will be preserved. Indeed, in one sense rather than talking about the perseverance of the saints, one might better talk about the preservation of the saints. God will preserve them; he will keep them until the final day.

Turn over to John’s first epistle – 1 John 3:9. Here John says, “No one born of God commits sin; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” Then turn over to 1 John 5:18, “We know that any one born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” Obviously, John didn’t think that we live sinless lives as Christians. In fact in the first chapter of his epistle he says that if we confess our sins then he is faithful and just to forgive our sins. He knows that as Christians we will on occasion sin. But what he seems to be talking about here would be a lifestyle of sin that would be antithetical to being a Christian. What he says is that the one who is born of God is kept by God. He says he who is born of God keeps him and therefore the evil one does not touch him. Christ himself will keep you from this life of sin that would result in your perdition. So one is secure if you are living this righteous life for God that is consistent with being a Christian.

Finally, Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians – Ephesians 1:13-14. Paul says,

In him [that is, in Christ] you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Here Paul says that for those who have believed in Christ, these persons are sealed with the Holy Spirit. Remember you are regenerated by and indwelt with the Holy Spirit as a Christian. This Holy Spirit, he says, seals you and is the guarantee of your inheritance until you acquire possession of it. So it is this indwelling Holy Spirit who will preserve you and keep you in the faith until you go to be home with God in glory.

So on the basis of passages like these the Calvinist would say that “once saved, always saved” so to speak. You cannot lose your salvation.[2] If you are genuinely regenerated as a Christian then you will persevere and God will keep you in the faith until the end. Therefore, one cannot fall away from faith or lose one’s salvation.

Apostasy

Those passages are pretty compelling, I think we would agree. But there is another set of passages in the New Testament which is a challenge to this view and is difficult for the Reformed theologian to deal with. I am thinking here of passages in which the Scripture warns of the danger of apostasy; that is to say, of falling away from faith. There are passages in the New Testament that seem to contemplate the possibility of apostasy; that is to say, turning your back on Christ, rejecting him out of your life, and in effect going back to a non-Christian state.

Look at the book of Hebrews, for example, for passages of this nature that are especially riveting and clear. Hebrews 6:1-8 concerns such warnings which are, I think, very sobering. The author says,

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, 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. For land which has drunk the rain that often falls upon it, and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed; its end is to be burned.

Now that dramatic analogy between the fruitful crop bearing land and the worthless land that brings forth thorns and thistles rather than good fruit is a dramatic illustration between the believer and the apostate. He says the end of this wretched land is to be burned – you clear that land of its thorns and thistles by burning it. He says here that if these persons commit apostasy, it is impossible to restore them again to repentance. These people who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift and the powers of the age to come, if they commit apostasy he says it is impossible for them to be restored again to repentance. Their end is to be burned. They seemed to have forfeited their salvation.

If that were not enough, turn over to Hebrews 10:26-31 where the author reiterates these terrible warnings. There he says,

For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth [Here one is reminded of what we read in 1 John about sinning deliberately], 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, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? 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.

Again, obviously all of us will on occasion sin after becoming a Christian.[3] I think on some occasions we sin deliberately, don’t we? We know it’s wrong and due to weakness and rebelliousness we sin anyway. He is not talking about that type of sin. Rather, I think that the author is talking about the same thing that he did in chapter 6. If a person commits apostasy, that is to say, he deliberately chooses to reject Christ, to walk away from faith and abandon Christ, then he says there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. That would make sense of why he said before that it is impossible to restore them to repentance again since they crucified the Son of God on their own account. There no longer remains a sacrifice for sin but all that remains, he says, is this fearful prospect of judgment. So he speaks about the man who has spurned the Son of God and proclaimed the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified. He is evidently warning Christians here not to commit apostasy (not to fall away) because God is going to judge. It is, he says, a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

So how, from the Calvinistic perspective, are we to understand these sorts of warnings against apostasy? Typically, the Calvinist will propose two ways of understanding these warnings. First, some Calvinists will say the persons being described here are not really Christians. They are at best nominal Christians – people who are Christians in name only. But they are not genuine, regenerate, born again Christians who have been declared righteous by God. So if you look at Hebrews 6, they will point out that it speaks of these people as having tasted the heavenly gift. They’ve tasted the goodness of the Word of God. They haven’t really drunk it deeply and imbibed it. They just sort of sampled it. Maybe they’ve been in the context of the Christian congregation or the local church and they benefited from being part of it, they’ve gone through the motions, but they aren’t really genuine, regenerate Christians. For these people to reject Christ, to walk away from him, is simply a continuation of their own unregenerate state and not a matter of someone falling away from the faith.

Other Calvinist theologians have taken a quite different perspective on these passages however. What they point out is that the Holy Spirit uses means to preserve Christians in the faith. He doesn’t just zap them so as to make them persevere. Rather, he will use means by which they will persevere. For example, Bible reading, prayer, the preaching of the Word of God, participation in the Lord’s Supper, and the exercise of your spiritual gifts in a local fellowship. All of these things would be means that the Holy Spirit might use to help you to persevere in your Christian faith. And these theologians will say one of the means that the Holy Spirit uses to help the elect persevere are precisely these warnings. These warnings are the means by which God ensures that the elect will persevere. By putting these frightening warnings in Scripture so that when the elect read them they realize the consequences of walking away from Christ; they therefore will not do so.[4]

So the warnings are not meant to show that this is a real possibility that you could actually fall away from your faith, but rather they are the very means by which the Holy Spirit ensures that you will not fall away from the faith because you will heed these warnings when you confront them.

So on the Calvinistic perspective, anyone who is a genuine, born again Christian will persevere in the faith. When we see examples of persons – and they are certainly many in our churches and in our society today – who were raised in Christian homes or who were once involved in Christian service or even Christian ministry and have walked away from Christ and turned their backs on him and are now unbelievers (perhaps atheists or agnostics even) the Calvinist will say those persons were never really Christians to begin with. They only were nominally Christian but they weren’t genuine Christians. Anyone who is a genuine believer, that is to say a regenerate believer who has been declared righteous by God, that person will guarantee his perseverance in the faith. It is impossible for him to lose salvation.

Discussion

Question: I was just going to point out that there is a verse in 1 John 2:19,

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 be plain that they all are not of us.

I believe that that’s referring to those who are nominal Christians, maybe in the church, and eventually fall away.

Answer: That is a very good verse for this position. Let me just repeat it so that folks who are taking notes can get that. That was 1 John 2:19. It is very evident, I think, from reading this verse that in the community to which John was writing – in that local church – he was aware that some people had fallen away. It was clear that some had walked away from the faith. But what he says was “even though they went out from us, they were not really of us.” They didn’t really belong. If they had really been of us they would have continued. So he is not troubled by these apparent apostates. He would say they really weren’t of us.

Followup: I would just say also in Hebrews 6, it is interesting not only – and I’ll admit the first part of that chapter is scary – but if you look it turns more positive starting in verse 9. It says, “But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.” It almost sounds like, again, he’s talking about those who were in the part of the church that ended up falling away or something like that. But he is not saying that this refers to believers.

Answer: Your point is well spoken from a Calvinistic perspective. You are pointing out that in verse 9 of chapter 6, after issuing these stern warnings the author seems to say, “But even though I said these things, still I’m optimistic about you. Better things that belong to salvation are characteristic of you.” So he seems to be confident that the persons to whom he is writing will not, in fact, fall away.

Question: I had a question about Hebrews 6. The Calvinist that would say that that passage is describing someone who was maybe a nominal Christian, what about in verse 4, my version says, “And have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit.” How would a Calvinist deal with that?

Answer: Yeah, I think we have to say with every good will that the Calvinist really has to tone down these words to not give them their full weight: the idea of “tasting” as meaning just a kind of sort of nibbling, being a “partaker of the Holy Spirit” to say that simply means maybe you are in the community of the people of God where the Holy Spirit is active and working or he has been working in your life and he’s convicting you and drawing you to him or that you’ve tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come. The Calvinist has to read those expressions in this sort of lowest common denominator in order to get those to be descriptive of a true non-believer.[5] Whether or not you think that that is a plausible interpretation will probably depend on how persuasive you would find the Arminian perspective when I share that.

Question: Does the Calvinist interpretation of, say, the apostasy passage need some sort of determinism in order to make this work? Or can the Calvinist hold to libertarian free will and still hold to this interpretation?

Answer: Did you get the question he’s asking? He is saying, “Isn’t the Calvinistic perspective rooted in something deeper here, namely, a view of divine providence that excludes human freedom all together?” If the work of salvation is unilateral on God’s part – he predestines whom he is going to save, he saves them, he justifies them, he will sanctify and preserve them – then really it is not possible to fall away because everything is causally determined. I think that is correct. I think from a consistent Calvinistic point of view this is a causally determined process. So it is impossible for the elect to fall away because the elect aren’t free. They just do whatever God causes them to do. But I haven’t appealed to that because I want to leave this perspective more widely open to Christians like Baptists who may not be determinists and Calvinists but nevertheless still believe in “eternal security” or perseverance of the saints on the basis of passages like those that we read. These passages that we’ve read don’t say anything about determinism, do they? They just assure the flock of Jesus that God the Father will keep them, that no one will snatch them out of his hand, that they will be kept by the power of God until the last day when he will raise them up. So I think that while the traditional Calvinist is a determinist, in order to believe in the perseverance of the saints you don’t have to be a determinist. You can just believe in it on the basis of promises like the ones that we’ve read.

Question: Coming out of the PCA church, this has been a raging debate for centuries. I think though one thing I keep focusing on is: think about Judas. Judas Iscariot. Judas was chosen by Christ to be one of the apostles, correct? He followed him through thick and thin. He went through difficult times for him. However, at the end, he had doubt and chose himself to deny Christ. In my way of thinking, you can say, “Well, he was never a Christian” or, I guess the point I’m trying to make, those that fall away have consciously made a decision to turn away. It is not like “Oops, I sinned so I’m going to hell.” I guess I don’t want to paint the picture that if you sin then God is going to zap you and you are going to hell. But these people in my view have chosen to deny Christ such as some that you debate that said that they were in the church and they came to a point where they no longer believed that. So, again, it is what is going on within the mind and where the heart really is. If, on the other hand, you accept Christ, you are totally committed to that decision, it is not those that say they are Christian, they go to church, and they do pretty good. It is a whole different experience. [inaudible] to view as Savior, but also Lord. It says you don’t just know who I am. The devil knows who I am and admits you are the Son of God. It is not just that acknowledgement. But it is who you serve. And as you are serving him, yes you may fall but you are still clinging to that hope. I just want to sort of tweak it to not appear that God is still sitting as judge and warning us that if you slip you are going to hell, and you weren’t part of us.

Answer: Yes, a nice contrast to Judas Iscariot would be Peter. Peter denied Christ three times. But Peter evidently was still a man of deep faith and conviction, and he repented and turned again, and God greatly used Peter as a leader in the church even though he stumbled. Judas, by contrast, apparently fell away and never came back.[6] He is called the Son of Perdition. So when we talk about apostasy here, it is important to understand your point – that we are not talking here about a Christian who is, say, living in carnality because maybe he has been infected by materialism or you’ve got lust in your heart or a bad temper. You’ve got anger that hasn’t been dealt with. Nobody thinks that in order to be saved you have to be living a perfect, sinless life. The Christian life is a progression in sanctification until we go home. We are talking here about someone who would make, like Judas, a deliberate, conscious repudiation of Christ, having formerly claimed to know him and follow him and to walk away from Christ.

Followup: Just one other quick point. Those that go to church and say they are a Christian, to me, they may go on sinning and think, well at the end I’ll pray and I’ll be forgiven and I’ll go to heaven. I don’t view that group as truly the committed Christian. They think they are; they say they are. If you were to poll America, 90% or 95% believe in God and probably – what? – 75% say they are Christian. But do you really think that is the right number?

Answer: I’m glad you made that point. I don’t want to be misunderstood. So let me issue a corrective to maybe a misunderstanding. The Calvinist theologian does not think that if you claim to be a Christian and you are living a life of sin and there is no sanctification in your life, there is no difference, he does not think you should have a false sense of security that you are going to be saved. On the contrary, the Calvinist theologian will say, “If you show no fruit of genuine regeneration then the chances are you are still a non-Christian, even though you think you are a Christian.” So there is no false sense of security that is to be given here to the Christian believer who has a lackadaisical attitude toward sin and says, “Oh, God will forgive me. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds.” He doesn’t worry about sin in his life. He continues to live for self. The Calvinist will say to him that you should tremble because you may not really be a Christian at all, and you have no right to a sense of security if you are not living for Christ. So even for the Calvinist, as for the Arminian, the assurance of salvation properly belongs to the person who is living a life that is worthy of Christ – not a perfect life, as I said, but a life that is advancing in holiness and being conformed to the image of Christ as he goes through life. If there is no fruit, if there is no sanctification, then that person has no right to a false sense of security of his salvation.

That brings us to the end of our time. Next time we will look at the Arminian perspective on the question of perseverance.[7]



[1] 5:19

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:46

[4] 20:05

[5] 25:04

[6] 30:10

[7] Total Running Time: 33:56 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)