Doctrine of Salvation (Part 15)

April 20, 2014     Time: 00:39:27

We’ve been thinking about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and last time we looked at an Arminian perspective on this doctrine. We saw that in Arminian theology election is regarded as primarily corporate and only secondarily individual insofar as the individual chooses to align himself with that elect corporate body. Accordingly the elect corporately are secure. God’s church will be brought to sanctification, glorification, and eternal life, but individually salvation, sanctification, and glorification is not guaranteed. That depends upon the believer maintaining his faith in Christ and continuing to be part of that elect body. Should the believer apostatize or reject Christ or cease to believe, he falls away from grace and accordingly forfeits salvation and is no longer part of that elect body which is secure through faith.

Today I would like to share some assessment of the competing views that we’ve looked at (Calvinism and Arminianism) with respect to the perseverance of the saints. We’ve seen that there is an apparent conflict between various texts in the New Testament on this subject. There are certainly texts that speak of the security of the individual believer – that he will persevere to the end and that he cannot fall away from salvation. On the other hand, we have these equally clear texts that warn seriously about the dangers of apostasy and falling from grace and forfeiting salvation. So the question is: how do you best account for this apparent conflict between these two streams of biblical teaching?

One could just say that the biblical authors disagreed about this subject. That John, for example, who often writes about the eternal security of the believer in Christ, disagreed with (or would disagree with, if he could speak with him) the author of the book of Hebrews who clearly thought that Christians could apostatize and fall away from grace and be lost. So these biblical authors simply disagreed on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

But apart from the theological problems of saying that the Bible contains contradictory teaching on this subject, the problem with this solution is that these conflicting texts are not simply found between different authors in the New Testament, they are found within the same author on this subject in the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul. Some of the most important texts about the security and perseverance of the believer are written by Paul, but at the same time we also saw the many warnings that Paul issues. The fact that branches could be broken off of that olive tree that represented the elect body of believers if they failed to maintain faith in Christ. So I think that this conflict that apparently exists is probably more apparent than real since Paul would not be in conflict with himself.

I suspect that we have here a situation rather like the apparent conflict that exists between Paul and James on the subject of justification by faith alone. There we saw that there seemed to be a surface conflict between Paul and James, but in fact if you probe deeper it is very likely that if Paul and James were to sit down together and discuss this they would agree – that a faith which does not issue in good works is a dead, sterile faith that will not save and that genuine saving faith is inevitably accompanied by good works which are evidence of genuine faith. So there is no real conflict between Paul and James on this subject.[1] I could imagine a similar dialogue taking place between the author of the Gospel of John and the author of the book of Hebrews in settling their apparent differences on this subject.

As I look at their respective texts and what they have to say about this subject, it seems to me that it is much more likely that John would say, “Well, I didn’t mean that no one could ever apostatize when I said that ‘no one is able to snatch them out of my hand’ or that ‘all that the Father gives me will come to me.’ I wasn’t thinking about apostasy when I wrote that. I wouldn’t disagree with you.” I think that it is more likely that John would say that than that the author of the book of Hebrews would say, “Well, I didn’t really imagine that Christians could apostatize. I wasn’t really talking about Christians when I said that these people who have been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, and the power of the age to come could fall away.” It seems to me that the warnings in the book of Hebrews are so clear and so unambiguous that they simply can’t be explained away in that manner – by saying that the persons to whom the author wrote or the persons he is talking about aren’t genuine Christians.

I read this week a very interesting article on perseverance given to me by someone in the class by a contemporary Calvinist theologian of some prominence, Thomas Schreiner, who teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.[2] It was striking that Schreiner, who is himself a Calvinist, agrees that these warnings in the New Testament are so clear and so unambiguous that they can’t be explained away in that way. He says that he would in fact himself be an Arminian if he did not already believe in the doctrine of unconditional election. This is what he writes on page 58 of his article “Perseverance and Assurance:”

If I were not convinced of unconditional election, I would surely be an Arminian. The warning passages are so strong that I can understand why many think that believers can lose their salvation. What is interesting to me is that there are so many believers who reject unconditional election and yet they hold on to eternal security.

Obviously, he is thinking there of many of his Baptist brethren who reject the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election and yet want to continue to hold to eternal security. Schreiner says that sort of position just doesn’t make sense because these warning passages are so clear and unambiguous that if you take them at face value they indicate that falling away is possible unless you already are committed to a Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election. Of course then that is to simply throw the issue back onto another subject and we already discussed the doctrine of election in previous classes. You may remember that I gave a Molinist perspective on that doctrine that I think makes good sense of the doctrine of election. So not being committed to the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election, I find myself agreeing with Schreiner that these warnings are so clear that one really ought to be an Arminian and think that apostasy is possible.

Schreiner himself adopts the view that the warnings are the means by which God guarantees perseverance. You’ll remember we saw that some Calvinist theologians think that by giving these warnings these are the very means by which God ensures that the elect will persevere and therefore cannot fall away. But it seems to me that here the Calvinist, and Schreiner in particular, is confusing two quite distinct questions:

1. Will any elect person fall away.

2. Can an elect person fall away?

These are two very distinct questions that are often conflated by the Calvinist.[3] The first question is a de facto question – is it in fact the case that any elect people will fall from grace and lose salvation? Will that happen? That is a de facto question. The second question is a modal question. That is to say it is about what can or cannot happen. Is it possible for an elect person to fall away? Not that any will, perhaps; maybe no one will. But nevertheless it is possible. Can an elect person lose his salvation?

These two questions are very distinct and can be answered differently by the theologian. Schreiner confuses these two questions on page 52 of his article. There he asks, “How can an individual, though, at the same time be assured that he will never apostatize, and also believe that he may commit apostasy?” That is very easy to explain because one is a modal question and the other is a de facto question. To give an illustration, let’s suppose that Thomas Schreiner will never commit adultery. He will go to his grave a chaste and pure man. He will never commit adultery. Does it therefore follow that he cannot commit the sin of adultery? Obviously not. In fact, God could assure Schreiner that he will never commit adultery. We can imagine God giving him a prophetic word that, “You will not commit adultery. You will stay true to me and chaste until the end.” Does that mean that Schreiner will therefore be incapable of committing adultery? Obviously not. He can commit adultery, but he won’t. He is able to – the modal question – but the de facto question is that he won’t.

Perhaps what you are seeing here is that beneath the surface and surfacing now is this old debate between divine foreknowledge and human freedom. This fatalistic idea that if God knows what will happen then everything happens necessarily. We dealt with this in our treatment of divine omniscience where we saw that that equation is simply logically fallacious. Even if God knows that you will not apostatize, it doesn’t follow that you cannot apostatize. You could apostatize but you won’t. So God’s assuring you that you will not is in no way incompatible with your ability to fall away.

In this light, consider the interpretation that the Calvinist gives of the warning against apostasy as the means by which God guarantees the perseverance of the elect. I submit that all this gives us is that the elect will not fall away, but it does not show that they cannot fall away. In fact, quite the contrary, what this view presupposes is that the person can fall away, but through giving him these warnings God ensures that he will in fact persevere. So the warnings view – that is to say interpreting the warnings as the means by which God brings about perseverance – actually presupposes that the elect can fall away. Otherwise, why give the warnings? Right? If it is impossible for the elect to fall away, why give them warnings? The warnings are superfluous on such a view.[4] But if you say that the warnings are the means by which God ensures perseverance then what you are saying is that the elect can fall away – they can apostatize – but God gave these warnings to them so that, sobered by the stark warnings that they hear, they in fact will endure to the end and be saved.

So on this view God knows that if he were to give these warnings then the elect would heed them and persevere. The elect can fall away but they won’t because God knows that if they were to receive these warnings then they would heed the warnings and so persevere. Now, that is not Calvinism, is it? What view is that? (There must be somebody here who recognizes this!) Molinism! That’s right! It’s Molinism! So this view of the warnings as the means of guaranteeing perseverance is really a Molinist perspective on perseverance, not a Calvinistic perspective. What the Molinist could say is that God knows what gifts of grace, what warnings, what Scriptural admonitions are necessary in order to ensure the free perseverance of the elect and their ultimate salvation. So it seems to me that this view actually is not a Calvinistic view at all. It really is a hidden Molinist view in disguise as a Calvinistic view.

I would say, therefore, that I think the Scripture teaches that an elect person can fall away. I think that is the import of these warnings. Whether or not you think that any elect person will fall away is probably going to depend not on those warning passages but how you regard the examples in Scripture of people like Judas,[5] or Demas (whom Paul says has left me, he’s in love with the world, and he’s gone back),[6] or Hymenaeus and Alexander (who has made shipwreck of their faith).[7] There are a number of people who are apparent apostates in the New Testament. Whether or not you think that these people actually are elect people who fell away will determine how you judge issues of that sort.

So, in my view, it seems to me that the view that makes the best sense of both of these streams of scriptural teaching is to say that the elect can fall away, they can apostatize and lose their salvation, but that God will do what lies within his power to give them warnings and admonitions and gifts of grace so as to ensure that they will, in fact, persevere to the end and be saved.

Discussion

Question: I think the problem here is to define what it means to fall away. I think what Hebrews is talking about is people being unproductive. This ties in with 1 Corinthians. It says their crop is likely to be burned, not them. It says let’s not lay the foundation of salvation by faith and the fundamentals of the Gospel but go on to other things and still be productive, which starts in chapter 6. I think the falling away is to be unproductive. To be shipwrecked for the faith means to be unproductive; it doesn’t mean you are going to lose your salvation.

Answer: I just, honestly, think that that is far too milk-toast an interpretation of these passages. When you read these passages in Hebrews it is talking about a person who tramples underfoot the Son of God, who crucifies him anew, who outrages the Spirit of grace, and he says there is no more sacrifice left for sin for such a person. I was noticing this morning during the pastor’s sermon when we came to Hebrews 10:39 it says, “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.” So this is not just a matter of just being unfruitful or losing your good works or having your bad works burned up.[8] He’s talking here about people who, as he says, are destroyed, who lose their souls. So I am just not persuaded that that does justice to the seriousness of these passages.

Followup: I’ll have to look at 10. I was just commenting on 6. But Hebrews is written to the Hebrews. When it is talking about people who have received Christ but come from that background, he says you can’t go back to the law or these types of things. I think that is why he’s saying you are crucifying Christ against and putting him to open shame because you are trying to go back to something that isn’t there.

Answer: Right. We talked about that. I don’t think you were here maybe a lecture or two ago. We talked about that – how the book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who, under the threat of persecution, were tempted to go back to Judaism, and this author warns them, “Don’t do that or you will destroy your souls.” It is the same warnings that you have in the book of Galatians where Paul warns the Galatians who are under the influence of these Judaizers from going back under the law. He says if you do that you have fallen away from grace; you have fallen away from Christ.[9] Paul warns them in just the most severe terms. He says, “If I or even an angel from heaven should preach to you a different Gospel than the one I preach let him be anathema – let him go to hell – because this is so serious.”[10] I think Paul, like the author of Hebrews, is concerned for the souls of these persons who are tempted to apostatize and revert back, in this case, to Judaism.

Question: Three quick comments. It seems to me the best argument for the view that you cannot apostatize would be to argue that justification, once it occurs, cannot be reversed. It is a process that, once you are justified, you cannot undo that. An analogy (not argument, but analogy) is in law. A person could die and give you a gift via a will. The gift is vested at the time of death; nevertheless you can renounce the gift. The process could be undone.

Answer: So just to understand, this is a case where you have a legal declaration that could be undone or rejected by the individual who is legally declared the heir.

Followup: Yes. The gift is vested in the heir, and the heir could still renounce the gift. The second comment I was going to mention is the parable of the sower. The seed that falls on the rocky soil – Jesus says in one of the accounts (in Luke 8, I think it is) that those are people who hear the Word, receive it with joy, “believe for a while,” and then fall away.[11] It seems pretty clear that that is a warning from the lips of Jesus that you can fall away.

Answer: Let me comment on that before we move on. I think you are right in drawing attention to the parable of the sower. The person who doesn’t think this is possible has to say that all of those other soils are non-believers, that they are not really Christians. Yet, Jesus does seem to represent them as Christians, doesn’t he? He says they believe but then the cares of this world and the desire for other things choke out the Word and they die.

Followup: In the parable of the sower – this goes to the earlier point – there is a distinction between the rocky soil and the soil that is covered with thorns and then the productive soil. In the latter two cases it refers to the productivity of the seed. The seed that falls among the thorns become unproductive, but the seed that falls on the rocky soil springs to life, grows, and it dies out. Jesus says in Luke 8 that that is a person who believes for a while and then falls away. So it seems to me pretty clear. The last comment is it appears to me that two of the problems of arguing against these warnings, in other words saying they are not real, is: number one you could provide false assurance of salvation to people, and number two, if we argue something that is not supported by Scripture, it seems to me we undermine our credibility.[12] For example, when I was a small kid growing up in Atlanta I was taught that the Bible condemns drinking alcohol. As I started reading the Bible I saw that wasn’t true. If we argue that it is impossible to apostatize, even though Scripture warns against it, it seems to me we hurt our credibility.

Answer: My concern, too, frankly, is if we interpret these warning passages in Hebrews as descriptive of non-Christians then it will rob all of us of assurance of salvation. Because if a person who fits that description can be unregenerate then who is to say that you are not unregenerate? That you are elect? If that description is of a non-Christian then it robs us all of assurance, I think. I think that the better view of the warnings would be not that they are of non-believers but that these are the means by which God works the perseverance of the elect. By warning them, for example, to a child “the burner is hot – don’t touch the stove or you will be hurt!” By giving that warning to the child you ensure that he won’t touch the stove, even though he could. The warning helps to make sure that he won’t.

Question: I was wondering if these people who lost their salvation or potentially could, do you lose your regeneration when you lose your salvation or do you not? That is a hard one, isn’t it?

Answer: It is. It would seem like it. It would seem as though you die again spiritually. I think at one time Adam was not spiritually dead, right? But then he died through sin. In the same way, it would seem to me that a regenerate person who apostatizes casts the Holy Spirit out of his life and he dies spiritually and becomes in effect unregenerate again. Now, I think it is difficult to say with any sort of confidence what the answer to your question is. One is speculating here. But that would seem to make sense because that is why he’s apostate. He is no longer regenerate; he is no longer reconciled to God. He is now lost in his sins and trespasses.

Question: How often can you do this? Is this a one time thing? Can I every week – I feel strongly both ways – this week I have fallen away from faith, then I come back, then I go back. Is it a one time thing or can I do it every week?

Answer: I think here Arminians would probably differ on this question. It seems to me that on the basis of what the passages in Hebrews say that this can only happen once. He says in chapter 6, verse 4, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened . . . if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.”

It seems to me that this is an irrevocable and perhaps therefore unpardonable sin. Remember I connected this with blasphemy of the Holy Spirit which Jesus said is an unpardonable sin. To outrage the Spirit of grace (as the author of Hebrews puts it) by casting Christ out of your life would be an unpardonable sin; there is no more sacrifice left. Now, I don’t think any of us knows when a person has really committed this irrevocable step, when he has crossed the line and can’t come back. I think we always have to assume that the person hasn’t crossed that line and do our best to bring him back. I say that on the basis of a passage like James 5:19-20,

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.

Here he imagines a believer that is wandering away from the truth and he seems to be on the slippery slope to destruction and he says, “If you bring him back you save his soul from death.” So we always need to pray for and strive to win back that person who apparently has apostatized and rejected Christ and pray that there is hope.[13]

Let me, in our waning moments, share a few words of practical application of this. Then if we have further time for discussion we can but I don’t want to leave without sharing this.

I want to share some practical application of this lesson that I think will be applicable to all of us, whether you are Calvinist, Arminian, or just confused. [laughter]

1. This is an exhortation to all of us to self-examination. We need to examine ourselves to see if we are holding to the faith, if we are persevering and being true. Hebrews 3:12 says, “Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” We need to keep short accounts with God, to not let unconfessed sin accumulate in our lives, to check our hearts to see if it is growing unbelieving and cold toward God. Paul often will say “test yourself to see if you are holding to your faith.”

2. This underlines the importance of meeting together for mutual encouragement. In the third chapter of Hebrews, Hebrews 3:13, the author goes on to say, “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.” Then in Hebrews 10:23-25, he says,

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

I tremble, frankly, when I hear many young Christians say, “I don’t like church, therefore, I don’t attend church. I just sort of try to do it on my own.” That is a dangerous, dangerous path to trend. We need one another. Therefore he says don’t neglect to meet together as is the habit of some but all the more meet together, stir one another up, encourage one another, and help one another to make sure you are holding to the faith. I think a class like this is just a prime example of where we can do that to encourage and support one another in our Christian walk.

That is the practical application. No matter what you think, I think all of us would agree that we need to engage in self-examination to test our hearts periodically and then to mutually encourage one another. If you see someone wandering away from the truth or getting into something that would be destructive, taking that brother or sister aside and trying to help to bring them back and encourage them in their walk with God.

Discussion

Question: In law school we learned that the difference between contract (where, if one party breaches, the other one is out of the deal) and covenant is that it can’t be renounced by one side. Covenant says if one party renounces the other one still is committed to doing what they agreed to do in the covenant. Jesus said, “I drink the new covenant with my blood.” So it always seemed to me that this is a covenant and not a contract we made with God – even if we let him down, he is fully committed to doing what he has promised to do with us.

Answer: I know nothing about the legality or the legal distinctions, but let me read you a passage from 2 Timothy that I think speaks to this.[14] Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:11ff,

The saying is sure:

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure, we shall also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

Now there God, it seems, is faithful to his covenant. He will establish and sanctify and justify and glorify those who have faith in Christ. He holds his end of the bargain up. But he says if we deny him, he will also deny us. It is easy to overlook that but that is consistent with all of these other sorts of warnings that we’ve looked at. Do you have anything to add to the covenant/contract business or not?

Followup: I can say that there are dependent and independent covenants. An independent covenant is one you have a duty to perform regardless of the performance of the other parties to the agreement. A dependent covenant, if a party breaches it, then the other side no longer has to perform because it is dependent on the performance of the other side. It is a little more complicated but that’s my contribution.

Question: I have a question about the eternal afterlife. What exactly do you think allows us to persevere once we are with Christ? Is it simply the beatific vision? Just knowing my own sin nature, I have always been worried that I’ll get to heaven and somehow I’ll screw up. [laughter]

Answer: You are raising a profound question. Will there be freedom in heaven, and if so could you fall away in heaven? Here is my take on this, and this is admittedly speculative but I think it makes sense. I would say that in order for someone to rebel against God and reject God, God has to create that creature at a sort of arms distance so to speak. Otherwise, he would be so overpowered and overwhelmed by the beauty and attractiveness of God that rebellion would be impossible. So when God created the angels they seemed to have been created at a sort of epistemic arms distance that allowed for an angelic rebellion. But then that choice was sealed when God revealed to the elect angels his full glory and power so that now an angelic fall is no longer possible. I suspect that something like this might well be true for the blessed in heaven. When we go to heaven freed of all sin and its encumbrances, we will see Christ in his magnificence and glory and this will be a vision so beautify, so attractive, so irresistible that, in effect, freedom to sin will be removed. So I see this life as a sort of a veil of decision making during which time God is hidden in a way. We see evidence for God, he is present in his Holy Spirit and in his creation around us, but we see through a glass darkly (Paul says) but someday we will see face to face and then I think that choice will be sealed for eternity so that the elect will never fall away and never perish.

On that note we bring to a conclusion our study of perseverance.[15]



[1] 5:02

[2] Thomas R. Schreiner, “Perseverance and Assurance: A Survey and a Proposal,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Spring 1998, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 32-62. See http://www.sbts.edu/documents/tschreiner/2.1_article.pdf (accessed April 8, 2014).

[3] 10:27

[4] 15:03

[5] cf. Matthew 26:14-16

[6] cf. 2 Timothy 4:10

[7] cf. 1 Timothy 1:19-20

[8] 20:07

[9] cf. Galatians 5:2-4

[10] cf. Galatians 1:8-9

[11] cf. Luke 8:13

[12] 24:54

[13] 30:14

[14] 35:03

[15] Total Running Time: 39:27 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)