Doctrine of Salvation (Part 19): Perseverance of the Saints - ArminianismDecember 10, 2020
Perseverance of the Saints - Arminianism
We have been talking about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The question we are asking is this: can a genuinely regenerate Christian lose his salvation, or is it impossible for a person who has been saved to lose his salvation? Last time we looked at the Calvinistic perspective, or the Reformed perspective, on this question. We saw that according to Calvinism a person cannot lose his salvation. Once a person has been regenerated and declared righteous by God, that person can never fall away and therefore is eternally secure. If you do see someone who, despite having been an ostensibly authentic Christian (someone who was active in the Christian church, even in ministry), who falls away from the faith, the Calvinist will say that person was really only a nominal Christian. He is and always has been an unbeliever, an unregenerate person. He only appeared to be a Christian believer and therefore has not really lost salvation. He never had it to begin with.
Today we are going to look at a quite different perspective, which can be characterized as the Arminian perspective, after Jacob Arminius.
The Arminian maintains that it is possible for a person who is a born-again Christian to lose his salvation and go to perdition. What the Arminian will typically say is that the elect of God are corporately secure. You will remember, when we talked about the doctrine of election, that the Arminian construes election primarily in corporate terms and only secondarily in individual terms. That is to say, the primary object of God’s election is a corporate body: a people, a church. It is that corporate group which is destined for sanctification, conformity to the image of Christ, and ultimately glorification and heaven. But it is up to the individual whether he wants to be a part of that elect corporate group or not. The primary object of election is this corporate body, and you by identifying yourself with it through faith in Christ become in a secondary sense elect or predestined.
Now, in line with that reasoning, the Arminian thinks that this corporate group is going to persevere and will never fail to obtain its promises. The corporate group is thus secure in salvation. But, just as individuals become members of the group by placing their faith in Christ, so they can fall away from that group by renouncing Christ. By ceasing to have faith in Christ and repudiating Christ, they are then no longer members of this elect group and thereby forfeit their salvation.
On the corporate nature of election and security, look at Romans 8:33-39. Here Paul says,
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.
The Arminian takes this passage to be about the corporate body of the elect – the church of Jesus Christ. The elect are secure in God’s salvation, and so these promises will never be abrogated. The elect are thus safe and secure.
But the individual’s perseverance in the faith is contingent. Look, for example, at Romans 11:17-32. In this passage, Paul has a very interesting combination of what appears to be a corporate image and an individual image. He compares Israel to a cultivated olive tree which represents God’s elect. Then he thinks of individuals as branches that can be grafted onto this olive tree. The natural branches of this cultivated olive tree would be the Jewish people. Gentiles he compares to branches that have been taken off of a wild olive tree and then grafted into the cultivated olive tree. They thereby become heirs to all of the promises and the blessings that belong to Israel. The promises and the blessings are given to Israel (represented by the cultivated olive tree), but these branches cut off of wild olive trees are grafted into the trunk of the cultivated olive tree and therefore come to share in its blessings. Let’s read, with that in mind, Romans 11:17-32.
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, 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.
What Paul seems to be saying here, the Arminian will say, is that this corporate tree (this tree representing God’s elect church) is composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews have in many cases been broken off – the branches were dead. Why? Because of their unbelief. Because of their unbelief these branches were stripped away, and in their place believing Gentiles have been grafted into the olive tree to share its blessings. But he says that is no reason for you Gentile believers to be proud because if you do not continue in faith then you too will be broken off just like those natural branches that were broken off. He says there is still hope that these natural branches might be grafted back in again. Indeed he thinks that in the future at some point all of Israel will be saved. After the full number of Gentiles come in, then Israel will turn back to Christ again and so be saved. So you see here a kind of corporate election and security that a person has insofar as he remains grafted into Christ – into his body. But if through unbelief one falls away, then one will be broken off and have no security.
Let’s turn to our representative Arminian theologian once again, Robert Shank, whose book Elect in the Son I’ve quoted before, to hear his take on this relationship between corporate election and individual contingency. He writes on page 49 of Elect in the Son,
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 Scriptures that Shank quotes. First, he says, consider those Scriptures showing God’s eternal purposes 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.” So Shank would interpret God’s eternal purpose in grace to be that he has chosen this corporate group to be holy and blameless before him. This is his design: to have a people peculiar to himself who will be holy and blameless before him.
This purpose of God is fulfilled corporately. Consider Ephesians 5:27, “Christ will present the ekklesia [that is to say the church, the body of Christ], to Himself holy and blameless.” So God’s eternal purpose is fulfilled in the case of the church. The church will be presented by Christ holy and blameless before him.
But, Shank says, insofar as the individual believer is concerned, this is contingent upon his perseverance in the faith. Colossians 1:23 says, “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.” In the case of the individual this salvation is conditional. It is contingent. God’s eternal purpose in grace that we should be holy and blameless before him will be fulfilled in individuals, says Colossians 1:23, if we continue in the faith grounded and settled and be not moved away from the hope of the Gospel.
Next week, we’ll come to some assessment of these competing views of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Until then I wish you a great week.