Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 01/04/1998
We are trying to take a fresh look at the controversial doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, or, as it has less happily come to be called by many today, Eternal Security. We want to try to see the biblical teaching on this question in its fullness, without (as both sides in the controversy have too often done) simply shoving half of it under the rug.
So last week we examined the work God does to keep people saved. He predestines us to conformity with the character of his Son, and to bring this destiny about, uses the inexorable "golden chain" of Rom. 8:29-30; for those who are given that destiny are called, justified, and glorified. He justifies us, declaring us to be innocent with respect to the demands of the Law, solely on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ. He thereby forgives our sins because he has imputed them to Christ and imputed Christ's righteousness to us (Rom. 5:9, etc.). He then regenerates us, gives us new life and a new nature, making us a new and different person (2 Cor. 5:17). He sanctifies us, making the change begun in regeneration increasingly to permeate and characterize our life, bringing us into the practical possession and experience and exercise of the righteousness he had imputed to us or reckoned as ours in justification (Eph. 4:17-24, etc.). He seals us with the Holy Spirit of Promise, who authenticates and protects us as His own (2 Cor. 1:21-22). And thus he confirms and preserves us in terms of all of the above (1 Cor. 1:8, Phil. 1:6). This is the normative New Testament description of what being saved is. It does not sound in the least provisional. Those in whom it is happening are the saved, and those in whom it is not are the lost. There does not seem to be any group in the middle. God, having committed Himself to that work, has committed Himself in the very strongest terms to bringing it to completion, and that is the basis of our assurance and of our security in Christ.
If we stopped here, there would be no question that true believers, real believers, have a salvation that cannot be lost, in which they are indeed eternally secure. But if we are honest students of Scripture, if Scripture and not our own doctrinal system is really the basis of our beliefs, we can not stop here. We must try to hear the whole counsel of God, and then we must try to understand it--but only after we have actually heard it. To that end we will examine today the other side of the coin. It consists of a group of verses called "The Warning Passages," which seem just as strongly to imply the theoretical possibility that a truly saved person could fall from grace and be finally lost. Today we will try to see what these passages mean for us practically. Next week we will conclude this miniseries by trying to solve the theoretical problem created by the way in which they seem to contradict the plain teaching of the other strain of New Testament teaching that we looked at last week.
Let me bring to your attention just five of these passages.
Just as it is difficult to make the teaching on salvation we saw last week refer to something provisional, it is equally difficult to avoid the apparent implication of these passages that it is possible to fall away from that salvation. We have God's kindness if we continue in it; this applies to people who have been sanctified by the blood and been made partakers of the Holy Spirit. And this teaching seems just as clear as the seemingly contradictory strain of teaching we saw last week.
Now, before we say anything else, I want you to take seriously the difficulty of the problem we all face here. No matter which position you held on this issue before we began these studies, you need to realize that you have a problem! Does Scripture contradict itself? No, of course not. But it sure can seem to! People on the other side of this issue from you are not (necessarily) just being obtuse, dense, doctrinally ignorant, perverse, or stubborn. It is just not possible with intellectual honesty and doctrinal integrity to shove either side of this dilemma under the rug and pretend that it does not exist.
It is simply not possible, in the first place, to shove the Bible's teaching on Perseverance under the rug. Rom. 8:29-30 simply does not say that some of those who are called and justified will be glorified. It cannot be made to say it. Phil. 1:6 simply does not say that He who has begun a good work in you will probably complete it in most of you. It cannot be made to say it. 1 Jn. 2:18 does not say that if the apostates under discussion there had really been with us they probably or mostly would have remained with us, and that therefore their having gone out sort of suggests that they were not really of us. It cannot be made to say it. If falling from grace were really possible, their having gone out could not in any logic show anything; but for John, it proves as conclusively as the same situation has done for Calvinists ever since that they were not really of us. It is simply not possible to avoid the fact that these passages do not just imply a strong doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints; they logically entail it.
But it is not possible with any intellectual honesty to shove the Warning Passages under the rug either. Calvinists traditionally have tried to do so by pretending that these passages do not really apply to true Christians, only to those who seem to be, to mere professors and not possessors, in other words. But to say that people who have been sanctified by the blood and made partakers of the Holy Spirit are less than saved seems to me to be sheer rationalization. Nobody would take such language as meaning any such thing unless he had already made his mind up before reading the Text. It cannot be made to say it.
Therefore, we are obligated to figure out what is wrong with our way of looking at these verses. For any reading of Scripture that makes one part of it contradict another part has got to be wrong. It is an insult to the intelligence of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Text. Yet how are we going to resolve an apparent contradiction like this? I am trying to force you to see the seriousness of the problem, not in order to make you uncomfortable, still less to tempt you to doubt, but because a cheap solution is no solution at all. A cheap solution will only bring the whole doctrinal system of the Christian faith into disrepute, and it will not help you in your Christian walk.
It will take me the rest of our time today, and all of it next week, to try to show a way out of this impasse. So I ask for your patient hearing, for there is much at stake. Let me suggest that part of the key to this lock is something we noticed last week: we may be asking the wrong question. That is, we tend to want the answer to the theoretical question, "Can a true believer lose his salvation?" But Scripture is much more concerned to answer the personal and practical question, "Am I saved, and how do I make sure I stay that way?" It might help to see these passages as more an answer to the second question than the first. How does God keep people saved? Here is one more way: by warning them of the consequences of apostasy.
What then is the message of these verses to us? It is summed up in one of them I have not yet read. It is found in 1 Pet. 1:3-11. Because God has already granted us everything pertaining to godliness, we should be diligent to add to our faith moral excellence, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. "For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." One who lacks them is blind and has forgotten his purification. "Therefore, brethren, be all the more certain about his calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things you will never stumble."
Salvation is a complete package. Justification does not come without sanctification. Therefore, the evidence of salvation is a changed life. Therefore, ask God to enable the change that He has begun to continue. If the qualities of 1 Pet. 1:5-7 are growing in you, however slowly and painfully, if there is real progress, then you may be certain that God has called and chosen you for salvation. In other words, by pursuing these things from God, you gain along with them the fringe benefit as it were of the assurance of your own acceptance by God. By neglecting them, you are also depriving yourself (and others) of the evidence that your commitment to Christ is real. If you neglected them enough, there would be no evidence at all, and your very salvation would be brought into question.
So what if you are in that position? Get right with God now! The point of the Warning Passages is that this is too important a matter for you to let it slide. Can a true Christian lose his salvation? You are in no position to be asking that question, because the question at this point is whether you actually are one! Who cares whether you were really saved before? The issue is what is your relationship to God now? If you are on the side of the road, what does it matter whether you were never quite on or are now getting off? Get back on! Do not wait until you have left the road completely and cannot even find it again.
The point of the Warning Passages, in other words, is to preserve us from Presumption. Presumption is false faith based on something less than the Word of God. What saves us? The Grace of God alone, accepted by personal Faith in Christ alone. So from your side the question is do you have personal faith in Christ? Are you trusting in Him now? You are saved by that personal faith, not by some alleged "experience" in your past. So do not presume that you are eternally secure on the basis of having "gone forward," been baptized, or joined the Church at some point in the past. None of that saves you; only personal faith in Christ does! Do not presume that you are eternally secure on the basis of lip service to your parents' faith. Are you actively trusting in Christ as Lord and Savior right now? Personal faith in Christ saves; nothing else does. To be sure you have it, walk with the Lord. But be warned: the Warning Passages surely teach us that the consequences of presuming on past experiences can be eternally fatal.
This we can all apply to our lives whatever our position on Perseverance. This we should apply, because it is the command of Scripture and because of the benefit, the assurance that then we "will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you" (1 Pet. 1:10-11).
This, I believe, is part of the answer. This is the practical application of the Bible's teaching. But it does not completely solve the problem with understanding these passages. What about the theoretical question? We will attempt an answer to that next week.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams
Updated 7/2/2004 11:45 AM