My purpose in this post is to examine the doctrine of eternal security, mostly from a biblical perspective. I'll be nice ;-) Dialog welcome.
Definitions: Eternal security is the idea that once a person has been truly assured of their salvation, they will certainly be saved--in other words, "once saved, always saved." It is related to Calvin's idea of the perseverence of the saints, which presupposed the logic of the so called TULIP (although Calvin himself never called it the TULIP). If humanity is totally depraved, then God chooses whom He chooses unconditionally. His grace is thus irresistible. In consequence, if a person is elect, they will certainly persevere to the end.
I once found John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress puzzling because he was a Puritan. In other words, he was a Calvinist. What puzzled me was the fact that in the story, Christian does not know he will make it to the celestial city until he gets there. Yet he has already received the name Christian! How can this be?
The answer I have (to which I welcome correction if I am wrong) is that Calvinists did not have a sense of assurance of salvation until after Wesley's day. In other words, the Puritans of New England believed that the elect would certainly persevere, but they had no doctrine of knowing you were elect. Some of them lived squeeky clean lives in hopes of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Clearly a murderer demonstrated that he or she was not elect by the very fact that he or she was a murder. Only the godliest of Christian individuals were at all likely to be the elect ones!
Contrast this with the idea of eternal security, which combines the doctrine of perseverence with the idea of assurance. I can know now that I am saved. And if I am saved, then I will be saved. Most Baptists today are what we might call "one point Calvinists"--they believe only in eternal security as a form of the Reformed fifth point.
Strategies: All "interpretive groups"--Wesleyan, Calvinist, etc.--have what we might call "controlling verses" that fit most easily into their interpretive paradigm (these are usually the favorite verses, the ones they have their children memorize in Sunday School). On the other hand, they also always have what I call "naughty verses," verses that at least on the surface seem to conflict with their theology or practice (and these in turn are usually the controlling verses of the interpretive groups with which they disagree). In short, the controlling verses trump and lead to the reinterpretation of the naughty verses.
So you will not be surprised to find that this post, written by a Wesleyan, will focus on verses that are "naughty passages" for interpretive groups that affirm eternal security, while some of these verses are controlling verses on this issue for Arminians. Further, you will not be surprised to find that an educated Calvinist is well aware of these verses and could predict, for example, that I will probably bring up Hebrews 6 and 10. All credible interpretive groups have "interpretive strategies" for explaining difficult verses. Of course we should not assume that all the explanations a group makes for a difficult verse is wrong. Surely some explanations are correct!
A typical Arminian question about eternal security is as follows: "What if a person prays the sinner's prayer, looks to have become a Christian, lives like a Christian for some time, and then becomes a serial killer? Will that person go to heaven?"
You can imagine a variety of answers to this question. Least pleasing is the one that this person will indeed go to heaven. Perhaps God will cause them to die or suffer so that they pay a price with their body, but their spirit might be saved (1 Cor. 5), their work will be burned up but they will be saved as through the fire (1 Cor. 3).
Calvin of course would not have bought such an answer. I feel very confident that Calvin himself would have responded, "That person was never one of the elect." Someone today might modify this language slightly, "That person was never truly saved."
I can respect that position if maintained with a real sense of God's revealed nature as love (in other words, one that offers a real possibility of salvation to all humanity). The Christian life expected ends up looking the same. And I can even see some support for it in 1 John 2:19. Here [John] the elder indicates that a group that left them was never "from them" or they wouldn't have left.
On the other hand, what are we then to do with John's later statement that there is a "sin unto death" for which one shouldn't bother to pray (1 John 5:16-17)? I believe some Calvinists argue that this is a Christian who sins so significantly that God causes them to die in consequence. Their soul is saved but their body destroyed.
But if this is the right interpretation, the context gives us no clues to this end. John has said several things about sin in this short sermon. He has indicated that all have sin and therefore need Christ's blood. But he has also argued strongly that those born of God do not continue sinning (3:9; 5:18). I personally think the group that left is a strong candidate for the kind of sins John has in mind throughout (including their "hatred" for John's own group--3:11-15). Surely this imagery that is so abstract to us was concrete for John and his audience.
When we hear of the sins to death and the sins not to death, the simplest explanation is thus that John continues to have the things in mind he has apparently had throughout. The sins not to death are the sins he mentions in 2:1, and clearly Jesus Christ the righteous stands ready as lawyer for John's group (those who remained). The sin to death surely relates in some way to those to whom he has alluded throughout: "antichrists" who deny Jesus is the Messiah who went out from them (2:18), the spirits (read Gnostics) who deny that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2-3), who deny that the Messiah came by both water and blood (9:6), those who show hatred to their brothers like Cain? Without further details it is difficult to know exactly how, but this seems more than possible given the lay of the text.
This interpretation of 1 John 5:16 is constructed out of the biblical materials of 1 John rather than by treating the verse as a memory verse whose words are defined from my existing theology. In other words, I have tried to construct an interpretation from the "Bible alone," rather than one based on the Bible in dialog with my theology (important footnote: the text alone is actually just squiggles. By 1 John alone I mean the text in its original historical and literary contexts, even here a small fudge on the concept).
But if there is a sin to death you can commit and still be physically alive, then it would appear that a person can be "alive" and later become spiritually dead. Like Hebrews, however, John seems to imply doubt that one can come back to life once one has committed it. This interpretation of course reeks havoc with many different Christian traditions, including the Wesleyan. Tough cookies! We need to let the Bible say what it says and then let Chris Bounds work out the problems in theology class.
My point here was not really to start going through Scriptures, although, fine, I did it anyway. My purpose was to show the dynamics of how interpretive groups cope with problem passages. I believe that the only strategy that really has integrity is to admit that our theology is ultimately a superstructure we all build over or alongside the text. We ideally try to prop up the superstructure with as much of the text as we can.
But the most crucial and definitive parts will usually be extra scripturam, outside Scripture. It seems to me impossible to let all the biblical texts say what they seem to say and not run into theological conflicts that can only be resolved in the court of theological arbitration. Denial of this fact results in shoving one passage down another one's throat. Interpretive groups do this in the name of the Bible. But it is done at the expense of the Bible.
So I would argue that if the Reformed interpretive group is to have integrity, it must adopt a view that the NT authors simply did not have a full understanding of harmartiology (doctrine of sin) and soteriology (doctrine of salvation). Reformed theology could be correct as a development of doctrine beyond the Bible, a product of progressive revelation. This will require significant modification to their usual view of sola scriptura, but this is necessary anyway. This would bring greater coherence to their theology.
Barth's Reformed theology actually approaches this, for he does in his own way what I have called "finding the text in the word of God rather than getting the word of God from the text." I think what he lacks is a transferable model of how to identify this broader word of God. He does interact heavily with tradition, especially Protestant traditions. However, ultimately he is the arbiter of the Word of God, the word event for him is the true word event in many respects, at least in providing its broad outline.
Certainly the meaning of the New Testament is not predestined by either the Old Testament or Jewish intertestamental period, or the Greco-Roman world. However, if the NT operated on a significantly different wavelength than these, we would expect it to make such distinctions clear.
For example, in the Old Testament, a person could be expelled from Israel, from the people of God. Apart from Daniel 12:1-3 and a very short list of contested passages, the OT has no sense of personal, conscious existence after death (e.g., Psalm 6). So expulsion from Israel was tantamount to "losing one's salvation" in the NT. So if the NT operated on significantly different assumptions--that once a person was in the people of God, they could never not be in the people of God--we would expect a pretty clear statement somewhere pointing out this clear difference between the old and new covenants. Certainly if a Calvinist were writing the NT, this would be spelled out loud and clear. Where is this?
Secondly, I pointed out in an earlier post that grace language was language of patronage. In the Greco-Roman world, a patron might be forgiving, might give a second chance to a client that disappointed them. But the idea that Lazarus might moon the servant bringing him his daily dole outside the rich man's gate and still get the dole tomorrow. Well I doubt that would have made any sense to someone in the Mediterrean world. If Paul was saying something that contrasted widely with these assumptions, we would expect to hear him spell that out somewhere clearly. Where is this?
In short, the world in which the NT language operated, the dictionaries of the NT audiences, these things set the default expectation of the NT words not to be eternal security. The NT is not bound to hold the same default, but at some point, whether on site or in these books, the NT authors and apostles would have to make the difference clear. Where is this?
Some Naughty Passages
Certainly there are passages where someone might superficially seem to be "in' and then seem to be "out." So Demas forsook Paul after being a key player (2 Tim. 4:10). But it is easy to say, "He was never a true Christian." Or, "even though he sinned here, he was still saved." Judas is a poor example, for he belongs to the old covenant, the age before the Spirit. We cannot really call him a Christian in the first place because he followed Jesus before Pentecost.
The same applies to Matthew's imagery about weeds and wheat that grow up together (Matt. 13) or the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25). It is very easy for the Calvinist to say that in these cases, the goats were never sheep and the weeds were never wheat. Of course by now we are arguing over things that were not the point of these parables. We would not be reading any of these parables within their original boundaries and scope to begin talking about them in these ways.
This is a very important point, because some arguments for eternal security are based on metaphors. Once a person is a son, do they ever stop being a son? But where in the Bible do we find this metaphor played out in this way? It is another example of a logic outside the text--it is not biblical logic. We must all alike beware of reading metaphors and figurative language within their intended limits. The point of the Parable of the Unjust Steward is surely not to go and embezzle from your bosses.
On the other hand, if Paul himself could express uncertainty about his ultimate salvation. If he really considered it possible that he could fail to be saved in the end, that would undermine the entire Calvinist system. The book of Acts holds that he did receive the Spirit at one time (Acts 9) and thus that he was truly a believer. He says the same (1 Cor. 7:40). I doubt anyone would doubt his true Christianity.
The reason why this would undermine the entire Calvinist system is because the perseverence of the saints is a direct consequence of TULIP logic. The elect will persevere because grace is irresistance and election is unconditional. If Paul could be truly "in" and then truly "out," then God would have to change His mind with regard to Paul's election for the logic to continue working. But this is surely also anathema. Thus the entire deck of cards comes falling down. 5 point Calvinism would then prove to be very logical, but simply not true.
To be sure, the Calvinist interpretive system immediately suspects at least some, probably all of the naughty verses I have in mind.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27:
"Do you not know that those who run in a stadium all run, but one receives the prize? So run so that you might receive [it]. Everyone who competes exercises control in all things. Those, therefore, [do it] so they might receive a corruptible crown. But we [exercise control so we might receive] an incorruptible one. Therefore, I myself so run, not without a goal. I so box not as striking the air. But I keep my body under control and I make it a slave lest somehow I myself might become disqualified, although I have preached to others."
The debate between Arminians and Calvinists here is on the meaning of "disqualified." Does the crown here merely imply a prize for being an especially worthy Christian? Paul's afraid that he won't get as many awards as some other Christians?
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul has been talking about the sacrifices he has made while proclaiming the gospel. He has made it clear that he does not have room to boast just because he has sacrificed (9:16). So how could Paul be talking about prizes he might win here for being particularly worthy? He wants to beat all the others so they don't get the prize?
I will not stake the whole cheese on this passage, but it just seems to me that with his talk of preaching to others and the broader context of sharing the good news, surely the most likely meaning is that it is possible that after sharing the good news of salvation to others, it was at least possible that Paul himself might not be saved in the end. I don't think there was ever any doubt, but it is really hard to believe Paul would say something like this if it wasn't at least possible. A Calvinist would not have written it this way.
"Not that I have already received [x] or have already been perfected. But I pursue if also I might apprehend that for which I was apprehended by Christ Jesus."
What is Paul talking about? It sure is difficult for me to see how Paul is talking about anything but resurrection. In fact, I regularly use this passage to teach how to interpret the words of the text in context. Look at the train of thought:
1. Verse 8: The things I mentioned earlier in the chapter that from a human perspective I might boast about, I count these as dung in comparison to knowing Christ.
2. Verse 9: I want to be found in him with a righteousness from God.
3. Verse 10: in order to know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death...
4. Verse 11: "if somehow I might attain to the resurrection of the dead."
It is this verse that occurs right before verse 12: "not that I have received [the resurrection of the dead]." With no expressed object of the verb to tell us what Paul has not received, we have to assume that the object comes from the previous verse.
The context that follows confirms this reading.
5. Verse 13: "Not that I reckon myself to have received. But one thing [I do], forgetting the behind [the human badges he has mentioned earlier in the chapter], and reaching out to what is before, I pursue toward the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus.
In other words, the context that follows confirms that it is the upward calling, the resurrection, that Paul has had in mind.
Again, what is the most natural way of reading these words in context, not one that is driven by preconceived theology? It is that Paul reiterates twice that he is not already guaranteed an upward call. He is not already guaranteed resurrection. To read it any differently, you have to want to. The context screams this interpretation.
Some Naughty Ones for Me
Two verses in 1 Corinthians that I personally find puzzling are 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 5:5. The first says that a minister who builds the church out of inferior materials will be saved through fire, even though the work he might build on it will be consumed. The second speaks of the spirit of the man delivered to Satan being saved on the Day of the Lord, even though his flesh would be destroyed.
These are puzzling passages to me, and I will confess that I'm not quite sure what to do with them. But I'm not sure that they are much more attractive to Reformed or mainstream Baptist interpretation either. If I try to imagine possible literal meanings that are not figurative (my preferred interpretations here), I note that Paul at this point in his ministry likely believed that those to whom he wrote would still be alive on the Day of the Lord. An unwelcome but possible meaning might then be that these individuals would face some of the judgment, but that they would still end up as part of the kingdom, which Paul may have pictured to be on earth, since that's where the judgment apparently would take place (1 Cor. 6:2-3).
That would be a kind of security, but it would hardly fit any mainstream Christian theology. I doubt anyone here wants to opt for purgatory, and does anyone really think Paul is talking about the death of these individuals?
I've saved Hebrews because this is where everyone would expect me to go. You know the drill:
For it is impossible for those once having been enlightened, and who have tasted of the heavenly gift and have become partakers of Holy Spirit and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age and having fallen away... [it is impossible] to renew to repentance, since they crucify to themselves the Son of God again and expose him to disgrace.
The argument that to "taste" here is not truly to become a Christian is a real stretch. For one thing, it just isn't the way the passage reads. The author is chastising the audience for not maturing to the point they should be. He is of course shaming them--he is persuaded of better things with regard to them, of their salvation (6:9).
But they have done the drill. They have repented from dead works, had faith toward God, have been baptized, etc... (6:1-2). The description of them in 6:10-12 gives us no sense that they are not truly "in." The only reason someone would think that is to get out of the clear implication of 6:4-8. And Hebrews makes no distinction between certain unelect individuals to which these would apply and the bulk to which it would not. Again, the text gives no evidence at all of any distinction like this. They have tasted Holy Spirit; they are Christians.
Another suggestion sometimes made is that these are not really possibilities. They are meant to get the audience to where they are supposed to be, but the warnings could never come to pass. Now tell me, does this make any sense at all? Simply put, no Calvinist would write this and mean this--given how important eternal security and perseverence are to their system, there's not a chance they would write something that could be so easily misinterpreted. Or maybe the apparent meaning is the real meaning!
Remember, if they were to fall away, they would not be able to renew to repentance. That implies they have repented before. And what they would have been doing to come back is to crucify Christ again! The clear implication is that they had already appropriated his crucifixion before.
The image of leaving Egypt and entering Canaan implies exactly the same paradigm.
"We have become partakers of the Christ, if indeed we hold fast the beginning of substance firm until the end" (3:14).
"Whose house are we if indeed we hold fast the boldness and boasting of hope" (3:7).
The entire point of this argument is to continue to Canaan. "Who that heard rebelled? But was it not all of those who left Egypt through Moses? And with whom was [God] angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the desert?" (3:16-17).
The most obvious way to take this passage is as a warning that not all those who leave Egypt make it to Canaan, not all of those who start with the Christ will be saved, particularly those who sin in the manner the author has in mind. A person might bicker with this interpretation if we did not have the other verses. But this interpretation fits hand in glove with the other passages.
So next we look at Hebrews 10:26-27, which picks up this theme of sinning after leaving Egypt: "If we continue to sin willfully after receiving a knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a certain fearful expectation of judgment and of a zealous fire that is about to eat the enemies."
Notice the image of knowledge as we saw in 6:4--"it is impossible for those have once been enlightened." The sense of a sacrifice remaining implies that Christ's sacrifice had been in force. We are reminded of the earlier comment that they crucify the Son of God again.
It does not matter for our purposes what specific kind of sin the author has in mind. He is not simply talking about post-baptismal sin. He has a certain kind of apostacy in mind, not a single act of sin. This is a big deal that has been some time coming. And I do not think that he really believes anything like this is really going to happen to the audience. But unless it is a real possibility, this line of argument is not only ineffective, it is deceptive and manipulative.
But perhaps the scariest verses in the NT are Hebrews 12:16-17:
Watching ... "lest someone be sexually immoral or Godless like Esau, who traded his birthright for one bit of food. For know that afterwards, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he did not find a place of repentance, although he sought it with tears."
I have been rebuked by a reviewer for thinking that what Esau was seeking with tears here was repentance, and indeed, some Hebrews commentaries by authors I deeply respect believe that the "it" here is the blessing. Although Esau sought the blessing with tears, he did not find a place of repentance.
This is possible, but not at all the most likely interpretation. Why? Because the nearest feminine antecedent is the Greek word for repentance. The word for blessing is feminine, but is further back in the sentence. What is even more compelling is the similarity of this statement to 6:6, which says it is impossible to renew to repentance. Once again, only a desire to opt for one's preconceived theology rather than listen to the text explains this interpretive move.
The most obvious meaning of this text, as the most obvious meaning of all these other texts in Hebrews, is that person can have a Christian "birthright" and be a firstborn Son, yet fall away, sell one's birthright. And what is a naughty theology for both Wesleyan and Calvinist is left. It may not be easy to fall away. In fact, it may be doggone unlikely. But if one falls away in the way that Hebrews discusses, one is gone forever.
I'll let Bounds work out this difficult teaching in theology class. But this is what the text seems to want us to hear, in fact the message comes through with remarkable clarity.
I believe that Paul expresses very clearly in Philippians the fact that he did not consider his resurrection to be yet fully assured. In 1 Corinthians he expresses the importance of himself persevering in order not to be disqualified. And Hebrews is extremely clear, even if difficult for pretty much any tradition. The clear teaching of Scripture, as the background to the NT led us to expect, has no concept of absolute certainty of salvation, even after one has appropriated Christ's death and has the Spirit.
Eternal security can make a few small modifications and survive. Namely, one might suggest that it is very, very unlikely that a true Christian will ever fall away. In fact, I believe that myself! But I believe it is possible.
On the other hand, 5 point Calvinism cannot survive the plain teaching of Scripture on these points. And 7 point Calvinism--that God predestined the Fall of Satan and Adam. The God of that system is an evil God. I'll take Grudem every day over them!