1. I usually try to find common ground when I am in a group that believes strongly about conflicting positions. So often a group of Wesleyans and Baptists can at least agree on the following ideas:
- If a person becomes a serial killer after "professing faith," he or she probably wasn't really a Christian to begin with. That is to say, some individuals whose lives do not seem to match up with a Spirit-filled life may never have truly been "saved" in the first place.
- God is not looking to kick people out of the kingdom. In the end it probably isn't very common for someone who is truly "saved," who has truly experienced the life changing power of the Holy Spirit, to "fall away," as Hebrews 6:6 mentions.
- It's not a "one sin you're out" type situation. Our life in Christ is a relationship, and few relationships end with a single wrong act.
Let me start by saying that some Johannine texts do give off a Calvinist vibe:
- "They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us" (1 John 2:19).
- "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand" (John 27-28).
- "While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled" (John 17:12).
However, none of these verses suggest that a person who does not continue to walk with God is guaranteed salvation. They can only be used to argue that a person who does not continue to walk with God was probably never truly "saved" to begin with.
3. I suspect that the question of those who walk away somewhat took the early church by surprise. When God has offered the immense gift of grace, how could anyone experience it and then reject it? When Christ has suffered so much on the cross, how could anyone insult him by receiving the benefit of his sacrifice and then flagrantly continuing to sin?
In the end, it is only cardboard versions of Paul and the rest of the NT that resist its clear sense that God's grace implies a certain response in gratitude. Faith is not mere belief but intrinsically implies faithfulness. There is no contradiction here, not if we understand grace and faith in their appropriate Jewish context.
- "I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
- "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11).
- "Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?" (Heb. 3:16-17)
- "It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened... and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt" (Heb. 6:4, 6).
- "If we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries" (10:26-27).
- "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God... that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears" (Heb. 12:15-17, NASB).
4. The reason people find this concept problematic is because they have learned cardboard versions of theology that have much more to do with the excesses of the Reformation than with the New Testament world. For example, grace is unmerited, but that would not have meant in the NT world that it was unsolicited or that gratitude was not expected. Grace simply wouldn't have continued in the patron-client world of the NT if the giver was treated contemptuously.
Similarly, the faith-works contrast has been abstracted far beyond its original contours. It had everything to do originally with Paul's debate on what works of the Jewish Law Gentiles needed to do, not only to be saved, but indeed in order to eat with Jewish believers (Gal. 2:11-14). "Faith" here may not even in the first place have been a reference to human faith but to the faithfulness of Jesus to death (cf. this translation of Romans 3:22 and Galatians 2:16).
In the end, Paul had clear ethical expectations of believers, such that individuals who habitually practiced certain sins simply would not be part of the kingdom of God (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10). True faith involved deeds and action for Paul and not only for James (2:14-26). When we start arguing over whether faith itself can become a work, we have left Paul's categories for some other planet.
Paul's language of election and predestination is always "after the fact" language. It is never used to predict, only to affirm those who are already here. Indeed, 2 Peter 1:10 suggests that one can stumble and that it requires diligence to make your election "sure."
5. The scarier question is not whether a person can leave God but whether such a person can ever come back. Perhaps it is safe to say that those who truly leave God won't want to come back. This person will quite likely have a hardened heart. In the end, since it is the Holy Spirit that leads us to repentance, who draws us and empowers us to repent, anyone who is able to repent is allowed to repent.
Theologically, we believe that we can only repent by the Spirit's power. We therefore should not assume that we will be able to come to Christ at a time of our own choosing. Like Esau in Hebrews 12, there could be a time when our head knows it's time to repent, but our heart lacks the power.
So our walk with God is empowered by the Spirit from first to last. We are empowered to be able to choose a relationship with him. If we neglect that power, that relationship, he will not force it on us. We will inevitably decline to our default state. Eventually, that power will no longer be available and the relationship will be dead.