Thursday, May 30, 2013

Assurance by Works; A Reserve 'Chute Case Study

I should never be the one complaining about someone else being cynical, but in popular Christianity, it's very popular to be cynical of people who make certain claims… who "profess" things. In particular, people who "profess" to be Christian. This cynicism often emerges when Christians discuss passages like James 2, where James is frequently misunderstood to be warning against a false claim of faith, a "say-so" faith, which is shown to be a pseudo-faith by a lack of accompanying works.

What they're often getting at is that you can't trust what people say; you can't trust the claims that they make because those claims might be false.

Now I don't think James is saying anything of the sort, however I do agree that you can't trust what people say. If we're looking for a reliable indicator of whether someone is saved or not, a person's claim to believe in Christ doesn't really settle the issue. And nothing will, actually… I have good reasons to believe that making such determinations is above our pay grade.

However, it's often taught (from James 2 and other misunderstood passages) that works must accompany, complement, or otherwise "back up" one's faith in order to prove that faith to be valid.

But folks seem to overlook something obvious here… a person's good works can be no more reliable as an indicator of whether they're saved than their speech can. Neither is reliable because either one can be falsely motivated.

That aside, a victim of this popular teaching called in to Stand To Reason--an apologetics-oriented radio program and podcast hosted by Greg Koukl--and the discussion which ensued was, I think, instructive… though not in the way the host probably intended.

The caller, whose name is Art, identifies R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur as teachers he listens to frequently, and the host affirms that these are "solid" teachers. But Art has a problem. He isn't sure whether he is a "true" believer or not. And the reason he gives is that he doesn't see any evidence of a change in his life. Art has been taught to depend on his performance for assurance of his salvation, and since he sees poor performance, he is fearful that he is not saved.

This comes out vividly when the caller says "I'm pretty well convinced that I'm going to hear 'Depart from me, I never knew you.'"

The odd thing about the caller's allusion to Matthew 7 is this: For some reason the caller thinks that the folks Jesus turned away in that passage were turned away because they lacked works. Now that's just strange, because clearly the folks in that passage did have works. They prophesied; they cast out demons; they did many wonderful works. But Jesus tells them "Depart from me, I never knew you." But weren't these people looking at their works for their assurance? And isn't that exactly what Sproul and MacArthur have taught Art to do? Because the folks in Matthew 7 have held up their works as their justification, Jesus turns them away… they're not turned away for a lack of works. It's clear that the caller has been taught to rely on his works and now he's fearful he'll be turned away because of his poor performance.

Now the way Koukl responds to this is very interesting. But first, consider a quote from Koukl on a previous program when he was discussing "faith alone" vs. "faith plus works."

"There are other passages which have to do with our behaviors and our works, and the classic one is James Chapter 2, but I see these as indicatives. In other words, the genuine Christian is going to display a change in life in some measure that's palpable, that's measurable… You can't just talk it. You've gotta walk the walk."

Notice there's no equivocation in this statement. According to Koukl, a genuine Christian is going to display a change in life. The caller, however, is saying that his life displays no such change. If Greg Koukl's understanding of this issue is correct, then the caller's doubts are appropriate… are they not?

Over and over again I hear, from various popular teachers, that good works validates faith in Christ, and necessarily so. In other words, if you lack good works, then you were never really saved to begin with. Here's a quote from Norm Geisler which reflects this view:

"Only the kind of faith that produces good works can save. While we are saved by faith alone, nevertheless, the faith that saves is never alone. It is always accompanied by good works."

And here's what Jim Wallace--a frequent substitute host on Greg Koukl's show and host of his own "Please Convince Me" apologetics podcast--says about this:

"…as a fruitful Christian, a Christian who has been transformed, you will see a difference in my life, I will see a difference in your life, and James talks about it. If you're not seeing that difference in your life, there's good reason to believe that maybe you were never saved to begin with."

John MacArthur backs this up with this:

"Behavior is an important test of faith. Obedience is evidence that one's faith is real. On the other hand, the person who remains utterly unwilling to obey Christ does not evidence true faith."

So when the caller says, quite emphatically, that he HAS NOT undergone a change in life, you would think Koukl would have to say something like, "Well, I'm afraid the Bible is rather clear on this question: If you lack works, you must not be saved." Of course, it would be a pretty brutal thing to say to someone under the circumstances. But… does Koukl believe that the Bible teaches what he says it teaches, or doesn't he?

So, in response to the caller Koukl asks the caller if he's concerned about this. And when the caller then professes to be concerned, Koukl renders his verdict and concludes that the caller really is saved. Where in the Bible would we find the idea that you can be assured of your salvation if you're concerned about whether or not you're saved? 

And notice something else… now all of a sudden we're trusting the caller's profession that he's concerned What happened to all that skepticism over what people say? When it comes to people professing to believe in Christ, Koukl is full of skepticism toward their claims. And so are many Calvinist teachers, such as James MacDonald:

"Profession does not equal conversion."

And here's the same idea in the Bible Believer's Commentary on James 2:

"…James is describing the man who has nothing but a profession of faith. He says he has faith, but there is nothing about his life that indicates it."

So, the message here is to not trust someone's claim regarding their faith in Christ. But if we can't trust someone when they claim to believe in Christ, then why should we trust them when they say they're concerned about not being saved? What if Art isn't really concerned and his profession of concern is just an act? If Art's profession of concern doesn't have to be backed up with works, then why must his faith be backed up with works? If Art is really concerned, then why doesn't he straighten up and fly right?

In the end, Koukl does get something right because he does finally direct Art back to the question of whether Art's trust is in Christ. But unless someone reaches Art and explains to him that his salvation doesn't depend on his performance, then Art will never know whether he's saved or not until (perhaps) it's too late.

There's a good reason for all of this confusion. Certain passages in the Bible have been distorted and misunderstood to teach that we can get assurance from our works. But there's a very simple reason why this is impossible: Our works didn't make us any promises.

What I mean is this: To make a promise to someone is to "assure" them of something. That promise is the "assurance," and you either believe the promise, or you don't. It makes no sense to say "I believe the promise" and then say "But I don't have assurance." If you have the promise, then you have the assurance. The only reason to lack assurance is to not believe the promise!

What we have here is a situation where popular Bible teachers are teaching their congregations not to believe the promises that Christ made. They're teaching people to rely on their own works for the assurance of their salvation rather than to rely on the promise of salvation itself. And from this, we get people like Art who, by evaluating their works, have no reason to believe they're saved.

When pastors teach their congregations to rely on their works for assurance, they are asking their congregations to wear a reserve 'chute when they jump out of the plane, because they fear the main 'chute might not open.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Perseverance vs. Eternal Security

The most recent post was in response to a booklet entitled "Once Saved, Always Saved If…" But if you recall I mentioned there were two booklets… and so that will be the focus of this post. The second booklet has as its title "Perseverance of the Saints."

I should pause to point out that both of these booklets were included with a shipment of English curriculum from Rod and Staff. And both of these booklets have "Rod and Staff Publishers, Inc" printed on the back, and each booklet identifies a different author. The reason this is important is because, on at least one major point, the messages in the booklets conflict with each other. And yet someone tossed them both into the same shipment. I can't help but wonder if the folks at Rod and Staff have read their material.

Recall that in the first booklet, the author wasted no time making the following point:

"Christians can go to two extremes. One extreme is to say, 'Once saved, I'm always saved, no matter what I do.' The other is to say, 'Nobody can claim the assurance of salvation.' The truth lies between these extremes."

So, on the one hand you have the notion of eternal security; that nothing a Christian does or fails to do can possibly cancel his salvation. And on the other you have conditional security, which means that failure can cancel a Christian's salvation. And the author of the first booklet says that "The truth lies between these extremes."

Now you only have to get two paragraphs into the "Perseverance" booklet to find a stark contradiction with the first booklet:

"There is only one correct doctrine concerning this issue. Either we can or we cannot give up our salvation."

Well, I have to agree here with the author of the "Perseverance" booklet. This is the point I made in the previous post… Law of the Excluded Middle. The author is arguing that there is no middle ground, either salvation can be lost, or it can't. I just wish the various authors at Rod and Staff would get on the same page.

But here is where my agreement with the author ends. Both Arminians and Calvinists will affirm a doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints." The difference is that Arminians would typically believe that a failure to persevere results in the loss of salvation, while the Calvinist would tend to say that a failure to persevere merely proves you were never saved. The Calvinist version of "Perseverance of the Saints" is often equated with Eternal Security. Upon closer examination, however, it turns out to be a clever way to make our salvation dependent upon our personal performance, and to give us justification to look at our works as a source for assurance. This booklet ends up arguing for the Arminian version of "Perseverance" doctrine, teaching that a failure to persevere in faith results in a loss of salvation. And this also makes their salvation dependent upon their personal performance.

There is a necessary truth that lies at the core of this issue which neither Arminians nor Calvinists are willing to affirm: A person who has trusted in Christ in the past, but who renounces or walks away from Christianity later on, still has eternal life.

If you're shaking your head in disbelief, please don't. It's a necessary truth, made necessary by four facts:

1) God has foreknowledge. If a person is going to become apostate, God knows about it already and knew about it even before they trust in Christ. To suggest that apostasy results in a loss of salvation would be to deny God's foreknowledge.

2) There is no Bible verse which explicitly states that ceasing to believe in Christ results in a loss of eternal life. But of course folks will offer proof texts which they've interpreted that way, but closer examination of those "prooftexts" will show them to be misunderstood and misapplied.

3) If apostasy cancels salvation, then I have NO GROUNDS for assurance. After all, since I lack foreknowledge, I cannot say that I will not become apostate at some point in the future. Of course, I don't think I will… but not thinking I will and KNOWING that I won't are two completely different things. The fact is, I don't know about all my future failures. And so if my future failures could cancel my salvation, then I have no grounds for assurance.

4) The concept of losing one's salvation is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of salvation by Grace. And everyone in orthodox Christianity agrees (at least superficially) that the Bible teaches salvation by Grace apart from works. The problem is, many popular teachers won't put their money where their mouth is.

Failure to understand that Christ died even for the sin of apostasy creates a lot of confusion for Arminians and Calvinists alike. By saying that continual, perpetual belief in Christ is necessary for salvation, they have made salvation contingent upon their own performance, on their own trustworthiness. "Trust me… I won't stop believing." This is not reliance upon Christ, this is reliance upon self… it's a reserve 'chute.

For the Calvinist, "Perseverance of the Saints" refers to the fact that those whom God has elected will not ultimately fail to persevere in faith. If someone is truly elect, truly saved, then they will not ultimately fall away. But the Calvinist wouldn't say that God's elect will never depart from the faith. What they want to say is that if they do depart, and if they are truly elect, their departure will only be temporary.

Many people equate the Calvinist doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints with Eternal Security, but they are really very different. Greg Koukl is the host of Stand To Reason, a Christian apologetics podcast and radio program that I listen to every week. A few years ago, Koukl addressed the distinction between the doctrine of "Once saved, always saved" and "Perseverance of the Saints." He said this:

"Here's the way I'd put it: When people say 'Once saved, always saved' what often they mean is, 'If you pray the sinner's prayer, you're in no matter how you live or what happens after that.' But when Reform folks talk about "Perseverance of the Saints" they're not talking about a sort of shallow understanding of praying the sinner's prayer and you get your fire insurance. They're saying, "Lookit, if you're genuinely regenerate, it is only because God reached out and rescued you by His sovereign grace, and His sovereign grace that rescued you will preserve you and preservation means that you persevere." So those who are genuinely called of God and the elect are those who persevere through all things, not just those who say a prayer and get their fire insurance and then are off doing other things."

Okay, so Koukl asserts that "Once saved, always saved" means that you believe praying the sinner's prayer saves you, or at least that many people have this understanding. Well, it might be true that some people think that praying the "sinner's prayer" saves them, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the principle of Eternal Security. A person could believe that praying the "sinner's prayer" saves them and reject Eternal Security. One has nothing to do with the other, so Koukl has erected a straw man; he refuses to engage "Once saved, always saved" on its own terms.

The other mistake Koukl makes is to assume that folks (like me) who deny the Perseverance of the Saints doctrine but affirm Eternal Security also believe that it's okay to continue living like a reprobate after you're saved. This is another straw man. Eternal Security or "Once saved, always saved" neither advocates for, nor approves of Christians who perform poorly. The principle of Eternal Security merely recognizes that poor performance cannot cancel one's eternal life. Eternal life is a Grace gift (Romans 6:23) and it is eternal, and he who believes in Christ will not come into judgment (John 5:24). This is not "cheap grace" or "easy believism." This is simply what salvation by Grace actually amounts to. If good performance really is necessary for salvation, then it's not salvation by Grace. (Romans 11:6)

The difficulty that Koukl has with this topic is that he is unwilling to disconnect his personal performance from personal salvation. Salvation by Grace through faith apart from works means that personal performance and personal salvation are disconnected. One has nothing to do with the other. But he just can't bring himself to agree that his future failures can neither cancel nor disprove his salvation.

This brings to mind another call on Koukl's show which will serve as an excellent example of why these popular teachings are so problematic. I'll dive into that next time.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Big "IF"

So my wife received an order yesterday of home school materials for next year, which will be her fifth year as a home school mom. The materials included a Bible-centered English curriculum called "Rod and Staff," which is quite popular.

Included with the order were two freebie booklets, each of which are shining examples of Christian doublespeak.

The first is a booklet entitled "Once Saved Always Saved If…"

Within the first two paragraphs, the author reveals his abject confusion:

"Christians can go to two extremes. One extreme is to say, 'Once saved, I'm always saved, no matter what I do.' The other is to say, 'Nobody can claim the assurance of salvation.' The truth lies between these extremes."

Now, let's boil this down… If I were to say "Once saved, I'm always saved… unless I commit a particular sin," then can I really say "Once saved, always saved?" Does that phrase actually mean anything at all? And if failing in a particular way can cancel or cause me to lose my salvation, then doesn't that lead inexorably to the conclusion that "nobody can claim the assurance of salvation?"

Do I know all the ways in which I will fail in the future? If I don't, then how do I know that I won't fail in a way that would cause me to lose my salvation, if such a thing were possible?

If we are to arrive at a coherent answer to this question, we find that the principles of logic tend to "snap" us from one side to the other. In logic, this is referred to as "the Law of the Excluded Middle." What we have here is a very simple question for which there are only two answers possible:

"Is it possible for a Christian to lose their salvation, or is it IMPOSSIBLE for a Christian to lose their salvation?"

Now, either it is possible, or it's not possible. There are no other options, there is no in-between. If it's not possible for a person to lose their salvation, then it's appropriate to say "no matter what I do." And if it is possible for a person to lose their salvation, then it's appropriate to say "nobody can claim the assurance of salvation."

The author goes on to write:

"'Once saved, always saved' is a good slogan, provided you put an if on the end."

This is startling, and it brings to mind conversations I've had with Jehovah's Witnesses on my doorstep. When they visit, I often ask them a simple question:

Is it possible for you to know, right now, whether you will be resurrected to live forever on Earth with Jesus?

I have asked this question a number of times, and I always get an answer that starts out with "Yes, if…" and the 'ifs' are things like "if I keep God's commandments," "if I endure to the end," "if I'm obedient to God's law," etc. All of which reduces to:

"Yes… if I behave myself."

But then I ask what should be an obvious question: "Do you know that you are going to behave yourself?" And they say "Uh, no." And then I say "Alright, so then I guess the answer to my question is really "No," isn't that right? And they answer "I guess so."

Well, the author's line of thought here is heading in exactly the same direction. "Once saved, always saved if I behave myself." We have exactly the same problem… we can't know whether we're going to behave ourselves. And because of this, assurance of salvation is impossible. The author wants to be seen as having affirmed eternal security, but by adding the "if," his statement amounts to a denial of eternal security. This is utter confusion.

The booklet goes on from there, wandering from one misapplied prooftext to another, and culminates with this:

"Blessed assurance! Once saved, there is no good reason why we cannot be always saved. Our salvation is conditional, but we can claim it with complete confidence. Let us serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling."

What "blessed assurance" is there when there is an "if" in the equation? If by "our salvation is conditional," the author means that our salvation is conditioned upon our performance, and we know that it's possible that we'll perform poorly, then how can we claim it with complete confidence? We can't, can we?

The only way we can claim assurance with "complete confidence" is if we know that we will remain saved no matter how we might fail. If our future failures can cancel our salvation, and we lack foreknowledge of those failures, then assurance is impossible.

Unfortunately, the message in this booklet is incoherent at best, and downright deceptive at worst. This is the kind of doublespeak we are accustomed to hearing from politicians. Do we need to hear it from fellow Christians as well?

There are answers to questions like this, and they are coherent, logically consistent answers that you can take to the bank. Paul warns against being "ashamed of the gospel," and that means not shrinking from the unavoidable logical conclusions of God's grace. The notion that future failures--however grevious--cannot cancel salvation is the only view that's consistent with a by-grace salvation. When we make our salvation contingent upon our own performance, we destroy any possibility of assurance and are now relying on ourselves and not on Christ.