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.

1 comment:

  1. To be scrupulously fair to "Calvinists," perseverance of the saints is described in the Westminster Confession as perseverance "in a state of grace" -- not "perseverance in faith," perseverance in faithfulness, perseverance in holiness, perseverance in works, all the modern accretions.