A news report about American cyclist and cancer-survivor, Lance Armstrong set me thinking: “Disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, who has already had his record seven Tour de France victories wiped from the record books, could now be stripped of the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour. Armstrong was awarded the title Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 2005 in recognition of his seventh Tour win, but moves are now afoot to have the honour rescinded, according to a spokesman for the order. In January, Armstrong, 41, admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his record seven Tour de France championships from 1999-2005. He was stripped of all seven Tour titles last year after a devastating report by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which accused the cyclist of taking part in one of the biggest cheating operations in sports history.” (thestar.com.my, 2 March 2013 post). If a sports person could loose the titles he won, because he was a willfully committing fraud to win those titles, then are we correct in affirming that we will lose our salvation if we willfully live in sin?
‘Can a saved person ever be lost?’- this all-important head-splitting question has boggled and divided Christians world-wide down through the centuries. Differences over peripheral and circumferential doctrines can be over looked. But as this question involves a doctrine at the heart of the Christian faith – salvation – this question needs careful unpacking, so that believers can come to an agreement over it – an agreement based on truth. In this article (which I first wrote while I was still in Bible college during the years, 1998-2001), I attempt to face the above eternal-destiny affecting question squarely and come up with my conclusion.
THE DOCTRINE OF ‘ETERNAL SECURITY’ – THE VARIOUS VIEWS STATED
Let’s put the doctrine we are debating about in ‘black and white’ in the words of Dr.Robert Raymond, a leading Reformed Theologian:
“Every true child of God, that is, every person whom the father chose in Christ before the foundation of the world and for whom Christ died, whom the Father effectively called by his word and Spirit unto repentance toward God and Faith in Jesus Christ, and whom he consequently justified and adopted unto his family, and who is consequently justified and adopted unto his family, and who is consequently growing in grace, will never come into condemnation. That person can never be finally lost and is eternally secure. By virtue of God’s preserving grace he or she will certainly persevere in the state of salvation and be finally and eternally saved.”
Theologians like Howard Marshall, however, warn that believers can backslide from the faith and consequently be damned if they don’t persevere in their faith. Now the stage is set for thorough check to see which position is biblical and correct.
THE DOCTRINE’S HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT
Augustine was among the first to reach the doctrine of unconditional salvation. Calvin believed all saints could eventually persevere and their free will had no part to play. Arminius, a Dutch Pastor, challenged Methodist Church founder John Wesley saying that saints had no right to be certain of their salvation. Arminius strongly believed that a saved person could go to hell if he chose to rebel against God. John Wesley put it this way, in-effect: “God does give sufficient grace to persevere, but it is up to us to whether or not we receive this grace.” At any time, we can choose against God and be lost, he warned.
India’s President Pranab Mukherjee is setting a record of sorts by sending a record number of convicts to the gallows, like no Indian President has. The rate at which he is sending convicts to the gallows is akin to the rate Virender Sehwag scores runs or the speed with which Usian Bolt sprints! He rejected the mercy petition of Ajmal Kasab, the lone survivor of the team of 10 that attacked India on 26/11/2008, to have him hanged. He quashed the mercy plea of Afzal Guru accused of playing a role in the 2001 Parliament Terror attack, to have him hanged, shortly later. The Times of India reported that ‘President Pranab Mukherjee has cleared the road to the gallows for four associates of slain forest brigand Veerappan by rejecting their mercy petitions’ (on 13 Feb., 2013). Pranab by his actions is promoting this principle: no mercy will be shown for those who commit callous crimes! In the same way there are some Bible Scholars who have arisen over the years to promote this teaching: no heaven for believers who deliberately live in sin!
Some of the twentieth century’s outstanding Bible teachers and scholars like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Carl Henry and James Packer were hardened believers in the perseverance of saints – the doctrine of ‘eternal security’ that is. But in the last 40 years, a new crop of theologians like Clark H.Pinnock, Howard Marshall, and David Pawson have arisen to warn believers about the real danger falling away from the faith – if they would chose to do so. In defense of their opinion they give three lines of evidence – along logic, along philosophy and along Scripture. Let us take them up one by one.
SCRIPTURE EVIDENCE AGAINST ETERNAL SECURITY
(A) OLD TESTAMENT TEACHING
(1) Salvation was conditional from beginning
To the dejected Cain, who offered his second-best to him, God said, ‘it will be accepted if you respond the right way. But if you refuse to respond correctly, then watch out!’(Gen 4:7, NLT). Cain bunked the condition and was rejected. The New Testament writers warn us about his way. It is a way to cheat ourselves because it rejects God’s pre-condition for salvation. Cain refused ‘if condition’ and he left the presence (gen 4:16)
(2) Salvation was conditional in Abrahamic Covenant
The “As for you” of Abraham in Genesis 17:9 balances the “As for me” of God in Genesis 17:4. His faith must be accompanied by “obedience that comes from faith” (Rom 1:5).
(3) Salvation was conditional in the Sinaitic Covenant
Before God signs off the Sinaitic covenant it is punctuated by eternal ‘if’ clauses. In fact the list of curses for covenant disobedience is usually much longer than that of blessings for obedience (as in Vs 3-13 in Leviticus 26).
(4) The IF Condition in the Davidic Covenant
The ‘If’ clause here can’t be missed. The Lord’s words to David about Solomon confirm this: ‘Your son Solomon will build my temple and its courtyards, for I have chosen him…And if he continues to obey my commands and regulations as he does now, I will make his kingdom last forever’(1 Chro 28:6,7 NLT).
(5) The IF condition in the prophets
The ‘If ‘clause here is crystal clear. Isaiah stressed this “if” factor in his message to Israel: ‘If you will only obey me and let me help you, then you will have plenty to eat. But if you keep turning away and refuse to listen, you will be destroyed by your enemies. I, the Lord, have spoken’ (Isa 1:19, 20 NLT). Prophet Azariah’s words to king Asa is perhaps most famous “if” statement in the Bible – 2 Chronicles 7:14. Jeremiah famous ‘temple sermon’ has this again: “If you stop exploiting foreign orphans and widows; and if you stop your murdering, and if you stop worshiping idols as you now do to your harm. Then I will let you stay in the Land I gave to your ancestors to keep forever” (Jer 7:6,7). Prophet Ezekiel preached the same: ‘But if wicked people turn from their wickedness and do what is just and right they will live’. In the last book of the Old Testament this ‘if’ message appears again: ‘if you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honour my name.’ says the Lord Almighty, I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings!’(Mal 2:2).
British Nobel laureate Rudiyard Kipling wrote these famous lines in his poem, If, in the days of old (in 1895): “If you can dream – and not make dreams your master; If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster; And treat those two impostors just the same… If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue; Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch…. Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it; And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” We would be wise to grasp that we can indeed lose our salvation if we not careful from the ‘if’ statements in the Old Testament which the above paragraphs have talked about.
Let’s invite Guy Duty to seal this argument from Old Testament for us: “There are 63 ‘if’ texts in the Old Testament to prove the Jewish Covenant are conditional. From God’s ‘if’ to Cain, to Malachi ‘if’ to his priests, the unified testimony of Scripture gives full approval to our doctrine of conditional salvation.”
Let us now turn our attention to New Testament:
(B) NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING
Three types of Scripture passages can be used to bust the doctrine ‘Eternal Security’.
(1) Exhortations to continue in the faith – an exploration
The following scriptures will seem ludicrous if there was no possibility of a believer falling away: ‘But all of you who endure to the end shall be saved’ (Math.10:22). ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples’ (John 8:31, RSV); “When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is dead wood, gathered up and thrown on bonfire” (John 15:56); “Keep your eyes open for spiritual danger, stand true to the Lord”(1 Cor. 16:13); “For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end”(Heb. 3:14); “Don’t quit, even if it costs your life. Stay there believing. I have life-crown sized and ready for you”(Rev 2:10); “Keep tight grip on what you have ,so one distracts you and steal your crown” (Rev 3:11).
I would like to quote Renowned Charismatic Systematic Theologian, J. Rodman Williams (1918-2008) at this point. I picked up my first theology book much before I landed up in a Bible College. When I was a student in Allahabad Agricultural Institute (1993-97), my dad gifted me a ‘hurt’ copy of first book of Rodman Williams’ three-book systematic theology book series. I devoured it. I taught the precious Bible lessons I learnt from that book to small groups of interested fellow students in hostel rooms. This was how God trained me to lead Bible Studies. By now, it has been my privilege to lead Bible Book summaries of 54 Bible books. He says in-effect, “Although God’s grace is unconditional in the Bible, and there is nothing there in the Bible for us to believe in unconditional perseverance of saved people still living in sin.” Starting from 1 Corinthians 10:12 – ‘So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!’ – He lists the conditions for perseverance, arranging a gamete of Scripture verses under each condition. They are our abiding (1 John 2:24-25; Heb 2:1,3.Jn 15:3-4,6,7), our continuing (Col 1:21-23; Rom 11:11,22; 1 Tim 4:16), our enduring (2 Tim 2:10-12; Heb 10:34-39, Mt 24:12,13), our firmness (Heb 3:1-6, 2 Peter 1:10-11,5-7;2:1,20,21) and our faithfulness (Rev 2:10, 2:4-5, Heb 3:1-6, Heb 6:4-8).
Knowing such emphasis will attract an accusation “This is not salvation by good works,” he brilliantly quotes Peter. “We are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time”, he teaches quoting Peter (1 Peter 1:5). We are saved by faith. And we guard our faith by faith. Yes, we are saved by faith and not works. But if that faith is alone and is not expressed through works, that faith is not real, saving faith (the message of the book of James is this very thing).
The second set of scripture passages which question unconditional perseverance of saints are found below:
(2) Warnings against apostasy/backsliding
2 Peter 3:17 says, “Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall your secure position.” Peter couldn’t have stated this better. 2 Peter 3:18, in fact, expresses the same warnings in the positive terms: ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ If there was no real possibility of a believer permanently backsliding, that one has to admit Spirit-inspired writers of scripture were joking here or I dare say, lying (trying to deceive)! In a discussion like this, we cannot leave out the famous passage in Hebrews 6:4-8. Commenting on this key text, Grant R. Osborne says, ‘In conclusion we must say there is no more powerful or detailed description of the true Christian in the New Testament, yet one has to be stone-blinded not to note that they were in the real peril of falling away.’ Grant Osborne summarizes brilliantly the danger of apostasy so persuasively and passionately presented in the book of Hebrews this way: pay attention, lest you drift away, 2:1-4; do not harden your heart, lest you fail, 3:1-19; fear not, lest you fall short, 4:1-13; press on, lest you fall away, 5:11-6:12; hold fast, lest you die, 10:19-39; be careful, lest you fall short, 12:1-17.
Steve Jobs, the late Apple CEO said, “Apple has some tremendous assets, but I believe without some attention, the company could, could, could — I’m searching for the right word — could, could die.” When one reads the above paragraph we would agree that the Scripture clearly teaches, “A believer is given the tremendous gift of Salvation when he repents and trusts Christ, but without actively remaining in Christ, the believer could die in sin to go to hell and burn there forever and forever!”
The third collection of Scriptures that shake the foundations of the ‘once saved, always saved doctrine’ –
(3) Cases of actual apostasy/backsliding
In the parable of the Sower, Jesus spoke of those ‘who believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away’ (Luke 8:13). Jesus clearly predicted, ‘At that time many will turn away from the faith. The love of most will grow cold’ (Math. 24:10, 12). Obviously it would be stupid of Jesus to talk of them ‘turning away from faith’ if they weren’t in the faith – they were genuine believers – in the first place – something Calvinists always rush to deny. 1 Timothy 4:19 is blunt: some have shipwrecked their faith! Demas – a fellow-preacher in Paul’s ministry team – deserted Paul and perhaps even the Christian faith for ‘he loved the world’ (2 Tim. 4:10). Peter described some teachers in the church who had known the way of righteousness yet turned their backs on the sacred commandment that was passed on to them (2 Peter 2:20-22). If they had turned their backs of the sacred commandments then without a shadow of doubt they had their faces set on the commandments – they were believers – once upon a time! But they became apostate. Finally, Revelation 22:19 shows that some can have their names removed from the book of life. Another example of actual apostasy could be Ananias and Sapphira. F.F.Bruce writes, “We cannot be sure that they were not believers, unless we are prepared to say that no one who is guilty of a deliberate deceit can be a true Christian. The thrust of the Simon Magus narrative in Acts leads us to conclude that there was a possibility of serious sin by the members of the church which could lead to their exclusion from eternal life, but at the same time there was a possibility of their repentance and restoration. In the Bible the root word for faith and faithfulness is the same. One can’t have one without the other.”
Prophets of eternal security will rush to quote their favourite proof texts in response to the above. Those texts deserves a second look.
THE ‘WHAT ABOUT……?’ PASSAGES: EXEGETICAL NOTES ON TEXTS USED BY THE ‘ONCE SAVED – ALWAYS SAVED’ GROUP
Calvanists (the ‘once saved, always saved’ group) quote Jesus prayer that the father would keep the disciples (John 17:11, 15, 24), even as He had kept them as proof of eternal security of believers. But the very fact, Jesus is praying for them is proof that Jesus understood the real danger of them being lost for otherwise they would not need to be guarded. According to Howard Mars, John 17 should not be seen in isolation from John 15:16 and John 16 which warn the disciples about ‘falling away.’ John 10:28,29 and John 5:24 is another favourite ‘proof text’ for the ‘once saved, always saved’ doctrine believers. But this should not be divorced from John 10:2 which records Jesus’ words thus: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” It is to be noted that all the verbs in this verse – especially the verb ‘hear’ – is in present indicative sense in Greek original. Robert Shank notes, “The honest characteristic of the Greek present indicative is that it denotes the action is in progress.” There the incredible promise – “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish; no one will snatch them away from me” – is only of whom Jesus can say, “My sheep keep listening to my voice, and they keep following me!” Wuest’s translation of John 5:24, where-in he correctly retains the present tense (‘having eternal life’) argues powerfully against using it as a text for a eternal security: “Most assuredly, I am saying to you He who habitually hears my word and is believing the one whom he has sent me, has life eternal …..” David Pawson brilliantly flows along this thought line when he showed in his video lecture summarizing the message of the book of Hebrews (in his ‘Unlocking the Bible’ series), that “these people (the Old-Testament believers of Hebrews 11) was still living by faith when they died” (Heb 11:13). This clearly shows that faith should be a present possession for a believer to make the eternal security promises work for him.
Greg Chappell, India’s former coach wrote the following lines about Virender Sehwag, “Despite my frustrations with him during my tenure as Indian coach I could not help but love him. He is, after all, a loveable rogue. And he can bat better than most. In fact, he is the most gifted ball striker that I have seen…..To say that Viru was one of the great frustrations of my time with the team is an understatement. Sadly, he continues to disappoint and is in danger of squandering his God-given talent. The person who is least likely to be fazed by all of this is Virender himself. What I soon learned about him was that Viru did not want to dedicate himself to taking his talent to its zenith. He was happy to turn up and play and accept what came his way. No amount of cajoling from me could shift him from his insouciant way. This often happens to those with the greatest gift. Because he had never had to work hard at developing such a skill, Viru did not know how to dedicate himself to disciplined training. It was only during periods of relative poor form that he was prepared to spend time getting things back on track. As soon as he made some runs he slipped back into old habits and appeared content to practise in the same old profligate way; until his form evaporated again… He wants the prize, but has been unwilling to pay the price” (The Hindu, Sept. 27, 2012). What Chappell wrote about Sehwag here, I believe, is someway applicable to what the Bible teaches to believers who don’t take efforts with God’s help to guard their God-given free gift of salvation. Believers are in the real danger of squandering their God-given gift of salvation by refusing stubbornly to remain in Christ while at the same time being lazy and lethargic in their battle against sin.
There are those who point to Bible passages where it says the Holy Spirit has ‘sealed’ us ‘eternally’ for redemption to argue for eternal security of one’s salvation. In response I would like to quote a Bible Teacher who wrote the following on gospelway.com: Some people mistakenly use such passages to claim that, since we have the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee,” we cannot lose salvation – “once saved always saved.” However, the “earnest” shows good intention on God’s part; but that in no way guarantees the faithfulness of the humans in keeping our part of the agreement. It is not uncommon, in human transactions, for a party to back out of a purchase or violate a contract after earnest money has been paid. The point here is that God will not back out, if we keep our part of the agreement. But if we humans do not keep our part of the covenant, God is surely not required to provide us eternal life. He can and will then withdraw His earnest, and we lose our reward. That was correctly put. Even David acknowledged that the Holy Spirit could take the liberty of leaving him when he was living in open rebellion against God. That’s why he prayed this prayer post his repentance from the Bathsheba affair: “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me!” (Psa 51:11).
THEOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS AGAINST ETERNAL SECURITY
When shown outrageously clear proofs in scripture that once saved people were lost, Calvinists like J. Stanley Grenz of Regent College conveniently hide behind arguments articulated thus: “Those who forsake the faith may someday return to faith, because the indwelling Spirit will complete the saving mission. Or they may never repent of their apostasy, revealing thereby that they were genuinely converted.”
Howard Marshall takes on this view with tact. He says that if the Calvinists theory were true, the warnings in the Bible would necessary take such forums as: ‘Make sure that you are really converted, beware lest what you think is an experience of salvation by faith is really nothing of the kind.’ But the sorts of warnings are not there in Scripture. Put otherwise, the positive command is not to begin to be a genuine believer but to continue and persevere in the faith which one already has.
Calvinists (the group that teaches Eternal Security for salvation) allege that Armenians who emphasize human faith in one’s salvation destroys its purely gracious character. This is simply not the truth. The Bible tells us in no uncertain terms faith is no work at all (Rom. 4:16). It is simply the surrender of the will to God, the stretching out of an empty hand to receive the gift of grace, argues Clark Pinnock. In an act of faith we pour scorn at our self-righteousness. Faith, as a means of salvation and security doesn’t encourage conceit and self-esteem – it actually excludes it.
PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENT AGAINST ETERNAL SECURITY
The doctrine of eternal security teaches that God over-rides human free of the believer to secure him forever. This creates serious philosophical problems for the Christians who believe in an absolutely good God. If God has to by-pass human free will to secure salvation for believers, he becomes guilty of the greatest sin! Apologist Norman Giesler argues along these lines: Love is the greatest good for all free creatures, but love is impossible without freedom. So only if freedom were destroyed, overridden, God can provide eternal security for believers. That would be evil itself because it would deprive free man of his greatest good – freedom. Hence if God bypasses human free will to secure believers eternally, he would be committing a sin. And that is a philosophical impossibility!
Let me illustrate the above paragraph in a practical way. Those who teach that there is ‘eternal’ security for believers invariably imply that God has made us all mere robots sans a free will. But the Bible consistently teaches us that God has indeed given us a free will. In the Old Testament we read Joshua’s classic words: “But if you refuse to serve the LORD, then choose today whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15). In the New Testament we read Jesus’ shocking words to his chosen disciples: “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67). Both these verses are among the many in the Bible that teach we have a free will. If we believed in the eternal security doctrine and that God secures our free will to serve him permanently, we, in-effect do not believe he has given us a free-will! God will make our free will permanent only on the day of judgment. On that day he might say to some of us, this: “You chose not to have fellowship with me while you were on this earth for these sixty-seventy years! Instead, you deliberately chose to rebel against me and play games with me. Now, I will make permanent, that choice your made using your free will. Today, I will freeze your free will choice to wallow in sin while turning your back on me. Depart then to eternal hell, a place in which humans cannot have fellowship with me, and live there forever and forever in everlasting torment!”
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF NOT BELIEVING ETERNAL SECURITY
It certainly challenges the believer to test ourselves to make sure, you are solid in the faith and we don’t drift along taking everything for granted [2 Cor 13:5]. David Pawson points out ‘There is a beautiful balance in the New Testament between our responsibility to keep ourselves in God’s love (Jude 21) and his ability to keep us from falling (Jude 24). We can be cocksure about the faith that God will not and cannot fail to do what he has promised. The bail is in our court. We will do well if this understand drives us to say with the great apostle Paul, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. I’m not going to get caught napping telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself’ (I Cor 9:24-27).
Billy Graham was once asked by the media, what his first reaction would be when he got to heaven. In an instant, he replied, “I would be relived!” He agreed what Puritan, John Bunyan wrote in his classic book, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” which went this way: “Then I saw that there way a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.”
This doctrine which leaves the possibility of losing salvation open produces serious Christians who don’t play games with God. Though this study has not been exhaustive, one can say with confidence, in the light of the above study, that believers may lose their salvation if they chose to live in constant rebellion against God. The following scripture is a fitting conclusion to this absorbing theological debate of paramount importance to the Christian life:
If we endure hardship, we will reign with him If we deny him, he will deny us – 2 Timothy 2:12 NLT
In the Bible, we do have an example of a person who was once believed and was even baptised, only to be told by one of the Apostles that he could ‘perish’ with the money he dearly loved, if he did not repent (See Acts 8:13, 20-22). Perhaps, if you have gone away from God would you also repent, instead of hoping falsely that you will be saved on the final day, as you were once saved someday in the past?
(Written with the help of commentaries, study Bibles and personal reflection.)
Note – God bless Prathyusha Nakka, our ministry volunteer, for taking time to type this Hand-Written Term Paper which Duke wrote as a student of Masters in Divinity in Southern Asia Bible College, Bangalore, 1998-2001. To know more about Duke’s ministry visit http://www.dukev.org. WhatsApp him at 91-8886040605