A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese
ONCE SAVED, AM I ALWAYS SAVED?1
The theological doctrine embraced under the titles "Eternal Security," "The Security of the Believer," or "The Perseverance of the Saints" is popularly referred to as "once in grace, always in grace," or "once saved, always saved." In a brief statement, what is being affirmed is that once a person has become a Christian, there is no possibility of that person subsequently falling away and being eternally lost. When it is affirmed that a saved person cannot fall from grace, "grace" is equivalent to the care and preservation God's Spirit exercises on behalf of the child of God, so that he cannot fall outside the realm where "grace" would be operative in his life to produce salvation.
In commentaries on Romans 8, written from a Reformed viewpoint, one finds explanations given to these verses that either assume or espouse the unconditional security of the believer. Thus, it seems appropriate to study this doctrine – its history, its major component ideas, the usual arguments pro and con, and concluding with a brief presentation of the conditional security of the believer.
I. THE HISTORY OF THE DOCTRINE OF ETERNAL SECURITY
It is helpful to a right understanding of this question to know a few historical facts that lie in the background. The origin and history of a doctrine are important to the proper understanding of it. Many eminent names are connected with this debate, but the four most prominent during the Church Age are Augustine, Pelagius, Calvin, and Arminius. It is also helpful to be acquainted with what happened at the Synod of Dort, AD 1618-19.
A. Pre-Reformation Views
Patristic thought (roughly AD 100-500) was largely in agreement that the security of the believer is conditional.2 However, during this period, one influential voice for the view that the security of the believer is unconditional was Augustine (AD 354-430).3 This man's influence on church dogma extended for more than a thousand years after his death. Starting with the idea that God's predestination is the cause of salvation, Augustine saw that when God elected a person to eternal life, that inevitably involved final perseverance; unconditional security was a necessary corollary. Since Augustine taught that salvation is always God's gift, he entitled his work on perseverance "On the Gift of Perseverance."4 In order to arrive at his notion of predestination, it is very likely that Augustine violated the very rules of interpretation of Scripture that he required of others.5 If so, since his major premise is erroneous, his view of unconditional perseverance is likely flawed. Augustine's chief opponent was Pelagius, and the debate between them brewed for several years. Pelagius' key argument was his assertion of the freedom of the human will to do good or evil. While we tend to agree with the idea of freedom of the will, it is evident that Pelagius attempted to defend his belief with faulty arguments.6 Augustine succeeded in pointing out that some of Pelagius' arguments were patently un-Biblical, and this in turn led to Augustine's views carrying the day.
Medieval Catholic theology was heir, not of Augustinian predestinarianism and unconditional security, but of a semi-Pelagian optimism regarding man's freedom and ability. Semi-Pelagianism arose because of a reaction against some of the stricter teachings of Augustine, in particular his rigid predestination, his idea of the priority and irresistibility of grace, and his doctrine of absolute and infallible perseverance.7 Catholic theologians continued to wrestle with this issue, with first one and then the other idea being reasserted, until the Council of Trent (1563), when the doctrine that man freely cooperates with justifying grace was asserted. "God does not forsake those who have been once justified by grace 'unless He be first forsaken by them.' This leads to a doctrine of apostasy, 'By every mortal sin grace is lost,' and of restoration, '...those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of justification ... may be again justified ....'"8
B. Reformation and Post-Reformation Views
In their laudable effort to correct the corrupt religious doctrines and practices of their day, the Reformers appealed to the teachings of Augustine as a model of what the church should be. (How much better it would have been if they had gone back four more centuries to the New Testament for their model!). Thus, many of Augustine's views began to show up again in the church doctrine taught by the Reformers. On this particular matter of the perseverance of the saints, Luther and his followers taught a conditional perseverance, including the possibility of apostasy.9 Melanchthon taught that the human will cooperates with the divine will in salvation, a doctrine that is often designated as 'synergism.' In this he was perpetuating a belief similar to the semi-Pelagian view of the Council of Trent. Thus, Lutheranism tends to teach a conditional security for the believer.
The Protestant churches that trace their doctrinal ancestry to Calvin, on the other hand, regularly teach an unconditional security or perseverance of the elect. Calvin got his inspiration on predestination from Augustine, and from this starting point worked out his other doctrines. "Calvin, like Augustine, defined predestination as God's eternal decree by which God's absolute sovereign will decided the eternal destiny of every individual."10 The idea that each individual's destiny is absolutely decided by God logically leads to the doctrine of unconditional perseverance. Once He has elected and saved a person, there is no way short of another act of God which could undo what God had decreed; therefore, the man's salvation is sure, and certain also is his assurance of salvation.11 Calvin's writings on predestination and unconditional election greatly intensified the debate among theologians which had been raging for a thousand years.
One important theologian who opposed Calvin's views was Jacob Arminius, a Dutch preacher who at first defended Calvin, until further study led him to adopt the doctrine of conditional security of the believer. His followers, called Arminians or Remonstrants, carried matters considerably further than Arminius had done in his writings. In 1610, they set forth their non-Calvinist views in a document called "Remonstrance," and the Dutch Protestant ministers who signed the document came to be known as "Remonstrants." Its five articles are summarized by Roger Nicole:
- God elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief.
- Christ died for all men and for every man, although only believers are saved.
- Man is so depraved that divine grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed.
- This grace may be resisted.
- Whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the faith is a point which needs further investigation.12
After considerable discussion, these views were condemned at the Synod of Dort (1618‑19).13 Dort's answer to Arminianism was formulated in five canons that have popularly been expressed by the acrostic "TULIP" – namely, Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and the Perseverance of the saints. These five points have become the classic definition of Calvinism since.
Dort did not actually settle the 1300-year-old debate, for both conditional and unconditional security continued to be taught and championed.14 The Westminster Confession (1647) carried on the classic Calvinistic views of unconditional security. "This perseverance of the saints depends, not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election ...."15 John Wesley, on the other hand, vexed by the careless living of some Calvinists (after all, if one's salvation is unconditionally guaranteed, it does not really matter how one lives, does it?), stressed the necessity of careful living in harmony with the exhortations in the Word of God, and he allowed for the possibility of apostasy if one failed consistently to demonstrate Christian character and life. Later Methodist writers have tended to be synergistic, but with some tending toward Calvin by emphasizing the need for grace, while others tend more toward Pelagius by emphasizing the freedom of the will.16
C. Modern Developments
The debate between Calvinists and Arminians entered the American theological scene along with the colonists who came from Europe. On the Calvinistic side were the Reformed, Presbyterian, Free, Puritan, Congregational, and most Baptist groups. On the Arminian side (in the matter of conditional security) were the Lutheran, Anabaptist (Mennonite), General and Free Will Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, and Restoration Movement churches.
Since many of the early Restoration Movement preachers came out of Calvinistic backgrounds, their own inner struggles as they tried to reconcile the five points of Calvinism with what they could read in their own Bibles are exciting to read about and ponder. A typical example is "Raccoon" John Smith, whose parents were rigid Calvinistic Baptists, so this is the heritage in which Smith grew up. The incisive questions he began asking about the points of dogma he heard and the way he found answers to his questions makes for delightful reading.17 The reasons why he came to reject the five points of Calvinism have pretty much become standard in the Christian Churches.18
Recent decades have witnessed a revival of interest in Puritan theology. Book clubs and publishing houses have issued reprints of the classic Puritan works. In these, Calvinistic doctrine is making a comeback, after it had declined somewhat in the middle decades of the 20th century.
D. What History Has Shown
It can be said that the doctrine of unconditional security is a step-child of Augustine's predestination theology, rather than being exegetically derived straight from the Word of God. Augustine's dogmas have prospered and declined as the debate about them has raged among theologians through the centuries. The doctrine received a "booster shot" from Calvin (after he revived it from Augustine), from which it has gone into its Protestant orbit. Down through history, as one reads the positions defended and the arguments put forth to substantiate each side of the debate, one thing impresses us – in the heat of controversy, defenders and proponents often claimed things not Biblically defensible while trying to justify the position they had staked out in the debate. Those "extreme positions" then became the "orthodox" or "non-orthodox" views going into the next round of debate, and these in turn were what later generations fought to defend or destroy.
In summary, the doctrine may be stated on this fashion: the doctrine of the unconditional security (the impossibility of apostasy) of the elect grows out of, and is the logical outcome of, the doctrine of predestination. It is that God decreed before the world began that a certain elect number should be saved and a number just as fixed and certain could not be saved. Neither class is to be increased nor diminished, having been determined by God, irrevocably and unalterably, before the foundation of the world. Of course, if a man's salvation has been settled from all eternity, then he is bound to persevere; the man is made that way. God has made him a certain way, either a vessel to be saved, or a vessel to be damned. Once God has so made the man, he could not be or do otherwise than how God has made him.
This doctrine of unconditional security requires as one corollary the denial of any free moral agency to man. Man can have no choice or volition in the matter of salvation. He is a mere machine in the hands of God. His salvation on the one hand, or his damnation on the other, is simply a matter of naked omnipotence! The man could not do anything one way or the other that would affect his salvation. If he is predestined to be saved, he could not be lost, no matter what he does. And if he is predestined to be damned, a reprobate, then he could not do anything to be saved, and could not be saved no matter what he did. There is a second corollary required, namely, the direct converting power of the Holy Spirit. Man is wholly passive in salvation. In the matter of salvation or in the matter of damnation, God saves or God damns. No man can do anything to be saved, because the theory requires the direct operation of the Holy Spirit to regenerate man. After conversion, no man can do anything that would result in his being damned, for no man can successfully undo what God has done. Therefore, the dogma of eternal security (as inherited from Augustine and Calvin) teaches that a saved man cannot fall from grace.
II. THE DOCTRINE OF UNCONDITIONAL SECURITY IN DETAIL
A. The Doctrine - As Stated by Its Defenders
Theologically considered, the doctrine signifies "that they whom God has regenerated and effectually called to a state of grace can neither totally nor finally fall away from that state, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end and be eternally saved."19 This perseverance is possible because the indwelling Spirit keeps those whom God has redeemed. Passages cited to support the doctrine are John 3:36, 5:24, 10:27‑30, and Philippians 1:6.
The Westminster Confession of Faith words the doctrine in this manner: "They whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved."20 According to the Calvinistic theory of regeneration, the soul is chosen by God from eternity, its conversion and regeneration are wholly the work of the Holy Spirit, and the work, having been begun by God for His own good pleasure, will not and cannot be abandoned by Him. Or, to quote again the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father: upon the efficacy of the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ; the abiding of the Spirit, and the seed of God within them; and the nature of the covenant of grace – from all which ariseth also the certainty and infallibility thereof.21
Some Calvinistic presentations of the doctrine of unconditional security have almost permitted carnal living. J. Oliver Buswell quotes what he designates as pseudo-Calvinistic speakers who have told young people, "Dear young people, there are two ways to go to heaven: the spiritual way and the carnal way. It is so much better to take the spiritual way."22 The November 19, 1948 Sword of the Lord carried a sermon in which one finds this paragraph:
We take the position that a Christian's sins do not damn his soul! The way a Christian lives, what he says, his character, his conduct, or his attitude toward other people, have nothing whatever to do with the salvation of his soul ... All the prayers a man may pray, all the Bible he may read, all the churches he may belong to, all the services he may attend, all the sermons he may practice, all the debts he may pay, all the ordinances he may observe, all the laws he may keep, all the benevolent acts he may perform, will not make his soul one whit safer; all the sins he may commit, from idolatry to murder, will not make his soul in any more danger.23
Harry A. Ironside delivered an address in the Moody Memorial Church a few decades ago in which, as he presented his understanding of the doctrine of eternal security, he offered this "meaning" or definition of the doctrine:
When we speak of the eternal security of the believer, what do we mean? We mean that once a poor sinner has been regenerated by the Word and the Spirit of God, once he has received a new life and a new nature, has been made partaker of the divine nature, once he has been justified from every charge before the throne of God, it is absolutely impossible that that man should ever again be a lost soul. Having said that, let me say what we do not mean when we speak of eternal security of the believer. We do not mean that it necessarily follows that if one professes to be saved, if he comes out to the front in a meeting, shakes the preacher's hand, and says he accepts the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior, that that person is eternally safe. It does not mean that if one joins a church or makes a profession of faith, is baptized, becomes a communicant, takes an interest in Christian work, that that person is forever secure. It does not mean that because one manifests certain gifts and exercises these gifts in Christian testimony, that that person is necessarily eternally secure.
Our Lord Jesus Christ said to the people of His day, as recorded in Matthew 7:21‑23, "Not everyone that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name? And in Thy name have cast out devils? And in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity." Such people then may have been very active in what is called Christian work – they have preached, they have cast out demons ... they have professed with their lips, they have accomplished many wonderful works, but they are found in that day among the lost, and when they plead their great activity and their earnestness in Christian testimony, the Lord says to them, "I never knew you." Notice, He does not say to them, "I used to know you, but you have forfeited My favor and I do not know you any longer." He says, "I never knew you."24
B. Summary of the Major Component Ideas Involved in the Doctrine of the Unconditional Security of the Saints
1) The salvation of the sinner is all God's doing. Man is wholly passive, simply a recipient of the salvation God provides. Ephesians 2:6‑8 ("[God] raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places ... by grace you have been saved"), 1 Corinthians 3:6-9 ("God was causing the growth. ... You are God's field, God's building"), and other similar passages, are appealed to as Biblical evidence that salvation is something God does to the sinner.
2) The choice of who will receive salvation was made by God back in eternity before creation, and is irrevocable. God decided who – individually – would be saved, and who would be lost. Any freedom of choice on man's part is wholly rejected. These ideas are affirmed to be gleaned from passages such as Revelation 13:8 ("every one whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life") and Romans 11:29 ("the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable").
3) Faith and justification by faith are a one-time act. When saving faith is given to a man by God, that man's salvation is once-for-all taken care of. The only 'belief' that counts for salvation is the initial act of believing. To demonstrate this one‑time aspect, appeal is made to the aorist tense verb25 "drinks" in John 4:14 ("whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst"), and to the aorist tense verb forms in Ephesians 1:13,14 ("heard," "believed," "sealed", ASV).
4) The exhortations to Christian living found in the New Testament are not based on the possibility of losing one's salvation, but are based on appreciation for what God has done and plans to do in the Christian's life. For example, the appeal to Christian living found in Romans 12:1 (which begins with "therefore...") shows the appeal is based on all that has gone before in Romans 1-11. Likewise, Titus 2:11,12 ("the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly ..."); Colossians 3:1‑3 ("if then you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above"); and 2 Corinthians 5:14,15 ("the love of Christ controls us ... that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him").
5) Sins committed by Christians may sever fellowship with the Father, but not relationship. A man's son can never cease being a son; a child of God can never cease being God's child. Habitual sins may rob a man of his opportunity to serve or minister (as for example, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, which is interpreted to mean that the runner is "disqualified" from further participation). Habitual sins may rob a man of his reward, but they do not endanger his salvation (as for example, 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, where the man's work is burned up, but the man's soul is still saved). The sense of fellowship with the Father that is broken by sin may be restored by confession (as taught in 1 John 1:7-9, "if we confess our sins, He is faithful ... to forgive and cleanse us"). The "crowns" promised to believers may be lost, but not salvation, is how it is taught by those who espouse unconditional eternal security.
6) Persistent sin after profession of faith reveals the lack of genuine conversion. 1 John 3:6-10 is appealed to for proof: "no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him ... the one who practices sin is of the devil ... no one who is born of God practices sin," where all the verbs are present tense, implying continuous action. If a man quits Christ and the church after years of service, he was never saved in the first place. 1 John 2:19 ("they went out from us, but they were not really of us, for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us") and Matthew 7:23 ("I never knew you"), are the standard verses used to show they were never saved in the first place.
7) Sins committed by Christians will result in "discipline" from the Father, but not in eternal punishment. Hebrews 12:5-13 ("whom the Lord loves He disciplines"). Of what this disciplining consists is found in those passages that threaten "death" as a consequence of sinning – but observe carefully, these passages are interpreted to mean that it is a premature physical death, so that a man's further service is hindered, and not the "second death" that is threatened.
III. HOW THE DOCTRINE OF UNCONDITIONAL ETERNAL SECURITY IS DEFENDED.
A dozen or more standard arguments, marshaled to convince the doubters, can be found repeated over and over in popular presentations of the Calvinistic doctrine of eternal security. Among them are the following:
A. Eternal Security is the Plain Teaching of the Bible
A number of verses can be alluded to, with the affirmation that they indeed do teach unconditional security. John 10:27-29 includes these words spoken by Jesus Himself, "I give eternal life to them; and they shall never perish." Romans 8:29-30 is seen to flatly affirm that every believer is unconditionally foreknown, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. Philippians 1:6 is appealed to in order to show that what God begins, God finishes. After Romans 8:35-37 has demonstrated the continuing love of Christ and God for the believer, it is reasoned that for a believer to be lost, he would somehow have to be separated from the love of God, and become instead an object of God's wrath, the very thing being denied as possible in this passage. 1 Peter 1:5 ("protected by the power of God"), 2 Timothy 4:18 ("the Lord ... will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom"), and 1 Corinthians 1:7-9 ("our Lord Jesus Christ ... shall also confirm you to the end, blameless ... God is faithful"), are likewise said to substantiate the doctrine of the unconditional security for the elect. Appeal is also made to Jesus' promise found in John 6:37-40 ("the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out"). Even the 23rd Psalm is pressed into service to support this doctrine, where we read, "And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." "The true Christian is no temporary visitor, but a permanent dweller in the house of the Lord. How those rob this Psalm of its deeper and richer meaning who teach that the grace of God is but a temporary thing."26
B. Eternal Life is a Present Possession
John 3:16 says the believer already has "eternal life." Likewise read John 3:36 and 5:24. Once this fact has been duly noted, then it is argued, 'If the one who now possesses eternal life could in any way lose it, then it wasn't eternal, was it?'
C. "No Condemnation" is the Promise Held Out to Believers
Romans 8:1 reads, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." John 3:18 (KJV) reads, "He that believeth in Him is not condemned." John 10:28 promises "they shall never perish." John 5:24 (KJV) reads, "he that believeth ... shall not come into condemnation." Once these verses have been pointed out, it is customarily observed, 'If one who is saved could later be lost, then it would be possible for him to be condemned, to perish. Such a possibility is plainly ruled out by the verses just quoted.'
D. Knowledge of Salvation Excludes the Idea That It Could Be Lost
The Bible does affirm that it is possible for a man to know he is saved. 1 John 5:13 ("that you may know that you have eternal life"), 1 John 3:2 ("we are children of God"), and 2 Corinthians 5:1 ("we know ... we have a building from God") are typical of the passages which indicate the Christian's inner awareness of his relationship with God. Teachers of unconditional eternal security allege that if it were possible for a believer (at some time in the future) to lose his salvation, then such present knowledge or awareness would be impossible.27
E. A "Son of God" Will Always Be a Son
When a person is once born into a family, can he ever be unborn, it is asked? The prodigal son was still a "son" when he returned (Luke 15:22‑24); he never lost his sonship. A born son will always be a son. He may sin and need "chastening," but he can do nothing to destroy the fact that he is a son.28
F. Our Citizenship is in Heaven
Born-again believers have been registered (enrolled) on the heavenly citizenship list per Philippians 3:20 ("our citizenship is in heaven") and Hebrews 12:23 ("the first‑born who are enrolled in heaven"), whereas the names of the lost have not been written in the book of life, Revelation 17:8 ("whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world"). Believing that the names of the saved were inscribed in the book of life before creation, and also that the names of the lost never have been nor will be written in the book of life, the defender of unconditional security asks, "If it is possible that a person once saved could be lost, then did God make a mistake when (back in eternity) He registered the person's name on the heavenly citizenship list?" Such a doctrinal presentation that would require God to have made a mistake just cannot be right, he posits. Jesus told His disciples to rejoice in the fact that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:20). How could a person rejoice if there was the possibility that his name was only temporarily written in the Lamb's book of life? God cannot be thought to have made the mistake of writing a name in the book of life that He later would have to blot out.
G. God's Foreknowledge and Election are Seen to Issue in Eternal Security
Romans 8:29,30 tell us that whom God foreknew, He predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. 1 Peter 1:2 shows that election was done "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father," while Ephesians 1:4 is said to demonstrate that this election took place "before the foundation of the world." Once these verses have been called to mind, proponents of unconditional perseverance of the saints hasten to drive home their point. They reason that 'Those who teach a person may be saved and then lose his salvation must also teach that God's election can be a temporary thing; indeed, they must teach that God's foreknowledge must have been faulty, for if He knew the person would eventually end up lost, why save him in the first place?'
H. The Gift of the Holy Spirit is Evidence of Eternal Security
Believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9), and are sealed by the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13,14). Furthermore, it is pointed out that Jesus even promised that the Spirit would "be with you forever" (John 14:16). For one to be saved and then lost would mean that the Spirit no longer dwells within, the seal is broken, and Jesus' promise has failed.
I. Christ's Advocacy and Intercession Insure the Believer's Security
The ascended Christ does make intercession on behalf of His people, Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 7:25. John 11:42 affirms that the Father always hears Jesus' prayers. Hence, the Arminian, holding that Christians may fall away, must deny either the passages which declare that Christ makes intercession for His people, or he must deny the passage which declares that Jesus' prayers are always heard.
J. God's Love is a Reason to Believe in Eternal Security
Romans 5:8-10 tell us that God loved us when we were sinners. Verses 9-11 tell us that "much more" will He love us now that we have been justified, and save us from wrath. Does God's love blow hot and cold? Are we to think that while we were sinners we could not provoke Him so that He ceased to love, but that after we have been saved we can so act as to provoke God to change His mind and stop loving, and therefore wholly withdraw His grace? Others ask, Wouldn't God be "cruel" if he allowed a person once saved to live long enough to be lost again? This, too, is an appeal to the love of God as an evidence of security.
K. The Fact that Salvation is "By Grace" is Another Evidence for Eternal Security
When it is affirmed that salvation is "by grace," what is meant is that salvation is something that is entirely God's work. The believer does not cooperate with God in any way in the accomplishing of personal salvation. The believer is a new creation, 2 Corinthians 5:17 ("if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature"), something God has made. When Paul wrote, "By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works ..." (Ephesians 2:8,9), he is affirming that God is the one who did the saving without any help from man. 2 Timothy 1:9 ("who has saved us ... not according to our works") likewise is said to rule out any cooperation by man in the matter of salvation. Once this major premise is established, then the minor premise that follows goes like this: if nothing a man does contributes to his salvation to begin with, then it follows that nothing a man does could detract from his salvation later. It all depends on God, and He has saved – therefore the salvation is guaranteed! Perseverance in salvation is not dependent on a man's good works, but on God's grace. Romans 6:14 says, "You are not under law, but under grace." "Since they are not under law, they cannot be condemned for having violated law. ... Sin cannot possibly be their downfall, for they are under a system of grace and are not treated according to their deserts."29
L. The Nature of Regeneration is Seen to Guarantee the Security of the Believer
In Calvinistic thought, regeneration is defined as being a supernatural act of God, by which man's fallen inner nature is re-created. The argument for unconditional eternal security follows thus: if it took a supernatural act by God to save a man, it would take another supernatural act by God Himself to remove that salvation and change the inner nature back again. That God would ever reverse the inner change and cause the new life He had implanted to be lost is something unthinkable and completely incongruous with the verses that speak of God's love, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the intercession of Jesus.
M. The Believer's Position "In Christ" Insures His Security
Among the New Testament verses that show the believer is "in Christ" are Romans 8:1 and 12:5; 1 John 5:20; and Colossians 1:28. Because a believer is "in Christ," the believer's eternal future is linked with that of Christ. If He can ever be lost, then so can the believer. If He cannot be lost, then neither can the believer.
Clearly, if one grants the major premise that back in eternity before creation God elected and predestined certain individuals to salvation, one could also marshal a number of verses to demonstrate that this selection unconditionally guarantees the security or perseverance of the elect.
At the same time, there are some parts of this whole idea that are hard to accept, not only because the opposite of election to salvation (namely, election of certain individuals to damnation) must either be defended or explained away, but also because they require an unexpected 'twist' to be given to those verses that, on the surface at least, seem to be not harmonizable with the doctrine of unconditional eternal security.
Certainly, the Bible says too much about the security of a Christian to dismiss the topic altogether as a figment of the imagination. What is needed is a presentation of the doctrine that allows the Scriptures themselves (rather than some previously held doctrinal position) to determine the content of our belief. This is what the rest of this Special Study shall attempt to do.
IV. THERE IS A SECURITY FOR BELIEVERS TAUGHT IN THE BIBLE
"Security" is used in the broad sense that it means 'freedom from danger, care, or fear; feeling or condition of being safe; certainty; something that secures or makes safe; confidence; safety, protection, defense.'
A. "Security" is Present in the Idea of the Providence of God
"Providence" has reference to that care, preservation, and government that God exercises over all things that He has created, so that they accomplish the purposes for which they were made.30 Among the items that are usually classified as "special providence," the ones which contribute to the security of the believer especially, are answered prayer and deliverance from temptation, including the way of escape.B. The Bible Affirms that the Believer is "Kept, Guarded, Protected"
Jude 24 speaks of how God is "able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless." In a similar vein, Romans 16:25 offers praise "to Him who is able to establish you (i.e., has power to make your standing sure)." 1 Peter 1:5 reminds us that those who will in the future obtain the imperishable inheritance are in the meantime "protected by the power of God." As he begins his letter, Jude expresses his confidence of being "kept for Jesus Christ." Paul prays that God will sanctify and preserve the Thessalonian Christians, and then he expresses confidence that "He also will bring it to pass" (1 Thessalonians 5:23,24). In his last letter, Paul again proclaims his certainty of the Lord's continuing help, when he writes, "The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom" (2 Timothy 4:18).
C. Jesus Indeed is Active in Intercessory Work
Just before Jesus returned to heaven to be with the Father, He prayed that God would (in the future) put limits on the devil with reference to the evil one's ability to tempt the apostles (John 17:15). Romans 8:34 suggests that Christ is not idle now that He has resumed His place in heaven, but that He continues to make intercession for the saints. So likewise affirm Hebrews 7:24,25, and 9:24. John uses the word "advocate" to designate this activity of Christ, when he speaks of Him as our "Advocate with the Father" (1 John 2:1). Perhaps much of Jesus' intercessory work is similar to what He did for Peter while He was still on earth. "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:31,32).
D. Limits Have Been Placed on the Devil After the Old Slavery to Sin is Broken
Romans 6:7 and 6:14 show that the old slavery to sin, which lasted ever since the person committed his first sin, is broken when he becomes united with Christ. Likewise, Romans 8:1 indicates that the condemnation to slavery to sin is a thing of the past for the one who is in Christ Jesus. These verses better help us to understand the Model Prayer, too, where Jesus taught His disciples to pray, "Do not permit us to be tempted, but deliver us from the evil one" (Matthew 6:13, GLR's translation). It requests God to put limits on the devil's efforts to tempt the disciple. Because of this help from God, the one who has been born again does not go on sinning habitually. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:6-9).
E. Sins Really Have Been Atoned For
The believer can have a sense of well-being, a sense of security, because for him it is not like it was when only the blood of bulls and goats could be offered (Hebrews 10:1‑10). Indeed, through Calvary, God "has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14).31 However, let it be noted that there is a vast difference between God's provision in the atonement, and man's appropriation of what God has provided.32
F. A Goal is Promised to Believers.
There is security in the knowledge that God is moving all of history toward a goal, the second advent of Christ, and the eternal kingdom to follow. A number of things will happen to believers at that great day. Jesus will "present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle ... blameless" (Ephesians 5:27). Jesus Himself promises not to lose or cast out any one who comes to Him, but rather that He will raise up the believer from the dead on the last day (John 6:37-40). On another occasion, He promised to give eternal life to the sheep who hear his voice; such sheep will "never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of My hand," He said (John 10:25-30). Paul picked up this theme from Jesus' teaching, when he promised the Corinthians that "Jesus Christ ... shall also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:7,8).
There is a security promised to the believer – and it is far more pronounced in the New Testament than the frequency of sermons on the topic in Christian churches might lead one to think.
V. IT IS A CONDITIONAL SECURITY THAT THE BIBLE TEACHES
In fact, it is not the matter of security itself that is the item of dispute; rather, it is the nature of its bestowal that is the point of controversy. Does the Bible present this security as being unconditionally granted from all eternity only to certain elect individuals,33 or does the Bible make the security contingent on a person's continuing to believe (i.e., on a person's faithfulness)? The remainder of this Special Study shall be occupied with the presentation of the position that it is a conditional security that is offered by God to people.
A. How Election, Predestination, and Grace are Related to the Security of the Believer
Ephesians 1:4,5 present the doctrine of election in its clearest light. "He chose us (i.e., elected us) in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world ... In love He predestined us to adoption as sons ...," Paul writes. In other words, back in eternity, God wanted a family of children who would love Him, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. The people He created would love Him, not because it was all they could do by virtue of the way He created them; instead, they would be free to choose whether or not they would love Him. In His plan, God determined that all who were "in Christ" would be part of that family. But whether or not a person is "in Christ" is a result of that person's own choice. Ephesians 1:13ff tells about that choice as it delineates how a man comes to be "in Christ" – it is by hearing the gospel, believing in Jesus, and being sealed with the Holy Spirit. God's "election" in no way overrules a person's freedom of choice in the matter. His election does not automatically involve membership in the family.
Perhaps at this place a review of Romans 8:28-30 would be in order. Back in eternity, God made a plan ("according to His purpose"). His plan was this: 'I'll approve (foreknew) and I'll destine (predestined34) some to glory (to be conformed to the image of His son).' The "some" are those "who love God," the same group designated as "those who are in Christ" in Ephesians 1:3-6. In order that the foreknown ones, who were destined to be glorified, might reach that goal, God planned to "call" (offer an invitation to) them, "justify" them, and then "glorify" them. So explained, "foreknowledge and predestination" do not automatically and unconditionally involve membership "in Christ," but they do very much suggest a security, a moving toward a goal, for the person who continues to "love God."
In the author's Special Study on "Grace" in his commentary on Romans, it is shown that, when the Bible says we are saved by grace, "grace" is sometimes God's favorable and unmerited attitude, and sometimes it denotes His action toward men. But it would seem to be improper to appeal to God's grace as evidence of unconditional eternal security, for Hebrews 12:15 warns that it is possible for believers to fail (or come short) of the grace of God, and the specific way to come short of the grace of God (the preceding verse tells us) is to fail to "pursue ... sanctification (holiness)." In other words, the grace of God is conditional. A believer's security is conditioned on faithfulness.
Thus, the way that "election," "predestination," and "grace" are presented in key Scriptures leads us to see that the believer's security is conditional, for each of those key passages also clearly sets forth a condition God expects the people He has elected, destined, or graced to continue to meet.
B. Salvation Requires Both God's Provision and Man's Response
God's provision and man's corresponding response are regularly found side-by-side in Scripture after Scripture. 2 Peter 1:3-11 first tell of God's generous provision of all things necessary for life and godliness, and then, "for this very cause" (namely, God's provision), the believer is on his part exhorted to supply all diligence to develop certain qualities, with the promise that if the qualities are present and increasing, then he will never fall, and an entrance into the eternal kingdom is guaranteed. 1 Peter 1:5 says that believers are kept "through faith" for the inheritance that is undefiled and won't fade away. Colossians 1:23 promises the readers that they will be presented to Christ "if you continue in the faith ... and not moved away from the hope of the gospel." John 10:25-30 first of all notes that Jesus' sheep continue to hear His voice ("hear" is a present tense verb), and on this condition Jesus says "I give eternal life to them." Revelation 3:8,10 put man's response and God's provision side by side when Jesus promises, "because you have ... kept My word, and have not denied My name ... I also will keep you from the hour of testing ...." 1 John 5:18 tells of God's provision: "We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God (i.e., Jesus) keeps him and the evil one does not touch him." But close by, in verse 21, is this admonition, "Little children, guard yourselves from idols." 1 Thessalonians 5:23,24 (which promises that God will sanctify the readers, and faithfully preserve them until the second coming, which He also will bring to pass) also contains 3:1-10. In those early verses of chapter 3 (just before 3:11-13, where Paul prays a prayer similar to 5:23,24, that the Lord would "establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints"), he emphasizes the corresponding responsibility resting on the Thessalonian Christians, to "stand firm in the Lord" and in their faith.
Only if man's corresponding response in salvation is important can the verses that show man is held accountable mean anything. Jesus said, "The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds" (Matthew 16:27). Paul said that God "will render to every man according to his deeds" – salvation or damnation (Romans 2:6-10). Peter said that the Father "impartially judges according to each man's work" (1 Peter 1:17). John saw the sea and death and Hades give up the dead that were in them, "and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds" (Revelation 20:13). If the doctrine of unconditional election or reprobation were true, if man were wholly passive in the matter of salvation or damnation, because those matters were the result of absolute foreordination and predestination, how can any of these verses about judgment "according to deeds/works" be true? But, on the supposition that salvation depends not only on God's provision but also on man's response, there is no problem with these verses about judgment according to works. Instead, they harmonize beautifully with the idea that after God has made gracious provision, He expects man to fulfill certain conditions if the man would benefit from the gracious provision He offers. Furthermore, all these verses require us to understand that man still is a free moral agent. He is free to choose or reject – otherwise how could he be held accountable?
C. The Faith that Saves is Not a One-Time Thing35
In John 3:15-18,36, five times a present tense verb form is used in the Greek where "believes" occurs in the NASB. Instead of speaking of a single act of believing, the present tense conveys the idea of continuing action. Verse 18 says "he who believes (continues to believe) in Him is not judged (condemned)." But what happens if the person ceases to be a believer? It is only to the one who continues to believe that the promise of not coming into judgment (condemnation) is made. The faith that saves in John 3 is not a one-time thing. The promise is conditional! Verse 36 reads, "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." If proponents of unconditional eternal security are right – if when they claim the first part of the verse means that the 'believer can never become an unbeliever, can never be lost' – then it seems only proper, by parity of reasoning, to conclude that when John says the unbeliever "shall not see life," that it must mean it is impossible ever for the unbeliever to become a believer and be saved. If the first part of the verse is unconditional, so is the second. If the second is conditional, so is the first. John 5:24 and 7:37,38 likewise speak of "belief" as a continual thing, rather than a one-time act. The salvation, the security, the assurance is promised on the condition of continual believing.36
D. The New Testament Everywhere Requires Faithfulness as a Condition of Continuing Salvation
In this connection a study of the five warning passages37 included in the book of Hebrews is most enlightening. One half of the whole book is warning, lest the readers cease being faithful to Jesus, return to the old Jewish religion, and find that because of their lack of faithfulness their salvation has been forfeited. Chapter 4 draws a lesson from Israel's history: saved from Egypt, yes, but they fell in the wilderness, and failed to enter the promised land. They fell because of unbelief! Do not let someone say the Israelites who fell in the wilderness never really believed in the first place. Turn to Psalm 106. It is a chapter on Israel's deliverance from Egypt. In verse 12, David tells us that Israel believed. Then in verse 24, he says that they believed not. Between those two verses it describes how they made the molten calf, rebelled against Moses, lusted and envied, forgot God their Savior, and "believed not." So they first believed, then they believed not. The same ones who once believed afterward believed not. The believers turned into unbelievers, and did not enter Canaan. The same expressions are found in Hebrews 4 – verse 3 speaks of believed, and verse 11 speaks of disbelief (disobedience), and how if a believer becomes a disbeliever he forfeits opportunity to enter God's heavenly rest. Faithfulness is the condition of entering that rest! Hebrews 6:4-9 threatens burning (Hell) to those who were once Christians (enlightened, were made partakers of the Holy Spirit), but who afterward "have fallen away." Hebrews 10:35-39 (and chapter 11, too, with its roll call of the ones who were faithful) exhorts the Christians to beware lest they throw away their confidence. They presently had it, and with it the promise of great reward, but they could lose it. They have need for endurance in the faith (endurance in doing the will of God), for those who shrink back (i.e., return to Judaism) find that God has no pleasure in them, and their end is perdition (destruction). The writer of Hebrews closes chapter 10 by stating that it takes "faith" (faithfulness) if the soul is to be preserved. The same idea is echoed and illustrated in chapter 11, where he says (verse 6) "Without faith (i.e., faithfulness) it is impossible to please Him."
Romans 4,5 show that Christians are saved the same way Abraham was, and his "faith" was not a one‑time thing. What is depicted is continuing faithfulness over a whole lifetime, as appeal is made to Genesis 15 (Romans 4:3), to Genesis 17 (Romans 4:18,19), and to Genesis 22 (Romans 4:22). These events, over a number of years, show that Abraham's faith was not a one‑time thing; instead, over and over again, he believed. He was faithful! And on this condition of faithfulness God continued to justify him.
The same "if-condition" (the same expectation of faithfulness) is found in Jesus' own teaching.
- Matthew 10:32-33 (KJV), "Whosoever (an "if" clause) therefore shall confess me (continuous action) before men, him will I confess (one-time act) also before my Father in Heaven."38 In the Parable of the Sower, it can be seen that perseverance is needed. Jesus, in Luke 8:13, speaks of those who "believe for a while, and [then] in time of temptation fall away." If one is saved by faith, that is, when he believes, what happens to him when he loses his faith, that is, quits believing? Jesus said they "believe for a while." Now it will not do to affirm 'they never did believe in the first place,' because Jesus said they did! If a man is saved by faith, these were saved for a while. If a man is saved by faith, he is saved while he believes. If that faith is lost, salvation is lost also, is it not? If a man's faith can be lost, and he is still saved, then what becomes of the doctrine of justification by faith? If his faith is lost, it would be a justification without faith! One must either surrender the doctrine of the impossibility of apostasy, or the doctrine of justification by faith. Posit the idea that faithfulness is the condition of continuing salvation, then the teaching of Jesus in Luke 8 and the doctrine of justification by faith in Romans are beautifully harmonious.
- On another occasion, Jesus made continuing in His word the condition of continuing discipleship. "Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, 'If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.'" (John 8:31,32).
- In a similar vein, man's being forgiven by God is conditioned on man's forgiving the one who sins against him. In the Model Prayer, Jesus taught His disciples to pray, "Forgive us ... just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us" (LNT). And in Matthew 18:21-35, the parable of the unmerciful slave, Jesus emphatically shows that forgiveness is conditional. "So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart."
Over and over again, the New Testament clearly portrays that "faithfulness" is the condition of a man's continuing salvation.
E. New Testament Passages Also Show Believers were "Cut off" for Lack of Faithfulness.
One important passage to consider is John 15:1-6, where Jesus is recorded as giving the metaphor of the vine and the branches. Several key points made by Jesus include: (1) The same relation exists between Christ and the Christian as exists between the vine and the branch. (2) In the words "every branch in Me" (verse 2), Jesus plainly stated that the branch was once part of the vine. In fact, without a vine from which it can grow, there will be no branch. Some proponents of unconditional eternal security have tried to say that the branches that 'burn' never were in the vine. Such a notion hardly matches either Jesus' illustration or the observable facts in the world of nature. In the spring, owners of a nearby orchard trim off branches that do not produce, pile them up, and eventually burn them. If one drives by the orchard at the right time, he can see those piles of branches that have been cut. Now it is hard to imagine that any of them just grew by themselves, and never were part of a parent stock! No, they were once all part of the vine. In verse 5, Jesus identifies the vine as being Himself and His followers (in the context, He is speaking to the apostles) as the branches. Further, in that same verse, He again affirms that the branches are "in Him," that is, the branch that is in the vine represents the man who is in Christ. (3) The branch that does not bear fruit is cut off. In real life, does this not teach that a person truly united to Christ may afterward be cut off, if there is a failure in fruit bearing? (4) Note what Jesus says about the branch that fails to produce. It is "cut off," "thrown away," "dries up," is "cast into the fire" and "burns." Separated from Christ, a man withers, and eventually is eternally lost ("burns" is present tense, continuous action). Did Jesus give this metaphor to teach that it is impossible for a child of God to fall away and be lost? If so, He went at it in reverse. It is very probable that there is not a man on earth who can harmonize the vine and the branches with the doctrine of the impossibility of apostasy. (5) God does cut off branches that fail to produce. If a man fails to produce over a long period of time, God cuts him off. Like a newly cut branch, he may look green for a while, but he will wither. Furthermore, one seldom, if ever, sees one of these cut off branches grafted back into the vine; the excision tends to be permanent. (6) Several times in these verses, Jesus uses the words "abide in Me" or "abide in the vine." It is something the believer may choose to do, or not do. "Abiding in Christ" is expressive of a life-long commitment, a continuing, habitual pattern of life (note the verb is present tense, inferring continuing action). Perhaps it could be said that the cardinal axiom of the Christian life is "abide in Christ!" It is a matter of faithfulness over a period of time, not a one-time thing.
Romans 11:21,22 likewise speak of branches broken off, cut off, because of unbelief. God even threatens to "cut off" Paul's Christian readers unless they "continue" in His kindness. 1 Corinthians 3:17 records the warning that God will "destroy" those Christians who by their continued divisiveness destroy the (temple of God) church. 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:12 also hold out the warning that those once saved may lose that salvation. Those who defend the doctrine of the impossibility of losing salvation interpret 9:27 as though Paul were speaking of being disqualified from further service as a minister of the gospel. In fact, the NASB reads "disqualified" where some of the older translations read "castaway" (KJV) or "rejected" (ASV).39 However, the context on both sides of 9:24-27 shows that Paul is talking about participation in salvation. In 9:23 he explains that he behaves in such a non-selfish way as to be helpful and supportive of others, so that he may save them (verse 22) and thus be a fellow-partaker with them in the benefits of the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 10, what happened to Israel in the wilderness is held up by way of example to warn the Christians lest they commit the same kinds of sins that barred some Israelites from the Promised Land. They had escaped Egypt, and had shared in the Christ-provided blessings in the wilderness, and still they perished.
Galatians 5:20, written to "brethren" in Christ (verse 13), plainly affirms that if they habitually indulge in deeds of the flesh (drunkenness, immorality, idolatry, sorcery) they shall "not inherit the kingdom of God." If they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, how are they going to be saved? Here is another verse which shows it is possible for a man once a Christian to become lost because of lack of faithfulness.40
2 Peter 2:18-22 also show that lack of faithfulness results in believers' being cut off, by making these points: (1) They had escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2) They had again become entangled in those defilements and are overcome. (3) Their last state was worse than the first. (4) It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it to turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them. (5) Their "turning away" is compared to the proverb of a dog returning to its vomit, and a hog to wallowing in the mire. It will not do to claim that these people "never had it," for Peter says they "escaped" and were "entangled again." It will not do to say that the problem is that the hog never became a sheep and so never was saved, for the verse says 'washed.' They had known the way of righteousness and turned away from it, is how Peter puts it. The last state is worse than the first – either because their abandonment to sin is more complete after quitting Christ than it was before they became Christians; or, as seems more likely, because (degrees of punishment in hell) their punishment will be greater since they had greater opportunity (compare Luke 12: 47,48).
Passages could be multiplied where it is clearly supposed that it is possible for people once saved to be "cut off" and again lost, if faithfulness (the condition of justification) should ever be found by God to be lacking.
F. It Takes Continual Sinning to "Kill" the Christian's Spirit
Several verses41 in Romans indicated that a man's first sin causes his spirit to die. When the new birth takes place, it is the spirit part of the man that is reborn (John 3:6; Romans 8:10). Both Romans 6:23 (addressed to Christians!) and 8:13 show it is possible for the spirit to die again; should this occur, the man has reverted to the lost condition that was the case between the time the first sin was committed and the time of the new birth. The one difference is that whereas it took one sin to kill the spirit the first time, for the Christian it is continual, habitual sinning that causes the spirit to "die" again.42 James 1:15, Galatians 6:7-9, and Romans 8:12-14 declare that spiritual death is the inevitable consequence of habitual sinning as a deliberate pattern of behavior.43
G. The Logical Conclusions to which Calvin's Doctrine of Eternal Security Lead are Unacceptable
These conclusions are unacceptable because they require an 'exegete' to give peculiar 'twists' to many passages seeming to assert salvation is conditional and can be lost.
1) "Apostates" must be explained by advocates of unconditional eternal security as being people who never were Christians, but who have come to repudiate the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. H.A. Ironside's handling of 2 Thessalonians 2:3, "Let no one deceive you for it will not come, unless the apostasy comes first, and that man of lawlessness is revealed ...," is an example. He illustrates the meaning of the word "apostasy," as he uses it, by giving the statistic that 75% of the ministers in the Church Federation in Chicago signed a questionnaire saying they do not believe some of the great fundamental truths of the Bible. "There you have apostasy," he interjected. Ironside then speaks of a certain preacher who made a blatant attack on the doctrine of the blood atonement, and calls him an apostate.44 Could one say that these ministers were all Christians once, but that now some are no longer saved? "My dear friends, I am afraid the whole trouble is that most of them have never been born again at all. They do not know anything of regenerating grace, and therefore are quite ready to apostatize from the doctrines held sacred by the great evangelical denominations."45 This commentator has difficulty thinking that "apostate" means someone who never believed in Christian doctrines in the first place. That is certainly giving an unexpected "twist" to the definition of the word.
While attempting to explain Hebrews 6:4-6, Ironside made this comment:
If you will keep in mind the difference between an apostate and a backslider, it will save you a lot of trouble over many scriptures. The apostate knows all about Christianity, but never has been a real Christian. The backslider is a person who has known Christ, who did love Him, but became cold in his soul, lost out in his spiritual life. There is not a Christian who has not often been guilty of backsliding. That is why we need the Lord as our Advocate to restore our souls. When backslidden, it is not our union with Him that is destroyed, but it is our communion ... The apostate is always a man opposed to Christ.46
Some thought should be given to the possibility that a teaching is wrong if it requires its defenders to come up with a peculiar definition like this in order to maintain that teaching.
2) "Free moral agency" must be denied by the advocates of unconditional eternal security. If one is going to advocate unconditional security, he must of necessity deny any free moral agency to man, for it would be very inconsistent to admit that a man is a free moral agent, and then deny he can ever exercise his freedom so as to fall away and be again lost. Let Ironside again be a representative of this matter, and hear him as he denies that man is a free moral agent:
Is man an absolutely free moral agent? He was when God created him, but is he now? Is the sinner a free moral agent? What does the Scripture say? "You are led by the devil captive at his will." What! A man who is led by the devil captive at his will, a free agent! ... Man is a slave to sin and Satan; he is not free.47
The fact of the matter is that man is not an "absolutely free moral agent." In his unsaved state he is a slave of sin, "led by the devil captive at his will." When regenerated he is the servant of Christ, delighting in holiness and indwelt by the Spirit of the living God.48
Contrary to what Ironside has affirmed about the absence of freedom of the will or freedom of choice, there are numerous verses which teach the very opposite.49 Isaiah 53:6 reads, "All we like sheep have gone astray." 2 Peter 1:10 tells the Christian to give all diligence (by developing the qualities of moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, etc.) to make his calling and election sure. Without this diligence, without these qualities growing and abounding, the Christian is in danger of perishing. Romans 6:12 tells Christians to stop letting sin reign in their mortal bodies – which certainly implies freedom of the will. Romans 6:16 likewise involves freedom, when the Christian is pictured as presenting himself to someone as a slave. When a Christian sins, God chastens (disciplines) him, as Hebrews 12:4-12 teaches, with the intent that the man will stop his sinning and become more holy (verse 10), but God's purpose in discipline is not always realized, for a man can respond to chastening in one of two different ways (verses 5 and 9).50 And the very fact that he can respond in different ways implies he still has freedom of choice. The parable of the steward in Luke 12:41 presents the steward as having two possible courses of conduct open to him in his Master's absence. That certainly involves freedom of choice.
Surely, a doctrine that requires one to give up the clear teaching of the Word of God that man is a free moral agent is suspect in the highest degree. Ought not the doctrine of unconditional eternal security be surrendered instead?
3) The "book of life" must be distinguished from the "Lamb's book of life" by the advocates of unconditional eternal security. In the case of the "book of life" (Revelation 3:5), it is possible to have one's name entered therein and later erased. In the case of the "Lamb's book of life" (Revelation 13:8), names of some were deliberately not entered therein before the creation of the world, just as the names of others were entered before the creation. Ironside is again representative of how proponents of unconditional eternal security are forced by their doctrine to make an unwarranted distinction between the two books.
Is there any difference between the book of life and the Lamb's book of life? Yes, the book of life is the book of the living. It is the record too of profession. From this book names may be blotted out. The Lamb's book of life is the record of the eternal purpose of God. Names inscribed there are written from the foundation of the world. In other words, one book speaks of responsibility, the other of pure grace. No Christian will ever have his name blotted out of the Lamb's book of life, for all such have eternal life – which is unforfeitable and everlasting.51
The only reason that famous preacher had for making this distinction is because of his preconceived notion that once a man is saved, he can never be lost. He had to explain away Revelation 3:5, lest it contradict his cherished doctrine.52 But his effort fails to carry conviction, when it is observed, (a) that it is the "book of life" (not the Lamb's book of life, as was true in Revelation 13:8) wherein names were not written from the foundation of the world (Revelation 17:8); (b) that it is the "book of life" that is produced, and out of which men are judged in the final judgment (Revelation 20:12); and finally, (c) that a man's eternal destiny depends on whether or not his name is in the "book of life" (Revelation 20:15). If Ironside's explanation of the "book of life" were true, namely, that it is a record that a man is living for a while on earth, then Revelation 20:15 would teach the absurd notion that the reason a man is cast into the lake of fire is because he never lived on earth.
H. Eternal Life Includes Both a Present Possession, and Also a Future Promise
Indeed, some New Testament verses teach that eternal life is something the believer enjoys during the present life.53 Were it also true that no verses held out eternal life as a future promise, then the argument for unconditional eternal security based on the expression "eternal life" might have some validity. (I.e., if it could be lost, it was not eternal, was it?) However, Romans 6:22 is one place where eternal life is a future promise. To this could be added Mark 10:30 (which records Jesus' promise to those who followed Him that they would receive blessings 100‑fold in this present age, and "in the age to come, eternal life"), 1 Timothy 6:12 (where Paul exhorts Timothy to "take hold of the eternal life"), Titus 1:2 (which speaks of the "hope of eternal life"), and Galatians 6:8 (where the Christian who sows to the Spirit will reap "eternal life"). Both ideas – present possession and future promise – are taught in Scripture. Eternal life, while in a measure attained and enjoyed here by the believer, is conditional, and is also to be gained hereafter. It is something to be attained and enjoyed by the faithful.
The conclusion to which all this has been leading is this – The Bible does teach "security," but it is security for the "believer." It is a conditional security.
VI. SOME PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS RESULTING FROM THIS STUDY
A. Bible Students Must be Careful in their Preparation to Teach and Preach.
There are evidently some verses to which the teachers of unconditional eternal security give an erroneous explanation. An example would be 'disqualified from further competition' at 1 Corinthians 9:27. There are also some verses that they do correctly. An example would be 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where it is possible for a saved man to lose some of his reward, and still be saved. If the above presentation of conditional security is true, then Christians may have eternal life abiding in them now, and still could lose it because of unfaithfulness. Their names are in the book of life, but they also can be erased.
B. Christians Must Take Heed to the Words of the Songs they Sing.
Some expressions found in certain songs reflect the doctrine of unconditional eternal security. In "How Firm a Foundation" occur the words "the soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose; I’ll never, no never, no never forsake." The chorus, "Now I Belong to Jesus," sung often at baptismal services, has the phrase "not for the years of time alone, but for eternity." One wonders whether this expresses the doctrine of once saved, always saved; or whether it expresses the newly-baptized person's determination to belong to Jesus now and forever?
C. Prayers Asking for Forgiveness Should Be Included in Our Requests to God.
Several preachers, advocating the doctrine of the unconditional security of the saints, no longer include petitions for forgiveness in their prayers, because they perceive that all of a man's sins – past, present, or future – were taken care of at one time, at Calvary. It somehow would be inconsistent, they suppose, to pray for forgiveness if all were forgiven once for all time when Christ died. There is something wrong with such a presentation since the New Testament is filled with examples of followers of Christ asking for forgiveness, e.g., Mark 11:25,26; Luke 11:4; Acts 8:9-24; James 5:16; and 1 John 1:9 and 2:1. Perhaps what is amiss is that while the atonement for all sin (Romans 3:25,26; Hebrews 9:14,15, and 10:14) was made once for all time at Calvary, its application to individual situations depends on that individual's initial response to the gospel and, subsequent to that, his asking for forgiveness after repentance.
D. What About the Problem of the "Nominal" Church Member?
Since a Christian's continuing salvation is conditioned on faithfulness, it becomes all the more imperative that Christians encourage one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24), and that in cases of habitual sin, that the proper steps of discipline (Matthew 18:15-18) be lovingly undertaken. The "nominal" church member just cannot be allowed to continue unimpeded on his "nominal" way.
E. The Steps of Salvation include "Christian Living."
The five-finger presentation made popular by Walter Scott (though now modified slightly) – faith, repentance, confession, baptism, and Christian living – is a right presentation of Biblical truths. However, care must be exercised, lest the idea be left in the hearer's mind that acts of Christian living are somehow meritorious, or that if we turn in a "poor paper" today that we somehow have failed the whole course.
F. Believers in Unconditional Security can be Taught and Convinced Otherwise.
When one reads through carefully-reasoned presentations of the doctrine of "once saved, always saved," the arguments can be pretty convincing. One book, for example, quotes all the pertinent verses, and puts the words teaching eternal security in italics, so the reader is impressed with all the promises.54 Then when one turns to books written against the doctrine, he finds they use some of the same key verses, only interpreting them differently.55 How is one to know what is actually the truth in this matter?
Perhaps each Bible student will have to do something similar to what Robert Shank has done – namely, study the Scriptures themselves, and let them speak. He will find fewer verses that are hard to harmonize with the doctrine of conditional security than the defenders of unconditional security have found they must wrestle with.
The question is not, "Do I believe in the security of believers?" I do! The question is, "Is that security conditional or unconditional?" The answer: it is conditional. Robert Shank has worded it succinctly:
Please excuse me from the company of any who maintain that the believer is insecure. It is abundantly evident from the Scriptures that the believer is secure. But only the believer. Many who have debated "the security of the believer" have missed the issue. The question is not, Is the believer secure? but rather, What is a believer?56
Eternal life is free, but not without cost; it is by grace, but not without conditions. It is promised to those who "by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality" (Romans 2:7). Unbelievers are told the conditions of salvation; believers are told the conditions of continuance in salvation; these conditions are declared by God to be the appointed means of enjoying eternal life.
Robert Milligan's analogy seems to convey the sense of Scripture. He explained the safety and security of the Christian on this fashion:
The argument of the apostle, in this case, is just such a one as you would severally employ if you were endeavoring to persuade your friends and relatives of other lands to become citizens of this Republic. In such a case, you would, of course, say much about the fertility of our soil, the salubrity of our climate, the vast resources of our country, the enterprise, intelligence, and moral character of our citizens. But you would dwell particularly, and with special emphasis, on the liberal provisions of our Constitution, on the chartered rights and privileges of every faithful American citizen. You would assure your friends that if they would renounce their allegiance to all other governments, and become citizens of these United States, that in that event, all the powers and resources of this vast and mighty Republic would then be pledged for their security and protection.
Now, suppose that your arguments should prevail, and that many of your friends should really leave their foreign homes, and become American citizens; would anyone in his senses even imagine that there was anything compulsory in the case? That this change of citizenship was owing to any decrees of necessity or fatality passed by the framers of our Constitution? Would any one suppose that these persons were deprived of their free agency, and made the mere tools and chattels of our Government? That their being once citizens of our Republic implies, of necessity, that they shall always remain so? That henceforth they have no power whatever to expatriate them-selves; and that even if they should do so, our Government would still be under obligations to extend over them the shield of our Republic? That they could rightfully claim the honors and protection of our flag in a foreign land, even after they had renounced their allegiance to our Government, and become the sworn and naturalized citizens of another nation? No one would so reason. No one would so imagine. The most that could be claimed for these persons, in any case, would be the protection of our Government so long as they remained in the relation of its faithful citizens and subjects.
And just so it is in the kingdom of heaven. There is nothing in its constitution, or its laws, or its administration that in the slightest degree interferes with the personal liberty and voluntary agency of any man, whether he be a citizen or an alien. But, so long as he is loyal to its King, and faithful to its laws, all the powers and resources of the universe are pledged for his safety and security.57
Adam, D.S., "Perseverance," in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917. Volume 9, p.769‑771.
Barker, Harold, Secure Forever. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1974.
Beckwith, C.A., "Perseverance," in The New Schaff‑Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, edited by Samuel M. Jackson. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956. Volume 8, p.470.
Berkouwer, C.G., Faith and Perseverance, translated by Robert Knudsen. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958.
Boettner, Loraine, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968.
Boswell, Ira M., "The Safety of the Elect," in Flaming Hearts and Other Sermons. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1939, p.175‑191.
Duty, Guy, If Ye Continue: A Study of the Conditional Aspects of Salvation. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1966.
Gibbons, James E., "Once in Grace, Always in Grace?" in The Sword and Staff. Vol.2/3 (March 1958), p.3,6.
Gromacki, Robert, Is Salvation Forever? Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.
Hunt, W. Boyd, "The Perseverance of the Saints," in Christianity Today. Vol.6/17 (May 25, 1962), p.61,62.
Ironside, H.A., The Eternal Security of the Believer. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1934.
Mankamyer, O.L., Once in Grace, Always in Grace, In the Light of God's Word! Yellville, AR: Published by the author, 1953.
Marshall, I. Howard, Kept By the Power of God: A Study of Perseverance and Falling Away. London: Epworth Press, 1969.
Milligan, Robert, "The Safety and Security of the Christian," in The Living Pulpit of the Christian Church. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1868.
Owen, John, Works of John Owen. London: Richard Barnes, 1826. Vol. VI, p.xxxi-533; and Vol. VII, p.2‑324
In this material is a complete discussion of the subject, with both Calvinistic and Arminian positions set forth, with the Calvinistic idea defended.
Rice, John R., Can a Saved Person Ever Be Lost? Wheaton, IL: Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1941.
Shank, Robert, Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance. Springfield, MO: Westcott Publishers, 1961.
West, J.W., Once in Grace, Always in Grace: or The Eternal Security of the Saints, Refuted. No publication information in the tract except date, 1941.