Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Preservation, Not Perseverance

Lately I have been looking at "problem" passages for doctrines I believe. Today the doctrine in question is Perseverance of the Saints. This is the belief that once a person is saved, he cannot lose his salvation. Simply put: eternal life means eternal life.

For longtime readers: The first part of this post borrows heavily (with some changes) from another post I did entitled Can I Lose My Salvation. The second part, where I discuss the Catholic perspective and address the "problem" passage, is completely new.

Perseverance of the Saints is implicitly required by the doctrine of Unconditional Election (predestination). After all, it would not make much sense to speak of an elect chosen from the foundation of time if they could lose their salvation.

The logic is straightforward: eternal life is, well, eternal. You cannot have eternal life for just a few years. Once you have it, as promised by God for a saving faith, you cannot lose it, otherwise it wasn’t really eternal and God has been made a liar. Eternal life goes hand-in-hand with salvation; you cannot have one without the other. Ergo, salvation is once-and-for-all as well.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:26, NASB)

"I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24, NASB)

This is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life. (1 John 2:25, NASB)

If you are a believer, you already possess eternal life; it is a promise, not a carrot used to keep you in line. That way of thinking leads to salvation by works.

Fortunately we do no have to rely on the implicit need for perseverance; scripture is quite explicit about it.
"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of hand. "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. "I and the Father are one." (John 10: 27-30, NASB)

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6, NASB)

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God's elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, "FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED." (Rom. 8:31-36, NASB)
Christ will have all those whom have been effectually called. None will stray and be lost forever. We worship an awesome God.

And as if if that weren’t enough, We are also sealed by the Holy Spirit:
And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:30, NASB)

Preservation, not Perseverance

TULIP is one of the worst retrofitted acrostics of all time. At a minimum, the 'T' (Total Depravity) and especially 'L' (Limited Atonement) are inaccurate names for the doctrines they represent. The 'P' in TULIP is even more unforgivable, because there is already a 'P' word that is a much better choice: Preservation of the Saints. This sends the correct message that it is by God’s grace and faithfulness to His promise, and not our works, that our salvation is preserved. Perseverance implies the opposite, that man through his own righteousness can hold on to something he didn’t deserve in the first place.

Yeah but what about…

We all know about some guy who appeared to have been a genuine believer, then all of a sudden he quit coming to church. Later we learn that he became a transgendered devil-worshipping biker enviro-nazi NEA-supporter and was promptly elected to the California State Assembly (where he was often identified as a "moderate"). What to say to say about such a creature without being arrested for a hate crime? Well, the only possibilities are the two obvious ones: Either he never really was saved or he is still saved and will, in time, cease his backsliding and return to the fold.

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; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.(1 John 2:19, NASB)

Roman Catholic Position

Roman Catholicism absolutely denies the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. Catholics can fall from a state of grace by committing a mortal sin. They have lost their salvation, and must be restored through the sacrament of penance. The Council of Trent has this to say about Perseverance:

Similarly with regard to the gift of perseverance, of which it is written: He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved, which cannot be obtained from anyone except from Him who is able to make him stand who stands, that he may stand perseveringly, and to raise him who falls, let no one promise himself herein something as certain with an absolute certainty, though all ought to place and repose the firmest hope in God's help. For God, unless men themselves fail in His grace, as he has begun a good work, so will he perfect it, working to will and to accomplish. Nevertheless, let those who think themselves to stand, take heed lest they fall, and with fear and trembling work out their salvation, in labors, in watchings, in alms, deeds, in prayer, in fastings and chastity. (boldface added)
In my opinion, this pays lip service to some of the scripture supporting perseverance while inserting caveats that sound like mild warnings but actually completely destroy the doctrine. What does it mean to place one's "firmest hope in God" while at the same time men may "fail in His grace"? In reality, there is no hope placed in God, in this view all hope is then resting not on God’s grace but man’s ability. So God, having begun a good work, will certainly complete it (Phil. 1:6), unless, according to Trent, He doesn’t.

To be sure, the Trent analysis also confuses the related but distinct doctrines of Assurance and Perseverance by referring to the fear-and-trembling from Phillipians 2:12, which deals with attaining the former, not the latter.

Of course Trent was anathema drunk, so we also read later in the Council's report:
Canon 16. If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema.
It is hard to enumerate the number of ways I stand anathematized by the Council of Trent.

The Hebrews Problem

The most problematic passage comes from Hebrews:
4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. (Heb. 6:4-6, NASB)
I approach this utterly convinced in the doctrine of Perseverance (Preservation) of the Saints, so that I am not going to entertain the possibility that this is a refutation. Instead, I want to see if this can be reconciled.

Let us first deal with "those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit". Without doing extreme violence to the text, this must refer to believers, i.e., those already saved. It cannot refer, as some well-meaning apologists would have it, to non-believers attending church and playing as Christians, for they have not yet repented and so cannot "renew" what they never did.

Now what does "fallen away" mean, except to lose one's salvation? It cannot mean garden-variety sinning, otherwise the passage would be teaching a new bad-news gospel: that only perfection can maintain a person in a state of grace.

A simple but accurate paraphrase of the passage is: If believers lose their salvation, then it is impossible for them to repent and be restored, because that would require another crucifixion.

We need to understand the possible ways of using an if-then argument. One is straightforward: If A is true, then B is also true. If that is what is being used here, then the message is simply what it says: if you are a believer, be careful not to lose your salvation, because you cannot get it back. This goes far beyond a refutation of Perseverance of the Saints. Catholics and some non-Reformed Protestants believe you can lose your salvation, but both believe you can be restored.

Another way to use if-then arguments is reductio ad absurdum. In this method, we accept an incorrect premise and show how it reaches an absurd conclusion, thus denying the premise.

A clear example is found in 1 Corinthians:
and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. (1 Cor. 15:17)
If the resurrection did not happen, then our faith is worthless. But the resurrection did happen. Our faith has infinite value, amen.

I believe the passage in Hebrews is used in this manner. If believer can lose his salvation, then it would require a second crucifixion. But a believer cannot lose his salvation. A second resurrection is unnecessary, amen.

If you stop and think about what it means to lose you salvation, I think this conclusion becomes obvious. To lose our salvation means the we commit sins that have not been paid for by Christ’s Atonement. That is why we would then require a second crucifixion. But Christ's sacrifice paid for all our sins, past present and future (they were all "future" sins when He paid for them).
For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. (Rom. 6:10, NASB)
If we can lose our salvation, it means we can commit a sin that either God did not anticipate, calling into question his Sovereignty, or a sin that Christ didn't pay for, casting doubts on His Atonement, and indirectly, on Christ's deity. And all the scripture that tells of Christ's finished work is a lie.

Far from refuting the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, this passage of Hebrews, read properly, is actually one of its strongest affirmations. It teaches: How absurd to think that a saved person could lose his salvation. Christ died for all the sins of the elect, once and for all; His perfect work is finished.

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