May 29, 2009

"In You" or "Among You All": Philippians 1:6 and the Perseverance of the Saints

Arminians are not of one mind with regard to the doctrine of perseverance. Some Arminians see perseverance as a gift which God gives to those who respond to the gospel in faith. These Arminians believe that a true believer will not finally fall away from grace. Other Arminians believe that perseverance is conditional on the continuing faith of the believer, and that it is possible for a truly justified person to be cut off from right relationship with God and perish eternally. For many years I held the former view. This was not necessarily because of rock solid exegesis of scripture. Rather, it was based on the comfort that comes with the idea that the truly converted will certainly be finally saved. In recent years, though, my mind was changed about this doctrine, and I moved over to the position that one could lose their justification. I felt that, if I were to be intellectually honest, the New Testament clearly teaches that the people of God are liable to judgment for unfaithfulness. One of the clearest texts on this (and the crucial text that changed my thinking) is Romans 11:17-25 where Paul warns the Gentiles who stand by faith (pistis) against becoming proud. He then holds up unbelieving (apistis) Israel as an example saying to the believing Gentile, "if God did not spare the original branches, he will not spare you, either" (21, NASB). This is no picture of a believer wrenching his salvation from God's fist. No, this is an image of God judging the believer who has become faithless. I resisted this reading for a while. But ultimately I must be honest about what Paul says no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

At this point, the reader may be wondering why this post is dealing with Romans when the title clearly indicates that the content will focus on Philippians. Well, here it is. Philippians 1:6 was the text that I held on to in order to maintain that my former position on perseverance (or perhaps more properly - preservation) was biblical. Even after I changed my mind I wasn't quite sure what to do with Philippians 1:6. Recently, though, I began to read through Philippians 1 in Greek and was struck by what Paul actually says. I've always taken this text to mean that God would complete his good work in me as an individual. The problem with taking this reading is that it neglects the fact that the English pronoun "you" can be either singular or plural. In Greek, though, there are two different words for you - one singular and the other plural. In Philippians 1:6 Paul uses the plural word for "you" (humin). The pronoun is the object of the preposition en which is often translated "in" but can really function with much more variety than that. One of the chief functions of this preposition is to indicate the location or sphere in which an event or action occurs. Thus, Paul could mean that the location where God's good work will be brought to completion is in the plural you that is the Philippian church. The verse could be translated thus: "The one who began a good work among you all will complete it until the day of Christ" (cf. NRSV) The community of believers is the sphere where God is at work, and it is the sphere where his good work will be brought to eschatological fulfillment at the day of Christ. This is a different matter than whether or not the good work is brought to completion in the life of an individual, a matter that Philippians 1:6 simply is not addressing. Paul's confidence that God is at work in the Philippian church and will complete that work is grounded in that church's participation in the ministry of the gospel (5). Even if some individuals fall away from the work, it does not mean that God's purposes for the church as a whole corporate community will not be brought to perfection.

In conclusion, then, Philippians 1:6 is not speaking to the issue of the final perseverance of individual Christians. That question is not raised in this text. Rather, Philippians 1:6 is evidence for the Arminian view of corporate election. God has chosen his church and will complete the work that he is doing in his church. One comes into the church through faith, and, according to Romans 11:17-25 out of the church through non-faith. But even if some fall away, it does not mean that God's work in the church is thwarted. Indeed, it is he who breaks of the branches because of their unbelief (Romans 11:20).

7 comments:

Kevin Jackson said...

I didn't know this, thanks. I wonder if there are any translations that make note of the plural you.

Matt O'Reilly said...

The NRSV renders it saying, "the one who began a good work among you," which is probably the best way to get the plural and locative sense into English.

TrueHope said...

The "singular you" vs "plural you" ambiguity is quite problematic in modern English. Many other languages don't have this problem.

ἐκκλησία said...

Matt,
Your point is well made.

You've picked up on the metaphor of perseverance being a gift which God gives to those who respond to the gospel in faith. Have you seen [Hos 10:12] which also supports this idea and portrays those persevering (the yoke in [Hos 10:11]) as sowing righteousness; and reaping steadfast love [Hos 2:19][Joel 2:13]? Another example is [Dan 9:4].

You also tie Romans 11 quite nicely into the Philippians quote, and argue that to be intellectually honest believers must see that the people of God are liable to be judged for unfaithfulness. Using the example of the tree in Romans 11, isn't this judgement upon faithfulness exactly what happens to the House of Israel and Judah, in [Isa 5:5][Hos 2:6] which was the vineyard of the Lord [Isa 5:7]? Clearly Israel was pruned because of their faithlessness [Eze 19:10-11]. Why then, does this surprise some believers, do you think?

A question arises, wouldn't your point still hold true if the humin (you) spoken to in Philippian was the branches of the tree [Jer 11:16] representing the nation or Kingdom of God , such as in [Song 2:3-13][Isa 65:22],[Jer 5:10],[Jer 6:9][Jer 18:9][Eze 17:23]?
Finally, a very minor point might be that although your use of Romans 11 is very appropriate, Romans 11 can be understood differently than an Arminian reading. Given that [Roman 11:2] doesn't distinguish between believing (pistis) and non-believing (apistis) Israelites in its declaration that God has not rejected his people, everything that follows in Romans 11 can be seen to be about Israelites as a comparison between branches that were broken off [Rom 11:17] and ones that weren't [Roman 11:18]. This includes the wild tree as well. Before you object with [Romans 11:24] as evidence this isn't so, please consider [Jer 2:21] where the wild tree is one that was initially rejected by God in [Isa 5:5] but was nonetheless 'elect'.

Regardless, if as you point out, the “good work among you all” in Philippians 1:6 is the same fruit spoken of in James [5:7,18], God wants the tree (of Romans 11) to produce good fruit [Luke 3:9] and so this further adds to your argument because the tree is a corporate thing not an individual one. For the entire tree to produce good fruit, perseverance must be a corporate act.

Good post.

Moonshadow said...

Good post.

Celestial Fundy said...

I agree that Phil 1:6 does not teach perserverance and those that use it that way are guilty of eisegesis.

You should not assume though that the possibility that a believer may fall away and be judged entails that a born-again believer may be lost forever.

Don't assume that all judgement equals being condemned eternally.

There is a third positiion that has been held by such great men as Hudson Taylor, Watchman Nee and G.H. Lang.

This view holds that believers who fall away will be condemned at the judgement seat of Christ and excluded from entrance into the millennial kingdom. During the thousand year reign they will be banished to Hades, but being justified in Christ, they will not be cast into the lake of fire with the unbelieving.

cplwilkinson said...

In upmost respect, I firmly agree, and more so, believe the very statement that Celestial Fundy made concerning this issue. The Bible has strict interpretation guidelines, I.E. "...not by private interpretation." Therefore, meaning 'literal.' However application can be made wholly, and/or personally. Celestial Fundy worded the third view perfectly, and I'm very afraid for those who are saved, but have totally rejected Christ, and will spend a long time in punishment. Worthy of study!