August 21, 2012

Eternal Security? My Crucial Verse

Everyone has particular passages of scripture that shape their reading of other passages of scripture. Whether we recognize it or not, we create a framework for reading the Bible (or any document) where we prioritize certain parts of it. We take one portion as a lens for reading the rest. This may seem suspect at first, but it's not. It's simply part of how we read and interpret texts. Any idea in any text only has meaning in relation to other ideas in that text. This hermeneutical reality has a long standing history in the church. For centuries, theologians have suggested that we allow the clear and straightforward parts of the Bible to guide, inform, and shape our reading of the less straightforward, less clear, and downright hard-to-get parts. This is how it works; we might as well be up front about it.

When it comes to the so-called doctrine of eternal security (or the perseverance of the saints), the crucial passage for me is Romans 11:17-24, especially verses 19-21. I formerly held the view that true believers cannot ultimately fall away, but my view was never exegetically grounded. It was motivated more by the psychological comfort of knowing I was indeed eternally secure. But the trouble with textually ungrounded psycho-therapeutic theological constructions is that they sometimes encounter texts that chop the safety net into little bits and pieces, which is what happened when I read Romans 11:19-21:
"You will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you" (NRSV, emphasis added).
There are two aspects of these verses that forced me to change my view on the perseverance of the saints. First, Paul is explicitly speaking to people who "stand by faith." That is, we are dealing with believers here. And we know from what we've already read in Romans that those who have faith in Jesus are justified and have been reconciled to God (3:21-26). They "have peace with God" (5:1), and for them there is "no condemnation" (8:1). Second, Paul tells these justified, reconciled, peace with God having believers that the possibility exists that God might "not spare you." Yes, that's right. Paul compares these baptized and believing Chrstians to unbelieving Israel (the natural branches) and declares that, if they, like Israel, fall into unbelief, they will not be spared. There it was. I couldn't escape it. My therapeutic theological safety net had been decimated.

This passage seems to me so straightforwardly clear that it cannot be seriously taken any other way. (Yes, I know many take it other ways). To make Paul's declaration that God might not spare these believers to mean that believers, once they have believed, can never fall into condemnation requires exegetical gymnastics of olypmic proportion. This verse hit me so hard and so fast with its stunning clarity that it became my crucial verse. It changed my mind and now shapes my reading and reflecting on questions of perseverance. Everything else is viewed through this lens.
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NB 1: I'll point out the fact that this passage comes at the climax of the larger Calvinist go-to passage of Romans 9-11. I would argue that this is a really good reason for not supposing that Romans 9 means what Calvinists take it to mean. Whatever Paul thinks about God's purposes in election, he also envisions the real possibility that one can be a member of the people of God and fall away.

NB 2: I'm not saying that everyone who holds to some form of the perseverance of the saints is doing so for the sake of psychological comfort. That's just what I was doing.

4 comments:

ἐκκλησία said...

Matt, in [Eze 18] the Israelites have accused God of having a warped sense of justice.

To God's credit, he doesn't wipe them off the face of the earth, but explains how his justice works. It is pertinent to how we understand 'eternal security'.

The Israelites start by saying God is punishing children for the sins of the father [Eze 18:19]. God addresses this saying:

1. The soul who sins shall die [Eze 18:20]
2. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wicked of the wicked shall be on himself [Eze 18:20]
3. If a wicked person turns away from this sins he will surely live (and not die) [Eze 18:21]
4. If a righteous person turns away his righteousness and does injustice, his (former righteousness shall NOT be remembered). [Eze 18:24]

Couple of other things to note about this dialogue:
5. God states clearly - he takes NO pleasure in the death of the wicked [Eze 18:23]
6. God then says that it is man, NOT God whose ways are NOT just [Eze 18:25].

When Christian's debate the nature of our standing before God, and the nature of His justice, they should look to [Ezekiel 18] for it is revelatory about God's nature, and His justice.

In this pithy chapter we see repentance and forgiveness (in 3.), the need for a saviour (in 1.), how God's judgement is just (in 2.) and how it is unlike man's (in 6.). We see God's mercy (in 5.). We see it all right there summarized.

We see something else too though, something reformers deny; we see that man can be righteous through obedience (in 4.) but also that he can fall away.

Now about this last point, that man can be righteous is controversial but it should not be:

A. The bible says it [Eze 18:24][1 Peter 4:18];
B. Adam was righteous before he sinned [Eze 28:15][Ecc 7:29];
C. We will be righteous again when we stand before God [Rom 5:19]

What should be controversial is what makes us righteous (but it should also be settled for the bible answers this to).

Man is righteous because he was created by a righteous creator (Christ), whose handiwork reflects righteousness, in the image of a righteous God (so we adorn the image of righteousness) .. except that sin diminishes this.

Enter the Calvinist/Arminian debate. It is true that everyone sins. It is also true that everyone adorns the image of righteousness imperfectly. The question is - to what degree?

Does our sin mean that we were no longer created in the image of God (which is what the Calvinist position seems to imply) or that we were not created by a righteous creator and so reflect nothing of this creation?

No - even with sin we were created in the image of God by a righteous creator. If it were no so, murder would not be murder, since murder is a crime against the image of God [Gen 9:6]. So when man is obedient, and is righteous, that righteousness still is of Christ, since Christ created us (which we reflect) and Christ exemplified perfect obedience even to death (so we echo Christ's obedience).

ἐκκλησία said...

Also,

If [Romans 9-11] is about Israel to Israelites, Calvinists have no right citing it as proof texts.

(I assert that it is)

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

When I started college (after attending a Baptist Youth group) I was talking with a friend about eternal security. She brought up John 15 "if you remain in me" "if you bear fruit" otherwise you will "be cut off." Now she and I both (at that point) believed in eternal security, but I suddenly realized that I had very little scriptural support for my position, which left an uncomfortable question mark in my mind.

Later, I realized I also had little or no support for the Baptist belief that the Lord's Supper was "only a symbol to remind us."

Later still, I realized that the Scripture nowhere actually SAYS that baptism is our action that is an outward profession of a faith that one already has. The actual passages dealing with baptism presented a much more complicated picture, some suggestion that it was more God's act than ours.

All of these were steps along the way for my return to a sacramental (Methodist) Christianity, more in keeping with the faith of the ancient church.

Gary said...

You don't have to be a five-pointer to be a Calvinist. If you believe in "Once Saved, Always Saved" you are still a "Calvinistic Baptist". I believe that this false teaching is sending thousands if not millions of Baptists and evangelicals to hell due to a false sense of assurance.

The Back-Slidden Baptist's Salvation Check List:

Just as there are many orthodox Christians, including Lutherans, who, to their eternal damnation, rely on their infant Baptism as their "Get-into-heaven Free Card", I believe that there are many Baptists and evangelicals who rely on their one time "Decision for Christ" as their automatic ticket into heaven.

Just to be clear, I am sure that there are many, many Baptists and evangelicals who are much better Christians than I am. As Paul, I am the first among sinners. But I believe that the teaching of Decision Theology accompanied with the horrific teaching of "Once Saved, Always Saved", has damned just as many Baptists and evangelicals to hell as "Once Baptized, Always Saved" has damned many poorly catechized orthodox Christians.

I was taught growing up fundamentalist Baptist that a born-again Christian who stops going to church, reading the Bible, praying, etc. is a "back-slider". He has back-slidden into sin.

So let's review the "Back-Slidden" Baptist's and (Baptistic) Evangelical's Salvation Check-list:

1. Have I attended church in the last twenty years: No.
2. Have I partaken of the Lord's Supper in the last twenty years: No.
3. Have I read my Bible in the last twenty years: No.
4. Have I prayed (other than, "Lord please help me win the Powerball!") in the last twenty years? No.
5. Have I shared the Gospel with a non-believer in the last twenty years. No.
6. Did I pray the Sinner's Prayer twenty-one years ago in a Baptist altar call. Yes.

Conclusion: SAVED!

Now, if you present this to a Baptist or evangelical of the Baptist persuasion, he or she will say that the person above was never saved. That is why we do not see any "fruit of the Spirit".

They have a much harder time, however, using that explanation when the "back-slider" is a prominent conservative Baptist or evangelical pastor or evangelist who has "won many souls to Christ" and has preached great moving sermons for years. "How could the person who led me to Christ have been a non-believer??" Situations such as these really rattle these "Once Saved, Always Saved" Christians.

Gary
Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
an orthodox Lutheran blog