August 20, 2012

Eternally secure; provided that

The debate over eternal  security among various stripes of evangelicals is unlikely to go away any time soon. Some assert that upon conversion believers are guaranteed their salvation cannot be lost. Others disagree by claiming that believers can fall from grace. One of my professors who takes this view is fond of saying, "No one is eternally secure until they are securely in eternity." Both sides argue that their view accurately interprets the biblical data. Interestingly, these two variant perspectives come together in scripture in surprising ways. Take 2 Peter 3:17, for example:
"Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position" (NIV, emphasis added).
Did you catch that? Fall from your secure position! It would seem that Peter can speak of both security and falling away in the very same breath. We might be inclined to ask what sort of security this might be if one can indeed fall from it. But that's just it. In this passage, security is not a matter of being once saved and thus always saved. The language of security is here used to describe the believer's position, but that security is not understood by the author as something that cannot be lost. So, Peter understands security differently than proponents of the doctrine of perseverance. Perilous error appears a real possibility. The believer is secure provided that he does not fall. Language about security can be one of those places where we bring our presuppositions shaped by our theological system into the interpretation of the text. Sometimes it may even be the case that we presuppose a certain idea of eternal security to give ourselves a doctrinal safety net. However, texts like this one undermine such a view. This case provides a good example of allowing scripture to define its own terminology rather than importing our own systems and presuppositions onto our reading of scripture. In 2 Peter 3, security of salvation in this life is conditioned on steadfast faith in the promise of the Lord.
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5 comments:

ἐκκλησία said...

The security is that God has selected for himself a portion, a people unto himself, a tree individuals are grafted into, and a flock, and a Kingdom.

Branches on that tree, and citizenship of the Kingdom is never what the 'security language of the bible' speaks about, as your observation on [2 Peter 3:17] makes evident.

BTW your professors quote is very good, and quotable.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks for reading and commenting! The quote is from Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Russ said...

Both Arminians and Calvinists agree that passages like 2 Peter 3:17, Hebrews(several), etc are warning passages. When dialoguing with Calvinist brothers I usual ask them what the warning passages in scripture are for. They usually will say something like "the purpose of the warning passages is to cause the elect to persevere." But the problem with that view is this:

If you believe in eternal security, then as you read these warning passages you can say to yourself; these warnings are to cause me to persevere. The problem lies in that the unconditionally elect could never fall away in the first place. So if falling away is not a possibliity, then the warnings are false and further more lies.

Great post Matt,

Russ

Chrysbeats said...

What about the passages where Jesus states that nobody can be plucked from His hand or all that Father draws will come and be raised up on the last day? What about Romans 8 where it says nothing can separate us from the love of God? I see the passages that you highlight, but how do you compare these passages to the others without calling the bible contradictory? I have been struggling with this doctrine because I feel as though we put the God-given promise of eternal life in the hands of men. If the Holy Spirit regenerates and brings men to sanctification, has he failed to complete the work in us that he promised in Philippians? I am not attacking you by any means, just trying to figure out how to keep the whole of scripture in mind.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Chrysbeats, thanks for your comment and your question. I sympathize with your struggle. There are certainly passages that have some tension (not contradiction) between them. And we all have to choose which of those passages will frame our reading of the others. Here's a post describing how I discovered which sorts of passages would be the lens for my reading:

http://www.mattoreilly.net/2012/08/eternal-security-my-crucial-verse.html

Also, typically when the scriptures speak of security, they are talking about how external forces cannot separate the believer from Christ. That is, nothing out there has the power to separate you from Christ. However, they don't seem to be dealing with internal resistance to Christ like unbelief. In Paul and Hebrews, falling away is not because some external force rips the believer from the hand of Christ. It's the internal possibility of unbelief. That's one of the ways I've heard others attempt to bring some resolution to this tension. It may or may not be the way to go.

Since you raised Phil 1:6, here's a post I wrote some time ago on that passage that argues individual security is not in view.

http://www.mattoreilly.net/2009/05/you-or-you-all-philippians-16-and.html

Again, thanks for your comment and for sharing your struggle with us here. May God illumine your thinking and grant you peace as you seek his face.