August 28, 2012

Once More, Unbelief and Falling Away: Evidence from Hebrews

Yesterday, I pointed to the role of unbelief in Romans 11 as it relates to a person's being cut off from the people of God. But that chapter is not the only place the language of unbelief shows up in a discussion of falling away. The book of Hebrews contains an important passage as well, and it's not the one you might expect. Arguments from Hebrews that believers may fall away are often based on the so-called warning passage in 6:4-6. However, the presence of the language of unbelief in 3:12-19 is relevant as well:
"Take care, brothers, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving (Gk. apistia) heart that turns away from the living God (3:12)...So we see that they [the Hebrews] were unable to enter [into rest] because of unbelief (Gk. apistia, 3:19)." 
Several features of this text are relevant to the role of unbelief and its relationship to falling away.
  1. As in Romans 11, the unbelief of the Hebrew people is the basis of the exhortation to the Christian community to persevere in faith. This means that multiple New Testament authors saw Israel's unbelief as analogous to the potential situation in which Christians might fall into unbelief. It may also suggest continuity between the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament people of God, since the new are liable to the same danger as the old.
  2. The passage is directly addressed to the Christian community and presupposes belief in the God revealed in Jesus. The explicit addressees are "brothers", a common descriptor for members of the visible community of believers in the early Christian movement. In 3:1, the term "brothers" is qualified by the phrase "holy partners in a heavenly calling", which emphasizes the author's understanding that they are true believers. The addressees are warned not to turn away from God, which suggests that they are presently oriented toward God in contrast to those who are rebellious.
  3. Turning away from God is directly correlated with an unbelieving heart (apistia). This suggests that the author saw it as a real possibility that believing Christians might return to unbelief and turn from God, thus falling away from membership in the people of God and falling away from participation in the saving work of God; thus jeopardizing their entrance into God's rest.
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August 27, 2012

Eternal Security? How do you fall away?

In a couple of recent posts (1, 2) I've reflected on the language of security and falling away in the New Testament. When the suggestion is made that a believer can indeed fall permanently and to his detriment from grace, the question is commonly raised as to how this happens. What does someone have to do fall away? How does a person move from justification to condemnation? Following on from my last post, I'll focus my comments on Paul's discussion of the matter in Romans 11.
 
The starting point must be the comparison that Paul draws between God's attitude toward unbelieving Israel and his audience in Rome. My previous suggestion that a believer can indeed fall to their peril is based on this comparison in which Paul tells the Roman Christians that Israel was broken off for unbelief; thus, his warning to the Romans, "if God did not spare the original branches, perhaps he will not spare you" (11:21). For the apostle, believing Gentile Christians are liable to the same fate as Israel, namely God might cut them off. The comparison between the Roman church and Israel is developed through a contrast between the faith of the Romans and the unbelief of Israel, "They (Israel) were broken off because of their unbelief (Gk. apistia), but you stand only through faith (Gk. pistis)" (11:20). The explicit contrast of Paul's Greek is somewhat muted in the English translation of "unbelief" vs. "faith" simply because English doesn't have a negative word using the root "faith". The Greek apistia vs. pistis is much stronger, and a more literal translation would say that Israel was "broken off because of their afaith (or unfaith?), but you stand only through faith." This is enough to highlight the fact that, for Paul, if a person can move from God's favor into condemnation, it is conditioned on whether or not that one continues in faith in Christ. The logic is quite clear. If it is through faith that we are united to Christ and brought into a state of reconciliation with God, then our unbelief would mean the breaking of our union with Christ, which would also mean that we no longer partake in the blessings of our former union.
 
Paul's understanding of the contrast between faith and unbelief becomes increasingly clear when we consider Romans 4:20. Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes, "No unbelief (Gk. apistia) made him doubt the promise of God, but he was empowered by faith (Gk. pistis) giving glory to God." Note the again the strong contrast between apistia and pistis. Abraham's righteous standing before God is conditioned on his belief in the promise of God (4:21-22), and the opposite of this by-faith-righteousness is unbelieving condemnation. In Romans, Abraham is the prototypical Gentile believer, because he believed and was justified prior to his circumcision. So, faith in the crucified and risen Christ incorporates even a Gentile believer into Abraham's family, which is defined around the Messiah. In contrast, unbelief cuts a person off from this family. This is precisely what Paul says happened with ethnic Israel, and in his thinking it is a danger to believers in Rome. Thus, his exhortation to continue in the kindness of God, which is conditioned on perseverance in faith, in order to avoid being cut off (11:22).
 
Returning to the initial question regarding how one falls away, we can say that the condition for being cut off from the people of God is unbelief or a cessation of faith in Christ. He does not here raise the issue of evil works as a means for falling away, though he would certainly assert that evil works are the product of unbelief. This makes sense in light Paul's larger soteriology. If a person is justified by faith, then falling into unbelief would necessitate falling out of justified reconciliation with God. One might say that this is all hypothetical for Paul, and that a true believer will never fall into unbelief. The problem with that suggestion is that Paul doesn't seem to be dealing in hypotheticals. His argument is based on the very concrete and historical example of God's action to cut off unbelieving Israel. Cutting off, he insists, is the grievous consequence of unbelief. For Paul, it appears to be a real possibility that a justified true believer could fall into unbelief and be cut off from the people of God.

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.

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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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

August 16, 2012

What does Church have to do with Kingdom?

I just started reading a little book called Church Membership: How the World Knows who Represents Jesus by Jonathan Leeman (Crossway 2012). The foreword by Michael Horton has a nice summary of how Christ's redemptive work relates to the visible church:
"Christ rules us in order to save us and saves us in order to rule us. Unlike the rulers of this age, Jesus doesn't ask us to shed our blood for his empire; he instead gave his own life for his realm. Then he was raised in glory as the beginning of the new creation, and now he is gathering coheirs into his kingdom who belong to each other because, together, they belong to him. The visible church is where you will find Christ's kingdom on earth, and to disregard the kingdom is to disregard the King" (15).
If the visible church is the place where the Kingdom of God becomes visible, then covenantal membership in a local church is instrumental for the visibility of the kingdom. A timely word in a day when church membership is often under-emphasized or left unmentioned altogether.
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August 8, 2012

Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

In light of my previous assessment of the debate over Michael Licona's comments on the raising of the dead saints in Matthew 27:52-53, I was pleased to see the publication by Southeastern Theological Review of this roundtable discussion between Licona, Danny Akin, Craig Blomberg, Paul Copan, Michael Kruger, and Charles Quarles, in which Licona's rather controversial view was fairly evaluated by the participants. I was particularly encouraged with the tone of discussion and the general agreement that the issue is not inerrancy but hermenteutics. Despite some disagreement on how to take Matthew 27:52-53, the participants do a good job of articulating the relationship between authorial intent and interpretation, a relationship which Norman Geisler and Albert Mohler failed to take on board in their critiques of Licona. This roundtable discussion is an excellent example of how evangelical scholarship and peer review should be conducted. I am unaware of any apology to Licona from either Geisler or Mohler, but in light of this roundtable discussion, I think there should be an increased call for such an apology from both for their inflammatory and misdirected critiques of Licona's work.