Opinion by David Kowalski
[Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are strictly my own, and in no way indicate the views of the Apologetics Index website or any of its other contributors. The website has graciously allowed me to express my view here as a resource for those who wish to look at all sides of this issue.]
Perhaps no doctrinal debate has been more “intense” than the debate over whether the believer’s eternal security is conditional (associated mostly with Arminianism) or unconditional (the Calvinist view). In advocating the conditional view that it is possible to fall away, I have no desire to alienate my Calvinist friends whom I love and respect. I know some readers will differ with my conclusions but I hope we can disagree amicably.
Though I advocate conditional security, I believe much of the bottom line for both views is essentially the same, as, through their doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, Calvinists do not believe that those who rebel against God will share eternity with Him regardless of any profession of faith they may have made or Christian activity in which they may have engaged. They believe such people were not truly saved to begin with.
Furthermore, at the risk of sounding absurd and confusing to those unacquainted with Molinism, Molinistic teaching (which I embrace 1) technically includes, I believe, both conditional and unconditional security as truth and can see Calvinist belief in the perseverance of the saints and Arminian belief in the possibility of falling away as two sides to one coin.
I am thus conceding that the title of this article which poses the two views of security as diametrically opposed may be looked at as a false disjunction by those who look more deeply into the implications of Molinistic theology. An explanation of Molinism is far beyond the scope of this article, however, and I recommend Willian Lane Craig’s articles for a full treatment of this topic. 2
For practical purposes, one must choose between conditional and unconditional security in their presentation to the general public. I believe the plainest way to express what the Bible teaches regarding eternal security is to refer to it as conditional, and I will argue for that position below. In presenting my case for conditional security, I will look at six issues pertaining to security: free will, faith, rebellion, divine promises, divine descriptions, and divine warnings.
Determining if mankind has genuine, free will is foundational to the rest of our discussion. Calvinism teaches that total depravity removes our ability to freely will any good thing. This theological system inherited this concept regarding the will from Augustine and Luther. This bondage of the will is so great, taught Augustine and Luther, that man is incapable of any truly good choices. Calvin added that in salvation, the Lord “…destroys our depraved will, and also substitutes a good will from himself.” 3
In other words, Calvin denied we have a true will of our own (especially for good deeds) even after salvation. Strict, Calvinist dogma goes on to assert that man does not have the ability to freely make any choices, and that God sovereignly controls them all (good and bad) in a deterministic way. Disturbed at the implications of this belief, Arminius declared, “It follows from their doctrine that God is the author of sin” 4 This belief, if true, means that man has no real volitional capabilities and is only an automaton controlled by God in a work of fiction we call life.
This extreme teaching cannot be true on two counts. First, God cannot be the author of sin. God is holy (Isa 57:15, Ps 99:9, Hab 1:13, 1 Pet 1:15-16) and James 1:13 tells us He does not tempt anyone to sin, much less cause them to. This teaching cannot be true, secondly, because it denies the scriptural teaching of man as made in God’s image that Calvinists themselves profess to believe. We are told in Genesis 1:26 that God made man in His own image, and even after the fall, Scripture continues to recognize this imago Dei in man.
Most instructive in this regard is James’ reaffirmation of the imago Dei in James 3:9:
With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God…. (all citations of Scripture are from the NASB unless otherwise noted)
Most theologians agree that though the imago Dei has been distorted in man, it has not been utterly destroyed. Certain faculties, such as self-awareness, rationality, and volitional capability remain. In short, man remains man.
God repeatedly appeals to man as man in both Old and New Testaments. Especially interesting is God’s appeal to Judah in Isaiah 1:18-20:
Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. (NIV)
God calls these men and women to reason with Him. The Hebrew word used in this passage for “reason” is yakah, a word that implies a judicial proceeding that calls for some decision to be made after a process of rational thought. What God looks for in these men and women is that they be willing (Heb. abah) — that they deliberately respond affirmatively to God’s call and command. God then warns these Israelites not to resist Him. Apparently, without Calvin to enlighten Him, God did not know His grace was irresistible. God speaks to these people as though they had faculties of the imago Dei remaining as active (not just theoretical) in them – as though they could think and choose for themselves.
Calvinists actually concede this continuation of the imago Dei in man. Calvin himself said “The image of God was not utterly defaced and destroyed in him [man]” 5. Calvinist Millard Erickson 6 makes some startling concessions regarding this image of God in man:
The image of God is universal within the human race….The image of God has not been lost as a result of sin or specifically the fall….The image is something man is rather than something he has or does….The image is the powers of personality which make man, like God, a being capable of interacting with other persons, of thinking and reflecting, and of willing freely. 7
Erickson’s statement, which clearly seems to affirm a continued free will of man, is later modified in his Christian Theology when he claims that man is not able to use this free will in a free manner. 8 This is as logical as saying one can go outside, just not in the outdoor sense of outside. In reading the larger context of Calvinist writings, one finds Calvinist scholars frequently imply a free will in fallen man, although they must deny this freedom in the smaller context of their doctrinal distinctives regarding election and eternal security.
With the image of God, distorted though it may be, being retained in man, man has the capability of making choices of his or her own. Man has not been reduced to the status of a puppet or automaton. As we will see, the faith that receives grace involves a free choice by those who believe, and this freedom has important implications with regard to the possibility of falling away.
Faith is the factor that distinguishes saved from unsaved. Without the necessity of faith, grace would be universally applied and all would be saved. Salvation is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8, Ro 3:21-22, Php 3:9). Although it is God’s will that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4), this salvation is conditioned upon faith in the recipient (John 3:36). This faith does not work for or merit the grace of God; faith only receives it.
For this reason, I disagree with those who believe that biblical faith which involves freely choosing is “synergistic” (a cooperative work) and thus a belief in salvation by works. The Bible does teach a free-will aspect to faith while rejecting the notion of salvation by works. Again, our faith choice does not work for or earn salvation; it merely receives it.
This faith is divinely enabled. 9 The choice to believe is not an accomplishment. It simply receives the life changing work of God. Still, faith involves a choice made by men and women created in God’s image.
There is an indispensable volitional aspect to faith that is clearly seen in the fact that people are commanded to believe (Ac 16:31). Evangelistic preaching in the New Testament is always addressed not to God, but to people, as though there were something in them that had to respond. Additionally, believers can “fall away from the faith:”
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. (1 Tim 4:1)
One cannot fall away from something without first having it, just as one cannot leave a place to which they have never been. Only Christians can fall away from faith. This departure from faith (that Hebrews 6 and other passages warn us against) must be man’s choice since God has promised not to change His mind. God will never stop believing. Only we can do so.
If faith involves a choice to believingly receive salvation, it follows that one must choose to be kept by faith:
[We] who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:5)
Human choice is an indispensable element of faith. One must choose to believe and one can choose to depart from the faith. Just as the reception of grace is conditioned upon faith, the perpetuity of our standing in grace is conditioned on our continuing in the faith. If a believer falls away from the faith, he or she will no longer be a recipient of saving grace.
Faith is like a bucket placed under a faucet that freely pours out the living water of grace. The bucket does not conjure up the water; it simply receives. Still, if the bucket departs from its position that benefits from the water’s flow, it will no longer receive. Those who depart from the faith forfeit the salvation that is only received by faith.
Only those of the freely-chosen faith are saved. In 2 timothy 1:5 Paul referred to this saving faith with the qualifying adjective “sincere” (Gk – anupokritou, meaning “un-hypocritical” or “unfeigned” [as it is rendered in the KJV]). An important scriptural distinction between feigned and unfeigned faith is that real faith is seen through its reception of a life changing work of grace that results in a lifestyle of obedient love for God and others. Justification and sanctification are completely separate concepts but are nevertheless inseparable in experience. We are not saved by works but salvation leads to a lifestyle of good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Paul often uses the term “the faith” in the same way we use the word “Christianity” (see 1 Corinthians 16:13; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 4:13; Philippians 1:25; Colossians 1:23; 1 Timothy 3:9; 1 Timothy 4:1, 4:6,6, 5:8, 6:21; 2 Timothy 1:13, 3:8, 4:7; and Titus 1:13). The faith involves the full package of salvation (including both justification and sanctification). Neither Paul nor any other author of the New Testament knows anything of a Christianity that does not include belief, holiness, and love.
Faith and love are inseparable. The two concepts are linked throughout Paul’s writings:
since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints; (Colossians 1:4)
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love…” (1 Thessalonians 3:6)
But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5)
and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1:14)
because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; (Philemon 1:5)
Love and faith are so inseparable that though Paul teaches faith receives grace, he speaks of grace being given to those who love:
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love. (Ephesians 6:23-24)
Real faith is outwardly expressed and thus evidenced in loving God and others:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. (Galatians 5:6)
A lifestyle of faith and love is an obedient one. In Romans, Paul uses the terms “faith” and “obedience” in an interchangeable way because true faith leads to obedience.:
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, because your faith is being proclaimed throughout the whole world. (Romans 1:8)
For the report of your obedience has reached to all (Romans 16:19)
Paul even speaks of the “obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26)
Though Paul preached faith in Christ he described the goal of his preaching as a lifestyle of love for Christ that obeys him in all things. Thus his message was one of a belief that results in obedience:
For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles… (Romans 16: 18)
James says real faith results in a godly lifestyle:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ (James 2:14-18)
The bottom line is that real faith receives real grace that really changes us into new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17) who live differently. As the New Testament repeatedly says, those who live disobedient lifestyles are not of the faith:
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
“For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Ephesians 5:5)
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6: 9-11)
“But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)
“But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Corinthians 5:11)
The conclusion of this is that if one in good standing rebels, stubbornly persisting in a disobedient lifestyle, they are no longer part of the faith and no longer Christians. They have “fallen away from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1). They have departed from Christianity. Please note that this involves much more than occasional falling. Falling away is a much more grievous thing than occasional falling. It is a stubborn, hardened, rebellion against God.
Those who believe in conditional security do not check their spiritual pulse every day to see if they are “still saved!” They do not live in constant fear of “losing” salvation. One cannot easily “lose” God’s gift, but they can, through hardened and prolonged rebellion, forfeit grace by departing from “the faith” when they leave behind the love and obedience that faith is inseparable from, and by which it works. Those who depart from the faith in this way no longer receive saving grace. They have moved their bucket.
Good works never earned these rebels salvation in the first place but any “so-called” brother that leaves the evidence of salvation behind leaves the salvation it evidences. This is the objective test of a real believer — he or she is not a rebel against God. Paul gives us the following exhortation in 2 Corinthians 13:5,”Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith.” This was directed to the church at Corinth — not to those who had never been saved, but to “those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5) — in other words, Christians.
Those who deny our faith choice can change conclude that God’s promises not to change His choice unconditionally guarantee that we will not change ours. They heavily rely on John 10:27-29 in this assertion:
My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my 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.
This passage first identifies God’s sheep as those who know, hear, and follow the shepherd. Jesus assures us that these sheep will never perish from external forces because no outsider can take these sheep out of God’s hand. To the Calvinist, this alone ensures the believer’s security. Since the believer’s will is not really his or her own, he or she cannot and will not change the choice God made for them. Since God has promised not to change His mind, and since no third party can nullify this salvation, the issue is settled.
Many interpreters such as John Miley who examine this passage respond that “Such is the assurance from the divine side; but it is entirely consistent with a conditioning fidelity on the human side.” 10 Robert Shank observes that “The promise of Christ to safeguard His followers does not relieve them of the necessity of following Him.” 11 M.G. Forrester adds, “A person can choose to remove himself from the Good Shepherd’s flock, rejecting His care and protection.” 12
God’s promises are a wonderful assurance that He will provide all the grace we need but they are not declarations that He will henceforth make all of our choices for us.
Some interpreters speak as though certain biblical descriptions of or words for Christians picture an unalterable standing and relationship – implying a logical inability for one to fall away. They will, for example, assert that our being born again is an unconditional assurance of our security because one cannot be “unborn,” Perhaps they have never heard of “death.”
Such people will also say that our having eternal life means it is unconditionally guaranteed to never end. 1 John 5:11-12 tells us, however, that this eternal life is in God’s son:
And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.
Only He possesses this life in Himself. We merely share in this life as we continue to abide in Him (Jn 15:5-6). James 5:19-20 warns believers of the possibility of spiritual death:
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
James is clearly saying that departure from the truth of the Gospel will lead to the death of one’s soul. Thus, continued, spiritual life is dependent on continued choice in faith. In a similar way, God placed no limit on the life He had given Adam but warned His man that this life was conditional (Genesis 2:17). The life God gives is eternal in nature. Those who depart from that life revert to spiritual death. Those who fall away from the faith commit spiritual suicide.
Those who deny the possibility of falling away will also declare that the fact we are called sons of God in Scripture unconditionally ensures our salvation since once one is a son, one is always a son. We can never depart from the faith, they say. We must remember that no natural analogy can be made to exactly equal spiritual truth in every detail. Thankfully, “once a son, always a son,” is not absolute in the spiritual realm since sons of the devil and children of wrath must cease to be so in salvation.
We may also note that sons can be disinherited. In Deuteronomy 21:18, God commanded the Israelites to stone stubborn and rebellious sons in order to purge evil from their midst. In Romans 8:17, Paul tells us that our inheritance is conditional when he says we are “heirs with Christ if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” Properly interpreted, none of these descriptions of the Christian life teach unconditional, eternal security.
Hebrews 6:4-6 is probably the most debated passage when discussing the believer’s security. In spite of the implications a proper interpretation of the passage may have for our, particular views, we must seek to be true to the text and interpret it properly, without forcing it into the Procrustean bed of our theological system. Hebrews 6:1-4 reads as follows:
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, and have tasted of the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 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.
It will be useful, first, to defend the translation I have quoted (NASB) since it reads differently in verse six than the KJV and the NIV which both say, “If they shall fall away….” The NASB says “and then have fallen away….” The NASB is not alone in translating the participle parapesontas this way. Other translations that concur with this rendering include the ASV, NEB, TEV, The Jerusalem Bible, as well as Williams’, Weymouth’s, Goodspeed’s, and Alford’s translations. Although the participle parapesontas could be used in a conditional sense, the context of Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to clearly forbid it. Ralph Earle observes the following regarding this context:
In verses 4-6 there are five aorist participles in parallel construction. The fifth one is parapesontas, ‘and have fallen away.’ The NASB has the correct translation here: “and then have fallen away.’ The ‘if’ is not justifiable. The Greek clearly indicates that one may become a partaker of the Holy Spirit (obviously a Christian) and yet fall away and be lost. 13
The correct translation of this verse is important because those who advocate unconditional security sometimes point to the “if” in verse six as though it made the entire passage hypothetical yet impossible. However, as Philip Edgcumbe Hughes points out regarding Hebrews 6:6, “There is as a matter of fact no ‘if in the Greek text.” 14 Having a correct translation of the passage, let us first examine the larger context in which it is found. In the book of Hebrews, the writer is speaking at length of a danger that faces believers:
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it (2:1)… how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? (2:3)…but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house whose house we are if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end (3:6)….Take care brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end (3:12-14)….Therefore let us fear lest, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you should seem to come short of it (4:1)….Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of disobedience (4:11).
Repeatedly the author makes clear he is warning believers about the danger of falling away, and he exhorts these believers to hold fast to their faith firm until the end.
Having identified the context of the passage, let us examine its contents. First, there is a description of certain people. They have been “enlightened” (the writer uses this same word to describe Christians in Heb 10:32), they have “tasted of the heavenly gift” and been made “partakers of the Holy Spirit” (believers are called “partakers” in Heb 3:14). They have also “tasted of the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (the writer of Hebrews uses this word, “tasted” to describe Christ’ full experience of death in Heb 2:9). Since the writer speaks of the impossibility of renewing these people again to repentance, it is clear they had at one time repented.
The writer then says these people, who are obviously Christians, have fallen. He goes on to say that he is persuaded of better things for “you” in 6:9, but he does not express the same confidence in the “them” whose apostasy he has just described. Both the context and the contents show that this passage clearly describes saved individuals who have fallen from grace. This is further reinforced by the warning delivered in Hebrews 10:26-30:
For if we go on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God and has regarded as unclean the covenant by which he was sanctified and has insulted the Spirit of Grace? For we know Him who said ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’
There are many more warning passages addressed to believers such as the one we have examined in Hebrews 6:4-6 (other passages that could be used include Lk 14:34; John 15:1-6; Eph 5:5-6; 1 Co 9:27, 10:12;1 Tim 4:1; Heb 2:1-2, 3:12, 10:26-27; Jas 5:19-20; 2 Pe 1:10, 2:20-22, 3:17). Careless dismissal of them cannot be justified. Hebrews 6:1-4 is one of many clear passages directed to genuine Christians, warning them of the danger of falling away.
The six points that I believe have been established above are the following:
1) God created mankind with free will and in spite of the corruption of mankind in the fall, this ability to choose freely remains.
2) This free will is exercised in the faith choice that passively receives grace. If one changes their faith choice they no longer receive grace.
3) The faith involves justification and sanctification. Faith is evidenced by a godly lifestyle and is inseparable from it as a result of the life-changing work that faith receives. Those who rebel against God in a hardened and persistent manner depart from the faith and are no longer Christians.
4) The promises God makes concerning the believer are an assurance that He will not change His saving choice but not a declaration that He will make our faith choice for us in perpetuity.
5) None of the descriptions of believers or their life in Christ speaks of unconditional security.
6) God says that Christians can fall away and He repeatedly warns us not to do so.
Christians need not live in dread that one day they will slip and “lose” God’s free gift. The New Testament is realistic in observing that believers will not achieve sinless perfection until they are glorified with Christ in the next life. This, however, should be of no comfort for those who depart from the faith. Christians are sternly warned not to turn their back on the savior and reject Him through leaving the faith that originally received Him and His grace. Only those who continue in the faith continue to receive saving grace.
© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.
- http://www.apologeticsindex.org/3018-molinism ↩
- http://www.reasonablefaith.org/search/results?q=molinism ↩
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (MacDill, Florida: MacDonald Publishing Company, n.d.),146. ↩
- James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius vol.2 trans. James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1977), 490). ↩
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 88. ↩
- Millard Erickson is generally considered a “moderate” or four-point Calvinist, though such theologians still hold to unconditional security, only questioning the validity of limited atonement (something even John Calvin did not seem to espouse in his writings) ↩
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1983), 513. ↩
- Ibid. 909-912. ↩
- see my article at http://www.apologeticsindex.org/2939-the-certainty-of-faith for a discussion of the biblical teaching of this concept. ↩
- John Miley, Systematic Theology vol.2 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989) , 269. ↩
- Robert Shank, Life in the Son (Springfield, Missouri: Westcott Publishers, 1960), 59 ↩
- M. G. Forrester, Once Saved Always Saved if You Don’t Fall Away vol.1. (Fallbrook, California: CMB Publishing, 1996), 390. ↩
- Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986), 423. ↩
- Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 212. ↩