In this post we step aside from our series on Colossians to address the implications of Pastor Paul’s abrupt warning in Colossians 1:23—”if you continue in the faith . . . not shifting from the hope of the gospel.” In the context Paul had just been extolling Jesus as the eternal creator and reconciler of the universe. Why would he shift gears so quickly, from eloquently praising Jesus to sternly warning the Colossians? Paul was a pastor, and as we soon see in Colossians 2, he had serious concerns about false teaching at Colossae. We notice similar abrupt warnings in 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Corinthians 6:1, Galatians 1:6, and 1 Timothy 1:19.
Things haven’t changed all that much in 2000 years. Pastors today still have grave concerns that their flock will be led astray by false teaching, blinded to kingdom values by prosperity, or drawn away by the world’s allure. But do they still warn wayward Christians like Pastor Paul did? In dealing with situations involving potential spiritual shipwreck, pastors are informed by their views on Christian security, perseverance, and assurance. That’s where this post comes in.
We all know that we can’t deal with the threat of spiritual shipwreck simply by lobbing Bible verses like hand grenades. Isolated proof-texts aren’t intellectually convincing or spiritually edifying. We need a holistic view of the teaching of the Bible and how it has been understood historically. Are you up to wading through a post on this topic?
First, I’ll let you know where I’m coming from.
A Personal Word
When the Lord brought me to faith as a senior in high school, I was taught the doctrine of eternal security: once saved, always saved, no matter what. That meant our church was different from those churches that taught you could “lose your salvation.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was my somewhat garbled introduction to the historic debate between the Calvinists and the Arminians going back 400 years.
Undergrad studies in Bible and theology didn’t help much. We learned the correct propositions with their accompanying proof-texts. We heard sophomoric stuff about the tulip and the daisy. The daisy was a way of caricaturizing the Arminians—we smugly pictured them saying, “He (God) loves me, he loves me not,” as they plucked the petals off the daisy. The tulip was a way for us to remember the five points that were purported to summarize the gist of Calvinism:
- Total Depravity: every aspect of human existence is horribly marred by sin. Humans are unable in and of themselves to respond to the gospel.
- Unconditional election: God chose believers based on his sheer mercy alone, not because of anything he foresaw in them.
- Limited atonement: Christ died to secure the salvation of the elect, not simply to provide a way of salvation for everyone.
- Irresistible grace: God opens the hearts of the elect and moves them to willingly trust in Christ.
- Perseverance of the saints: though they may struggle in their Christian pilgrimage, the elect will ultimately persevere in faith.
Although we didn’t pluck daisy petals, we didn’t exactly go all in with the tulip either. The L was especially problematic, and the P seemed to compromise our eternal security doctrine. So, many of us rejected the full tulip as extreme Calvinism and peeled off a layer or two of the tulip blossom. We called ourselves “Four-pointers.” In reality we had no clue about the historic debate that officially began at the Synod of Dort (held at the village of Dordrecht, Holland) in 1618-19.
Things began to change for me at Grace Seminary when I took a course in the Greek exegesis of the Johannine Epistles from James L. Boyer. Dr. Boyer is best known today for his pioneering studies of Greek syntax based on computerized statistics. Boyer was closely associated with the founding of the GRAMCORD Institute in 1976 by Paul A. Miller. This was the very first use of a computer database to study the grammar and syntax of the Greek New Testament, but I digress. Boyer changed my life by changing my thinking on the necessity of perseverance in the Christian life as a mark of true conversion. Boyer relied heavily on The Tests of Life, an old book on 1 John by Robert Law, still available today.
As a young pastor I spent a lot of time calling on folks who had quit coming to our baptist church, even though their names were still on the membership roll. Some were angry about what a previous pastor had done, or about how they had been wronged by someone in the church. Others admitted that personal problems, extra work responsibilities, or just plain apathy had kept them from church. Some were too frail to get out of their homes, and sadly, some said they just didn’t need the church anymore. In the end, some returned to the flock but most didn’t. What was I to think, and how was I to minister? Obviously I needed a better understanding of the teaching of the Bible on these matters, and of the two main ways of looking at that teaching.
Biblical Teaching: Promises, Warnings, and Assurance
Promises and Warnings. This is not the place to rehearse the typical arguments—mostly sophomoric proof-texting—between the quasi-Calvinists and the Arminians over eternal security. Advocates of eternal security hurl biblical promises (often from the Gospel and 1st Letter of John) like artillery rounds at proponents of conditional salvation, only to be shelled by the biblical warnings (often from the book of Hebrews) fired back by their adversaries. What’s missing in this battle is the realization that both sides are cherry-picking different bits from the same chapters of the Bible without paying attention to the contexts. Notice above, for example, how John 10, Colossians 1, and other texts can be and often are used to support these opposing teachings. We know the Bible promises God will protect his people from spiritual harm. We also know the Bible warns that God will judge his people if they turn away from him. We need to know how to correlate these teachings and minister in light of them.
Assurance. Understanding the relationship between interwoven promises and warnings is related to one’s view of the biblical teaching about the believer’s internal assurance of salvation. Texts cited to support this doctrine include Romans 5:1-11; 8:16; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 2 Peter 1:10; and 1 John 5:13. These texts speak of the promises of God, the evidences of grace in one’s life, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Ray Galea has reflected well on all of this here. Joel Beeke lectures on assurance here. Of course, one’s subjective view of their spiritual state can be mistaken. Faithful followers of Jesus who are scrupulously introspective may doubt their salvation, and glib, presumptuous people may have false hopes of salvation (Matt 7:21-23). It should sober every one of us the realize that the human heart is wicked enough to entertain either error—which one are we personally prone to?
O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be! Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee. Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here's my heart, O take and seal it. Seal it for thy courts above. ("Come thou Fount of Every Blessing" by Robert Robinson, 1758)
The Real Theological Positions
We’ve summarized important strands of biblical teaching. Our goal is to grasp the way the biblical authors used both promises and warnings to move God’s people to assess their spiritual status and motivate them to obedience. Now we need to look at serious evangelical viewpoints that pay attention to the whole counsel of God. A historical perspective should help us do this.
It’s complicated. James Arminius (Jakob Hermanszoon) was four years old when John Calvin died in 1564. He became a pastor and professor in the Netherlands who eventually developed serious objections to the Calvinistic views summarized in the Belgic Confession (1561). Read the Confession here and learn more about Arminius here. After Arminius’ death in 1609, his followers crafted five brief points of disagreement known as Articles of Remonstrance. Their publication in 1610 led eventually to a national church synod, usually called the Synod of Dort, which lasted from November 1618 to May 1619. The main objection of the Remonstrants was about predestination—they believed God chose the elect based on foreseen faith. They affirmed total depravity, yet they taught that people were brought to faith by universal prevenient grace that was resistible, and that it was possible for believers to fall away from the faith. The remonstrant party wanted to address the Synod by arguing against the accepted church confession, but the synod called on them to defend their own views. Due to this procedural dispute, somewhat akin to establishing the burden of proof in a formal debate, the Remonstrants were ejected from the Synod in January 1619. The synod then proceeded to analyze the published Articles of Remonstrance and ultimately approved counter-remonstrance articles that became known as the Canons of Dort. You can read them here. The Remonstrants, led by Simon Episcopius, published their own extensive confession of faith in 1621.
Today the theological heirs of the Remonstrants are found in various Methodist and Wesleyan groups, as well as the Churches of Christ (Restoration movement), and Free Will Baptists. Churches of Christ typically take the view that “. . . God did not predestine individuals to be eternally saved or lost, . . . each man determines his own destiny.” The Free Methodist Church says “Christians can sin willfully and sever their relationship with Christ.” The Free Will Baptists speak with more detail: “Since man, however, continues to have free choice, it is possible because of temptations and the weakness of human flesh for him to fall into the practice of sin and to make shipwreck of his faith and be lost.”
Denominations which ascribe to the Canons of Dort include conservative Dutch Reformed, Presbyterian, and Reformed Baptist Groups. Their views on security and perseverance are perhaps best summarized by the Westminster Larger Catechism (1648), Question 79, regarding whether true believers can fall away from grace:
True believers, by reason of the unchangeable love of God, and his decree and covenant to give them perseverance, their inseparable union with Christ, his continual intercession for them, and the Spirit and seed of God abiding in them, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
The Catechism’s care to speak of a total or final fall from grace reflects a realism that is found in the Canons of Dort Head 5 and the Westminster Confession (1647) chapter 17. There was no glib promise that everyone who professed faith was eternally secure, and there was no concession that God’s elect could invalidate God’s plan for their salvation by their sin. Rather, there was a candid admission that believers/the elect could walk away from God for a time and to some extent, due to the allures of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Yet such believers would ultimately persevere in faith and return to God.
In evangelical circles more recently the security vs. perseverance debate has come to be known as “Lordship salvation” controversy, associated with John McArthur’s salvo against easy-believism, The Gospel According to Jesus. McArthur’s interlocutors have become known as the “free grace movement.” Their insistence that professing believers are secure no matter what contrasts with McArthur’s insistence, in keeping with historic reformed thinking, that genuine faith issues in perseverance.
Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever; unto them his grace he showeth, and their sorrows all he knoweth. Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh; his the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy. Children of the Heavenly Father, Carolina Sandell (1855), English translation Ernst W. Olson (1925)
What’s a Pastor to do?
How should we then care for wayward believers, sheep straying from God’s flock? You may have guessed by now, if you’ve waded through the post to this point, that I hold to the historic reformed view on security, perseverance, and assurance. But whatever our theology, our ministry had better mimic Jesus, whose life, teaching, and care for people shows us the very heart of God.
Here are my thoughts. Please use the reply option below to let me know what you would add or subtract from my ideas.
- Come to your own conclusions. Think through the biblical teaching, the historical positions, and your denomination’s position. How does your personal walk with Christ and your experience in ministry influence your thinking?
- Avoid simplistic thinking and knee-jerk responses to people. If you’re Arminian, don’t tell someone who going through a rough patch that they have lost their salvation. If you believe in eternal security, don’t tell that person that they’ll be in heaven with Jesus one day whether they turn back to Christ or not.
- Accept the reality of spiritual ambiguity. We’re not able to fully understand the spiritual state of some people, let alone confidently categorize them. We’re not God. We’re responsible to be faithful to the God, not to confidently diagnose someone’s final destiny.
- Think through the implications of Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23//Mark 4:1-20//Luke 8:4-15). The parable’s imagery presents two causes of spiritual ambiguity: persecution from the world (rocky ground) and preoccupation with worldly things (thorny ground).
- Discern whether spiritually ambiguous people have issues stemming from the outside or the inside (or both)—are they dealing with negative circumstances or are they overly attracted to what Paul called “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4). Satan uses culture in two ways. At times culture openly opposes believers, and at other times culture’s false allure subtly draws believers away from the kingdom.
- Faithfulness to God calls us to remind spiritually ambiguous people that they will stand before almighty God one day and give an account of their lives.
- Remember that we are Christ’s under-shepherds, accountable to him for the way we care for his flock. Live and speak the truth in love. No doubt wayward believers present a problem to us, but more importantly they present an opportunity for ministry that may lead to our seeing the power of God’s amazing, restoring grace at work.
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