So what is the debate about security really about? Well, there are two realms within which this debate takes place: pastoral and theological. So instead of looking at the two positions in succession, we’ll be looking at these two realms instead, once we define the positions in play.
So the Calvinist position goes by several names, but it is worth distinguishing between three concepts. First there is the idea of eternal security or ES. This is the belief that once a person has been regenerated, justified, and elect, it is impossible for those works of God to be undone and for a person to return to a depraved state. Second, there is the position of what I call Once Saved Always Saved or OSAS. This is the belief that once a person has accepted Jesus in their heart, that they remain saved regardless of what they do. OSAS is considered to be an aberrant take on the eternal security doctrine, and isn’t considered to be proper Calvinism. I would also personally call it heresy, and I believe most Calvinists are in agreement with me on that. Finally there is the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints or PS. PS is the belief that if we are ever saved, then you will remain faithful for your entire life. Thus those that do fall away were never truly saved to begin with.
So we can see OSAS and PS as two different interpretations of ES1 . Since the average Calvinist typically rejects OSAS2, from here on out, when I am referring to eternal security, I really just mean PS.
Arminians instead focus on the notion of present assurance. This is the belief that it is possible to know whether or not you are truly saved by the internal witness of the Spirit and the demonstration of His fruit in your life. Also, we stress that our sense of security comes from our relational knowledge of God Himself instead of unknowable decrees. This said, some Arminians hold to eternal security and some do not.
However, those of us who don’t, myself included, believe in what is known as conditional security. That is, you will remain protected against all of the wiles of the enemy as long as you have faith in Christ. It is important to note that security is conditioned on the same ground as election.
The pastoral concern comes from the person who comes into the pastor’s office and asks, “Am I saved?” Let’s call this person Leonard. So what is the pastor to say?
Well, let’s talk about Leonard really quick. Leonard accepted Christ when he was 19. He has been in Bible study every week since then. He has been the first volunteer for every evangelistic outreach. He demonstrates all of the fruits of the Spirit. Therefore, it is easy for the pastor to say, “of course you are. Don’t you remember Christ coming into your heart?”
Now here comes the key confession. Leonard replies, “Yes. And I know that Christ is real. But I have a secret sin in my life, and I am afraid that God has rejected me because of it. I can’t feel His Spirit as I once did.” So what is the pastor to say?
Let’s look at the response of the eternal security pastor first: “Leonard, you have to remember that you were born again in Christ. Take comfort in that. Our salvation doesn’t hinge upon our daily commitment to some law. It isn’t something that comes one day and is gone the next. If you were born again, then you are saved. This is simply something God is working out through you, and this fear that you have is God’s conviction, bringing you into a deeper level of sanctity.”
That sounds really good. That is the kind of encouragement Leonard needs. The problem of course is that it is kind of a lie from the Calvinist perspective. The truth is that given the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, neither Leonard nor the pastor has any real reason to believe the key premise in the argument: that Leonard is born again. They have no idea. Therefore, for the theologically reflective person, this word of comfort is rather hollow.
Now the causal aspect of things doesn’t really factor in here3 , but I’ll get to it in the second section. However, when we come to the Arminian perspective, our social centeredness comes in strong. Here is how the conditional security pastor would answer:
“Leonard, who do you go to when you are feeling guilty?”
“Well, you. God.”
“So you pray when you feel guilty. Why? Do you believe that God is the only one that can right your sin?”
“Yes, of course”
“Do you believe that He is the only one who can give you assurance that you are saved?”
“Then you are saved. Yes you are sinning, but God is convicting you of that sin, drawing you to repentance and wholeness. But if you weren’t saved, your sin would cause you to curse God, not run to Him. Remember, our salvation doesn’t hinge upon our daily commitment to some law. It is our faith that God looks at. Our trust in Him. If you believe that God can deliver you from the sin, then you have a penitent heart, and your faith in Him is intact. That’s the key to salvation: not our perfection, but Christ’s perfection.”4
This is key. It isn’t some event that happened in the past, or some declaration in heaven that we appeal to. It is the person’s relationship with God. It is who they are in Christ that matters, for it is Christ who saves. That gives the person assurance, and it is assurance, not security, that they really need. To give a person a sense of security by sacrificing assurance is like selling the car for the gas: it gets you nowhere. Instead, teach faith, for salvation is free.
The principle concern that Arminians have is the present assurance issue mentioned above. There is a secondary concern, and that has to do with security being grounded in decrees rather than in Christ Himself. However, I’m not really going to address that concern here because I don’t think it speaks to the issue at hand.”5
However the Calvinist does have an issue here which is worth pointing out. It is similar to the defeat issue mentioned in the Atonement installment of this series.6 Here they’ll say that if God has saved the person, then how can that be undone? That seems to imply a kind of weakness in God’s salvation.
Now again, notice the emphasis on power. This is, again, a very causal concern. Indeed if we look deeper we’ll see that the casual nature is still there. They’ll often point out certain acts such as regeneration, election, or predestination, and ask how these can be undone. The emphasis here is on the nature of the actions! The actions accomplish a certain thing, so some kind of equally powerful counter action would have to undo it.
Now, to me, I have trouble seeing the issue. Election for instance is simply understood completely differently by me.7 And predestination isn’t undone, but it isn’t presently experienced either, so it simply isn’t in the purview of the discussion.8
The real issue is regeneration from what I can see. We can define an apostate as one who has been regenerated, and yet turns away from God. Such a person will not inherit eternal life. The Calvinist says that this person wasn’t truly regenerate, but I just don’t see why. I see nothing about the concept of being reborn which entails that you cannot re-die. And I’ve never really had a Calvinist point out why they think this is the case.
Now it may be connected to the idea of Total Depravity. If Total Depravity implies one is unable to turn towards God, and regeneration is the opposite, then it should imply the opposite. But again, I don’t see the entailment here. Especially since every Calvinist I know will fully admit that a regenerated person is capable of sinning, even though they would say a depraved person cannot do good. So I’m not sure if that is what they are thinking here, and I don’t want to put words in their mouth.
But I do think that this emphasis on ability is what is really motivating the Calvinist. In other words, there is no logical implication going on here, but a casual concern about giving humanity the ability to leave God. I believe that they are afraid that if this is true, than apostasy is somehow inevitable (though I don’t see why since our depravity is gone). Here, I simply have to give my skepticism. Other than their vehement insistence on this point, I see no real argument. Indeed, in terms of ability, I don’t see how the regenerate is any different than Adam and Eve.
However, the concern is something that we as Arminians should take seriously. If we are going to convince a Calvinist of their error, we cannot be dismissive of their concerns, but we must seek to understand them, and show why they are unimportant or how Arminianism satisfies the concern better.
And this has really been the point of this exercise. To understand our opponents so we can be effective in communicating with them. I’m not interested in simply winning debates. I’m interested in spreading God’s truth and protecting the church from error. This means not out-arguing the Calvinist, but convincing them. I hope that this series has been helpful for you in doing precisely that.
1 It occurred to me as I wrote this sentence that every one of these acronyms ended with an S. Never noticed that before. I’ve learned something today.
2 And rightly so.
3 Unless you consider the idea of finding comfort in mechanical inevitability, trying to be assured of salvation as one is of one’s car starting in the morning. Meanwhile, the kind of assurance that God grants us is more of the kind of a child trusting his father to catch him at the bottom of a slide.
4 It is worth pointing out that this is a real conversation I had with someone some 6 or 7 years ago. It was with the mother of a friend of mine who had spent her entire life wrestling with trying to be good enough for the church and for God, coming out of the holiness movement. The husband had actually stopped going to church because she was addicted to serving the church to the point of self-detriment.
After the conversation above, she was shocked, never hearing an answer like that before. A year later, when I saw them again, the husband thanked me, telling me that she had never been more sure of her salvation in her life. This was with her speaking to many Calvinist pastors before she had spoken to me. I’m not saying this because I think I did a good job. I’m saying this because simple Arminian theology really works! Calvinists who claim that we have no words of comfort to give to such a person simply doesn’t understand what Arminian theology is.
5 Namely the centeredness of the theologies.
6 Indeed they often will also point out the defeat issue here as well. But since I already went over this, I saw no reason to repeat it.
7 And may I note that corporate election is very socially centered? We are the family or people of God!
8 This would of course depend on your definition of predestination. Calvinists basically use it as another name for election, or the effects of election. Arminians typically have two definitions that we tend to use, depending on which Greek verb is in context, and to some degree which Arminian you talk to.
One definition we can call “being preset”, which is simply to say that you are on a kind of established path to a destination. So like a train is preset towards a certain destination: it isn’t simply an open field. However, this clearly could be changed. One could change tracks or get derailed (or shipwrecked :-)). The other definition we can call “foreknown”. God simply knows what our ultimate destiny is going to be. Clearly, this can’t change for God does not change His mind. But we don’t have access to the Book of Life. But that isn’t really what one is talking about when we are talking about apostasy, so it strikes me as moot.
Above I have used the second defintion.