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 seminary 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 or she attends to what is necessary to avoid falling from that secure position.
Language about security is one of those places where we easily 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 of 2 Peter 3:17 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. For Peter, security of salvation in this life is conditioned on steadfast faith in the promise of the Lord.
Matt O’Reilly is pastor of First United Methodist Church in Union Springs, Alabama, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Gloucestershire, and an adjunct member of the faculties of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Follow him on Twitter @mporeilly or connect at http://www.mattoreilly.net/.