J.C. Thibodaux, “The Calvinist Mitigation of the Divine Warnings Given to the Saints”

, posted by JC_Thibodaux

Central to the debate over inevitable perseverance are the the numerous warnings in scripture cautioning the saints against falling away. A prominent explanation offered as to why the scriptures would say such things, if falling away is not truly possible for a believer, is that God uses such warnings as a means to spur Christians on to perseverance. Despite these efforts, the scriptural warnings addressed to genuine believers, some of which pronounce eternal destruction for violating certain commandments of God, constitute an airtight argument against the Calvinist teaching of inevitable perseverance of the saints, in that teaching that what the scriptures warn against could not truly occur strips the divine warnings of all relevance, making them of no effect.

When debating the subject, I’ve often used this concept as a starting point, and would like to address some of the more common rebuttals I’ve run across. I feel it’s necessary to clear a few things up first: For starters, do the consequences to at least some of these warnings speak of genuine believers forfeiting eternal life? One passage I often reference, Revelation 22:18-19, is quite clear on the matter:

“For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life [most texts say ‘Tree of Life’], from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Revelation 22:18-19)

This passage clearly is addressed to believers specifically and primarily, for the simple reason that only believers have any share at all in the holy city of New Jerusalem (in contrast to the wicked, who have no inheritance in God’s kingdom at all – Ephesians 5:5). The meaning of such a punishment being carried out is also unmistakable, as it is synonymous with being separated from Christ for all eternity. Other passages such as Matthew 5:27-30 (or alternately, Mark 9:43-48) and Hebrews 4:9-11, likewise deliver warnings to the saints against apostatizing. The passages are so clear in fact that a great many Calvinists have abandoned the notion that the Bible never warns the saints against falling away, and instead adopted the stance that we as saints are genuinely so warned as a means to help us to endure (e.g. Schreiner and Caneday’s The Race Set Before Us). This and its related arguments are what I address here chiefly.

What does ‘make of no effect’ mean?

I’ve debated with at least one opponent who tried to argue that the warnings were still ‘effective’ (i.e. performed their intended purpose in encouraging saints to persevere) despite Calvinism’s reducing their consequences to abstract absurdities with no bearing on real life. Aside from its inherent difficulties, such an argument is immaterial to the point I was making. ‘Making the word of God of no effect’ is a reference to Matthew 15:6, which Christ uses to describe how the Pharisees treated God’s word through their tradition:

He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”– then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition. (Matthew 16:3-6)

The Lord stated one thing, but the Pharisees thought they had a better idea, and tried to supplant God’s word with their own. Their making God’s word of no effect doesn’t mean that they caused absolutely everyone to cease obeying His command, but that by their tradition, they were attempting to downplay an important principle taught in the scriptures to the point of irrelevance, so that whoever believed the teachings of their tradition would leave the word of God unheeded and set aside as pointless or unnecessary.

The main thrust

A crucial point in this debate is the inescapable corollary of teaching inevitable perseverance: Given that the word of God strictly and sincerely warns the saints against falling away to the point of perishing eternally, the Calvinist view of perseverance requires that under no circumstance or condition will any saint ever violate the warnings given, and concerning the primary penalty of their violation, the rescindment of eternal inheritance in the kingdom of God, Calvinism requires that their consequences never be able to truly occur. With that concept in mind, we’ll see how well the common Calvinist explanations of the divine and dreadful warnings measure up.

Calvinist Interpretation of the Warning Passages

Why it Doesn’t Work Out

The warning passages are to sternly spur believers on to good works and holiness, they provide motivation for a saint to endure unto the end.

How exactly would anyone be ‘motivated’ or ‘spurred on’ by a consequence that they believe will absolutely never occur? No rational person is roused to action by what they believe to be hollow threats or fairy tales with no correlation to reality, teaching inevitable perseverance therefore negates any such motivating factor, making the word of God of no effect.

The warning passages are to move the hearts of the saints into the holy reverence and fear of God, driving us to “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

A variant of the first argument, for a warning to inspire fear in any soundly thinking individual, that person must believe it to be a real-world possibility, since it’s patently absurd to fear or tremble at what one believes will absolutely never happen. Such a fallacious interpretation strips the divine warnings and their consequences of any real effect, denigrating God’s admonitions from these passages into religious myths that are completely isolated from the real world.

The warning passages are strictly hypothetical, they are stated for the purpose of inspiring awe at God’s power in keeping us from their consequences, as well as thankfulness and humility for His provision.

Not quite like the other arguments, this one is very weak. While there certainly are passages in scripture showing God’s power and mercy by what He could have done or not done, e.g.,

And as Isaiah said before: “Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.” (Romans 9:29)

Such passages as this clearly express or imply the outcome (“If He had not left us a seed” plainly indicates that He did leave them one) to emphasize the point. In stark contrast, there is no hint of “If God didn’t imperatively keep you from falling away, you would perish,” in the passages I’ve cited, they rather subjectively express the idea, “If you depart from God, you will certainly perish,” with no textual support lending any suggestion of impossibility, making this Calvinistic interpretation a very contrived and untenable eisegesis of the text.

Because the election of one living in sin is uncertain and suspect, the fear invoked by the warning passages is both a strong and valid motivation for a backslider or nominal Christian to repent, as it describes what his fate will be if he doesn’t.

As with believers, why should a backslider fear a consequence that he is told will absolutely never occur? If we teach that God is doing something akin to ‘bluffing,’ and would never actually revoke a saint’s eternal inheritance, then any fear such a warning and consequence might inspire is completely mitigated, again rendering the divine consequences of no effect.

The warning passages are addressing non-genuine believers on their own terms: They indeed believe that they have some inheritance in God’s kingdom, God is merely showing that no matter what they think they have, it will be taken away from them.

The same problem plagues this interpretation: Why would such a warning scare those deluded into believing that they’re saved if you preach to everyone within the church (both genuine and unwittingly counterfeit believers) that the consequences warned against will absolutely never occur to anyone? Any person possessed of even a modicum of consistency would conclude that if he or she is elect, then what they’re doing will surely not incur such a consequence, since it’s not logically possible to suffer a repercussion that will absolutely never happen (and if they’re not elect, what would they stand to lose anyway?), which again robs the word of God of all effect.

The Calvinist may argue that perhaps false believers just need to be told this so they’ll believe that genuine saints could truly perish (which would include them in their own estimation), so that in fear they might repent. This defense is highly problematic in that it amounts to saying we should try to make people believe what is untrue (and in the popular Calvinist view, an affront to the gospel) for the sake of getting them to believe the truth of the gospel. If you’re not seeing the problems with this approach, I can only suggest reading Romans 3:8.

When reading the widespread Calvinist interpretations of the warning passages, one quickly realizes that they’ve moved past trying to do exegesis, and have now stooped to scurrying for some way to just make the passages fit their doctrine, as they desperately and vainly attempt to jam some square pegs into several invincibly uncooperative round holes. And just as it is with such mismatched sets, the scriptural warnings to the saints simply will not fit the Calvinist paradigm. To many proponents of such a system, even the suggestion that salvation could be forfeited is serious doctrinal error, I’ve dealt with some who have even called conditional security ‘blasphemous.’ But if believing that God might truly revoke the salvation of those who abandon Him is blasphemous or heterodox, then we shouldn’t even see a hint of any such notion put forth as doctrine in the teachings of scripture (except stated in the negative), yet scripture repeatedly places that very principle with its admonitions to the body of Christ. Such principles are not negligible or minor, for when God speaks of who will inherit eternal life and who won’t, He is conveying concepts of the utmost importance that saints would be foolish to ignore.

Being unable to convincingly square their theology with these biblical principles, some of the more militant Calvinists wind up (rather ridiculously) proclaiming that it’s okay for the word of God to make us fear permanently falling from grace, but wrong for us to believe that we actually could (?)! They apparently expect their fellow believers to buy into some vacillating mania of constantly denying what God warns us against ever truly coming to pass (and berating anyone who suggests otherwise), yet simultaneously being spurred on to holiness by dread of it coming to pass! What a severe logical disconnect and exercise in wild inconsistency to preach that something will never occur, and in the same breath say that its occurrence should be feared. Such reasoning does not denote faith. We don’t swap out the doctrine of the Trinity for Modalism every time someone from the ‘Jesus Only’ crowd pulls out Deuteronomy 6:4 -genuine faith in the word of God does not entail embracing contradictory positions in different scenarios or tossing consistency out the window.

For Calvinists to preserve their doctrine, they must reduce the warnings and consequences of scripture to mere hypothetical fantasies and bluffs, appealing instead to their practical benefits to the saints. Yet as we’ve shown in the table above, by insisting that they’re strictly hypothetical and will never truly occur, they in fact negate even their practical benefit to anyone not willing to engage in doublethink. As a comparison of the two basic systems of belief, consider the conclusions that both sides draw from the data: We all believe that the scriptures state,

* That those who believe in Christ will never perish

* That God keeps those who are His

Yet it is also written,

* If abandon God, He will reject us

* We should take heed, lest we fall

The conditional securist concludes that all those who continue to believe in Christ will receive final salvation and that we are kept by God’s power through faith, but that given the warnings against final apostasy and eternal destruction, our position within God’s covenant of mercy is conditional upon remaining faithful to Him (as God’s covenants generally are in scripture, see 1 Samuel 2:30, 1 Kings 2:4, Deuteronomy 31:6, 16-17, Romans 11:20-22, etc.), it would therefore be unwise to write off what God’s word warns against as an impossibility or absurdity.

In contrast, many Calvinists take God’s promises concerning salvation to be unconditional, and therefore assume that they simply override whatever else the scriptures have to say that would indicate conditionality, concluding that the warnings and so forth delivered to the saints must be ultimately inconsequential stuff that God just rattles off to ‘spook’ us into living right.

Which of these methods of interpretation shows faith in the counsel of God and spiritual discernment? Are we to explain away and negate teachings in scripture that we don’t prefer to believe by subordinating them to favorite proof-texts, or are we to humbly believe and apply all the principles the words of God impart? Does God’s faithfulness to His promises negate the very conditions He has placed on them, or do those stipulations clarify His promises? The Lord has sternly warned us, but a great many Reformed theologians think they have a better idea, and thus try to supplant God’s word with their own. By their tradition, they are attempting to downplay an important principle conveyed in the scriptures to the point of irrelevance, so that whoever consistently believes their teachings will leave the word of God unheeded and set aside as pointless or unnecessary, for if one believes that no saint will ever suffer the consequences for violating what the scriptures warn us against, then he is left with no real reason to heed such a warning at all. Robert Shank puts it more eloquently,

“The fallacy of Calvinism’s absurd assumption, essential to the defense of its doctrine of perseverance, is constantly demonstrated in the tragic inconsistency in the personal ministry of pastors who entertain it. They profess to believe that, while all true believers will inevitably persevere, it is only within the context of the dynamic exercise of faith that the perseverance is unfolded. They profess to believe that the warning passages are designed of God to effect this perseverance by motivating believers to continue in faith and to fear apostasy, and that the perseverance is realized only as believers take solemn heed to the warning passages. These things they profess to believe (at least, when pressed to account for the presence of the warning passages). But their preaching and teaching seemed designed to prevent the warning passages and ‘alarming admonitions’ from accomplishing the purpose which they profess to believe God intends them to serve. They never miss an opportunity to ‘explain’ the warning passages in such a way as to dispel any concern which their hearers might have for them, and they continually assure them that they are unconditionally secure for all time and eternity, with no contingency whatever. They constantly do their utmost to destroy the concern of their hearers for the warnings and admonitions which they acknowledge to be God’s means of motivating believers to persevere. Those who do preach the warnings with earnestness and conviction they accuse of being ‘confused’ and ‘doctrinally unsound,’ and of not believing in salvation by grace. Wisdom is justified by her children; but only eternity will reveal the full measure of the tragedy of this popular fallacy and the inevitable inconsistency of all who embrace it.” (Robert Shank, Life in the Son, pp.172-173; special thanks to Steve Noel for the quote)

In short, the teaching of inevitable perseverance is a philosophical undermining of any pertinence to the divine cautionings and their accompanying retribution as revealed in God’s written word. If we teach that the outcome of a saint permanently falling from grace as scripture warns against could never really occur, then we remove all reason to fear any consequence from such an action ever occurring; for who, with any consistency of mind, fears (or even pays any mind to) what he firmly believes will never happen? For the sternest and most urgent warnings that scripture delivers to the saints to have any impetus at all, one must believe that their consequences are genuinely possible to incur. If we teach a doctrine which states that the biblical cautions can never really be violated by any saint, and that their consequences could never truly be suffered by anyone under any real-world scenario, then we not only remove any link they have to reality, we also remove any incentive to even take them seriously, and in doing so make God’s Holy word of no effect.