(God) wills that they, who believe and persevere in faith, shall be saved, but that those, who are unbelieving and impenitent, shall remain under condemnation.1 [Jacobus Arminius, italics mine]
“YOU MEAN ALL BAPTISTS AREN’T THE SAME?”
I remember being a first year Bible College student in the late 90s and visiting Mississippi with a friend for the weekend. Even though we both attended a Free Will Baptist college, he attended a Missionary Baptist church in his hometown. I had no idea of the differences; I was young and stupid (as opposed to now, older and less stupid).
The pastor taught the Sunday School class we went to. He opened the class by asking if anyone knew what “apostasy” was. Well, born and raised Free Will Baptist, I knew. I stood up and proudly told the class that it was when a Christian gives up their salvation and becomes lost again. He bristled, chided my answer and then spent the rest of the class explaining why I was wrong and what apostasy really was. (I’m hesitant to add that he later stopped by my friend’s parents’ house to warn them that I was trying to confuse his flock.)
“I’LL NEVER MAKE THAT MISTAKE AGAIN…”
This was enough for me to want to study the subject. And for nearly 20 years, I have. It’s something I study on a regular basis. Yet one reason I’ve waited months since the inception of REO to tackle it is because I have not been sure I can do so without repeating nearly verbatim what Dr. Robert Picirilli teaches in Grace, Faith, Free Will. As far as I’m concerned, that is as good an explanation as it gets. I don’t like to just regurgitate what I’m taught. I obviously prefer to process things and think through them and come up with my own words. But I have not been able to do that with Dr. Picirilli’s writing on this topic.
But I have decided to try. I recently reread Grace, Faith, Free Will for at least the 15th time and have studied other Arminian materials as well, notably from the Society of Evangelical Arminians, which I recently joined. So this is a result of that. This article will be in three parts: an introduction (this), an interpretation of two key Bible books and other texts that teach apostasy, and why I do not believe some texts teach that believers are eternally secure even though they are commonly used to do so.
THIS IS WHAT I BELIEVE…
Let me be upfront and clear about one thing: I am an Arminian. To be more specific, I suppose I would be a Reformed Arminian. As far as I can tell, I would not be perfectly in line with some sub-Arminian groups on this topic. That will be important as I will explain below.
I do my best to align myself with the Bible as I understand it and as I’ve been taught it, after I think through the teachings. And as a result, I’ve found myself very much in line with Arminius’ writings on key topics, and also with people like F. Leroy Forlines and the aforementioned Dr. Picirilli in present day. When I first read Arminius’s writings, I was surprised to find out that he wasn’t entirely convinced that a true Christian could apostatize2. But I think the Remonstrants after him followed his thinking to its logical end in teaching that a true believer could3.
I am not Reformed Arminian or even Free Will Baptist because I was raised that way. I am those things because I am convinced they are correct. I’ve rejected many things–biblically, politically and otherwise–from my youth after I thought through them and wrestled with them. I’ve read a substantial amount on both sides of this topic. I am not ignorant of counterarguments against what I believe.
So let me put this out there as plain and succinctly as I can: I believe the Scriptures clearly and lovingly warn genuine followers of Jesus Christ that they can forfeit their faith and become unbelievers (unsaved, lost, etc.) again. Many in my denomination get upset when a person says we teach that you can “lose your faith” because that is at best poorly worded and at worst a misrepresentation of what FWBs teach. I’m not going to go berserk if a person uses that phrase, but I will submit there are much better words to use because they are Biblical: A true Christian can “fall away” from the faith; or have a “sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from God”; or can become “again entangled” in false teaching and be “overcome” by it; or can make “shipwreck of their faith”. Or countless other words and phrases. The two verbs I use in my title–’desert’ and ‘renounce’–in regards to faith and apostasy are very close to how I think the Bible teaches it. Much better than a word like ‘lose’ with faith since apostasy is a conscious decision and not an accident.
OK, SO NOT ALL ARMINIANS ARE THE SAME EITHER…
I do not believe that a Christian can give up their salvation and then later become a follower of Christ again. I do not think that can happen even once, much less over and over. There are two possible movements in covenant relationship with God: You can move into covenant by faith through God’s grace, once. And you can, if you choose, be taken back out by God’s judgment. After that, it’s over. That will be dealt with in Part 2 when I talk about Hebrews 6 and what it means. But this helps classify me as a certain type of Arminian and helps prevent me from being lumped with some Arminian theology that I do not agree with. Repeated Regeneration is not part of my understanding on this.
Let me be clear as well: My goal over the two parts to this essay after this one is to explain what I think the Bible teaches. I am going to try to avoid creating counterarguments that will be nothing but straw men, which, as Dr. Picirilli says, “go down much too easily”4. So instead of anticipating what I consider to be wrong teaching I plan to just focus on the correct interpretations. That is my aim at least. We will see how well I do.
IF THIS SOUNDS LIKE DR. PICIRILLI, YOU KNOW WHY…
And finally, I want to add that I am no scholar. I am somewhat educated but not nearly to the level of many of my peers and teachers. Therefore, you will find a lot of citations over the next two parts of this essay, from all the people I have mentioned until now (Forlines, Picirili, Arminius himself) and from other intelligent, credible teachers as well. I’m not doing this because I need to tell an audience what I know about the Bible. I’m doing this because the Reformed Arminian view needs to be taught in as many avenues as possible. Not because it’s of a certain group or denomination, but because I believe it is correct theology in interpretation and practice. And if a believer can renounce their faith, we better be warning people about the possibility of it. I am very convinced Peter, Paul, the author of Hebrews, et al, all believed in the reality of genuine Christian apostasy. Because they wrote about it.
So I want to do right by them and their writings, which I strongly and unashamedly consider Scripture. This is an attempt at that.
Part 2 can be found here.
Part 3 can be found here.
- The Works of Arminius 3:412 ↩
- Ibid, 1:258 ↩
- See The Arminian Confession of 1621 (translated by Mark Ellis), notably Chapter 18, Articles 5-6. Mostly notably, consider this quote from Article 6: “Those who remain constant for some time in the true faith and in a certain holy purpose and demonstrate for a while the truth of their faith by good and holy works; but finally, whether by the enticements of the world, the flesh or Satan, or conquered and broken by some violent tyranny, they defect and desert from the faith.” This was written 12 years after Arminius’ death and represents a more developed view on apostasy than what his followers wrote in 1610. ↩
- Grace, Faith, Free Will, from the Forward, iii. Dr. Picirilli admirably uses Calvinists own words in his book to represent them. We all could learn from that as you cannot truly debate someone if you do not understand and cannot articulate their view, in my opinion.