I will not conceal, that there are passages of scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect (of a believer departing from the faith); and those answers to them which I have been permitted to see, are not of such a kind as to approve themselves on all points to my understanding. On the other hand, certain passages are produced for the contrary doctrine which are worthy of much consideration.1 [Jacobus Arminius]
For Part One that introduces this series of essays, Go here.
For Part Two that discusses Hebrews and 2 Peter, Go here.
ONE POINT CALVINISM…
In the previous essay, I looked at two books in the Bible that I believe teach that true believers need to be warned against the possibility of falling away from their faith. But as Arminius himself noted, there are passages that seem on the surface to teach that a believer is unconditionally secure in Christ. Interestingly, there are many Christians that I have known or heard of that believe that a person comes to Christ by their free will in response to grace, but that cannot apostasize after entering that relationship. I am sure the passages we will look at in this essay are part of why.
YOU ARE ETERNALLY SECURE, FROM EVERYTHING BUT YOURSELF…
Before I get to them, I will say as a blanket statement on these passages that I do not think they are talking about persevering in faith. I think passages like the ones below are meant to teach us that nothing external can take us away from God, that God’s love is more powerful than external forces and that God will not retract his promises to us. These things are different categories of theology to me than apostasy and persevering by faith.
To illustrate, if coming into relationship with God is like being put into a spiritual safe house, God through Scripture makes strong assurances that nothing in this world outside of that safe house can take us out of it. Not even Satan himself. That is God-level protection. He also promises He will do his part to keep us there because he loves us so much. We have no reason to fear. None of these things teach that if I want to leave, I can or cannot. Hebrews, 2 Peter, John 15, etc. are all speaking to the issue of choosing to get out. And they are clear to me that if I choose to, I can. Because if I choose to, God will remove me.
But let’s look at some of these passages. I think we will see that by studying their contexts we will arrive at the opposite conclusion as Hebrews and 2 Peter: their contexts lead us away from these being passages about apostasy. Note direct Scripture quotations are in bold.
John 10:27-28: My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.
A. IF YOU DIDN’T LOVE GOD, YOU WOULDN’T FOLLOW JESUS
Jesus is speaking directly to hard-hearted Jews, whom I believe had already rejected God before Christ came and so were naturally not going to accept him as God in the Flesh2 This explains why Jesus said in vs. 26, You do not believe because you are not my sheep instead of the other way around. He was not teaching that only his sheep hear him in the sense that some people are called to God unconditionally, but that those to whom special revelation had been given and who had already rejected God were not going to accept Jesus, the Word of God incarnate.3 The whole section in John where Jesus has repeated showdowns with obstinate Jewish leaders testifies to this. In John 5:37, Jesus said, And the Father has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form. And the opposite in 6:45, Everyone who has learned from the Father comes to me. This explains why Jesus made it clear he and the Father were the same (John 5:19, 23; 8:28; 10:30-33) and that they had already rejected God through Moses (John 5:46-47). They rejected God the Father and, consistently, rejected God the Son. By rejecting one, you automatically will reject the other. If they had accepted God as Father prior they would have loved Jesus (8:42)
B. THE NON-SHEEP WERE ALSO THIEVES…
This matters because I think Jesus in 8:28 is saying plainly to these outside-of-the-covenant Jews that they could not take his true followers out of fellowship with him. They could try and they did. This section of chapter 10 is on the heels of Jesus teaching that robbers would not be able to steal sheep from him. I think this is exactly what the unsaved Jews wanted from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry to the end–to take Jesus’s followers since they deemed him a liar. But they could not. This is noticeably different than the warnings of Hebrews, where, to keep with the illustration, the sheep fall away because they have a sinful unbelieving heart. This passage is not explicitly about continuance in relationship to God by faith4. Hebrews is, at least in significant part.
Despite the passage not teaching continuance on faith explicitly, Arminius taught that continuance is implied in this passage: “Unless the sheep are in the hands of the shepherd, they can not be safe against Satan.”5 This is an argument that can be used for several passages that appear to teach a believer cannot commit apostasy (see conclusion below). We are safe as long as we are his sheep (as long as we ‘are believing,’ etc.)
Romans 8:35-39: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
A. CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
Romans 1-3 is making a case that Jews and Gentiles are equally sinful and separated by God, which at the time of transition from Old Covenant to New, was crucial to preach. Jews needed to be humbled and Gentiles needed hope that they were equal in God’s eyes. Romans 4-7, among other things, is about the supremacy of Christ in regards to our sinful state–how he is the object of our faith, how he died for us while we were enemies, how we can live resurrected from sin because of him and how he sets us from from the body of death.
B. ENCOURAGEMENT, NOT WARNING…
Chapter 8 is, in part, about encouraging Christians in their walk. 8:1 makes it clear there is no condemnation in Christ. Verses. 14-16 say, The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’. Verse 34 asks and answers, Who will condemn us? No one. Note how he says implies that his audience is tempted to live in fear again because of the idea of being enslaved and condemned again. This is important to understanding vs. 35-39. He is writing this particular section to assure a potentially fearful people, not warn a potentially rebellious people. It is not the same context or focus as Hebrews.
If I am talking to woman who, because of abuse in the past, is struggling with fear that her husband won’t love her forever and I know her husband well and that he loves her unconditionally, I will give an entirely different message than to a woman I am sensing is tempted to cheat on her husband. Romans 8 is not about continuing in your faith when faced with apostasy. The audience (at least at this part) needed affirmation of God’s love; not warnings. Hebrews, while not exactly opposite (both books deal with the supremacy of Christ because this is the heart of Christianity), was still very different in this respect.
Both Jews and Gentiles to whom Paul wrote had the potential to struggle in their confidence. Jews because the weight of the law, which Jesus came to fulfill and abolish. No one could condemn them on the basis of that any longer. Gentiles could struggle because they were not primarily God’s chosen people in the previous covenant. But no one could condemn them either because Christ is sufficient for all peoples everywhere under a new, better covenant. This is the point of this section of Romans. It has essentially nothing to do with continuance in relationship to God by faith. Hebrews does. John 15 does. These are the places to go for a clear explanation of apostasy.
Philippians 1:6: “…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
This verse is teaching us that God is faithful to do his part in our salvation6. Just as if I asked Steve Lytle to help tutor me in Spanish and he promised to show up every week, fully prepared, fully patient and fully competent to help me achieve fluency and to help me work on it for the rest of my life, I have no doubt he could promise that and it would have nothing to do with whether I kept with it until the end.
Just as with Romans 8 and John 10, this verse and its context are not about whether believers can depart from the faith.
2 Timothy 2:15: If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.
I do not believe this means “If we are faithless in our relationship to him, He is faithful in his part so that he keeps us in relationship”. That is reading something in the verse that is not there from the verse itself or the context. The previous verse says if we deny him, he will deny us. That sounds clearer because it speaks more to the relationship itself. That God “remains faithful,” I think, means that he will not deny his own character7. That is what the last phrase in vs. 15 is saying. He is faithful to respond with his just character, which means he will deny us as the previous verse says. Because God must judge sin, in this case a denying of him in relationship which is as serious and final a sin and judgment as there is. The teachings of 2 Peter, John 15 and Hebrews, coincide with this interpretation in a much clearer way.
IF YOU’VE EXPLAINED ONE, YOU MAY HAVE EXPLAINED THEM ALL…
There are other passages that are used and I will not treat them in detail. I will say that most of my points above apply to many of the other passages commonly cited for eternal security with no possibility of apostasy (like Romans 11:29 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3).
Some passages promise things like Jesus’s followers have eternal life and never having to die and things like this (John 3:36, 5:24, etc). The idea with these is that these things are true so long as the person continues to follow by faith. Picirilli explains in great detail how the English present continuous form of “is/are believing” can express the Greek correctly. This means that I as long as I “am believing” there are numerous promises given to me as a child of God8.
WARNINGS ARE LEGIT, FEAR IS NOT…
It is not my aim to make anyone obsessively fearful that their salvation is in jeopardy. That is why we have passages like John 10 and Romans 8. But it would also be intellectually dishonest of me to never warn people that apostasy can happen. Again, back to the different audiences–some people who are struggling need God’s promises that he loves us. Others who are dabbling too often in sin and doubt may need my second essay.
At the end of the day, I’m not trying to put a notch in my belt or “score one” for Arminiansm as much as I am trying to teach the Bible. This is what I believe it teaches.
- The Writings of Arminius, 1:458 ↩
- F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest For Truth, 387-88. ↩
- Robert Hamilton, evangelicalarminians.org/files/Hamilton. The Order of Faith and Election in John’s Gospel ↩
- James Leonard, arminianbaptist.blogspot.com/2015/12/eternal-security-and-prooftexts.html ↩
- The Writings of Arminius, III:499 ↩
- Robert Picirilli, Grace, Faith, Free Will, 202 ↩
- Forlines, 272 ↩
- Picirilli, 200-01 ↩