As an advocate of what is essentially a Reformed perspective regarding issues related to soteriology, I fully subscribe to the idea that those whom God has chosen for salvation shall, in the end, be saved. I would gladly affirm what the Westminster Confessional describes concerning the Perseverance and Preservation of the Saints.
“They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved. (Phil. 1:6, 2 Pet. 1:10, 1 John 3:9, 1 Pet. 1:5,9)” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XVII)
But I’m not a fan of the title “eternal security” because I don’t believe it rightly emphasizes the importance of both God’s sovereign work in carrying us to completion along with the fact that people are responsible to respond to God’s grace. And I absolutely deplore the term “once saved, always saved” because it has been used to undermine the biblical concept of sanctification and has polluted the water around the issue of salvation. Frankly, there have been innumerable people who have walked around believing that they can live however the want while doing whatever they want because they “made a decision” at some point and were “saved.” This is where I find a lot to commend with Scot McKnight’s recent book, The King Jesus Gospel. Yes, you can be a “Calvinist” and still love much of McKnight’s work and even say, “Amen” to his Jesus-centered theological constructs… especially when the kingdom of God is so prevalent in his writings!
While I believe that the “perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election, flowing from the free and unchangeable love of God the Father,” I also believe that those whom have been effectually called
“may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; (Matt. 26:70, 72, 74) and, for a time, continue therein: (Ps. 51 title, Ps. 51:1) whereby they incur God’s displeasure, (Isa. 64:5, 7, 9, 2 Sam. 11:27) and grieve His Holy Spirit, (Eph. 4:30) come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, (Ps. 51:8, 10, 12, Rev. 2:4, Cant. 5:2–4, 6) have their hearts hardened, (Isa. 63:17, Mark 6:52, Mark 16:14) and their consciences wounded; (Ps. 32:3–4, Ps. 51:8) hurt and scandalize others, (2 Sam. 12:14) and bring temporal judgments upon themselves (Ps. 89:31–32, 1 Cor. 11:32).”
Yes, I affirm both the reality of salvation being a work of God and that his work shall be brought to completion while also affirming that this does not mean that genuine believers may, unfortunately, fall into serious sin and become what is popular referred to as a “backslider.” There’s a tension there, and I’m trying to find the balance.
I think I’ve gotten what I believe out of the way, so let me now provide some commentary on how this is fleshed out in both positive and negative ways…
The positive ramifications of these two tensions is that we can truly trust the Lord. I know there are some who argue that the consequences of affirming the absolute sovereignty and supremacy of God brings about some “issues,” I am not convinced that those issues are ultimately deal-breakers and do not believe they undermine the reality of what I believe Scripture insists upon.
In other words, those whom God “predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). I fully embrace the truth behind Jesus’ statement that “all that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37, emphasis mine) and that it is the will of God that Jesus would not lose any of those that are given to him (John 6:39-40).
Therefore, when those whom I love and whom I believe have experienced the work of God’s grace in their lives begin to falter, I can take comfort knowing that God promises to be at work in those whom he has begun working in. I affirm the very truth that Paul emphasizes when he writes that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). As the prophet Jonah said, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
But this truth is often elevated to a status where people use it as an excuse or a false comfort and/or assurance. This leads me to an abuse of these doctrine…
Abusing the Comfort of God’s Sovereignty in Salvation
One of John Piper’s most important books is Finally Alive. I believe that because I believe Piper does a great job of getting us to move towards a more biblical understanding of being “born again.” Sadly, many people have a radically insufficient concept of what conversion actually looks like. I have heard people tell me that someone is “saved” because they simply raised their hand during a worship gathering many years ago. Never mind the fact that many of the people who were “saved” this way have not made any lifestyle changes! Or what of statements where we are told that so and so loves God “in their own way.”
These are the types of statements that are rampant in many of our churches because people don’t have a proper understanding of salvation (or the gospel!).
Now I realize that the power of love often causes us to do and say (and believe) things that simply aren’t true. I think this is the case with this subject. I believe there are a lot of well meaning people who really try to find comfort in situations where their friends and families have simply “abandoned” the faith. I get that. I understand that. I can even relate to thinking that because there have been many people who I have seen over the years who appeared to have some sort of “experience” with God that later appear to have “lost” their commitment to Jesus. Along with the apostle Paul, I take comfort knowing that “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phi 1:6).
But let’s not forget something important here: that “comfort” can quickly become an excuse. And what I mean by that is this (by way of an illustration): “Uncle Joe” is “comforted” knowing that God is sovereign in salvation and that he shouldn’t give up on his nephew, “Sam.” But what that often equates to is that “Joe” is upset when he feels that “Sam” is being “judged,” despite the fact that we are told explicitly in Scripture that we are supposed to evaluate the lifestyles of people who profess to be followers of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 5:12-13). Not in a rigid “perfectionist” way, but in a grace-filled and encouraging way. “Joe” keeps reminding everyone around him that God works in mysterious ways and that we can’t discount the fact that God is working and we need to just trust God’s work.
On one hand, I want to tell “Uncle Joe” a big fat AMEN! Yes, we do need to trust God and we do need to remember that God works in mysterious ways and that we should never write someone off!
Yet as I’ve said many times before, God works through means! This is to say that God accomplishes his will by using the work of human beings. So while “Uncle Joe” is correct to emphasize the fact that God is sovereign and that we shouldn’t give up on anyone, he’s incorrect if that type of “comfort” leads to not lovingly confronting sin or acknowledging that those who reject Jesus get a “get-out-of-jail-free-card” because they raised their hand once or attended youth group a few times.
That’s why Piper’s book is so important. All of these people who have friends and family who were once showing “signs” of following Jesus who are no longer giving evidence of that lifestyle need to remember that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” actually knows God or is, just importantly, known by God (cf. Matt. 7:21-23).
And don’t take that as a slap in the face either! It is simply a helpful reminder to keep the gospel at the forefront! You are right, don’t give up! Trust God! He works in the lives of those whom he has redeemed! But guess what? He does so both by way of the Holy Spirit opening human hearts and through the Spirit’s work through… *drum roll*… people!
Be Comforted, Not Condemned
Here’s the point I’m trying to make: I think a lot of people are confused about salvation and that a lot of people are making excuses for their friends and family because they are trying to find some semblance of hope in the midst of what appears to be the outright rejection of the things of the kingdom. When we see very little fruit or evidence of God’s grace in the lives of those we love, it can be very discouraging.
The enemy (yes, I believe in a literal devil) and his followers (yes, I believe in literal demons) would love nothing more than to convince you that people who are not really born again, are. And they would love to convince you of nothing more than to embrace an “everything is going to be okay without any effort on my part” while you have many opportunities to lovingly point people to Jesus.
St. Francis of Assisi is purported to have said the following:
“Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.”
As Ed Stetzer (and Mark Galli) have demonstrated for anyone who is not familiar with Francis’ ministry, he never actually said that. So a practical theology that interacts with friends and family under the guise that using words and communicating is not needed is faulty at best and absolutely satanic at worst. You must use words and communicate with those you love! Heck, you need to do that with those you don’t love!
Therefore, be comforted by the sovereign grace of God, knowing that he is at work far more often than we realize and even when things seem hopeless, they aren’t. But don’t use that comfort as an excuse to demean and belittle how Scripture describes the “new birth” or being “born again.”
Piper gives us three reasons why Christians should have a robust understanding of conversion (p.18):
- When you are truly born again and grow in the grace and knowledge of what the Lord has done for you, your fellowship with God will be sweet, and your assurance that he is your Father will be deep. I want that for you.
- If you know what really happened to you in your new birth, you will treasure God and his Spirit and his Son and his word more highly than you ever have. In this, Christ will be glori?ed.
- In the process of believers discovering what really happened to them, the seriousness and the supernatural nature of conversion will rise and that, I pray, will serve a more general awakening of authenticity in the Christian church so that religious hypocrisy will diminish and the world will see real love and sacri? ce and courage in the service of Christ.
Yes, understanding true conversion is important. Otherwise, how can we understand these Scriptures that Piper points us to:
1 John 2:29: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him.”
1 John 3:9: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.”
1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
1 John 5:4: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.”
1 John 5:18: “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.”
Don’t take sin lightly. And don’t take your role in the process of those you loved growing in Christ lightly either. Remember, Jesus has disciples. People who follow him. And they aren’t perfect and sometimes they need help… but they are in Christ, not the world. They are born of God!
Maintain the balance… it’s important.
By the way download John Piper’s Finally Alive for free here!
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.