Question: Dear Dr. Luginbill, thank you for your website. We are thoroughly enjoying your writing on the Angelic Conflict. Indeed, although I heard it mentioned, I never knew much about it and your work has opened my eyes to many wonderful things. I do have a question, however, regarding your position on eternal security; specifically, at what point does the believer cease to be saved and enter back into the darkness? When I was a boy growing up I was raised in a denomination that taught a believer could lose his salvation. Being a young boy, I was easily influenced and went with the flow of the group. As time progressed, I decided to study and learn why some would teach eternal security, and after much consideration concluded there was more to the issue than I had ever thought. Over time my view has changed and I currently fall into that camp that teaches eternal security. However, you have raised issues in my mind once again and brought to the fore verses I left unanswered ages ago. After looking up the list of verses you present for your case, I found some of them answerable, and others difficult to answer. Apart from specific verses and their meaning, there is a side issue that seems to play over and over in my mind. During my childhood I realized my teachers seemed to draw the line of salvation forfeiture at different places. One person would set forth a set of "don'ts" which hardly ever corresponded with the next person's set of "don'ts". I could not find any two people to agree where the line was to be drawn, that after a believer crossed that line he was declared "out" of the circle. Some may disagree with me, but I happen to think that the way of obtaining salvation is very simple and clear. The issue is faith in Christ and nothing more (John 3:16, 18, 36; 20:31; Acts 4:12; 16:31; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9 etc.). Now, if the Bible is so very clear regarding how to be saved and to enter into the circle, why would the Bible then be ambiguous regarding the forfeiture of that salvation? If the loss of salvation were a possibility, wouldn't God be specific to tell His children where the line is so as to be sure to stay away from it. Indeed, God told Adam and Eve clearly where the line was in the garden; surely He would tell those who are His children today. So, where is the line? In contrast to the jailer in Acts 16:30, what must I do become unsaved?
Response: First let me say that I very much appreciate your kind words, and how very encouraged I am to hear that you and yours have found these materials helpful.
As to the issue of "eternal security", let me say that you raise the issue in a very thoughtful way. I entirely agree that you have framed it in exactly the right terms, to paraphrase if I may, "if one is saved by faith alone, then how is one unsaved". To this I would reply "by lack of faith alone". From my reading of scripture, believers are saved, unbelievers are not. The central problem with the "eternal security" teaching is, in my view, not so much the premise "once saved always saved" as it is the underlying (though often unexpressed) assumption that "once a person believes, that person is always a believer". That this assumption does not stand the test of logic may not be a fatal fault (after all, we strive to be theological rather than logical), but it also fails to stand the test of scripture in my reading of the Bible. Those who believe are believers, that is to say, those who continue in their faith in Jesus Christ:
So even if some of the branches have been broken off, and you, wild olive branch that you are, have been grafted into their place and become a partaker of the rich root of the natural olive tree, don't boast over those branches. For if you boast, [remember] that you don't support the root, but the root supports you. Now someone may say "Branches have been broken off for me to be grafted in." True enough. They were broken off because of their unbelief, and you stand secure because of your faith. But don't think arrogant thoughts. Rather, have a care. For if God didn't spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. So consider God's mercy and severity. For He is severe towards those who have fallen away, but merciful towards you - if, that is, you continue in that mercy. But if you don't, you too will be cut off. And if they don't continue in their unbelief, they will be grafted back in.
Faith is the issue. It is possible to continue in faith. It is possible to continue in unbelief. It is possible to move from unbelief to faith. And, as is evident from Paul's warning to gentile believers in the passage above, it is also possible to move from faith back to unbelief again. The most chilling and most famous example of this is the Exodus generation who, while they had at one point been believers (cf. Heb.11:29), soon compromised their faith in a very dramatic way:
Let us not put Christ to the test, as some of them (i.e., the Exodus generation) did and were killed by serpents. And let us not complain, as some of them complained, and were killed by the Destroyer. These things happened to them as an example to us and were written to warn us (i.e., to avoid similar apostasy) – we who live at the culmination of the ages (i.e., at the doorstep of the Tribulation). So let him who thinks he stands firm beware lest he fall (i.e., from faith; cf. Rom.11:22).
1st Corinthians 10:11-12
The mechanics of this process are sad and simple enough. The more a person who did truly put his/her faith in Christ at one point ignores this relationship of central importance, the more he/she is likely to stray, and when difficulties arrive, the plant of faith may wither under the strain (Matt.13:20-21; Mk.4:19). So that beyond any scriptural doubt there is definitely a category of people who are believers "only for a season" (Lk.8:13). As your e-mail implies, a real difficulty in explaining the problems with "eternal security" is the tendency of those who have not gotten the matter completely clear in their thinking to make it all about sin. Sin is an issue, but it is an issue in the loss of faith (and it is the loss of faith which makes a one-time believer no longer a believer). The more one gives oneself over to a life that flies in the face of everything God is telling them, the more, of necessity, they alienate themselves from God in so doing. Who of us could continue to disrespect and disobey our earthly parents without becoming estranged from them – and not only externally, but also in our hearts (as we turn away from them, put them out of our minds, and justify our behavior to ourselves)? This result is therefore not only because of their hardening attitude against us, but also because of the natural fact that anytime we as human beings oppose and belittle a source of authority, of necessity we must harden our own attitudes against that authority in order to persevere in our arrogance. It is impossible to disrespect and disobey any "master", and at the same time be a genuine and willing servant to that master. Inevitably, a course of rejection of God's authority weakens the faith of the person so inclined, and, taken to its extreme, will eventually kill off faith altogether, that is, bring about the "death" of faith.
Understand, it is not that some sins are so bad that God says "well, now you are removed from the category of believer"; rather, it is that by rejecting God and His authority long and enthusiastically enough a person will inevitably stop believing in Jesus Christ, stop being a true and genuine disciple of our Lord. When rebellion becomes so pronounced that a person not only can no longer look his heavenly Parent in the face but has no desire to do so, faith, if not dead, is surely in mortal danger. The fact that some have indeed returned from such extremes should not cause us assume that all will (indeed, in my experience and in my reading of scripture - specifically the Great Apostasy of the Tribulation - such recoveries are rarities).
Every one is tempted by his own lust, being dragged away [by it] and enticed [by it]. Then, should lust conceive (i.e., should the person give in to it), it gives birth to sin. And sin, should it be fully carried out to the end (i.e., should the person give in to a life of sin), produces death (i.e., spiritual death, the death of faith).
If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin (i.e., involved in sin) which is not unto death (i.e., is not "deadly"), let him ask [forgiveness on his brother's behalf], and life will be given to him (i.e., forgiveness and deliverance), that is, in those cases where those sinning are not [sinning] unto death (i.e., engaged in a process of "deadly" faith destroying sinfulness which is tantamount to apostasy).
1st John 5:16
Don't you understand that if you give your allegiance to anyone to obey them as servants, then you truly are their servants when you obey them? [This is true] whether [you give yourselves] to sin, which results [experientially and ultimately] in death (i.e., of faith = spiritual death), or whether [you give yourselves] to obedience [to Christ], which results [experientially and ultimately] in righteousness?
In my view, all these passages make it clear that there is indeed a connection between sin and loss of salvation, but that the essence of this connection is to be found in the negative effect that sin and sinfulness have on faith in the long term. Faith is an active living thing, like the love a husband has for a wife, or vice versa. The love may be a great love, but neglect it and it will suffer. Love can increase, but if neglected human love can fail and fall. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is a commitment on our parts, a pledging of allegiance to Him, if you will, whereby we recognize that He is our Lord, and pledge ourselves to follow Him as His disciples come what may, to bear any cost, any sacrifice in His service, to hate even our own lives that we may love Him the more. But if, instead of following through on this commitment, we find ourselves completely ignoring our relationship with Him, completely ignoring His mandates to us, how can our relationship with Him not suffer? How can our faith in Him not decrease. Carried out to its logical end, complete despite for Jesus and His Word ends in time in the death of faith. And when faith is dead, that person is no longer a believer.
Scripture is clear that discipleship is a life-long process and a straight and narrow road. One cannot completely ignore one's obligations to Jesus Christ without coming to have contempt for Him instead of faith and love. That is why, in my opinion, James is so emphatic in his teaching that faith without faithfulness ("works") is not really faith at all, but becomes merely a dead name of no account (Jas.2:14-26). True faith is a living, active thing. If a person really does have Jesus Christ at the center of their lives, he/she will in at least some ways exhibit the newness of life of which scripture speaks (Eph.4:17-24 cf. Eph.2:1-10). But when a person turns back to the world, that is also very obvious to even the casual observer:
For if after having escaped the defilements of this world by recognizing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ they should be overcome [spiritually] by becoming involved again in these foul things, then they have become worse off than they were before. For it would have been better for them not to have accepted the Righteous Way in the first place, rather than - once having accepted this holy command [for faith in Christ] committed to them - to now turn their backs on it. And so in their case this proverb is true: "The dog has returned to his vomit, and the sow, though washed, to her muddy sty.
2nd Peter 2:20-21
Note that Peter says this person, clearly involved in gross sin, has "turned their back" on the "holy commandment". This I would take as the commitment they made to accept God's promise of eternal life, that is, salvation through believing in Christ. For what is it to believe in Jesus Christ but to trust that by accepting Him and following Him we have eternal life? And, clearly, being a believer in Jesus is not an academic exercise, but is on the contrary a commitment to a life of following Him. Those who grow weary of following inevitably fall into sin, but we can see from the passage above that turning away from Christ leads to sin just as surely as sin leads to turning away from Christ. The culmination of this process of an unrepentant commitment to sin is, taken to the extreme, the loss of faith – not through some decree from God, but through the believer's own termination of their own faith by means of a string of conscious decisions to disobey God which, over time, erode and compromise whatever genuine faith they originally had. We all sin, but in our continuing relationship of faith with our Lord we confess that sin, are forgiven, and get back on the road to Zion. John in his first epistle tells us that we are sinners and need to confess our sins whenever we commit them (1Jn.1:5-10). But he also says that he also says that is writing this letter "so that you won't sin" (1Jn.2:1) and throughout the course of the letter describes the believer as someone for whom sin is not the norm (cf. 1Jn.3:6, etc.). This is not a contradiction, rather it is a confirmation that the Christian way of life is one of obediently following Jesus Christ (where sin is an anomaly), and not a life wherein one can choose one's own way in all things without ever bumping into eternal consequences.
I can well understand in light of the abuses of the medieval Roman church (especially salvation by works) why Reformed theologians would wish to emphasize the sovereignty of God and His election. These things are true doctrines, but they do not theologically contradict the fact that God's election is based upon our behavior (which He foreknew). It is indeed possible that there are some believers who may only turn away partially, or who are taken out of life before their apostasy can come to fruition. And no man can really know what is in another man's heart or can fully appreciate the choices of God Almighty. That said, how utterly foolish, given all the passages of scripture which warn against complacency and which warn against the assumption of "salvation-no-matter-what", to assume that "anything goes", at least as far as salvation is concerned. The Bible is clear: salvation is conditional ... upon our continuing-, persevering-, and living-faith in Jesus Christ (e.g., 1Cor.15:2; Heb.3:6):
Make sure, brothers, that none of you develop an evil heart of unbelief [lack of faith] by turning away (lit. "apostatizing") from the living God. Rather keep encouraging each other every day as long as we still call it "today" (i.e. remain in this world), lest any of you be hardened [in heart] by the deception of sin. For we all have a share in Christ, as long as we hang onto that original confidence [of our faith] firmly to the end, as it says: "Today if you hear His voice, don't harden your hearts as they did at the provocation [at Meribah]." For who provoked Him, though they had heard? Did not all of them who came out of Egypt under Moses' leadership do so? And with whom was He enraged for forty years? Wasn't it the very people who had sinned, then dropped dead in the desert? And to whom did He swear that they would never enter into the [place of] rest [He had promised], but to those who had been disobedient to Him? Now we see that they were unable to enter into this [place of rest] because of their unbelief (i.e., lose of faith).
I suppose my biggest philosophical disagreement with the "eternal security" teaching is that it does what so many false teachings do, namely, embraces one part of the truth while ignoring another. For "eternal security" seems to me to embrace the love of God while ignoring the holiness of God, and has us appreciating His benefits to us without requiring us to respect Him. If we maintain this doctrine, it seems to me that we are no better than those who ask why God doesn't save everyone, if He is really a God of love. God is love and is to be loved; He is also holy and is to be respected and feared (e.g., Ps.19:9; Prov.1:7; Is.11:3; Phil.2:12; etc., etc.). As in the case of a genuinely loving parent who will yet not tolerate outrageous behavior in his offspring beyond a certain point, ignoring either of these aspects of God's character necessarily brings perverse results.
Here are some pertinent links wherein this and related issues are discussed in more detail:
The False Doctrine of Absolute Eternal Security
The False Doctrine of Absolute Eternal Security II
Apostasy and the Sin unto Death
The sin unto death.
Eternal security 1
Eternal security 2
Peter #21 - "Perseverance of Faith"
Peter #26 - "Positional Security"
Peter #27 - "Three Doctrines that Threaten Faith"
In our loving and merciful Lord Jesus Christ, who has shown us the way in which we should walk.