The Damnable Doctrine of Eternal Security

My contention in this polemic is twofold. First, I contend that the Calvinist doctrine of eternal security—i.e., that it is impossible for a justified and regenerate Christian to lose salvation—is false. Secondly, I contend that it is, in a sense, damnably false—not that one cannot believe it and be saved, but rather that, instead of being a purely speculative doctrine with no bearing upon our lived sanctification, a false but firm belief in eternal security can lead genuine Christians into apostasy and, finally, Hell.

The New Testament is rife with warnings against apostasy. Prima facie, all of these warnings ought to be taken for what they appear to be: exhortations to Christians not to throw away their inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ. Yet, because Calvinism’s doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace jointly entail eternal security, the Calvinist cannot view the apparent Apostolic exhortations to perseverance as being straightforwardly that. Instead, Calvinists are forced to reframe such warnings as warnings against false faith: because a Christian cannot lose salvation, there are no true apostates; anyone who publicly identified as a Christian, no matter what he said or did or inwardly felt or believed, who renounces the faith, thereby proves that he was never a Christian—never truly regenerate—in the first place.

Therefore, when the Apostles exhort believers not to abandon their faith, the Calvinist must reframe the exhortation as: “Although you may believe you are a Christian, and believe you truly desire Christ, be careful not to get ensnared by your sins and so prove those beliefs to be false.” The object of the statement is thereby changed from the salvific justification of the listener’s soul to the epistemic justification of the listener’s beliefs about her soul. Thus, a Christian, “working out his salvation with fear and trembling” is not “working out his justification” so much as “working out his subjective confidence in his justification,” with genuine Christians gaining confidence as they are increasingly able to point to a pattern of spiritual fruit in their lives.

The Calvinist’s interpretation is self-consistent, although unnatural. However, it encounters at least two immediate problems.

First, in opposition to the Calvinist, the New Testament appears fairly optimistic that Christians, through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, can have assurance of the objective state of our relationship with God in the moment (e.g., Romans 8:16), but not at all confident that Christians can have assurance of their personal perseverance to the end. Paul, for example, writes that he disciplines himself “lest [he himself] be disqualified,” and, when contemplating his share in the resurrection of the dead, says he presses on “that by any means possible” he “might” attain it, although he does not consider himself to have obtained it already (1 Corinthians 9:27; Philippians 3). Paul knew that he was a Christian, but renounced overly optimistic confidence in perseverance; he saw the necessity of continually and consciously pursuing God, lest he grow lukewarm and, finally, “make shipwreck of the faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-19).

However, when Paul, writing from prison, knew he was about to be martyred, his language notably changed. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). By grace, Paul had remained faithful to the end; and now he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he would soon hear the words, “Well done.”

To sum up the first problem, the New Testament says: assurance of salvation, but not of perseverance. Calvinism says: assurance of perseverance, but not salvation.

There is another big-picture problem with reinterpreting New Testament warnings against apostasy as warnings against false faith: it does violence to the straightforwardness of scripture. I am not here claiming that scripture is “perspicuous” in the sense that there is nothing in it which is “difficult to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). Rather, I am claiming that scripture ought not be pretzeled into conformity with a preconceived theology, as though the inspired writer were hiding his true dogmatic meaning behind a veil of plain speech. In general, when the Bible uses the syntax of Greek, or Hebrew, or any other human language, in a straightforward and natural way, its meaning ought to be modeled with semantics that are conversationally natural to that language, so that we do not impute to the writers a kind of naive and potentially negligent imprecision regarding how their writings would be interpreted.

Herein lies the problem with reading the “apostasy scriptures” through the axiomatic lens of eternal security: while the eternal security reading is logically isomorphic to the natural reading—that is, one could construct a sort of semantic reinterpretation function to convert statements in the “true apostasy is possible” language to statements in the “true apostasy is impossible” language—it makes the authors of scripture, who with one voice warn against apostasy, into remarkably imprecise writers—and all in the same way, viz., that they all meant to express the same thing, a warning against false faith, but systematically expressed another, a warning against apostasy. It would imply, too, that our Lord’s metaphors were neither as elegant nor as exact as they would first appear—turning unfruitful branches, initially in the Vine but later pruned away by the Father, into branches that were never grafted in to begin with; seeds that grew for a little while but then withered away, into seeds that appeared to grow for a little while, then proved themselves never to have grown at all. Moreover, it would turn 2 Peter 2:20—“For if, after [the apostates] have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first”—into something so imprecise as to be almost a lie. If Peter, as I believe, here intended to warn true believers against apostasy, then this verse could not be more clear: the apostates initially “escaped” from their sins, but, once freed, were subsequently “entangled” and “overcome” by the world; therefore, those who stand should take heed lest they fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). On the other hand, if Peter believed in eternal security, and therefore intended to warn merely-apparent believers against false faith, then he was so imprecise that he ended up saying the exact opposite of what he believed was possible—leaving it until the time of Calvin for his original meaning to be uncovered.

And, indeed, the doctrine of eternal security is primarily an innovation of John Calvin. It is certainly not a Reformation “renewal” of the teachings of the early church. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two ecclesiastics before Calvin to have endorsed eternal security, both of them formal heretics for independent reasons: Jovinian, a fourth-century antagonist of both Augustine and Jerome, and Gottschalk, an obscure medieval monk. When Reformed apologist James White debated Catholic Trent Horn on eternal security, he could not produce a single Church Father, or even a pre-Reformation eccleisastical writer, who agreed with his interpretation of scripture. In Book I of Against Heresies, contrasting heretical beliefs against those of the true Church, St. Irenaeus even attributes a form of the doctrine of eternal security to the Gnostics:

Animal men, again, are instructed in animal things; such men, namely, as are established by their works, and not by a mere faith . . . We of the Church, they say, are these persons. Wherefore also they maintain that good works are necessary to us, for that otherwise it is impossible we should be saved. But as to themselves, they hold that they shall be entirely and undoubtedly saved, not by means of conduct, but because they are spiritual by nature. For . . . it is impossible that spiritual substance (by which they mean themselves) should ever come under the power of corruption, whatever the sort of actions in which they indulged. For even as gold, when submersed in filth, loses not on that account its beauty . . . so they affirm that they cannot in any measure suffer hurt, or lose their spiritual substance. (Against Heresies, I.VI.II)

Calvinists: Is it a light thing to stand against the unified witness of the pre-Reformation Church? Is eternal security really that clear in the scriptures, that this doctrine may be justified by a confident appeal to sola scriptura? I have noted that eternal security is a joint logical entailment of unconditional election and irresistible grace. By modus tollens, the rejection of eternal security constitutes a refutation of Calvinism; the whole edifice stands or falls on this one doctrine. The foundations are far from solid.

This article is not intended as a comprehensive rebuttal of eternal security, and therefore I will not survey all of the passages of scripture commonly used to argue in its favor. I will only mention that 1 John 1:19 is a statement about the visible unity of the Church, made in the context of a recent crop of schismatic false teachers — hence, “If they had been of us, they would have remained,” meaning that those who break communion with the Church reveal themselves as false teachers not to be trusted by John’s audience — and John 6:39 is about Christ’s perfection as a Savior, in His complete ability and willingness to save those who trust Him. The strongest passage in favor of eternal security, in my estimation, is Paul’s “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6); but even this is weak, because it seems that Paul is speaking specifically to the Philippians (and as a body, not as individuals), rather than making a general statement about his confidence that all believers will be finally saved—which he confirms in the next verse, in an acknowledgement that it might seem imprudent to claim confidence in the perseverance of the Philippians, yet justifying this confidence on the basis of his personal acquaintance with their ministry.

I will not belabor the point. Eternal security is denied across the New Testament in a variety of ways, from Christ’s parables, to Paul’s “grafting in and out” metaphor in Romans 11, to warnings against apostasy present in virtually every Apostolic writing. Appeals to the need for a synthetic understanding of these variegated texts on the basis of a presupposed theology are implicitly an admission of eisegesis. The unified witness of the pre-Reformation Church, sealed with the signet ring of the sensus fidelium, is that eternal security is false.

But why did I begin this article by calling it damnable?

Recall that proponents of eternal security must respond to scriptural warnings against apostasy by systematically translating those passages’ teachings about salvation into teachings about epistemology. For the Calvinist, an exhortation to persevere in good works is not a warning that unfruitful branches will be cut off—and, likewise, a warning that unfruitful branches will be cut off is not an exhortation to persevere in good works—but both are, instead, introspective criteria which a believer may use in order to determine whether or not she has truly been saved.

Now, upon noticing this, we might consider it strange for the Calvinist that Christ and the Apostles even thought it necessary to warn believers about the importance of perseverance. For, if there were only two groups within the visible Church—the securely saved and the unsaved—there would be no need to warn the saved against apostasy, which, for them, would be impossible. Instead, the Calvinist must understand warnings against apostasy as functionally addressing, not the believers whom they purport to address, but unbelievers: the self-deceived among the churchgoers, who believe they have found Christ when, in fact, they remain under God’s wrath. The warnings against apostasy are thus recast as mere reiterations of the “spiritual fruits tests” found in Matthew 7 and 1 John.

And now we have a problem, wherein the whole hermeneutical spiral converges. If Calvinism is true, then we cannot know our present spiritual state; we can only know that, if our present spiritual state is good, then good it will remain. But, in order to maintain this exegesis, Biblical exhortations to cooperate with grace in the ongoing process of justification must be subverted into epistemic tests for knowing that one’s spiritual state is good. If, therefore, all scripture gives us is a hard-nosed promise that God will save His elect, with no corresponding guarantee that He will reward the obedient efforts of His adopted children with covenant faithfulness in drawing us nearer to Himself, then we are left with only a desert of self-examination, in which we work and work, but always wonder: “Have I done enough? Have I done enough—not to earn eternal life, but to finally have peace?—to be confident that I am among the elect?”

In seeking to remedy the misery of Pelagian works-based salvation, Calvinism gives us the misery of never knowing whether we are saved or self-deceived. After all, if even Paul wasn’t sure of his salvation, how could we ever hope to know?

To reiterate: the Biblical picture is that we may be confident in our current right standing with God—and, because He is faithful, and people don’t change overnight, that we will not fall away without a conscious chain of decisions and compromises and choices to renounce Him—but not confident in our perseverance to the end; thus, we must be diligent to “make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10), monitoring our spiritual state, and remaining prayerfully receptive to grace. We can be sure about now, and sure about the foreseeable future; but to presume upon the increase of our spiritual state ten, twenty, or thirty years out is unjustified. The Calvinist’s picture, on the other hand, is the exact inversion of this: we may have very little confidence in our current right standing before God, but, if we dedicate ourselves to building up a treasury of works, we may—in some hope-against-hope, as distant from our present condition as the hope that a wicked man might finally be saved by keeping the Law—eventually have psychological freedom from the terror of Hell.

I conclude with a final worry, which motivated me to write this admittedly combative article in the first place. An understandable desire to short-circuit Calvinism’s daunting process of self-examination-toward-assurance may, in some cases, ultimately lead someone to Hell. Consider the response of Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul to the question of how a Calvinist can have assurance of salvation:

Do you love Him at all? Do you have any affection? And I’m talking about the biblical Jesus, the biblical Christ—do you have any love or affection for Him at all? And if a person says, “Well yeah, it’s not what I’d like it to be, it’s not what I think it ought to be, but yeah, I have some affection for the biblical Christ”—well, here’s the thing: if we understand what happens in our salvation, you know that if you’re unregenerate, you not only have no affection for the biblical Christ, but you can’t possibly have any affection for the biblical Christ. So if you have any real affection for the biblical Jesus, that is an indication that God the Holy Spirit has changed the disposition of your heart. And if you understand that only the Holy Spirit changes the disposition of the human heart, and he only does that in the case of the elect, and if you’re a Calvinist and you have a sound theology of salvation, then it’s easy to come to a clear biblical understanding of the assurance of it.

Ignore the fact that Sproul’s response is deeply flawed, because it does not answer the question of how a person can know he is not self-deceived in his “affection for Christ.” On Sproul’s view, because of the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity, the barest hint of the beginnings of salvation—the tiniest bit of genuine love of Christ—is evidence, not only that one is currently saved, but that one will always be saved. If eternal security is false, then this is deadly. It will lead Christians to consider themselves above the consequences of their sins. It will lead Christians who began in zeal, then grew slothful, and by now are flirting with mortal sin—perhaps justifying to themselves, on an intellectual or theological level, a nagging, immoral pattern of behavior that is increasingly characterizing their lives—to soothe their consciences with the memories of Christianity past. After all, such a believer thinks, I am still a Christian. I still believe in God; I still go to Church. And I know that I am saved, because I remember how much love I used to have for Christ, and how God, in the past, dramatically answered my prayers, and made Himself present in my life. I’m in a slump right now, to be sure, but God will pull me out of it eventually. And if I’m really a Christian, then my affections have been changed; and so this thing that I’m considering doing right now—which the Church would denounce as a sin, and which I would be ashamed to tell any of my Christian brethren about—not because I think it is wrong, of course, but because they simply wouldn’t understand why it isn’t wrong for me, in this particular circumstance—this thing, which I really want to do, must not be so bad.

Someone who believes that apostasy is possible, having fallen into a pattern of sin, will have reason to fear, and great motivation to repent and be restored. But a belief in eternal security will cause Christians to rely on past signs of salvation even as they sin, knowing that they cannot stray too far from their former faith—when they had “the slightest bit of affection” for the biblical Christ.

Yet what does our Lord say? “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:4-5).

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