Psalm 89–Love and Faithfulness Go Before You

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O Lord, where is your former great love, which in your faithfulness you swore to David? (Ps 89:50)

Like so many of psalms we have read before this entry, we could easily substitute our own name in place of the king’s. When we enter a season of spiritual winter, or even encounter travail in the otherwise sunny seasons, our tendency is look upward and outward rather than inward, in order to comprehend the perceived lack of love from the Father. Cries of “why are You doing this to me?” fill our prayers and thoughts. We labor to align the ‘promises’ of our faith with dark chasms that we suddenly have to cross. We Christians are prone to disillusionment in far greater percentage than the unbelieving souls around us. 

Perhaps, this is because we have not developed a mature understanding of the promises of God.

Psalm 89 turns on verse 38. After rehearsing the greatness of God and reciting the promises of the covenant made with David, the psalmist points a finger at the sky and speaks aloud his accusations.

But you have reject, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one.

You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust. (vv 38-39)

The temerity of the final accusation is fascinating and telling. The crown that God has ‘defiled’ was formed, shaped, adorned, fitted and assigned by Him! It is His crown, only temporarily assigned to a mortal creature and conditionally, at that. The poet fails to include the countless failures and apostasies that God has endured within the kingdom he promised his love to. His expectation is wholly out of line with the covenant agreement and yet, he does not hesitate to ponder out loud why God has ‘failed’ to uphold his end of the bargain.

We will rarely know what greater good our seasons of struggle are intended to for. Our first thoughts should turn inward toward our own sin and breaches of love with God. Is this a time of discipline that is meant for correction? Be a good student and allow the Tutor to reform your heart. If the spirit does not bring sin to mind, search the Scriptures and find all those who struggled through similar circumstances. Their roles, however minor, in the greater span of the Kingdom give us hope that our pain is not wasted. God does and will turn all things for good. Count on that before raising your next accusation to the sky.

 

Grace and peace to you.

image Krystn Palmer

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Psalm 13 – I Will Sing to the Lord

When we find ourselves in the midst of a silent period in life when God seems distant or especially quiet, despair can set in. We cry out for his attention only to hear our voices echo back.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? ( vv 1-2 )

Our recourse should be to examine our lives. Is there something in our character, life, or practice that God turns away from? Is the Lord calling us to patiently endure a tempering season, honing our edges and readying us for His purposes? Both should turn us back to Him in repentance for our sin or for questioning His decisions. In all things we return to Him in worship.

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord for he has been good to me. ( vv 5 – 6 )

Eternal Security: McKnight on the Hebrews Warning Passages

To perform a detailed study of perseverance is to read and analyze numerous academic and theological works. Nearly every article or book written on the topic since 1992 contains a footnote referring to a  lengthy article by Scot McKnight that appeared in the Trinity Journal. McKnight is well known among blog readers as the author of numerous books and articles and for his blog JesusCreed.org. [Sadly moved to beliefnet and diminished by the transfer.] I am a great admirer of Mr. McKnight because he displays that rare combination of scholarly excellence and pastoral sensitivity. This article proposes a way of reading the Hebrews passages so as to address the fear or insecurity that many Christians experience when they are presented with 6:4-6 alone, as though it exists in a scriptural vacuum. His proposed methodology is familiar to any student of scripture; that is, all verses and passages must be examined in context. This context can extend from the surrounding sentences and paragraphs to the book as a whole and on toward the whole of the biblical story. McKnight proposes that the warning passages [2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:1-29] must be read as an “organic whole” and not as unrelated texts in order to understand the message of the author of Hebrews.

In preparation for making his case, McKnight rehearses the four historical views that theologians have taken with regard to the Hebrews passages. They are:

  1. Hypothetical View: The passages are simply a warning against a sin that has not been committed, no can it be committed. This position rests upon the assumption that true believers cannot fall away.
  2. Phenomenological-False Believer View: The passages in view are real and the sin can be committed but, those who do commit the sin are not true believers.
  3. Phenomenological-True Believer: The passages warn against a sin that can be committed by true believers. Thus, the true believer can forfeit their eternal salvation.
  4. The Covenant Community View: This minority position states that those in view to whom the passages are directed are not Christians and refer to a community living outside of God’s will.

McKnight’s conclusion rests in the third category, the phenomenological-true believer who is able to commit the sin referred to and thus lose their salvation.

If it possible to lose one’s salvation, we must ask ourselves what sin or sins could place us in such peril. As we saw in earlier posts on the Arminian views (here and here), it is not a variety of sins or even backsliding that imperils a believer but it is the singular sin of apostasy that commits a believer to perdition. McKnight defines this as “a willful rejection of God and His Son, Jesus the Messiah, and open denunciation of God and ethical standards.” [His footnote is especially helpful: “When we think of this sin pragmatically (how it took, and takes, place), I do not mean to suggest that apostasy is always a single act of sin…it could also be the result of a progressive downward spiral into bad habits, attitudes, and dispositions toward God.”] This sin is not to be read as an accidental fall or momentary backslide; the reader is not to interpret momentary lapses in anger, lust, pride, etc. as threatening their ultimate condition. As referenced in 10:26 [ If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge…], the apostasy is deliberate and considered.

Scot arrives at his conclusions by reading synthetically, that is, reading all of the warning passages together in order to discover a common thread that might appear in each or to see whether each stands on its own with a separate message for unique audiences in each passage. A synthesis of the passages, he contends, provides the reader with a clear answer regarding the two prominent theological issues mentioned above: identifying the subjects of the warning and the sin that imperils. In form, each of the passages shares common elements that he lists as:

  1. The subjects or audiences
  2. The sin
  3. An exhortation to avoid the sin
  4. The consequences of not avoiding the temptation

By aligning these components in each of the passages we are able to better understand the intent of the author of Hebrews in extending the warnings. McKnight contends that in taking this approach we are better able to perform the necessary exegesis for theological conclusions and pastoral care.

Conclusion

McKnight’s article is an extensive commentary on the Hebrews warning passages that displays his dedication to the subject. His work is of value to the theologian and the pastor alike and should be required study for anyone engaged in a discussion of perseverance. His conclusion, already mentioned in detail above, is that the warnings are intended for true Christian believers and that they caution against the penultimate sin of apostasy. This position does not fit neatly into either the Calvinist or Arminian frameworks but he provides a quote that should be considered by those engaged in debating theological correctness:

I suspect that the expressions “losing one’s salvation” and “conditional salvation” are the most distasteful expressions used in the debated between Calvinists and Arminians. I also suspect that “losing one’s faith” is much more acceptable to the same palate since it seems  more congenial to religious affections and is consonant with what many of us have seen when someone deserts the faith.”

His conclusion from the same synthetic view of the entire Bible, and Hebrews specifically, is that the teaching of conditional salvation is the correct interpretation. Given this position, the perseverance of the believer hinges upon their continued faith in Christ. To apostatize is to of one’s own volition turn away from this faith publicly and definitely.

Though Scot’s contribution is a theological gold mine of great benefit to the community of faith, his sensitive encouragement to the assurance of a believer is especially welcome. Many Christians have anxiety over the possibility of losing their salvation to errant sin but understanding Hebrews in this way reminds the believer that their very concern is evidence that they have not turned away from the Savior. His long term view of salvation (the futurity of salvation) further says that salvation is a future event and thus, one cannot lose what one does not possess.

Source: Trinity Journal, Spring 1992, No. 13NS, pp. 21-59

Once Saved, Always Saved

kendall In the course of researching the topic of eternal security, one of the books I read was R.T. Kendall’s Once Saved, Always Saved. Kendall takes a unique position in the spectrum of opinion on this subject, a hybrid theological stance that comes to the conclusion indicated by the title. Once a Christian has been truly saved, he or she remains saved, unable through their own efforts or as a result of their behaviors to reverse this state. His pastoral concern is not focused on proving the truth of this doctrine as much as he is providing assurance of salvation to his congregation and his readers. In this effort he succeeds. Whether or not he makes his theological point requires further study and consideration because the chapters are based on sermons, not extensive theological arguments. There is rapid fire proof-texting that is often assembled into sentences in order to support a point and one must disassemble the grammar and examine each verse/passage in its context to ensure that it says what the pastor says it does.

Kendall emphasizes two requirements of salvation: 1) belief in Jesus Christ and His work and 2) the confession of His lordship. This is enacted through a ‘heart’ belief (as opposed to simple mental assent) in the resurrection followed by the act of confession of Jesus as Lord. It is people who are deficient in one or both of these conditions, whether they call themselves Christians or not, who are at danger of a false assumption of security. Though they may label themselves and appear to be Christians, without meeting these conditions, they have no salvation. On the other hand, if the Christian has met these conditions, Pastor Kendall finds not scriptures that threaten their eventual salvation.

When he examines the scriptures that appear to point to insecurity, Kendall’s view is that these verse and passages point to a loss of inheritance rather than salvation. This inheritance is revealed as reward in eternity. Thus, Christians who backslide are forfeiting their eventual reward but not their salvation. They may arrive in heaven and be secure there for eternity but find themselves devoid of reward as a result of their continued sinfulness while still in the world. God does not take a hands-off approach to those who move against the plan of holiness however. He actively pursues and chastens His children in order to continue their sanctification and gain the reward that He wants to award to them. When the heart hardens so that the voice of God is no longer heard is when the Christian’s assurance should falter.

Kendall presents a doctrine of assurance that appears to seek the center of the theological positions we looked at earlier. He does not allow for the salvation of God to be in any way conditional but he makes the case against Antinomianism, saying that our sin do have an affect into eternity that we should pay careful attention to.

Eternal Security: The Wesleyan View

To understand Wesley and the doctrines and theology that bear his name, one must keep in mind that in all things, John Wesley is a practical theologian. That is, he is concerned not with theology and the lofty scholastic ruminations that it often devolves into but rather, theology as it affects you and I in our daily life as followers of Christ. His order of salvation does not have the immediacy of the Calvinist perspective; it is a justification in which Christ’s righteousness is immediately imputed to the believer giving them a forensic status as ‘forgiven’ followed by a lifetime of sanctification, a full salvation measured by perfection of love and obedience. Faith, teaches Wesley, is not the cause of salvation but the condition of receiving it. Our faith does not save us, but we are saved only by Christ, in whom we have faith. (Wynkoop, Wesleyan-Arminian Theology)

To adhere to Wesleyan Christianity is to devote oneself to a life of obedience and ever increasing love for God and fellow man. To be sure, there will be moments in which both love and obedience falter, but the Spirit provides the impetus and strength to restore both and continue along the path of holiness. This continuance of the process of sanctification is rooted in continued faith in Christ. It is at those moments where one turns from the faith in Christ, that the believer is in danger of losing his or her salvation. It is important to note the logical connection between the conditional nature of the Wesleyan receipt of justification (when a human agent responds to God’s prevenient grace and accepts the gift of salvation) and its conditional security. If this same human agent should turn from this grace and reject the gift in favor of returning to their unregenerate life, the salvation status is lost. Wesley believed, given his high view of a merciful, grace-giving God, that people who found themselves in this state could remedy the situation by a return to repentance and belief.

In Wesley’s piece, ‘A Call to Backsliders’ he looks to the warning passages of Heb 6:4-6, 1 Tim 1:19-20, and 2 Pet 2:20 – 22 and sees that even these dire warnings could be repaired. They must return to the saving faith that they once held and produce the repentance of their sins to be restored. Does Wesley ever see a permanent loss of salvation? Certainly; men will turn away from Christ without any further desire to be restored. Apostasy is a very real possibility for the Wesleyan. Though humankind may fall from grace, we never fall beyond grace. The Spirit will not abandon the believer but may be silenced by an ever harder heart.

Summary

There is an expected similarity between the Arminian and Wesleyan positions as they both root in the conditional nature of salvation and the subsequent conditional nature of security. Where the classical Arminian and the Wesleyan depart ways on this topic is in the possibility of remediation when one has apostatized. The Arminian sees this condition as a ‘shipwrecked faith’, a condition in which there is no hope of reassembling the faith again and thus, all is lost. Wesley’s theology of love built around a God of mercy and grace saw this type of permanent apostasy as a possibility but also saw that the mercy of his God would allow time and time again for the sinner to return to the altar, seeking forgiveness and a restoration of his righteousness.

Eternal Security: The Arminian View

Arminian theology spans a wide range of beliefs, just as Calvinism does.For this reason the presentation of Arminian doctrine on perseverance requires that it be divided into two pieces. The first, which you are reading now, will present the most conservative Arminian view that is closest to the theology of Arminius himself. The second part will delve into the doctrine as stated by the dominant Wesleyan Arminian theologians. With regard to the topic of perseverance, Arminius and the initial Remonstrants were not resolute in the opinion that one could become apostate from the regenerate state. He briefly addresses the topic here:

My sentiments respecting the perseverance of the Saints are, that those persons who have been grafted into Christ by true faith, and have thus been made partakers of his life-giving Spirit, possess sufficient powers to…gain the victory over those enemies–yet not without the assistance of the grace of the same Holy Spirit…So that it is not possible for them, by any of the cunning craftiness or power of Satan, to be either seduced or dragged out of the hands of Christ. But I think it is useful and will be quite necessary in our first convention, to institute a diligent enquiry from the Scriptures, whether it is not possible for some individuals through negligence to desert the commencement of their existence in Christ, to cleave again to the present evil world, to decline from the sound doctrine which was once delivered to them, to lose a good conscience, and to cause Divine grace to be ineffectual.

Though I here openly and ingenuously affirm, I never taught that a true believer can either totally or finally fall away from the faith, and perish; yet I will not conceal, that there are passages of Scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect; 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. (The Writings of James Arminius)

Though his statement here lacks a definitive position, the ultimate point that derives from a complete examination of the ‘Reformed’ (cf. Stephen Ashby) Arminian theological system follows from the basic understanding of the conditional nature of salvation, predicated on placing one’s faith in Jesus Christ. If the entry into grace is conditional (Titus 2:11, Jn 12:32, 2 Pet 3:9, Jn 3:15, Acts 16:31, et al.) then it must proceed that perseverance is conditional as well, continued by the believer remaining in faith to the end of their life. The Bible, according to the Arminian, is replete with sufficient warning against apostasy (Hebrews as a whole esp. 6:4-6, 10:19-39, 2 Pet 2:18-22, Col 1:21-23, Gal 5:1-4) so as to support the development of this doctrinal position.

The possibility of apostasy is not presented by the Arminian solely as a logical assumption proceeding from the doctrine of conditional salvation but rather, it is seen in the scriptures as coming from a variety of directions:

  • As mentioned before, the book of Hebrews is filled with warning passages about the very real possibility of apostasy.
  • There are texts that point to the conditional nature of salvation (Col 1:21-23, 1 Pet 1:5, Heb 3:14)
  • Passages name those who have fallen away and prove to be a danger to others (1 Tim 1:18-20, 2 Tim 2:16-18)
  • Passages in which the author complains that their work may be in vain among believers (Gal 4:9-11, Phil 2:15-16, 1 Thes 3:5)
  • The passages that speak of the possibility that a person’s name can be removed from the book of life. (Rev 3:5, 22:18-19)

If one accepts that apostasy is a possibility, the final question that must be posed to the Arminian theologian is, can this apostasy be reversed? From the classical theological position, the answer as supported the reference texts is no, this apostasy is irreparable. This stand is widely debated within the Arminian community and is a wide gulf between the classical and Wesleyan theologians who support a reversal of apostasy upon repentance. The definition and causes of apostasy must be approached very carefully then, in order to avoid seeing episodic sinfulness or even seasons of backsliding as definitive proof of the loss of salvation. The classical Arminian accepts only one proof and that is the complete rejection of faith in Christ which removes a person from union with Christ.

Summary

The classical Arminian doctrine that posits the conditional nature of eternal security is certainly not as popular as the ‘once saved, always saved’ idea. Though ultimately mile apart in their result, the Calvinist notion of perseverance and the Arminian doctrine of the possibility of apostasy share the same undergirding belief, faith in Christ is the key to security. The final and ultimate denial of this faith is the condition on which security is lost and the Christian must ponder long and hard about the lengths one must go to in order to reach this point of disaffirmation. Short of that point, staying in Christ and He in you grants the believer assurance of an eternity in His presence.

Eternal Security: The ‘Moderate’ Calvinist Position

All is not unified within the family of believers who identify themselves as Calvinist. Framed by the the five points of the TULIP, each point dependent on the others, this theological system is pulled and disassembled by many adherents as they pick and choose which of the five petals they agree with. We find in our relationships and the abundant literature an array of four, three, and even one-point Calvinists. Norman Geisler is among those who self-identify as Calvinist but who provide a modifier for the label – Moderate. He uses the term ‘moderate’ to differentiate theology that differs from ‘Extreme Calvinists’ (Strong Calvinists in later writings) who are ‘more Calvinist than Calvin.’ Geisler enumerates the differences that he notes in his book Chosen But Free so I will leave the details to your further reading but the table below (CBF, pg 120) summarizes the difference as we focus on this ‘moderate’ take on Perseverance.

TULIP Extreme Calvinism Moderate Calvinism
Total Depravity Intensive (destructive) Extensive (corruptive)
Unconditional Election No condition for God or man No condition for God; One condition for man (faith)
Limited Atonement Limited in extent (only for elect) Limited in result (but for all men)
Irresistible Grace In compulsive sense (against man’s will) In persuasive sense (in accordance with man’s will)
Perseverance of the Saints No saint will die in sin No saint will ever be lost (even if he dies in sin)

Moderate Calvinists (recognizing Geisler as the spokesman) confirm that believers will persevere until the end with no possibility of losing their salvation through act or belief. The Strong Calvinist position is that no saint will die in sin and that all will be faithful until the end. Unifying the P with the rest of the TULIP, this faithfulness is a foregone product of the other four points. In other words, the saint will be faithful because he or she is unable to do otherwise, thus countering the promises of Election as interpreted by Augustine and Calvin. The Moderate view differs in lessening the requirement of faith saying “moderate Calvinists hold that even if some true believers are not faithful until death, nonetheless, God will still be faithful to them.” (CBF pg 101)

If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself. (2 Tim 2:13)

A subtle difference, it seems, is the divide between assurance and security. The Strong Calvinist finds themselves in a position where they have no earthly assurance of their eternal state – one cannot know if one is elect or not. The elect are secure in their salvation but they must persevere to the end in order to find out upon meeting the Lord. Assuming one’s state is ‘false assurance’. As Sproul asserts, “we may think that we have faith when in fact we have no faith.” (Chosen by God, pg 165-66) The Strong will point to apparent believers who fall away, thus not persevering until the end, as clear evidence that they were not true believers or among the Elect. Backsliding for a season of life should render one anxious about their eternal status then given the lack of present assurance. The Moderate believes that one can have both assurance and security.

Assurance leads the believer into a more productive Christian life and the Moderate Calvinist points to this in extolling their framework. Geisler quotes the Puritan writer Thomas Brooks, “Being in a state of grace will yield a man a heaven hereafter, but seeing of himself in this state will yield him both a heaven here and a heaven hereafter.” The Scriptures encourage us to seek this assurance:

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. (2 Cor 13:5)

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Pet 1:10-11)

As John wrote:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.  (1 John 5:13)

Summary

Ultimately, both the Strong and Moderate Calvinist assert that the Elect will persevere and be gathered home for eternity in heaven. Article III of the Canons of Dort states the Calvinist position stand: “But God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end. While not the only difference theologically, the distinction with regard to this perseverance is that the Strong Calvinist does not believe that one can be assured of his or her eternal state while the Moderate says that present assurance is available and is an important part of the Christian life here in the world.