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 Beginning

The Author, Grantor, and Securer of eternal life, promised that His followers would be the recipients of that gift…

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. (John 6:37)

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:27-30)

While the Apostles warned against the possibility of loss and that there may be a conditional nature to this security…

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Heb 6:4-6)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Col 1:21-23a)

perseverance Countless words have been written discussing the ways in which Christians believe that they have come to receive the gift of salvation. The moment of justification marks a huge turn in a human existence and people are only too happy to mark it and give voice to the joy that it brings. When talk to turns to the possibility of losing that righteous status, the volume of the conversation tends to diminish. ‘Once saved, always saved.’ is the theological ideal offered by many but, when pressed to source their belief, many are unable to point to the root of that confidence.

The discussion of perseverance goes far beyond scholastic theological wrangling, it has practical purpose in the life of the Christian. We must ask whether or not the believer who has been regenerated, justified, adopted as a Son (or daughter) of God, and united with the Savior in relationship will persist in that relationship. In other words, will the Christian persevere until his or her moment of glory or is there a risk of the loss of one’s salvation?   One end of this discussion is anchored by the ‘P’ in the TULIP – Perseverance of the Saints, in which there is no risk of apostasy extending to the far end of the thread in which apostatizing is a daily and imminent possibility in the life of an anxiety-ridden Christian. Depending on where you locate yourself on the spectrum you make look to the other as naively putting themselves at risk.

It would be foolish to introduce this topic by drawing a distinction between the two major schools of Protestant theological thought, Calvinist and Arminian, and stating that there are but a pair of positions to explore. In fact, there are a number of nuances in the views along this spectrum from one to the other. To narrow the topic down to a manageable size, I am going to organize the posts that follow into four segments that allow positions from guaranteed security to the permanence of apostasy. As with all Christian discussion (actually, any intellectual endeavor), there is an important practice of which we must be cognizant: one should not simply argue their position without engaging the facts presented by the other side. So many times we find theological debate reduced to caricature of the opposing position that is brought about either by a surfeit of knowledge of that position or the unwillingness to consider that your understanding of things may be flawed.