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

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.

Eternal Security: The Calvinist View

The five-point Calvinist view of eternal security is enumerated in the last letter of the TULIP acronym, P standing for the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints. In line with the totality of Calvinist theology and its focus on God’s sovereign actions, this would perhaps be better entitled Perseverance of the Lord since it is He who keeps the believer until their moment of glory. These believers may backslide and sin but this view states that the believer cannot fall away completely from grace and they will persevere until the end and be saved.

Eternal security in Calvin’s theology must be understood in the context of the entire framework, as all of the points are logically connected. The elect (the only humans who God chooses to redeem) will be the recipients of the persevering power introduced by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. These believers will be kept in the power of the Spirit and are eternally secure. Calvin words it this way:

God, who is rich in mercy, from his immutable purpose of election, does not wholly take away his Holy Spirit from his own, even in lamentable falls; nor does he so permit them to glide down that they should fall from the grace of adoption and the state of justification; or commit the “sin unto death,” or against the Holy Spirit; that, being deserted by him, they should cast themselves headlong into eternal destruction. So that not by their own merits or strength, but by the gratuitous mercy of God, they obtain it, that they neither totally fall from faith and grace, nor finally continue in their paths and perish.

Scripture references are easy to locate in support of this idea of perseverance. The unbroken chain of salvation found in Romans 8:29-39, so glorious that it leads Paul to doxological joy, is often put forth as the only passage necessary in support of this doctrine. Jesus gives the promise voice in John 10:27-29 where He recites the covenant using a shepherd metaphor; His sheep know Him and they have been given eternal life by Him. They face no danger of perishing nor can any force or event challenge that status (cf: Rom 8:38-39). Divine purpose is described in the introductory lines of Ephesians (Eph 1:3-14) where the unbroken chain of salvation is again rehearsed. The Elect were chosen by God before creation for redemption therefore that status cannot be broken; it must come to pass that they will be saved. Further texts [1 Pet 1:3-5, Phil 1:6, Heb 7:25, et. al.] cited by the Calvinist would cement the same point: since God has elected certain of humanity from among the fallen to be the recipients of eternal life and these individuals are promised that life, it necessarily follows that this salvation is permanent. If they could somehow lose this salvation, God’s promise would not be effectual.

Calvinist theologians also infer the doctrine of perseverance from the study of other doctrines. For example, believers enjoy a union with Christ. In John 15:1-11, the Elect are shown to be united with Christ and living through the life force that flows from Him. No force can divide this union, thus removing a believer from the Body so the promise inevitably follows. The doctrine of being born again anew also points to the promise. In 1 John 3:9 John writes:

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.

If salvation could be lost, regeneration would have to be undone and the believer visited by spiritual death once again. This idea would challenge the power of the Holy Spirit who, indwelling the believer, would have been unable to keep the individual. Perseverance can also be implied by the doctrine that the believer can have assurance of his or her salvation (Heb 6:11, 10:22, 2 Pet 1:10). John once again offers a text that follows his list of evidences that God has given eternal life followed by these words, “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)

There is a critique commonly spoken against this position that is rooted in the sovereign choice, maintenance, and glorification of the Elect by God, wholly apart from the will or actions of man. Given such assurance apart from their own will or choice, humankind is tempted to live a morally lax life assured that regardless of their sinfulness or even devotion to Christ, their ultimate salvation is guaranteed in the promise of God. As Demarest writes (The Cross and Salvation, pg 444) “The popular saying, “Once saved, always saved” is misleading, for it may suggest that believers will be saved irrespective of how they live. The Calvinist response is to initially agree that regenerated and justified believers may indeed lapse in their faith, resist God, and fall into sin for a period but their unbelief and resistance is fleeting, rather than incorrigible and final. God deals graciously and patiently with genuine Christians who lapse in their faith. Spurgeon commented that there is a kind of faith that appears lively but never personally commits to Christ and obeys the gospel. It is these ‘supposed’ or ‘outward appearing’ Christians that are at risk of finally falling away. He writes of the assurance implicit in the promise, regardless of temporary lapse:

We believe that God has an elect people whom He has chosen unto eternal life, and that truth necessarily involves the perseverance in grace. We believe in special redemption, and this secures the salvation and consequent perseverance of the redeemed. We believe in effectual calling, which is bound up with justification, a justification which ensures glorification. The doctrines of grace are like a chain– if you believe in one of them you must believe the next, for each one involves the rest; therefore I say that you who accept any of the doctrines of grace must receive this also, as involved in them.

Summary

The classical Calvinist position is perhaps the easiest to examine as it simply rests on the promise of the Lord. Eternal security rests in the sovereign will of God; He chose some for eternal life and because of this fact, nothing can interfere with that promise coming to fruition. Jesus explains it simply:

For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. (John 6:38-39)

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.