Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Assurance of Eternal Security (pt. 3)

I return with a third installment of my critique of conditional security, or the belief that a Christian can lose his or her salvation. My previous two posts on this subject can be viewed here:

Part 1 and Part 2

As I noted in my first post, my reason for even addressing this subject was motivated by my email interchange with an Arminian fellow who insisted that the Bible undoubtedly teaches a Christian can lose his or her salvation. He responded to my first post with an article charging that I was building up and knocking down strawman characters of Arminianism, though much of his claims were merely dogmatic assertions that really didn't exactly prove how I was doing what he alleged. I in turn responded to his article with a separate post that can be read here.

In short, my antagonist argues for a cooperative view of salvation, or what would be technically termed synergistic salvation in which sinners cooperate with a preset plan of God in order to be saved. According to him, cooperating with God really is not works because God has so ordered salvation to be synergistic.

He then asserts that I am misrepresenting the Arminian view of regeneration, defined as prevenient grace, a grace the regenerates all men to free them from the bonds of depravity to give them the opportunity to either believe or resist the gospel. The key difference he claims I am missing is that whereas Calvinism assumes the grace of regeneration is irresistible, Arminians believe it is not.

I plan to do a separate post on prevenient grace in the future sometime, but for the sake of discussion now, I have always wondered how exactly the work of Arminian regeneration plays itself out in real salvific evangelism. I have read some Arminians who say the work of Christ on the cross is what activated prevenient grace in the hearts of sinners. What exactly, then, does that mean? Does that mean all men from the time of Christ all over the world were divinely impacted by the gospel, but due to geographical limitations, say for example the Chinese, or the Goths, or the Australian Aborigines, they were the recipients of a work of prevenient grace but never had opportunity to actualize that grace by either belief or resistance because no evangelical missionary would see them for 1000 years later? I ask more for a point of clarification, not of criticism, though I do think such a criticism is warranted in relation to the purposes and plan of God.

Also, I have yet to see any meaningful exegesis on the defense of regeneration from the Arminian perspective that demonstrates the resistable aspects of grace as the Arminian claims. All the doctrinal teaching in scripture on regeneration proclaims a regeneration that isn't resistable. In other words, those to whom regeneration comes will most certainly be saved. Roger Olson, in his book, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, devotes an entire chapter to the subject of how Arminians understand the working of divine grace but offers absolute no exegesis what soever except for a citation from an unpublished thesis that says the word draw in John 6:44 doesn't have to mean drag or compel as the Calvinists argue it means, but could also be defined as to draw or attract which has more of the idea of resistance attached to them. But the entire section from John 6 has Jesus insisting that if the Father does draw those who otherwise will not come to Christ, they not only come, but he will lose none of them. The language here, as is every where else in the Bible where regeneration is taught, is one of irresitability.

Laying aside those things for now, let me then return to my original subject of how I believe conditional security, or the insistence a Christian can fall away from the faith, ruins the doctrines of salvation. In my previous two posts I wrote that conditional security is, 1) Contrary to the new birth, 2) Ruins the doctrine of redemption, and 3) Denies the lordship of Christ. Coming then to a fourth point,

IV. Makes the Doctrine of Sanctification Meaningless

The primary NT word for sanctification is hagiazo and it basically means to set apart. Throughout the Bible it carries the idea of being set apart for special, divine use. That which is holy or sanctified and cannot be utilized for any other purpose than what God had determined. For example in the OT, the temple utensils that were holy could not be used for anything else but the Levitical sacrifices.

The biblical data shows that sanctification can be viewed in two parts: a definitive sanctification and a progressive sanctification. These two designations must remain distinct as one considers all the relevant exegetical information in the Bible pertaining to sanctification. Probably the major misunderstanding of Christians regarding the Christian life is a result of failing to recognize the distinction between these two aspects of sanctification. Let me look at each one in turn.

Definitive Sanctification. Simply put, definitive sanctification is that work of God in which a sinner, upon his justification due to the application of Christ's cross work to his behalf, is set apart, made holy, for the service of God. This sanctification is forensic, a declaration of a sinner's position before God due to Christ's righteousness being imputed to him. This sanctification is solely the work of God.

In Acts 26:17, 18, when Paul recounts his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus to Agrippa, he tells how Jesus told him,
17 I will deliver you from the people, as well as from the gentiles, to whom I now send you,
to open their eyes, to turn from darkness to light, and the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.

There are a couple of things to note with Christ's words here. First, according to Jesus, it is faith in Christ which sanctifies a person, setting him apart from a previous service to the devil to now serving God. This sanctification is alone Christ's work brought to bear upon the person. Additionally, that setting apart affects a change in the person so that now he is no longer identified with darkness and the power of Satan, but with light and the power of God. This new identification so marks out that Christian, that in nearly everyone of his epistles, Paul greets the believers in the churches he is writing by calling them saints or holy ones, what would be also termed, sanctified ones.

In Romans 6, even though Paul does not specifically use the word translated as sanctification, he certainly outlines the concept by speaking in terms of death and dying. For example, he writes in Romans 6:2 How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? And in 6:6, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. And in 6:11, Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Peter also uses similar terminology in his first epistle when he writes in 1 peter 2:24, who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness...

Our definitive sanctification brings us into a new relationship with respect to the former reign of sin our lives, and subsequently we enter into a new relationship with God, being set apart for His service by our spiritual union with Christ.

That brings us to a second understanding of sanctification,

Progressive Sanctification. Because the Spirit of God enables us to be obedient by the action of the new birth, we are no longer oriented away from God in rebellion, but now oriented toward God in worship and service. Thus, progressive sanctification involves that part of our obedience by which we submit ourselves to be righteous and no longer slaves to sinful behavior. This sanctification is consider progressive because it is a life long process of spiritual renewal we experience while we live upon the earth.

Once again, Paul addresses the principle of progressive sanctification in Romans 6, particularly verses 6-14.

6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.
7 For he who has died has been freed from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.
9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.
10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Therefore do no let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.

13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

There are a handful of thoughts to glean from this passage.

First, the descriptions of the Christian being dead to sin and made alive to Christ is that definitive, forensic sanctification outlined above. A Christian being set free from the bondage of sin to now being identified with Christ has been set apart as being a servant of God. This sanctification is not done by the person, but is work created by the divine hand of God.

Second, it is important for a person to recognize that Paul is saying Christians now have the power to be obedient to God in righteousness they once lacked when they were sinners. Paul writes that the person crucified with Christ has his body of sin done away with. The phrase, done away with, is from the Greek word katargeo. The root meaning can have the idea of made inoperative or rendered powerless. When the person was a sinner, he had no desire or willingness to be obedient in righteousness. That is because he was in bondage to sin and under the influence of the devil. Any effort he may had put forth to even attempt to be righteous was both half-hearted and non-committal and ended in failure to be righteous as God required. But now that he is identified as being made dead to sin and alive to Christ, God's divine work has negated the influence the power of his sin once held upon his life. Now his desires have changed and what ability he previously did not have to live righteously he now can utilize.

Third, Christians cannot become perfectly sinless. This was the error of John Wesley. He taught that a Christian can obtain sinlessness so that he or she will cease from sinning in the flesh during this life. This is accomplished by living a life of sustained, personal righteousness and daily exerting the effort to abide in Christ. Perfectionism, which spawned a variety of bizarre religious cults and the various modern day manifestations of Pentecostalism, is utterly foreign to scripture. Though it is true a Christian is to pursue righteousness in his personal life, he will not obtain sinlessness until he is made perfect in glorification.

Fourth, what Paul writes in Romans 6, and explains elsewhere in scripture, is that a Christian progressively grows in righteousness by a daily life of obedience. In this respect, a Christian does put forth cooperative effort with the Spirit, but the cooperation is not intended as a means to secure the Christian's justification before God, nor as a duty to perform so as to continuously abide in Christ and prevent any possibility for apostasy and the final forfeiture of eternal life. This cooperation is an outflowing of a changed heart that now desires to pursue godliness and it is the way God has ordained to conform His children to the image of Christ.

In other passages of scripture, Paul writes of our need to renew our minds. For example, in Romans 12:2 he writes, And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind..., and in Titus 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost. Then in Colossians 3:10, And having put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him...

This renewal Paul speaks about is a spiritual renovation that takes place as we are sanctified. When a person is saved, he or she will not automatically know how to think godly about everything. They still may have a lot of baggage from the bad thinking that once saturated their minds as sinners. Their minds have to be retrained to think like Christians. For Christians, they have first been freed from the power of sin that prevented them from a genuine pursuit of God, they now desire to please God, and though they may have much sinful thinking left over from their past, their new orientation toward God causes them to resonate with the truth of God's Word. The purpose of sanctification is to renew the Christian to think godly and to conform him to Christlikeness.

Though I would love to go into more detail, this renewing is accomplished as we submit ourselves to the work of God's Spirit in our lives (see Ephesians :18ff.). How is that accomplished? It is accomplished when we read God's Word, seek to understand it properly (which we can because of our regenerated minds), and apply it to our lives. As we live according to scripture, being aided by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we are progressively renewed in sanctification.

This renewal begins with the transformation of our inner being, but encompasses our entire outward person. Returning to Romans 6, Paul describes how we are to cease from presenting our members as instruments of unrighteousness, to instruments of righteousness. Our members speak of our whole person both inwardly and outwardly. Our thought life, emotions, and attitude, as well as our behavior when we interact with the rest of the world.

So, minds that once easily led people astray into error so they would make poor choices that resulted in disastrous consequences, are now anchored in the faith directing them to exercise wisdom and discernment. A thought life once polluted with filthy, perverse images, now delights in the pure thoughts of who God is. A person who entertained himself by dreaming up sinful schemes which he replayed in the theater of his mind, is now turned to dwelling upon how to serve and please the Lord. Hands which once stole from others, now give sacrificially. Feet which were swift to run to evil are now shod to carry the preaching of the gospel across the earth. Eyes which once sought out pictures of sinful lust, now lift themselves up to look upon the Lord. Lips which uttered lies, now speak the truth. And tongues which spoke blasphemies against God and cruel slander against people, now praise God and exhort the saints in the Lord.

Now, how exactly does a belief in conditional security make sanctification meaningless? Two thoughts:

1) The language of our forensic sanctification insists upon our continuing identification with the Living Lord. The work of God in justification sets us apart - removes us, as it were - from our previous identification with the old man and sin. We are no longer under the damning influence of sin that placed us in the position of being eternally under God's wrath. Our identification is with Christ and a gulf exists between the two kingdoms. We could no more undo our identification with Christ so as to return to our old identification with sin, as we could no more gain entrance into an identification with Christ when we were once identified with sin. Only God can do that.

2) God's renewing process in a believer's life has no purpose. Christians will always have a lifelong battle against sin until they are glorified at death. Each individual will experience great victory of past patterns of personal sin, but they will also experience struggles and setbacks with temptation that may trouble them all their life. The important thing to remember is that due to God's regenerating work in their hearts, they will always desire to continue to press onward to godliness.

Conditional securists argue that any Christian who does not continue to abide faithfully in Christ is in danger of becoming apostate and being cast out by Christ. The problem, however, in light of the various exhortations to be consistently renewing our minds is the limit set by conditionalist as to how far a person can persist in habitual sin and be considered not abiding in Christ and thus apostate. Exactly how long must a person continue in unrepentant sin before he or she is considered "fallen away?" David, who was declared to be a "man after God's on heart" by the Lord Himself, remained unrepentant as to his hand in the murder of Uriah and his adultery with Bathsheba for nearly a year or more. Maybe he will be considered a special circumstance by conditionalists, I don't know. Also, what persistent sins can a person do that could place them in the category of apostate? Are sins of the heart, say for example, thinking lustfully on a gorgeous woman, a lesser sin than actually engaging physically with the exact same woman? Jesus never saw them as lesser or greater as far as God was concerned.

Seeing there can be many years a new Christian may struggle with patterns of sin left over from his previous life before the process of sanctification begins to replace those patterns, at what level can we offer any affirmation to him of Paul's words to the Philippians when he wrote, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. (1:6). They were confident as a church body that if God began a work in them, it will be completed. The Christian who may struggle with sin for a long time has been set apart to be identified with Christ, just like the Philippians. As he presses on in his faith, daily being sanctified, having his mind retrained to think godly, he too should lay hold of that confidence, in spite of the set backs he may encounter which grieve his heart.

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