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LECTURES IN SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
Henry C. Thiessen
If properly understood, this is a very comforting doctrine, but it must not be abused or misinterpreted. The Scriptures teach that all who are by faith united to Christ, who have been justified by God’s grace and regenerated by his Spirit, will never totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but certainly persevere therein to the end. This does not mean that everyone who professes to be saved is eternally saved. Nor even does it mean that everyone who manifests certain gifts in Christian service is necessarily eternally saved. The doctrine of eternal security is applicable only to those who have had a vital experience of salvation. Concerning such, it affirms that they shall never totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace. This is not equivalent to saying that they shall never backslide, never fall into sin, and never fail to show forth the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light. It merely means that they will never totally fall away from the state of grace into which they have been brought, nor fail to return from their backsliding in the end.
I. PROOF OF THE DOCTRINE
This truth is not a matter of speculation, but of revelation. Human opinion has very little value in this connection, except as it is steeped in the declarations and principles of the Word of God. Some of the chief proofs of this doctrine as found in the Scriptures can be enumerated.
A. THE PURPOSE OF GOD
Isaiah says, “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, ‘Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand’ cf. Job 23:13). The Scripture teaches that God has purposed to save those whom he has justified. Paul declares in answer to the question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Rom. 8:35, 38f.). Earlier in the chapter he had expressed God’s purpose for the saved, which is as follows, “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become confirmed to the image of His son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified,” (vss. 29f.). That is, in the councils of God there is an unfailing sequence with regard to everyone whom he foreknows. The revelation of this fact led the apostle to express himself with certainty, as we have indicated. Paul further states, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” (Rom. 11:29). Jesus gave utterance of the same, saying, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one,” (John 10:27-30). Morris comments, “It is one of the precious things about the Christian faith that our continuance in eternal life depends not on our feeble hold on Christ, but on His firm grip on us.”
B. THE MEDIATORSHIP OF CHRIST
This is a continued and effective mediatorship. It is conceivable that God might purpose to keep a man eternally, but that the conditions of security might fail. We are saved by the blood of Christ, and our Lord’s resurrection testifies that that sacrifice was accepted by the Father, (Rom. 1:4; 4:25). But does his work avail perpetually? Paul says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life,” (Rom. 5:8-10). His present ministry avails to keep us saved, as his past work availed to save us in the first place. The author of the Hebrews wrote, “Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them,” (Heb. 7:25). In John 17 Jesus prayed, among other things, that the Father would keep those who believe and that they might enjoy the blessings of eternal fellowship with him. Surely the prayer of Christ will not go unanswered. Christ presently is at the right hand of God interceding for us (Rom. 8:34).
C. GOD’S ABILITY TO KEEP
It is one thing to be willing to keep secure, but another to be able to do so.
God is represented as qualifying in both respects. Paul asserts, “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 1:6), and “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day,” (2 Tim. 1:12). Scripture further speaks of believers as those “who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” (1 Pet. 1:5; cf. Rom. 16:25; Jude 24). Thus, in Scripture the Lord’s desire and ability to settle and keep us saved are definitely affirmed.
D. THE NATURE OF THE CHANGE IN THE BELIEVER
Scripture tells us that the believer has been regenerated and that in regeneration he becomes a new creature and receives a new life. Paul says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come,” (2 Cor. 5:17). Having believed on the Lord Jesus, we are looked upon by God as if we had been crucified together with him (Rom. 6:6), and also as if we had risen from the dead with him in newness of life. The believer has received not only a new life, but eternal life. Jesus said, “I give eternal life to them,” (John 10:28). He also said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life,” (John 3:14f.; cf. v. 16), and further, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him,” (John 3:36). Boettner says:
The nature of the change which occurs in regeneration is a sufficient guarantee that the life imparted shall be permanent. Regeneration is a radical and supernatural change in the inner nature, through which the soul is made spiritually alive, and the new life which is implanted is immortal. And since it is a change in the inner nature, it is in a sphere in which man does not have control. No creature is at liberty to change the fundamental principles of its nature, for that is the prerogative of God as Creator. Hence nothing short of another supernatural act of God could reverse this change and cause the new life to be lost. The born-again Christian can no more lose his sonship to the heavenly Father than an earthly son can lose his sonship to an earthly father, (Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 184).
II. OBJECTIONS TO THE DOCTRINE
There are several objections to this position which can be noted.
A. THAT IT INDUCES LAXNESS AND INDOLENCE
It is charged that the doctrine of eternal security induces laxness in conduct and indolence in service.
1. Laxness in conduct. It is argued, if every believer is eternally secure, why then be holy in conduct; why not have a so-called good time in this world? But those who raise this objection show that they do not grasp the true nature of regeneration and the exact nature of the doctrine of perseverance. Regeneration is a change in the inner nature, and the new life is eternal life. This is the true view of regeneration. Furthermore, the doctrine of eternal security does not imply that a man can do wrong and go unpunished. It does state, however, that the man who is born again will seek to live a new life. John writes, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God,” (1 John 3:9). This means that he does not habitually sin; and it is certainly true that the experience of the new birth is here represented as resulting in an overcoming life. If a man habitually lives in sin, we conclude that he has never been saved (cf. Rom. 6:1f.; 2 Tim. 2:19; 2 Pet. 1:10f.; 1 John 2:3f., 29; 3:14; 5:4).
2. Indolence in service. Assurance of a right relation with God brings with it a joy and praise that seeks expression in devoted service. Whereas the soul that is never sure of its security is timid and halfhearted, the believer who has the confidence that he is eternally secure in God’s keeping is impelled to do something for others. In service as in morality, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). This is not an exhortation, but a statement of fact. All these verbs are in the present tense; his sheep habitually hear his voice, he continually knows them, and they habitually follow him. Not by a man’s professions, but by his fruits do we know him, (Matt. 7:16).
B. THAT IT ROBS MAN OF HIS FREEDOM
It is said that the teaching of eternal security makes man an automaton that he no longer is conceived of as having the power to choose. But such a view reveals an erroneous conception of freedom. Freedom is not necessarily the ability to choose between right and wrong, but the ability to choose the right. God is perfectly free, and he is unable to choose or to do wrong. The new life in the believer impels him to choose the right and reject the wrong. Paul asks the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, but bases that exhortation on the fact that “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure,” (Phil. 2:13). The doctrine of perseverance does not rob a man of his freedom; it rather recognizes that a saved man has a freedom to do what he ought to do that an unsaved man does not possess.
C. THAT SCRIPTURE TEACHES THE CONTRARY
It is said that the Scriptures show that certain men were saved and yet perished in the end. Saul in the Old Testament and Judas Iscariot in the New Testament are favorite examples. But this merely emphasizes that one must be careful judging the outward appearance. The rocky soil in the parable of the sower brought forth shoots quickly, but the plant endured only for a season. When persecution and tribulation arose, it withered quickly (Mark 4:16f.). The same thing is true of those sown among the thorns; there seemed to be real life there, but the cares of the age, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choked the word (vv. 18f.). Jesus declared that not everyone who said, “Lord, Lord,” would enter into the kingdom, not even if he could boast of having prophesied in his name, of having cast out demons in his name, or of having done many mighty works in his name. Such are the people who only seem to have the gift of God, (Luke 8:18). Only he who had had a personal acquaintance with him would enter the kingdom, (Matt. 7:21-23). John uses the argument of continuance with the people of God as a proof of regeneration, and failure to continue as a proof that the ones separating themselves are not of them. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us,” (1 John 2:19; cf. John 6:66f.; 2 Pet. 2:20-22). Surely, Judas Iscariot was never saved. Jesus said in connection with the washing of the disciples’ feet, “‘He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean’ (John 13:10f.). The bath made the disciples clean; they were all clean, except Judas; therefore, it is clear that Judas had not had the bath. He was unregenerated. We may not be able to say just why Christ chose and tolerated in his company one who was unsaved, but we have the statement of Christ himself to the effect that this was the case. In the case of Saul, Scripture does not give enough information to establish his relation to God, but to say he lost his salvation is to go beyond what Scripture reveals to us.
D. THAT THERE ARE MANY WARNINGS
It is urged that the Scriptures contain many warnings and exhortations to the saved. Can it really be that those who are eternally secure need yet to be warned? What is the force of these warnings? Outstanding among these Scriptures are Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-31. It seems that the people mentioned in these verses were being enticed to turn back to Judaism. They were losing their faith and confidence in the promises of the gospel and were looking back to what they had forsaken. It is a dangerous thing for a person to become actively involved in Christian things and with Christian people without actually turning from darkness to light and from the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of Christ. If such an unregenerate person should turn away, his chances of returning are very remote (cf. 2 Pet. 2:20-22). Another Scripture which is brought up in this connection is Matthew 24:13, which says, “But the one-who endures to the end; it is he who shall be saved.” To this we simply reply that that has nothing to do with the main argument. If a man is saved, he will continue; if he is not saved, he will not continue. If he continues to the end, he will ultimately be saved. In other words, this Scripture indicates the reward of enduring; it does not raise the question as to whether a truly saved man will continue to the end.
Another Scripture that is thought to indicate the possibility of falling away is Ezekiel 18:24, “But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live?” It is clear from the whole context in this chapter that the prophet is speaking of legal righteousness and outward fidelity to duty (cf. 33:12-20). If this statement were to be taken in a literal sense, then salvation would be by works and not by grace. This makes it clear that the life in view here is not eternal life, but life on earth, prolonged and cut short as a result of obedience or disobedience. The last one to be mentioned is John 15:1-6, especially verse 6, which speaks of casting forth the branches that do not bear fruit, and of their being cast into the fire. Can this be done to a true believer? The answer is that in these verses the Lord is trying to teach one main lesson, and one should not press the other analogies of the vine and the branches. He is merely teaching that every true branch is bearing some fruit; if a branch is not bearing some fruit, it is evident that there is no life union between it and the vine. That is, the person thus represented is unsaved. Of course, such a branch is cast forth. It was brought into union with Christ, but the union did not become vital; therefore, it will experience separation and the judgment in the end.
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