Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Eternal Security vs. Perseverance of the Saints

There was an interesting and very instructive exchange on Greg Koukl's "Stand To Reason" radio program (Sunday, October 18) regarding the doctrines of "Perseverance of the Saints" and "Eternal Security." I think Koukl really reveals some important things about Reform or Calvinist doctrine here, and I also think he demonstrates that he's unwilling to deal honestly with the opposition to "Perseverance of the Saints."

I should point out that having been a regular listener to his show for a couple of years now, I can say that Koukl does a fantastic job of pointing out "The World's" use of 'straw man' arguments presented against Christianity or other controversies related to Christian apologetics in general. But what you'll see from the excerpts is that Koukl himself employs two 'straw man' arguments as he defends the Reform doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints."

Koukl took a phone call from a listener who wanted to know what the difference is between eternal security and "Perseverance of the Saints" and he (Koukl) says this:

"The idea that you cannot lose your salvation can be expressed in two different ways, and they are a little bit different. One is eternal security, and that means "Once saved, always saved" and the other one is called "Perseverance of the Saints" which I think is a more precise and carefully characterized view…

[some cross-talk with caller here]

Here's the way I'd put it: When people say "Once saved, always saved" what often they mean is, "If you pray the sinner's prayer, you're 'in' no matter how you live or what happens after that. But when Reform folks talk about "Perseverance of the Saints" they're not talking about a sort of shallow understanding of praying the sinner's prayer and you get your fire insurance. They're saying, "Lookit, if you're genuinely regenerate, it is only because God reached out and rescued you by His sovereign grace, and His sovereign grace that rescued you will preserve you and preservation means that you persevere." So those who are genuinely called of God and the elect are those who persevere through all things, not just those who say a prayer and get their fire insurance and then are off doing other things."

Okay, so Koukl asserts that, at least in many cases, "Once saved, always saved" means that you believe praying the sinner's prayer saves you and that then you can go and do whatever you want. I'll acknowledge that some Christians believe this. But that's not my view nor is it the view of any of probably 20 pastors that I've listened to who teach Eternal Security.

That being the case, Koukl has erected a straw man here. Or, at the very least, he has only chosen to refute a subset of people who clearly do not have a Biblical understanding of Eternal Security or even salvation, for that matter. He's completely ignored the other group whose view is solidly Biblical and would be much more difficult for him to refute.

But that's just one straw man. Koukl puts up another one even in the same breath. That is, he's assuming that folks (like me) who reject the Perseverance of the Saints doctrine but believe in Eternal Security also believe that it's okay to continue living like a reprobate after you're saved. This is not an accurate characterization of my view, either. I don't think it's "okay". I don't understand the Bible to teach that there's no good reason for me to grow spiritually and avoid getting ensnared by "the World" after I'm saved. I believe I should "work" as a Christian, which entails learning Bible Doctrine and various kinds of service and living as uprightly as I can. It's just that I know this doesn't impact my eternal salvation, that's all. Why should it impact my salvation, if in fact salvation is by grace and not works?

Regarding the "Perseverance" thing, this is really very odd. I mean… I feel awkward saying this 'cuz, look, an Associate of Applied Arts degree is the extent of my formal education and yet even I can understand that perseverance is not in any way related to preservation. Just because the two words use a similar combination of letters doesn't mean that they go together or are synonymous. Why Koukl, who, let's face it, is far more educated than I will ever be, doesn't understand this is beyond me.

Preserve and persevere are two entirely different concepts, and this relates directly to the grace vs. works issue. Perseverance is thought of as something that people do. The saints, to be more specific. Those who have been saved.

The doctrine of "Perseverance of the Saints" comes out of Matthew 24:13 in which Jesus says:

But the one who endures [perseveres] to the end, he will be saved.

It's rather easy to see, however, that Matthew 24:13 has nothing to do with eternal salvation. It's important to remember that "saved" doesn't always refer to eternal salvation. There are many examples in the Bible where the word "saved" is used to describe being delivered from a particular kind of danger or circumstance… it isn't always used to refer to salvation from Hell. But those who subscribe to "Perseverance of the Saints" believe that this passage pertains to eternal salvation. They ignore the context of Matthew 24.

In Matthew 24, Jesus is describing events of The Great Tribulation. In verse 13, He's saying that anyone who lives through the Tribulation will be delivered from it, into the Millenial Kingdom which follows. It has nothing to do with salvation from Hell.

At any rate, preservation is something that God does for us, It's not something that we do for ourselves. God preserves. You might say God "perseveres" in preserving us. But if we are the ones who must "persevere" until the end, then guess what? Our salvation becomes dependent on our own performance, on our perseverance, and not on Christ's work. This is salvation by works.

Koukl also says that the elect "persevere through all things." Oh really? Who does this, literally? Koukl admits that he sins. I admit that I sin. How can we say we "persevere" when we admit that we sin frequently, if not almost constantly?

What I think is interesting about this doctrine is this: The Reform guys believe that sin in your life might mean that you're not really saved. And yet, they will admit that they sin. From this we can infer that there is a threshold of some sort. If you sin past a certain point, then you should question your salvation. But since no threshold is defined in the Bible, determining when a person has sinned enough that their salvation is in question becomes very subjective. Well… seems to me, and I'm sorry to have to say this, but it seems to me like these men are taking advantage of this subjectivity and placing this threshold conveniently outside their own personal envelope of sin. That way they're safe.

See, it all comes back to human viewpoint versus divine viewpoint, doesn't it? With respect to salvation, God doesn't see degrees of sin at all… a tiny sin (from our perspective) is just as significant in God's eyes as the most egregious sin. This is why no threshold is defined… to the extent that there is a threshold, we're already way past it. The Reform guys seem to want to define a threshold based on what sins they think they can resist and then say that everyone who surpasses that threshold (sins more than they do) is not saved. I think this is extraordinarily bad.

I don't think there is any issue more important than getting soteriology exactly right. If a person trusts in Christ (and that entails the belief that Christ is who He said He was, etc) then that person is given, at that point in time, eternal life and eternal life, by definition, lasts forever. It can never be lost. The "sinner's prayer" has nothing do with anything, except that most versions of the sinner's prayer I've ever been exposed to, in fact, do seem to contain the nuggets of truth one must accept. But no matter… praying the "sinner's prayer" doesn't save anyone. Trust in Christ results in eternal salvation whether it's accompanied by the "Sinner's Prayer" or not. And it's true… for the sake of eternal salvation, it doesn't matter what you do downstream of that. If it did, then salvation wouldn't be by grace. God preserves me. I do nothing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What's The Difference?

Aprille has her alarm clock set to a Christian radio station, KNLR, for 6:15 and she heard something this morning directly relevant to a discussion her and I had very recently.

The discussion was recalling an apologetics series by David T. Moore that we had heard many years ago. In the series, Moore said that there are minor, "stylistic" differences between Christians churches and that this was okay, 'cuz there ought to be different kinds of churches for different kinds of people. This has bothered me for some time because, well, unless it's very carefully qualified, the statement seems to leave a lot of room for post-modernism. It all depends on just exactly what Moore meant by "stylistic" differences. If Moore was referring to the decor of the church, then obviously that is entirely a matter of personal taste and no one ought to leave their church over interior design. I'm not exactly sure what Moore had in mind, specifically… that's part of problem: He didn't give an example.

Suffice it to say that there are differences between churches. Some differences can be categorized as superficial and merely "stylistic" while other differences concern doctrinal issues. And even among doctrinal issues there are issues that have much more gravity and issues that carry much less importance. And it's obvious that no single church is likely to have the right position on every doctrinal question and this means that every one of us will have to make compromises when looking for a church. But that said, some doctrinal issues are extremely important and compromise may not be advisable. While he may not have intended it, Moore's expression could be seen as a capitulation of sorts.

Now I'm not sure who the pastor on the radio was this morning, as I was already downstairs when the alarm went off. But Aprille listened to what he was teaching as she mustered up the will to actually get out of bed. He, he. According to Aprille, the pastor said that he applauded all the different denominations within Christianity and he related the different denominations to the different body parts of Christ as described in the Bible. Apparently he said that all of the denominations really teach the same thing. She knew that this would pique my interest.

A very popular notion outside of Christianity is that all world religions, at their core, teach essentially the same thing… be a good person, treat others the way you want to be treated, etc. Of course, on closer examination, other world religions teach things that are vastly different than what is taught in the Bible. The Bible, for example, teaches that God is distinct from His creation, while New Age religions teach that God IS the creation. Christianity teaches that evil had a beginning and will have an ending, while other world religions (particularly eastern religions) teach that evil and good coexist eternally and that evil will never be done away with. Christianity teaches that Jesus is God and that He is the Messiah, while other religions teach that He is merely a prophet or perhaps an unusually wise teacher. These are not minor details, minor differences. So the claim that all world religions teach basically the same things is shown to be false.

Unfortunately, the pastor that Aprille heard was expressing exactly the same view, but within the more narrow scope of Christianity and the various denominations. He was basically saying that it doesn't matter which denomination you belong to, they all teach basically the same thing. They just appeal differently to different people, and the differences are no greater, no deeper than that. This is post-modernism right in our own back yard, I'm afraid.

Just as careful examination of world religions reveals that world religions teach fundamentally different principles, careful examination of different denominations within Christianity reveal that different denominations teach very different things. The different denominations make contradictory truth claims. And since two contradictory truth claims can't both be true (law of non-contradiction) either one claim is true and the other false, or they're both false. Different denominations, and in fact different churches, teach different things about the reliability and historicity of the Bible, for example. They teach different things about what one must do in order to be saved (and what's more important than that?) They teach different things about whether or not a person can lose their salvation. It's easy to see that this pastor's assertion is every bit as false as the claim about world religions.

In fact, some denominations--or at least some churches--teach that different denominations do not teach the same thing!! (in fact, that's exactly what I'm saying) This fact alone renders the pastor's claim to be catastrophically false.

It's unfortunate, but true: Humans screw things up to varying degrees. We have a tremendously difficult time keeping our own little power-plays out of the game. We slip into ruts in our thinking and pride makes it incredibly difficult to break out of the rut. And yet, it's clear that ruts are not always bad. There are certain 'ruts' that you want to be in. Jesus and His apostles taught that with respect to how one is saved, we should be in a rut. Jesus described such a 'rut' in Matthew 7:13 when He said:

“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it."

There are many questions that have right answers, and wrong answers… questions pertaining to salvation are certainly the most important, but that's not to say that others aren't important as well. Unfortunately, we're going to encounter bad teaching at some point… it might be about a critical issue, or it might be about something relatively trivial. Knowing where to draw that line can seem a bit tricky at times, but we must draw that line. Pretending that everyone within Christianity is right even though they hold contradictory views is simply not an option. It destroys the notion of truth and opens the door to post-modern thought within the Church. Either it's true that a person can lose their salvation or it's false. Either it's true that baptism is required for salvation, or it's false. Either it's true that you must confess your sins to a priest privately for absolution of your sins, or it's false. Whatever the question, the denomination or church who teaches opposite of the truth is, I'm sorry to say, wrong. And we ought to be able to say so.

Now the question is, how can we know? Simple. By reading and studying the Bible carefully. We are supposed to check this stuff out ourselves and verify that what we're being taught is actually consistent with the Bible. We're to be on the lookout constantly for false teaching (which means we must be able to recognize it when we encounter it) and either do whatever we can to correct that teaching or flee from it.

Imagine if you attended, say, a class on how to design a web site and the instructor tells you that html tags are enclosed with brackets ([]). Is that wrong, or is it just the instructor's opinion? What if the guy down the hall is teaching that html tags are enclosed with greater-than/less-than symbols (<>)? One of the instructors here is teaching something that is false. Are you going to get the same results regardless of which instructor you believe? Absolutely not.

Why do we have so much trouble reaching these same sorts of conclusions about questions of Christian doctrine? Why do we feel the need to say that all answers are equal? We wouldn't do that in any other context, would we? Why is that? Why do we have the idea that spiritual truth is malleable and that the law of non-contradiction somehow doesn't apply in that realm? Why would we think that?

These are very tough questions.