30 May, 2011 A secure salvation and modern Church preaching
Is our salvation as secure as the modern Church believes it to be?
I wrote this reflection to myself some time ago, after visiting a Church and feeling uncomfortable with the ‘soft’ message I heard from an otherwise harsh passage. At the same time I was interacting with some ‘believers’ whose life and conduct were anything but ‘Christian’ – and yet they were absolutely confident that they were Christians, and were securely on their way to heaven. I began to wonder if many of us preachers are becoming too scared to preach the truth. I felt we preachers were often giving overly-softened messages which were actually compromises of the most serious type. I, in no way, want controversy, or enjoy upsetting people. However I increasingly feel the preaching in many of our Churches to be compromised, for the fear of man seems to subtly override the fear of God in the content and applications of the preacher. Join me on this two part journey.
The role of the preaching in a Laodicean age, Part I
Calvinism versus Arminianism is an age old debate. What has concerned me in recent years is the way in which the content of much preaching is affected by the environment. Put differently, how preachers unknowingly avoid conflict with theological positions held by members in their Churches by softening what the Scriptures say. I have myself felt, and been influenced by, an unseen pressure to conform to theological positions that bring comfort to congregations. This is a real pressure, although subtle. I thus softened some truths as I didn’t want to offend others’ theology. Specifically I took the easy path for myself by avoiding the possibility of conflict, but became increasingly aware of, and disturbed by, this pressure.
Jesus points out that faith is the means by which one receives salvation (…if you believe in me…), and that salvation is a gift – a point which the apostle Paul also makes crystal clear in his teachings (…we are saved by grace…).
However Jesus also taught, such as in the second half of Matthew 24 and in Matthew 25, that there is an eternal judgement based on works. Many today who are of a Calvinist tradition find this, and other such teachings, difficult to reconcile.
(By the way – I’m not going to argue against either Calvinism or Arminian type positions – rather the lack of preaching on the necessity of works, and especially an avoidance of preaching what Jesus taught – even though few of us preachers would at first think that applied to us).
No-one forms their theology in a vacuum. Ones environment unavoidably influences ones interpretation of Scripture. For example one growing up in a time and place where no supernatural workings of the Spirit were experienced might assume they ended with the Apostles (dispensationalism / cessationalism), where as one growing up with experiences similar to those described in Acts would obviously never think of such an idea.
I suggest that John Calvin may have been the product of his time in in a similar way – and, in particular, in reference to the re-articulating of the theology of God’s grace. He grew up in an era when it had been taught that salvation came through observing the traditions of the Church (i.e. by works). In rediscovering what the Bible actually says about salvation – about how we are saved by His grace alone, and specifically not by works (as they are altogether insufficient for reconciliation with a perfectly holy God) – I suggest the pendulum swung a little to far. Calvin’s grace not only encompassed salvation, but, for example, even the ability to choose to accept the gift of salvation, this being seen as a choice only made possible through the receiving of grace from God to make this decision. He proposed the idea that we have no true free will as we were so corrupted by sin, and reasoned that if we chose to accept the gift of salvation this could somehow be construed as a work by which we attained to salvation, and so been this must have been the work of God. Thus he taught that even the ability to choose salvation is enabled only by God’s grace, thus given only to those who are elect. The elect (necessitated by his belief to be a specific group of people) are those chosen for salvation before the beginning of time (‘predestined’). Thus – at the extreme of Calvinism – it is God who chooses who will and not be saved, though ironically it still remains entirely our responsibility (or, specifically, culpability), with the consequences of heaven or hell awaiting us. This, in turn, logically partnered with the belief most simply phrased as ‘once saved, always saved,’ for if one is Divinely chosen to be eternally ‘saved’, and therefore comes to faith, it is only logically that you cannot fall away.
To give a balance with respect to Calvin, he also taught much on the necessity of holiness. This also went to an extreme where, for example, in Geneva, a standard of earthly holiness was enforced with the greatest rigidity and ‘legalism’ I have ever read about. Suffice to say his belief in grace did not lead him to any neglect in his teaching on holiness. As Jesus said, if we love Him we must obey His commands, As James said, faith without works is dead. Calvin did respect all of the Word of God.
However, in the logic of it, for those who do not remain faithful in the Christian life, a circular argument is unavoidable, as – if one cannot lose their salvation and yet does walk away from the faith – the only reasonably suggestion is that they must have been somehow insincere from the beginning (such an argument is mentioned by Paul in reference to some who had wandered to the truth, but seems to be applied to most of those who ‘fall away’ in the Calvinism of some).
I do question whether this is the most easy or logical interpretation of what Scripture teaches. Many of us will know people who have sincerely followed Christ, and then, for one reason or another, ‘fallen away.’ Personally, I don’t think the ‘circular reasoning’ of some is necessary. A belief that we have the ability to choose to receive a gift (salvation) doesn’t have to be equated with the belief that this good choice could be attributed to us as a ‘work’. It follows that there is then no necessity to force on Scripture the belief that we cannot ‘fall away’ by the same free choice with which we chose Christ. Some people have a lot of trouble seeing this possibility.
There are, however, many possible Scriptures and arguments on both ‘sides’ of this matter. At the end of it all, I do not think it necessary to change our position if we are of a Calvinist disposition. Many Calvinists will have no problem at all with what I am writing here. What the chief issue is, and what I have have serious concerns about, is the modern compromised adaptation of Calvinism I find in many Churches and so-called believers today.
So – to continue the reflection…
What does ‘secure’ salvation mean?
Jesus’ teaching, mentioned above (Matthew 24 an 25), indicates that obedience to God’s commands is necessary for salvation. This is to say that, while our salvation is not by works, it is also not without works. While we are saved by Gods favour alone, given in Christ, if godly works do not follow it is abundantly clear that our salvation is nullified (whether by Arminianist free choice of the Calvinist ‘circular logic’ of original insincerity).
The important point I thus want to make in this context is that the idea of a ‘secure salvation’ in Calvinism is actually a modern Christian myth. Early Calvinism suggested no such thing. In Calvinism there is this group known of as the ‘elect’, and the all-important question is how we can know if we are (or are not) a part of that blessed group. Remember – if works do not accompany a profession of faith, that faith is invalid Scripturally. Because one can be deceived into feeling they are sincere in repentance, and one doesn’t know if they might ‘fall away’ in the future, the question of ‘assurance of salvation’ is actually this: how one can be sure they have sincerely repented? Such, obviously, cannot be known until one is on ones death bed – and this is where we begin to see the fallacy of the modern-day ‘security rich’ Calvinist myth.
One cannot know, until that point of just-prior-death, if one will have been truly faithful to the Lord, persevering to the end! So a knowledge of a secure salvation is not knowable on the basis of this belief in this way. But, secondly, Scripture also teaches that we can be apostate (deliberately walk away from the faith), and thus lose our salvation (eg Hebrews 10) – so there are two ways to ‘lose’ what one felt was a secure salvation.
But it gets worse, for Scripture also teaches (and warns in many places) that we can be deceived by false teachings. The warnings would not be there if the danger were not real! Thus, while many Calvinist based new-believer bible studies start with a teaching on our assurance of salvation, they are potentially (depending on the content) a little lacking in truth, for in Calvinism there are at least these two ways by which one might forfeit their salvation (being apostate and being deceived by false teachings), and one additional way by which they might have, unknowingly, never have even been saved (they may be unknowingly insincere, this being something that would be evidenced by their belief and lifestyle at their time of death). These three points seem, to me, to be the case no matter how sincerely one feels their initial decision to follow Christ was. Perseverance is taught in Scripture because perseverance is needed; holiness because holiness is needed; and warnings against deceptions because caution and spiritual discernment was genuinely needed.
So, coming to applications, what remains true – whether Calvinist or Arminianist – is that the Bible says that works are necessary for salvation. They are not responsible for it – as we are saved by grace alone. They are necessary for it, as our sincerity in repentance is proved by our actions that follow. (Some will debate the word selection – symantics given I trust the reader can understand the point).
It also follows – whether by Calvanist or Arminianist reasoning – that no one who continues to live in a manner which is contrary to God’s teaching can be a true Christian, as faith without works is dead. Jesus’ teaching in, for example, the latter part of Mathew 24 and the whole of Matthew 25, or his teaching on holiness such as in the Sermon on the Mount etc… can thus all be read just as they are – we need seek no other mitigating meaning or alternate interpretation of these passages so as to soften them to our hearers ears, and certainly need make no excuses for them. (Bluntly, they do not need twisting so as to preach that all who have at any point said a ‘salvation prayer‘ are secure in their salvation – this being a comfortable message, but a questionable one). Without the ongoing actions of faith, without the use of our gifts and talents for God, without sincere attempts to meet the needs of needy people around us, etc… our claim of salvation is void, as our life tells a story that is different to our proclaimed profession of faith. Jesus taught this, so – irrespective of our theology – it is a truth we can be sure of!
While salvation comes by grace alone, the destiny of all who are found to be without the works of faith at Christ’s return (or at their time of death) will be eternal judgement, not eternal salvation. It is a hard teaching – but from the mouth of our Master Himself – and therefore is teaching for which no ‘justification’ should ever be needed or given, whatever our theological disposition.
But I do believe there is grace in this picture. None of us are, or ever will be, perfect in our daily living. My guess, from the reading and study of Scriptures, is that God looks at the sincerity of our hearts. The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth seeking out those who are fully devoted to Him.
About Part II
I have more to say on this, to clarify further, and in particular reflecting upon the effect that the fear of upsetting our Church members can have upon a preachers devotion to preaching the truth of God’s Word. See Part II for more 🙂