Did you ever hear of a doctor warning his patients to make sure that their hearts don’t stop beating? Get a family member to sit by your bed all night taking your pulse, he tells you – they can get help at the first sign of trouble! Better yet, buy a heart monitor – you can’t be too careful! You must keep your heart beating at all costs!!!
Goofy, huh? What a quack! The heart, after all, is an involuntary muscle! You expect that it’s going to keep beating whether you want it to or not! Can you imagine your doctor telling you that it is your responsibility to be on your guard and keep your heart beating?
Evangelicals have a couple of doctrines that are really dear to their hearts, two that they got from Luther – sola fide and sola Scriptura (faith alone and the Bible alone), and one from Calvin – the doctrine of “eternal security,” colloquially known as “once-saved/always saved.” Televangelists refer to it as “You can know that you know that you know that you know that you know….”
One brand of Evangelical teaching on eternal security is somewhat different from the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints” first set forth by Calvin (and I do mean FIRST set forth – NO ONE before Calvin preached this doctrine). These Evangelicals tend to emphasize the faith ALONE aspect of eternal security, looking to John 3:18 as a proof-text:
Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
Now, when you read that verse, you read “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” But when these folks read that verse, they read “Whoever BELIEVES in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not BELIEVE stands condemned already because they have not BELIEVED in the name of God’s one and only Son.” In other words, it’s all a matter of whether or not you BELIEVE. When you “get saved,” many Evangelicals tell you, you will start living a Christ-like life out of sheer gratitude to God – BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO. Sanctification is totally optional. You may, and unfortunately some do, continue to live like the devil, but you need never fear that eternal damnation might be in the cards. This perspective sees salvation as God’s work entirely, and therefore a Christian, no matter how wildly and deliberately he sins, cannot lose his salvation. Nothing he does can earn his salvation, and therefore nothing he does can cause him to forfeit it. “Free Grace” is another name for this particular understanding of eternal security. “Easy, greasy grace” and “easy believe-ism” are other, less flattering ways of referring to it.
Not all Evangelicals adhere to the “Free Grace” perspective on salvation. Many believe that when a person gets saved, he WILL begin to live a Christ-honoring life. If he doesn’t – he didn’t really get saved. This assumption leads, understandably, to a lot less “security” than the “eternal security” proponents would like you to believe. An Evangelical who “gets saved” and then finds himself engaging in sin will naturally tend to doubt his salvation. This gives rise to altar calls encouraging folks to “rededicate” their lives to the Lord. If that fails to assuage the doubt, one can always “get saved” all over again. As my toddler daughter put it (back in our Baptist days), “I got saved three times already! My Sunday School teacher saved me once, and I saved myself once in my bedroom, and today I got saved again!” Cute – but not so cute when adults get baptized, and re-baptized, and three-baptized… all because they’re afraid that their “salvation” wasn’t for real.
The utter subjectivity of this view of eternal security poses some unusual difficulties. My son’s eighth-grade Bible teacher told the class that she never talks to Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock on her door, because she is afraid that they will deceive her with their false doctrine and lead her away from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, causing her to be damned. Understandably shocked, the children asked her if she was saying that she could lose her salvation? “Of course not!” was her answer – if that happened, then she had never really been saved to begin with. My son, now a freshman in college, still gets headaches trying to follow that convoluted logic, but it is inherent in the system. As an Evangelical, you get used to playing Extreme Mental Twister when you think about these things.
St. Paul’s warnings to the Philippians, the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians and the Colossians don’t help any. Up against the Evangelical Protestant understanding of “eternal security,” St. Paul is like a cardiologist warning his patients to keep their hearts beating! “The heart is an involuntary muscle!” you say? That’s what I learned in school – so the idea that a doctor would warn me to make sure my heart keeps beating strikes me as bizarre! But the Evangelical idea of eternal security claims that salvation is akin to an involuntary muscle – it’s not up to you to keep the “heart” of your salvation beating – either (a) IT CAN’T STOP or (b) if it “stops,” it’s because it was never really actually beating…. (my head hurts). Yet the apostle Paul warns the Colossians:
And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach– if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.
He warns the Galatians:
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
He warns the Corinthians:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
And he warns the Romans:
You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.
All of these verses indicate the reality that a Christian can be severed from Christ, can fall from grace, can be cut off, can believe in vain. St. Paul’s admonition to the Philippians therefore takes on an air of extreme urgency: Work out your salvation with fear and trembling!
St. Peter (2 Pet 2:20-22) and the author of the book of Hebrews (Heb 3:12, Heb 6:4-6) echo the same refrain. Hebrews 10:23-29 puts it very strongly, warning of the “fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire” for those who go on deliberately sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth. The Great Physician, Himself meek and lowly of heart, teaches the same doctrine (Lk 12:42-46) – remember the steward given charge over the Master’s household, the guy who eats, drinks and makes merry instead of faithfully carrying out his charge? What did the Master do to that steward when He returned? Turn a blind eye to his misdeeds and promote him?
St. Paul was no quack. His warnings about falling from grace are very necessary reminders to us – do not be arrogant, but be afraid. Whether your theology admits it or not, your heart can most certainly betray you. Or as the author of the book of Hebrews puts it: Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God….
On the memorial of St. Teresa de Jesús
Deo omnis gloria!