Thursday, May 13, 2010

Undermining Eternal Security: The Calvinist Conception of Losing Salvation

Today’s post may shock my readership. I covered Arminius’s theology regarding losing faith and losing salvation recently; however, today’s post is one that you may never see anywhere else on any other blog---except mine and a few others who dare to “set the record straight” on issues pertaining to theology.
Arminians are accused (at least in the modern-day evangelical world) of holding to heterodox doctrine regarding salvation. I’ve argued here at CTS that key to Arminius’s theology was faith; a man stands by his faith, and can fall away from the faith if he does not continue in the grace of God (Rom. 11:20-22).

But what may shock you is that Calvin had a theory of his own regarding losing salvation. Calvin’s view of losing salvation involves the reprobate. Regarding the characteristics of those described in 6:4-5 (“enlightened, tasted of the heavenly gift, the good word of God, and the powers of the coming age”), Calvin writes in his Hebrews commentary:

“But we must notice in passing the names by which he signalizes the knowledge of the Gospel. He calls it illumination; it hence follows that men are blind, until Christ, the light of the world, enlightens them. He calls it a tasting of the heavenly gift; intimating that the things which Christ confers on us are above nature and the world, and that they are yet tasted by faith. He calls it the participation of the Spirit; for he it is who distributes to every one, as he wills, all the light and knowledge which he can have; for without him no one can say that Jesus is the Lord,(1 Corinthians 12:3); he opens for us the eyes of our minds, and reveals to us the secret things of God. He calls it a tasting of the good word of God; by which he means, that the will of God is therein revealed, not in any sort of way, but in such a way as sweetly to delight us; in short, by this title is pointed out the difference between the Law and the Gospel; for that has nothing but severity and condemnation, but this is a sweet testimony of God's love and fatherly kindness towards us. And lastly, he calls it a tasting of the powers of the world to come; by which he intimates, that we are admitted by faith as it were into the kingdom of heaven, so that we see in spirit that blessed immortality which is hid from our senses” (Calvin’s Commentaries: Hebrews, page 75).

So those who are “enlightened” are those whom Christ has “shined upon” (2 Cor.4:6), since Christ is the light of the world (John 8:12); those who have “tasted” of the heavenly gift” are those who receive the heavenly blessings “by faith,” Calvin claims; those who are “partakers of the Holy Spirit” are those who possess the Spirit (who enlightens the mind); those who “tasted the good word of God” refers to those who study the Scriptures); those who have “tasted of the powers of the coming age” refers to those who “are admitted by faith...into the kingdom of heaven...” In short, all the given descriptions describe Christians.

But then, Calvin takes a sharp turn for the worst:

“But here arises a new question, how can it be that he who has once made such a progress should afterwards fall away? For God, it may be said, calls none effectually but the elect, and Paul testifies that they are really his sons who are led by his Spirit, (Romans 8:14); and he teaches us, that it is a sure pledge of adoption when Christ makes us partakers of his Spirit. The elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish. TO ALL THIS I ANSWER, THAT GOD INDEED FAVORS NONE BUT THE ELECT ALONE WITH THE SPIRIT OF REGENERATION, AND THAT BY THIS THEY ARE DISTINGUISHED FROM THE REPROBATE; FOR THEY ARE RENEWED AFTER HIS IMAGE AND RECEIVE THE EARNEST OF THE SPIRIT IN HOPE OF THE FUTURE INHERITANCE, AND BY THE SAME SPIRIT THE GOSPEL IS SEALED IN THEIR HEARTS. BUT I CANNOT ADMIT THAT ALL THIS IS ANY REASON WHY HE SHOULD NOT GRANT THE REPROBATE ALSO SOME TASTE OF HIS GRACE, WHY HE SHOULD NOT IRRADIATE THEIR MINDS WITH SOME SPARKS OF HIS LIGHT, WHY HE SHOULD NOT GIVE THEM SOME PERCEPTION OF HIS GOODNESS, AND IN SOME SORT ENGRAVE HIS WORD ON THEIR HEARTS. OTHERWISE, WHERE WOULD BE THE TEMPORAL FAITH MENTIONED BY MARK 4:17? There is therefore some knowledge even in the reprobate, which afterwards vanishes away, either because it did not strike roots sufficiently deep, or because it withers, being choked up” (“Calvin’s Commentaries: Hebrews,” page 76).

In this second paragraph regarding Hebrews 6 (paragraph above), Calvin attempts to reconcile Hebrews 6:4-6 with Romans 8:14. On the basis of Romans 8:14 as a prooftext, Calvin states that “the elect are also beyond the danger of finally falling away,” and then appeals to John 17:12 [see my posts on Calvinism where I argue that John 17:12 pertains to physical preservation, which is fulfilled by Jesus in John 18:7-9. Do a search at the top of the main page for “Herbert Lockeyer"].
So who are those of Hebrews 6 if they are not the elect? “I cannot admit that all this is any reason why He should not grant the reprobate also some taste of His grace...otherwise, where would be the TEMPORAL FAITH mentioned in Mark 4:17?”

Notice that, in the above words, Calvin said that “He,” God, is the one who grants the temporary faith (as He believes Mark 4:17 reveals). But what Calvin does here is assign God the role of granting only temporary faith to some. He writes the following in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”:

“ is not strange, that by the apostle a taste of heavenly gifts, and by Christ Himself a temporary faith, is ascribed to them...still it is correctly said, that the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because, under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them. Nor do I even deny that God illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize His grace; BUT THAT CONVICTION HE DISTINGUISHES FROM THE PECULIAR TESTIMONY WHICH HE GIVES TO HIS ELECT IN THIS RESPECT, that the reprobate never attain to the full result of to fruition. WHEN HE SHOWS HIMSELF PROPITIOUS TO THEM, IT IS NOT AS IF HE HAD TRULY RESCUED THEM FROM DEATH, AND TAKEN THEM UNDER HIS PROTECTION. HE ONLY GIVES THEM A MANIFESTATION OF HIS PRESENT MERCY...THUS WE DISPOSE OF THE OBJECTION, THAT IF GOD TRULY DISPLAYS HIS GRACE, IT MUST ENDURE FOREVER. THERE IS NOTHING INCONSISTENT IN THIS WITH THE FACT OF HIS ENLIGHTENING SOME WITH A PRESENT SENSE OF GRACE, WHICH AFTERWARD PROVES EVANESCENT” (John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.11).

Here we see that Calvin argues a temporary faith, “a manifestation of His present mercy.” Because of this, “we dispose of the objection that if God truly displays His grace, it must endure forever.” In Calvin’s mind, grace was only eternal for the elect; it was temporal or temporary for the reprobate (non-elect).

In Calvin’s theology, God is the one who enlightens the reprobate, and then removes it. This is seen most clearly in Calvin’s distinction of general and special calls:

“Besides this [universal call] there is a special call which, FOR THE MOST PART, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts. Sometimes, however, he communicates it also to THOSE WHOM HE ENLIGHTENS FOR A TIME, AND WHOM AFTERWARD, IN JUST PUNISHMENT FOR THEIR INGRATITUDE, HE ABANDONS AND SMITES WITH GREATER BLINDNESS” (John Calvin, “Institutes,” 3.24.8).

Here is where Calvin fumbles most. First, he argues that the special call (which is for the elect) is given to believers only “for the most part.” Is he saying that God gives it to those who are not believers? Calvin does not elaborate.
Next, God abandons those who display “ingratitude.” How can they be responsible for resisting grace if God is the one who enlightens them for a time, only gives them “a manifestation of His present mercy”? If God only gives them a “temporal faith,” then how is it their fault if their faith does not endure to the end? Since faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9), how then, can man be responsible if God is the one giving and taking faith?

This last statement of Calvin is one that involves “losing salvation.” Eventually, God “abandons” that person and throws him further into reprobation. This is the modern concept that most people have in mind when the Arminian talks about “losing salvation.” However, this is not the doctrine of Arminius, but Calvin himself; and the only problem with Calvin’s view is that God is not the one who abandons the believer (Heb. 13:5; Deut. 31:6; Josh. 1:5); instead, the believer who falls away is the one who neglects God (Hebrews 2:3). In addition, Hebrews 6:7-8 (following verses 4 and 5) discusses the land that drinks the rain and can bear either fruit or thorns. In the words of Peter O’Brien, “The responsibility falls on the land and thus WITH THE PERSONS, NOT WITH GOD” (“The Pillar New Testament Commentary: Hebrews.” Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010, page 228). The persons themselves are to blame for their falling away, not God. So if the issue is faith (which Calvin seems to think it is---“temporal faith”), then the blame for falling away is not that God takes it from the believer, but that the believer gives up his or her faith (2 Peter 2:20-21; 1 Tim. 4:1; Hebrews 2:3; Romans 11:20-22).

Calvin attempts to maintain eternal security; however, by doing so, he is forced to deal with those who believe for a time and fall away...and he ends up assigning a temporary faith to them which makes one wonder whether or not he or she is even elect. If a person can have faith given to them for a time, and then the Spirit can “abandon” them and reprobate them, how then, can any of the assumed “elect” persons actually know with one-hundred percent certainty that they are elect? I think here is where we see the strength of Classical Arminianism: it offers assurance for the one who continues to believe, while holding to biblical teaching that believers can fall away (Mark 4:17, Luke 8:13).

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