Saturday, July 24, 2010

Calvinist Betrayal

I mentioned, some posts ago, that I heard a sermon earlier this year regarding the Doctrine of Apostasy---which involves the issue of “Losing Salvation.” In the sermon, the preacher, whom I called “John,” stated that “we are not saved by anything we do.” He then used this statement as a “stepping stone” from which to say that “if we didn’t do anything to be saved, we can’t do anything to be unsaved. If our works don’t save us, then our works don’t unsave us.”

But then, John seemed to modify his position a little. He began to tell the congregation that we can’t just go live anyway we want to because we’re saved by grace; no---rather, we are supposed to live in accordance with godliness.

On Father’s Day, the pastor exhorted the congregation after one of the directors of the Men’s Ministry preached. His exhortation was, “Fathers, let us be the husbands and the fathers that God has called us to be; for these things are OF ETERNAL SIGNIFICANCE.”

Let’s stop here for a moment. That’s right: what you just read is what the pastor actually said! He told the men in the congregation that to be godly husbands and fathers was “of eternal significance.” But how? How can these things be of eternal significance if we are acquitted of all our sins (past, present, and future) by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross? If none of our sins can stand against us on Judgment Day, then how can any of these human God-given responsibilities be of ANY eternal significance? This all sounds like double-talk to me.

In case you’re wondering, however, I’ll go ahead and tell you that such Calvinist argument is nothing new. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Calvinists have done the same thing the two preachers above did in their sermons: they have always “played both sides of the theological fence” when it comes to justification and sanctification. And John Preston fits right in with the ranks of other Calvinists, for he does the same.

In Moore’s chapter on “The Gospel Call,” he gives the reader Preston’s dichotomy between a “gospel covenant” and a “gospel promise.” The gospel promise is offered to all:

“Preston is quite clear that the gospel promise can, in one sense, be said to be general. Another example of God’s ‘generall promise’ is ‘Whosoever will beleeve, shall be saved.’ To the extent that Christ is thus ‘offered to every creature’ so far do the promises ‘belong unto him.’ Thus what Preston is at pains to communicate by saying ‘Gods promises are generall,’ or with the phrase ‘a generall pardon,’ is that it is ‘without exception of persons, or sinnes’” (Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism,” page 126; Preston, “A Liveless Life,” I:174; “Saints Qualification,” I:122; III:43).

For Preston, “the gospel promise is ‘free without any condition,’ in that it is wrong to ‘looke for sorrow and holinesse before thou takest Christ’” (Moore, 127). According to Preston, the only thing that the sinner can do is profess faith in Christ. It seems then, by the term “unconditional,” that he is referring to works of righteousness.

Let me say here that Classical Arminians agree with this. We do not deny Paul’s words when he says that “He saved us---not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5a, English Standard Version). Contrary to popular belief, Classical Arminians do not argue works-righteousness in their theology. Rather, the only condition we argue is faith, to believe...which is not a “work of merit”; rather, faith is trusting in the merits of Christ, not our own (for we have nothing to boast or brag about, Eph. 2:9).

In case I seem heretical in my belief, let me note that scholars Ken Keathley (Molinist), Thomas Schreiner (Calvinist), Dave Hunt (Non-Calvinist), and Jacob Arminius himself (father of Arminianism) hold to the same definition of perseverance. Ken Keathley and Thomas Schreiner both refer to perseverance as “persevering IN FAITH” (see Ken Keathley’s “Salvation and Sovereignty,” page 185; see my section titled “Doctrine of Perseverance” to read Keathley’s quote of Schreiner and his affirmation of Schreiner’s definition); Dave Hunt refers to “faith” as the believer’s assurance (see “Debating Calvinism,” page 399, where Hunt states, “Believing in Christ is our assurance”); and Arminius himself stated that faith is the condition whereupon a person can either be joined to Christ or severed from him (Arminius’s “Works,” I:741-742).

Now, back to John Preston. Preston states that no holiness can be expected from someone who comes to Christ for the first time. By “condition,” Preston means “works of righteousness.” And to that, as I stated above, every Classical Arminian would agree. But notice his comments regarding life in Christ:

“However, as if fearing antinomian deductions from the unconditionality of the promise, Preston immediately in this same passage QUALIFIES THIS UNCONDITIONALITY. IT IS NOT THAT THE SINNER IS TO BE PRESENTED WITH NO CONDITIONS WHATSOEVER, but rather that THESE CONDITIONS ARE TO BE UNDERSTOOD AS DUTIES THAT ARE TO FOLLOW FAITH. He insists that ‘there be conditions following after, though not going before faith.’ These conditions are, ‘you must serve him in all his commands, and leave all your sinnes.’ The gospel promise is unconditional, but FINAL SALVATION IS CONDITIONED UPON PROGRESSIVE SANCTIFICATION. This side of the coin ‘is another part [of the gospel]’ and constitutes the covenant of grace expressed conditionally” (Jonathan D. Moore, “English Hypothetical Universalism,” page 127; Preston, “A Liveles [sic] Life,” I:176).

In case you missed Preston’s argument, please read this last quote of Jonathan Moore’s (and Preston’s) again. Preston says that there are no works of righteousness required BEFORE Christ; but works are required AFTER Christ. Of the entire quote above, this is the part I loved most:

“The gospel promise is unconditional, but final salvation is conditioned upon progressive sanctification.”

With this last sentence quoted, many people would deem me a semi-Pelagian, Pelagian, or a downright heretic (perhaps Preston would be labeled such as well). The bottom line is, that Preston read Scripture and came to the conclusion that works will play a role in one’s eternal destiny on the Day of Judgment. What must a person do in order to reach final salvation? “You must serve him in all his commands, and leave all your sinnes.” There is a lifestyle of response that God requires from us if we desire to obtain salvation, whether we like it or not.

Now here is where Molinist Ken Keathley will disagree with Preston (and my view, of course). In his view, there must be a distinction between justification and sanctification:

“The doctrine of forensic justification is crucial for assurance of salvation. ‘Forensic’ means that justification is the legal act where God declares a sinner righteous through Jesus Christ. This is in contrast to sanctification, which is the lifelong work of grace whereby God makes a sinner righteous. It is this distinction between justification and sanctification that liberated Martin Luther from the bondage of attempting to merit salvation. Luther tells of meditating on Rom 1:17 (‘For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith’) and coming to the realization that God’s righteousness was A GIFT GIVEN TO SINNERS rather than a standard that sinners must meet” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, page 165).

It is true that we are “justified by faith” (Rom. 5:1) and that sanctification is the work of the Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13); however, it is also the case that believers have a role to play in their sanctification as well (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4). While it is the Spirit who sanctifies, the Spirit will not sanctify a person who daily chooses to yield to the flesh instead of “denying himself.” Yes, we are saved by faith; but faith must be supplemented by works. When James wrote, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), James was not saying that faith without works is “nonexistent”; what James is saying here is that, in contrast to a faith that works, the dead faith is present but has no life in itself.

Imagine that you have an 8-pack of Duracell batteries in your possession, and that the goal of the batteries is to light your flashlight. So you put two batteries in the flashlight at once (it takes two for operation) and the light comes on. The batteries serve a purpose---that is, they provide you with light. But one day, the batteries stop working altogether. The batteries are, in a word, “dead.” The question now becomes, “Are the batteries non-existent because they don’t work? Did the batteries just “poof” out of existence? No! The batteries did not self-annihilate when they ran out of energy; rather, they still exist (materially), but they have no purpose (they are fit for nothing). According to James, our faith is the same: even though we may have faith, if it does not serve a purpose, it does no more for us than the person who has no faith at all. I wanna make a note here, however, that one who has faith is distinguished from one who does not; nonetheless, our faith does not work for us, should we have it and yet have no works to supplement it. In short, we are as “handicapped” spiritually as if we were unbelieving, should our faith be “ineffective.”

John Preston has more to say about final salvation and sanctification, so there are more posts to follow...


The Seeking Disciple said...

Interesting take on this hot bed issue. I reject eternal security or perseverance of the saints (they are one in the same whether Calvinists admit this or not). I hold that one must continue in the faith until the end. While I do believe good works will flow from a regenerated heart, I do reject the idea that works keep us. They may help but faith in Jesus alone saves and faith works to be sure but our final eternal salvation is only in Jesus Christ and in glory He alone will be praised for keeping us.

Deidre Richardson, B.A., M.Div. said...


In regards to works, I do agree that faith in Christ alone saves. Works of righteousness do not save us, and they do not preserve us. The only reason that we can persevere in the faith is because of God's amazing grace.

What I desire to do (call it this theologian's dream) is to find a way to represent "bearing fruit" in the Christian life in such a way that we do it justice. I don't think we've achieved this yet in our theologies (whether Calvinist, Molinist, Arminian, etc.) We seem to wanna stress that faith in the work of Christ on the cross saves (and that's a great point to stress); however, we seem to have very little to say when it comes to perseverance. We don't seem to know quite what to make of it.

We are saved according to Scripture in order to do good works, which God has ordained we do (Eph. 2:8-9). I think this should govern how we view the connection between faith and perseverance.

Stick around: I'm gonna dive into a series on faith and perseverance sometime soon.