Among the many disputes between Christian denominations throughout the years, there has been one that has superseded all others as the primary dispute. It isn’t eschatology or ecclesiology, but rather salvation that I speak of. The endless debate on whether one can forfeit their salvation through neglect, after it is once attained.
Many evangelicals, such as Baptists, hold that eternal security, the idea that salvation once attained can never be lost, is the correct idea. While the more conservative evangelicals and protestants, like Pentecostals and Holiness, as well as many liturgical churches, like Catholics and Episcopalians, and some Independents maintain that if salvation once attained is neglected, and one does not exhibit the necessary disciplines of a Christian, then the person in question stands in danger of forfeiting their salvation.
When I am asked this question, my answer often takes my inquisitor off-guard. I remain unconvinced on either side of the debate. You will excuse me if this sounds like a rant. This will not be in-depth, and strictly speaking, is only my opinions, humbly offered, of course. I just want to bring some clarity as why I do not yet swing to one side or the other regarding the argument.
I will start with idea of eternal security being true, and that salvation cannot be lost.
Anyone who knows me personally knows that I was raised in a denomination that believes in eternal security. While in attendance to this church, I noticed a great discrepancy, and indeed what some might call hypocrisy, regarding the idea of eternal security. When the subject came up, and examples were set forth of those who once lived a life of faith, but now walked in their own ways, the church’s explanation was, “If they were truly saved, then God will bring them back at some point.”
Now in principle, this makes total sense. What father, if he was able, wouldn’t make his child aware of the vice associated with abandoning family, and make pellucidly clear the consequences of such actions? Therein lay the problem. In the real world, this doesn’t always take place. I know people who were saved, backslid, and were killed in that condition. And any belief that they came back to God’s grace before their death is pure speculation, and certainly had no external reflection if they did. The formula failed. They weren’t brought back. They died in a backslidden condition, apathetic about God and his ways.
The odd thing is that as soon as this happens, these churches go back on their previous statement rather quick. I have seen the, as supposed, “backslidden” on their death bed tell visiting deacons and pastors that they were saved when they were a child. There was no inclination on the dying person’s part for renewed repentance or rededication, only an assertion that they prayed the sinner’s prayer in their adolescence. Amazingly, this gives the deacons and pastors a sense of comfort that they promptly pass along to the dying person’s family, usually with the statement, “They said they were saved, and that’s all we need to know.”
Even only a child, I stood appalled. What father is such a pushover to let someone trample his name during their entire lifetime, and then allow them into his inheritance without any question, based on the actions done during their adolescence? Would God hold him in no way responsible for this person’s lack of dedication given to the God they now professed to worship?
In fact, I have known many people personally from churches where eternal security was taught. These people were partaking in some gross sin, and when confronted the response was, “God knows my heart.” As if the effects of the sin doesn’t contaminate the condition of the heart, and that the heart remains pure and sincere in spite of gross sin on the behalf of the individual. Of course, this cannot be, for the heart is intrinsically combined with the soul and the body, and what one components does effects the other two components.
Many of these churches will also use the rationale that God will take their lives early if repentance is not demonstrated by the backslidden. Of course, this makes no logical sense to me. Paul makes it clear that, to a Christian, death is gain. So if backsliding brings about an early death without fear of additional consequences, then let’s all backslide. To suggest that the backslidden still go to Heaven, but shortens their earthly life, then it is exactly the same to me as God saying, “You have dishonored me. You have trampled my name and my grace. So as your punishment, I am going to give you your inheritance and reward early!”
That’s truly asinine.
Now many of these denominations will also say that if one’s salvation doesn’t bring about change, then salvation was never imparted to begin with. But if so, then that is, in essence, exactly the same as believing that salvation can be forfeited, only asserted differently. This also fails the “real world” test. For I have seen with my own eyes, those who come sincerely to God with a broken, repentant heart, maintain a standard of Christian discipline for decades, only to fall away at the end.
So, to summarize how I feel about the idea of eternal security being true, the answer is an emphatic “I cannot believe it.” I can never believe that God would save a child of seven years of age, watch this boy grow into a man who lives their life doing what they want to do, giving no thought to God or His ways, never practice any spiritual discipline, never take part in the Church sacraments and ordinances, never study Scripture, never exhibit restraint from sinful inclinations based on the fact that such activity hurts God, and still expect him to waltz into Heaven, no questions asked, upon his death. I could never believe that. In fact, if ever I thought this to be true, I would cease to be a Christian…
I wouldn’t want to worship a God that is such a pushover.
Now onto the idea that eternal security is not true, and that salvation can be lost.
Many conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists, and liturgical churches believe that salvation once attained can be lost. Very few of these churches would agree as to how salvation would be lost. Many of the more conservative churches would say that unresolved sin upon one’s death would forfeit salvation, while many liturgical churches, like Catholicism, would maintain that leaving the church itself is synonymous with forfeiting salvation.
Ironically, among the churches that believe that a certain standard must be lived in order to procure salvation, if asked, each one would probably give you a different standard of living, under the pretense, of course, that their own standard is the Biblical prescription, and that looser standards means a loss of salvation, and that a tighter standard is fanaticism akin to cultism.
And besides all that, what standard? The only standard defined in the New Testament is in the person of Jesus Christ, and if our salvation if dependent on living just like Christ, then Heaven will be a lonely place indeed. How many people you know who can say that they, “knew no sin”?
Even the churches disagree on what the salvation-forfeiting sins is? These churches are quick to point out that Christ’s bride will be without spot or wrinkle. But are they aware that this not only includes sins that manifest, but every thought, every motivation of every activity? If anything is done for selfish gain, SPOT. If any attraction is acquired for anyone except one’s spouse, SPOT. Merely thinking of something ungodly, SPOT. If not only can you say that you have no sin, but you can say you have no inclination to sin, then you can say you are without spot, and only then can you say it.
This doctrine hardly holds theological water as well. Does it really make sense that salvation would be attained through grace and faith, without works, but retained and maintained through works and merit? If the acquisition of salvation isn’t through works, then how can the retention of salvation be through works?
Now if you not only never let sin manifest through your body into physical action, but are also never inclined to sin, are only motivated by the purest motivations in everything you do, aren’t prone to humanism, never hold angst for anyone, even for those that are trying to hurt you. If you only think of Christ, and how you can benefit His kingdom, if you are never anxious about circumstances surrounding you, nor are you ever depressed, but are always jovial and kind to your fellow man. Unless you completely lack worldly ambition, and you’ve completely dissented from everything even potentially evil in this world, which includes practically everything surrounding us, unless we have completely separated ourselves from the world we live in, with never no hope of anything ever laying hold of our heart and claiming the area of it that rightly belongs to Christ alone, we are then, and only then, without spot and without wrinkle.
How many people can say that? Not I, and at the risk of sounding judgmental, anyone bold enough to say they are truly morally perfect, I am betting that a little introspection into their life would reveal a spot. No one on this side of the grave has “arrived”. Even Peter had to be rebuked.
Now there are those that say whether or not salvation is forfeited has to do with the heart, and that whether or not salvation is forfeited doesn’t really depend on the sum of sins committed, but the level of sincerity in the heart of the person in question. That the actual sins aren’t what’s measured, but the sincerity and resolve in the heart of the convert. But in my view, this is exactly the same as what I said earlier about salvation bringing about change. Different linguistics used in an assertion of the same principle. Either the bride is, or isn’t, without spot. If I am dirty due to an activity conducive to getting dirty, regardless of my sincerity and resolve to get clean, I am still dirty.
Now regarding these two extremes, there is also a type of relativism to take into consideration. We have to consider what kind of raw-material we are saddled with before passing judgment. It is easy for a preacher who grew up in a wholesome Christian atmosphere to condemn alcoholism as a soul-damning sin. But the man who grew up in a domestic atmosphere ravaged by alcoholism may be exhibiting more restraint by restricting himself a single drink every night in the name of Christ, though he still gets hammered out of his skull, than the preacher has ever exhibited in his lifetime. In this case, based on merit, who is more worthy of Heaven? As Lewis said, if a man has an irrational fear of spiders, letting a spider crawl over his hand may require more courage than shown by many Medal of Honor recipients.
This relativism translates into the fact that the wino who acts based on a spark of conviction may be exhibiting more holiness and merit in the eyes of God than a preacher or elder who is never tempted to the vices that tug so hard at the heart of the wino.
So, for far more fundamental reasons, I must also reject the whole idea that salvation can be forfeited based on a lack of merit by the convert.
So where do I stand? Well, until I get clear revelation regarding one or the other, I am going to live somewhat more stringently than what is considered normal by most Christians today. The conservative view is always the safest when trying to protect long-term investments (but even that reasoning sounds disconcertingly humanistic, which, of course, disqualifies me for salvation, according to some, since humanism is indeed a “sin unto death”).
And besides that, I am nearly certain I will not receive any type of enlightenment as to which
argument is correct, since I am convinced by plain reason that neither idea is correct. I am sure the objective truth lies hidden between these two extremes. As Lewis said, Satan always sends doctrinal errors in twos, and will use your biases against one error to swing you into making the opposite error on the other end of the spectrum. Remember Luther's story about the drunk who fell off the left side of his horse. When he got back on, he tried so hard not to fall off the left side, that he fell off the right side.