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Tag: Perseverance of the Saints

Three Views on the Permanence of Salvation

This is a post that I have been intending to write for some time, but recent readings on God’s providence and sovereignty have brought it to my mind again.

When someone becomes a Christian and is saved, is that salvation permanent, or can it be lost? The answer to that question has been hotly debated for a long time, and in this post, I’d like to briefly summarize three different popular answers. My point in this post is not to argue which answer is correct (though I’ll let you know where I stand), but rather to emphasize the practical consequences of each viewpoint, and to indicate that two views which people frequently equate with one another are actually significantly different.

Perseverance of the Saints

This perspective is one of the central tenants of Calvinism (the “P” in “TULIP”). It holds that God, in his sovereign power, keeps those who are saved, saved. Also known as eternal security, the idea is that nothing in heaven or earth can separate true Christians from the loved of God (Romans 8.39). The adjective true in “true Christians” from the previous sentence is an important one, as we’ll see in our hypothetical example below.

Once Saved Always Saved

A popular version (or perversion?) of Perseverance of the Saints is the teaching of Once Saved Always Saved which you hear in many evangelical groups today. Many of the same Bible verses will be used to support this view, and this perspective is often held to be synonymous with Perseverance of the Saints, but as we will see below, there is a crucial difference between the two.

The Reality of Apostasy

The third perspective holds that someone can be truly saved and then later fall away from that salvation (the word apostasy means to fall away). This view does not intend to undermine God’s sovereignty, but rather holds than in his sovereignty, God has chosen to give free will to humanity, and that he will permit them to use that free will to walk away from their faith. This is the view that I hold, and I think it is the only one that correctly interprets passages like Hebrews 6.4-6.

A Hypothetical Case Study

To examine some of the practical applications of these different perspectives, let’s take a look at a hypothetical case study.

Frank grew up going to church sporadically, but never really took it seriously. Then, at a summer church camp after his senior year in high school, his conscience was pricked, he decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to the Lord, and he became a Christian and was saved.*

For several weeks after this, Frank was very active in a local church, and even tried to share his faith with his friends. Then, he went off to college, struggled to find a church there, and before long, completely quit attending. Furthermore, he got heavily involved in the college party scene. Before long, he became a heavy drinker, was sexually promiscuous, and experimented with illegal drugs.

After a few semesters, Frank actually dropped out of college, and began selling drugs to make a living and to support his own habit. As time went on, he moved on to increasingly dangerous drugs, and his lifestyle became more dangerous and volatile; he would use violence to get what he wanted, and was even implicated in a couple of drug-related murders. Ultimately, he is killed one night in a drug deal gone bad.

So, at the point of his death, was Frank saved? Let’s look at how the three perspectives above would answer that question.

In the Perseverance of the Saints view, Frank was never saved in the first place. Although God guarantees the salvation of those who are truly converted, it is evident based on Frank’s lifestyle of selfish choices and sinful behavior that he was never truly converted in the first place. In other words, true Christians are eternally secure in their salvation, but Frank was never saved in the first place: whatever happened at church camp his senior year just looked like he was being saved; he really wasn’t. If he had really been saved, he would have lived a drastically different sort of life.

In the Once Saved Always Saved view, Frank was saved. Back in summer camp he had done what was necessary to be saved, and God promises to keep those who are saved, saved. Thus, regardless of whatever Frank did later in life, God is faithful, and saves him anyway.

In the Reality of Apostasy view, Frank was saved but then forfeited that salvation. Back in summer camp Frank did was was necessary to be saved, and so he really did receive salvation. Sadly, the choices he made following conversion did not live up to the commitment he made at conversion, and since God honors the free will of humans, he allowed Frank to choose to forfeit his salvation.

Conclusion

I think the three views and their practical implications can be summarized as follows:

Perseverance of the Saints: God guarantees the salvation of the truly saved, but the genuineness of our salvation is borne out in our works. If we don’t show good works in our lives, it’s evident that we were never really saved in the first place. Of course, the practical problem with this is that it becomes impossible to tell (at least, from the outside) if a person’s salvation experience is truly genuine: we have to wait and see how they live before we can know. For me this is a big problem, because I think Scripture teaches that we can know that we are saved. At least from a practical standpoint, that is denied in this view.

Once Saved Always Saved: God guarantees the salvation of those who are saved, so those who do what is necessary to be saved are saved forever, regardless of what they do later in life. The practical problem here is that it completely devalues the importance of good works in our lives: we can apparently be saved without them. For me, this is completely unacceptable: I don’t know how the Bible could be any clearer that what we do in life actually matters. Practically, that idea is denied in this view.

Reality of Apostasy: God guarantees the salvation of his people, the church, and so those who are saved, added to the church, and remain a part of the church, are saved. However, if our lifestyle is characterized by continual disobedience to God’s will, then God honors our choices and allows us to forfeit our salvation. This view affirms that we can really know we are saved when it happens (as apposed to the first view), and that our works matter (as opposed to the second). Instead, it gives up the idea that those who are saved are saved no matter what. That in and of itself is not a problem (because I think the Bible teaches that salvation can be lost), but the practical problem that can arise is that people can press this view to unhealthy extremes lose all assurance of their salvation and are constantly unsure of their status before God (e.g. I went to church this morning and took communion, so I am okay/I got upset and cursed at my spouse today so I am lost). However, I don’t think this unhealthy extreme is the necessary result of this view, and in my personal life, I affirm the reality of apostasy while remaining confident that I am saved by God’s grace and that his grace continues to keep me saved as long as I continue to follow Him.

*Obviously, people also have different views on what a person must do to be saved. The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, but there is significant disagreement about the nature of that faith: is it mental assent, or is it an obedient faith that requires specific acts on our part? The way we are saved is not the focus of this post, however. For the sake of our hypothetical argument, just assume that being saved means what you, the reader, think it means.

Can The Saved Be Lost? A Study Of Hebrews 6.4-6

Introduction: A Passage of Controversy

The Epistle to the Hebrews focuses on the preeminence of Christ as our High Priest, but at multiple points along the way, the author cautions his readers about the dangers of leaving the Christian faith. Of these “warning passages” in Hebrews, Hebrews 6:4-6 is generally considered to be the most forceful and most troublesome. This passage has sparked debate for centuries, and its abuse is one of the reasons why Hebrews was left out of the canon of the church in the West for some time.[1] On a surface level, Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to indicate that saved persons who commit apostasy and consciously turn away from their faith can permanently lose their salvation. This contradicts the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and is therefore the main issue around which battle lines are drawn in the discussion of this passage. Many claim this passage as evidence that salvation can indeed be lost, while those who adhere to Calvinist doctrine argue that these passages are not addressed to true believers, but instead to persons who have been exposed to Christianity but have ultimately rejected it.

In addition to these two major viewpoints, this paper will also present three of the more frequently discussed minority views, which help to give an idea of the different areas of contention and the wide array of interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 which are available.

Major Viewpoints

The two major viewpoints generally agree on both the nature of the sin described in Heb. 6:4-6 and its consequences but differ as to the identity of the audience to which the Epistle to the Hebrews was written. The sin described as “fallen away” in Heb. 6:6 is generally interpreted as apostasy, or the “renunciation of the covenant relationship with God.”[2] As Neil Lightfoot points out, this specific sin should be distinguished from the regular sins and shortcomings that are a part of our human nature: “Falling short is not the same as falling away. It is one thing to yield to sin contrary to the new life in Christ, it is another thing to abandon that new life altogether.”[3]

The consequences of this sin are grave indeed, as Hebrews 6:4-6 states that it is “impossible” to restore such persons to repentance. Although many have tried to soften the force of “impossible” over the years,[4] modern critics generally reject this approach, arguing that impossible means exactly what it says.[5] F. F. Bruce does a good job of harmonizing these thoughts when he says, “God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.”[6]

Having discussed the aspects of Hebrews 6:4-6 upon which the two major interpretations largely agree, we now turn to the area where disagreement arises: the audience to which the passage was written.

Once Saved, Now Lost

Many scholars believe that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers who are in danger of abandoning their faith and, as a result, losing the salvation they had received. Scot McKnight subscribes to this Saved and Lost interpretation, and supports his argument both with general evidence from throughout the epistle of Hebrews and also with a detailed analysis of the terms used to describe the audience in Hebrews 6:4-5. First, McKnight notes that the Hebrew writer at times identifies himself with the audience by using the first person plural pronoun “we,” and multiple times refers to his audience as “brothers.” These terms indicate that the author did not see his audience as insincere believers, but rather as fellow believers with whom he shares a spiritual relationship because of their common faith.[7] In Hebrews 6:4-5 the Hebrew writer describes his audience as “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.”[8] McKnight points to these descriptions as further evidence, saying that collectively, they depict the conversions experienced by his audience. McKnight concludes, “Phenomenologically, the author believes [the audience] to be, and presents them as, believers in the fullest sense possible.”[9] Speaking of this same descriptive passage, Grant R. Osborne puts it even more forcefully, saying that “it is nearly impossible to relegate these descriptions to non-Christians.”[10]

Pseudo-Christians

Even opponents of the Saved and Lost argument admit that it is the most natural interpretation if the Hebrews 6:4-6 passage is considered on its own.[11] However, by looking at the pericope in the context of the whole of Scripture, they conclude that the warning passages must refer to people who are very aware of Christianity and have experienced some of its benefits, but were never true believers themselves. This interpretation allows the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints to stand. Wayne Grudem supports this Pseudo-Christian interpretation, and claims that although the terms used in Hebrews 6:4-5 to describe the audience could apply to true believers, they could also “apply to people who were not yet Christians but who had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community.”[12] Philip Hughes concurs, pointing to New Testament figures such as Judas Iscariot, Simon Magus, and Demas as individuals to whom the descriptive terms could be applied but were not true believers.[13]

Minority Viewpoints

Although the Saved and Lost and Pseudo-Christian viewpoints are the two dominant interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 and represent the vast majority of scholars and commentators, there are a few minority views as well, and we will now turn our attention to a brief description of these.

Hypothetical Interpretation

First is the Hypothetical interpretation, which suggests that the Hebrew writer is giving a description of what would happen if a true believer were to fall away, even though such an event could never really occur since true believers cannot fall away.[14] This theory is supported by Thomas Hewitt, among others, who says it “has much in its favor and little against it. It in no way contradicts other passages of Scripture, neither is it in conflict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.”[15] Although this view takes the apparent Christianity of the audience at face value and does not contradict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, it is not without problems. As David B. Armistead points out, “A severe warning against an impossible case serves no purpose whatsoever….”[16] Philip Hughes goes even further in criticizing this view, saying that for the author to speak of an impossible scenario as if it could truly happen to his readers in order to frighten them into being better Christians would be “subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle.”[17]

Community View

Another minority perspective on Hebrews 6:4-6 is Verlyn D. Verbrugge’s Community interpretation. Verbrugge claims that the metaphor of the thorn-producing land that is cursed by God in Hebrews 6:7-8 forms the basis for verses 4-6, and is itself based on the Old Testament passage of Isaiah 5:1-7, which is directed toward the nation of Israel.[18] Against this backdrop, Verbrugge concludes that the Hebrew writer is primarily concerned with addressing the “covenant community and not the individual child of God. Thus when we read of the falling away and of God’s subsequent rejection, it is rejection of a community that is in focus.”[19] Basically, Verbrugge manages to avoid the implications of the Saved and Lost view by arguing that the author of Hebrews is not addressing individual believers, but rather a local body of the church. Although critics of this view applaud Verbrugge’s recognition of the emphasis the Hebrew writer puts on the Christian community, they ultimately think he ignores the even stronger emphasis placed on the individual, and also find his argument of Hebrews 6:7-8 directly relating to Isa. 5:1-7 to be unconvincing.[20]

Christian Maturity

A final perspective to consider is the Christian Maturity interpretation, which suggests that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers and warns not against apostasy, but a “decisive refusal to mature” in the Christian life.[21] Proponents of this view disagree about the exact consequences of failing to heed the warning that the Hebrew writer gives, but they agree that eternal salvation is not at stake. Drawing largely on the metaphor of the thorn-infested ground in Hebrews 6:7-8, Thomas K. Oberholtzer sees eschatological implications, and argues that the result of continued immaturity in the Hebrews audience is not a loss of eternal salvation, but a loss of rewards in the millennial kingdom.[22] Randall C. Gleason sees extensive parallels between the believers described in Hebrews 6:4-5 and the Israelites who refused to enter the land of Canaan at Kadesh-Barnea, and argues that the immature Christians of Hebrews 6 run the risk of physical death, possibly during the impending destruction of Jerusalem[23] (Gleason assumes that Hebrews was written to Jewish believers living “not far from Jerusalem.”[24]). Both veins of the Christian Maturity view are rejected by other scholars for multiple reasons.[25]

Conclusion: A Real Warning of Apostasy

The entire debate over the proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 is centered around the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Those who reject this doctrine have little problem accepting the passage at face value, while those who affirm it are compelled to conclude either that the passage does not refer to true believers, or that the consequences of apostasy must be something other than the loss of eternal salvation.

With the three minority views all possessing significant problems, it seems that the best interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 must come from one of the two dominant views, which disagree about the audience to which the passage was written. Although the Pseudo-Christian view has been popular for centuries and makes some good arguments, it also approaches the passage with too much presupposition and from the outset tries to make it mean something other than what it seems to mean. The Saved and Lost interpretation, on the other hand, takes the Hebrew writer at his word, and therefore seems to be the best. After all, what more could the author have said to show that he was writing to true believers than what he already did?


[1]Roger Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation; Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney presented by his Former Students, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 355.

[2]Alan Mugridge, “Warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exegetical and Theological Study,” Reformed Theological Review 46 (September-December 1987): 77.

[3]Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 126.

[4]Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Peril of Apostasy,” Westminster Theological Journal 35, no. 2 (Winter 1973): 144-45.

[5]William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47A (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 142; David B. Armistead, “The ‘Believer’ who Falls Away: Heb 6:4-6 and the Perseverance of the Saints,” Stulos Theological Journal 4, no. 2 (1996): 140-44.

[6]F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990): 149.

[7]Scot McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” Trinity Journal 13 (Spring 1992) 43.

[8]All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.

[9]McKnight, 44-48.

[10]Grant R. Osborne, “A Classical Arminian View,” in Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 112.

[11]Wayne Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge & Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 137; Armistead, 144.

[12]Grudem, 171-72.

[13]Hughes, 149-150.

[14]Grudem, 152.

[15]Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960): 110-11.

[16]Armistead, 139.

[17]Hughes, 144.

[18]Verlyn D. Verbrugge, “Towards a New Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6,” Calvin Theological Journal 15, no.1 (April 1980): 62-65.

[19]Verbrugge, 62.

[20]McKnight, 53-54; Robert A. Peterson, “Apostasy in the Hebrews Warning Passages,” Presbyterion 34, no.1 (Spring 2008): 27-29.

[21]Randall C. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (January-March 1998): 81-82.

[22]Thomas K. Oberholtzer, “The Warning Passages in Hebrews Part 3 (of 5 parts): The Thorn-Infested Ground in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (July-September 1988): 319-28.

[23]Gleason, 78-89.

[24]Randall C. Gleason, “A Moderate Reformed View,” in Bateman, 337-40.

[25]Grudem, 151-52; Brent Nongbri, “A Touch of Condemnation in a Word of Exhortation: Apocalyptic Language and Graeco-Roman Rhetoric in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Novum Testamentum 45, no. 3 (2003): 268-69; Grant R. Osborne, “Classical Arminian Response,” in Bateman, 378-95; Buist M. Fanning, “Classical Reformed Response,” in Bateman, 396-414.

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