Apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6 (Owen)

Scripture teaches that those whom God loves, he never leaves.  Whom he predestines, he preserves.  Those he effectually calls, he effectually keeps.  Whom he regenerates, he never rejects.  The ones he forgives, he never forsakes (Ps. 37:28, John 10:28-29, Rom. 8:35-39, Phil. 1:6, 1 Cor. 1:7b-8a, etc.).  The perseverance of the saints is a clear – and comforting! – teaching of Scripture.

There are, however, some verses that might make one pause when it comes to perseverance.  One such text is Hebrews 6:4-6: For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame (NASB).

We can’t just throw those verses out if we don’t like them!  At the same time, we must realize they won’t contradict other teachings in Scripture.  I appreciate how John Owen handled these verses in his commentary on them.  Here’s a helpful excerpt which I’ve edited very slightly:

That the people here  intended (in Heb. 6:4-6) are not true and sincere believers, in the strict and proper sense of that name, at least they are not described here as such; so that from this nothing can be concluded concerning them that are so, as to the possibility of their total and final apostasy.

For, (1.) There is  no mention of faith in their full and large description, or believing, either expressly or in equivalent terms; and in no other place in the Scripture are such intended, but they are mentioned by what belongs essentially to their state.

And, (2.) There is not any thing ascribed to these persons that is peculiar to them as such, or discriminative of them, as taken either from their special relation unto God in Christ, or any such property of their own as is not communicable unto others. For instance, they are not said to be called according to God’s purpose; to be born again, not of man, nor of the will of flesh, but of God; nor to be justified, or sanctified, or united unto Christ, or to be the sons of God by adoption; nor do they have any other characteristical note of true believers ascribed to them.

(3.) They are in the following verses compared to the ground on which the rain often falls, and beareth nothing but thorns and briers. But this is not so with true believers.  For faith itself is an herb peculiar to the enclosed garden of Christ, and fit for him by whom we are dressed.

(4.) The apostle afterwards discoursing of true believers, does in many particulars distinguish them from such as may be apostates; which is supposed of the persons here intended, as was before declared. For, [A.] He ascribes to true believers in general “better things, and such as accompany salvation,” verse 9. [B.] He ascribes to true believers a “work and labor of love,” as it is true faith alone which worketh by love, verse 10; whereof he speaks not one word concerning these. [C.] He asserts their preservation; 1st, On the account of the righteousness and faithfulness of God in verse 10; 2nd, of the immutability of his counsel concerning them, in verses 17 and 18. In all these and many other instances he puts a difference between these apostates and true believers. And whereas the apostle intends to declare the aggravation of the apostates’ sin in falling away by the principal privileges whereof they were made partakers, here is not one word, in name or thing, of those which he expressly assigns to be the chief privileges of true believers, Rom. 8:27–30.

John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 22, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1855), 84.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

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“A Strange Anomaly in Contemporary Evangelicalism” (Boice)

James Montgomery Boice made some good points on the perseverance of the saints in these following paragraphs:

This doctrine has a logical connection to the other Calvinistic distinctives, of course.  Because we are radically depraved and because salvation depends on God’s sovereign acts in our salvation, we have a security that is based on his ability and will rather than our own.  If salvation depended in any measure on what we were able to do or contribute to it, we would not be secure at all.

But there is a strange anomaly in contemporary evangelicalism at this point. The great majority of evangelicals are theologically Arminian.  That is, they do not believe in radical depravity or election.  They believe that the deciding factor in whether a person becomes a Christian and is saved is not God’s regenerating power but the individual’s free will, by which he can choose either to believe or disbelieve.  In other words, he is able to put himself into the kingdom or keep himself out.  But in spite of this synergistic and ultimately man-determined theology, most evangelicals nevertheless believe in perseverance, insisting that when a person is once saved, he is saved forever.  It is a correct point, but Arminian theology provides no basis for it.

The Westminster Confession of Faith rightly and wisely grounds our security in God’s acts when it says of perseverance, “They whom God hath accepted in his Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (chap. 17, sec 1).

James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace, p.138

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

We Get Back Up Again (Byrd)

Here’s a helpful way to talk about perseverance of the saints:

“Perseverance is humbling.  We desire righteousness, but we fall on our faces.  We look forward to the promise of eternally dwelling with God in holiness, and we know how far we are from it.  We receive God’s grace knowing that we are so utterly undeserving.  We don’t persevere by looking to ourselves.  And this is where Calvin’s teaching on the matter is so comforting.  ‘Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.’  Sure, we will doubt that we have what it takes to persevere to the end.  That’s because we don’t.

“But Christ has already done the work for us, as the author and finisher of our faith.  All our promises are in Christ; praise God!  He had the fitness to persevere, and he is now preserving his own through his Holy Spirit to run to the end.  We will fall as we battle the flesh.  But we get back up again.  Because of the grace we have been given in Christ, we look to him and love righteousness.  We see his work on the cross and we hate sin.  We can confidently run into our Father’s arms in repentance.”

“We can be assured that we will persevere, because we see our preservation as a gift.”

Aimee Byrd, Theological Fitness, p. 94-5.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Preservation, Perseverance, Persistence

I was reading Hebrews’ comparison of Moses and Christ (Heb. 3:1-6) when I found the following helpful comments by Raymond Brown in his commentary on Hebrews (note: this is not the same Raymond Brown who has written Roman Catholic works and commentaries).

Right before these comments, Brown noted the great balance in Hebrews between the believer’s promised security and his necessary perseverance.  Here are Brown’s comments on Hebrews 3:6:

First, the believer’s security is assured. Christians will not fail if they look dependently to their merciful and faithful high priest. So many temptations and pressures, insidious as well as blatant, can lure us away from Christ and the faith we profess. This epistle seems to demand so much from us in relentless pilgrimage, strenuous running and persistent continuance, but that is only part of its message. Time and again its firm truths sound out with ringing certainty: ‘He is able to help.’ ‘We are his house.’ ‘We share in Christ.’ ‘We have a great high priest.’ This is the ground of our confidence. We do not place our hope in what we do, but what he has done. Believers do not rely on what they are; that would be a religion of merit. They base their entire spiritual confidence on what he is.”

“Secondly, the believer’s continuance is essential. It is important to recognize the seriousness of this letter when it rightly insists on perseverance. F. F. Bruce describes this persistent endurance as ‘the test of reality’. There is no casual easy-going presentation of Christianity in these chapters. William Manson is perfectly right when he insists that to the author of this epistle, Christianity is ‘not a matter only of repenting and obtaining forgiveness, but of irrevocable commitment of life to a supernatural end.’  We are certainly in God’s house by faith in Christ but, to be real, that belief must be something more than the occasionally faltering faith which initially takes hold of Christ, or that excited faith which, with adoring gratitude, first renounces sin and comes to Christ for liberating pardon. It is hardly that vacillating faith which calls out in moments of bewildered dejection: ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ It is a persistent faith which holds fast to its boldness and rejoices in the certain hope of better things. True Christian confidence is unwavering faith in a trustworthy God. He who has promised to keep us is eternally faithful and will not disappoint his people, but that truth is not meant to encourage careless complacency.”

Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews: Christ above All, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 80–81.

Shane Lems

Perseverance of the Saints Anathematized

Readings in the Christian Theological Tradition  (This is a repost from April, 2012).
On December 13, 1545, the first session of the Council of Trent took place under Pope Paul III.  This council was an official council of the Roman Catholic Church which met to discuss, among other things, the teachings of the Reformation – the teachings which most Roman Catholics of the day considered heretical.  Obviously there is a lot to discuss about the Council of Trent, but in this blog post I simply want to focus on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints which the Reformers taught and Rome rejected outright.

Here’s Canon 16 of the Sixth Session of the Council:

“If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema [accursed].”

The Reformed teaching, later agreed upon in the Confessions (Reformed and Presbyterian) can be summarized by these words from the Canons of Dort (Article 5.8-10).

“Thus, it is not in consequence of their own merits, or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they do not totally fall from faith and grace, nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings; which, with respect to themselves, is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen; but with respect to God, it is utterly impossible, since his counsel cannot be changed, nor his promise fail, neither can the call according to his purpose be revoked, nor the merit, intercession and preservation of Christ be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit be frustrated or obliterated”

The Canons of Dort go on to talk about assurance of salvation and perseverance, stating that assurance is attainable:

“True believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they surely believe that they are and ever will continue true and living members of the church, and that they have the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.”

So far we see a stark difference between Rome’s anathema of perseverance and the Reformed affirmation of it.  One more difference is found in how a Christian can be assured of perseverance.  Rome says “by a special revelation.”  The Reformed, however, say, “this assurance…is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God,” but it comes from faith in God’s promises revealed in the Word, from the Spirit’s work within us, and from a holy desire to obey the Lord (emphasis mine).  In fact, the Canons of Dort even say that true Christians have an “infallible pledge of eternal glory” – again, God’s revealed promises and the Spirit’s work in our hearts (Canons of Dort, 5.10).

To summarize, Rome has anathematized (accursed) any the Christian who believes that he or she will undoubtedly persevere in the Christian faith by God’s grace.  Reformed theology teaches that Christians will persevere in the faith – and can be assured of that perseverance by God’s Word and Spirit.

This is one of many reasons why I am Reformed and not Roman Catholic: I do not believe the Scriptures throw us into a whirlpool of uncertainty when it comes to God’s promises of salvation in the gospel.  In Paul’s words,  I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6; cf. John 10:28-29 and Romans 8:28ff).

shane lems
hammond, wi

Preservation/Perseverance of the Saints: Practical Application

Yesterday I mentioned the biblical foundation of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.  We learned that this doctrine is based on biblical texts and biblical arguments/logic.  Today I want to note the “practical use” of this amazing doctrine.  In the terms of Wilhelmus a Brakel, this doctrine effectively comforts Christians and leads them to growth in godliness.  Here are some points Brakel makes as he explains the practical use of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (as usual, I’ve summarized them – but I encourage you to read the orginal).

1) It is a remedy against spiritual desertion.  Christians do not always enjoy close and intimate communion with Christ.  Sometimes God covers himself with a dark cloud and seems to be far from his people.  But based on the truth of the preservation of the saints, even in times of spiritual coldness we know that God’s love is steadfast towards his people (Is. 49:14-16, 54:7-8, Mal. 3:6).  He will one day remove the cloud and sweetly visit his people in grace because he loves them with an eternal love.

2) It is a remedy against the assaults of Satan.  It is true that there is enmity between God’s people and the offspring of the serpent.  Satan will definitely use his fiery darts to frighten Christians.  He will try to rob Christians of their peace.  And his attacks sometimes cause their faith to flicker.  But “the devil will not succeed in causing the apostasy of a single one, not even of the most tender sheep.”  Instead, in Christ and because of Christ, believers will trample upon Satan one day (Rom. 16:20).

3) It is a remedy against the hatred of the world.  Since God’s people have forsaken the world, the world will hate them as it hated Christ.  The world will try to entice the saints, trip them up, and attempt to get them off the path of discipleship.  The world will persecute Christians, mock them, and even kill them.  But none of these things can separate God’s people from his love in Christ (Rom. 8:35-39).

4) It is a remedy against our own sin.  The old Adam resides in even the best Christian; all Christians are saints and sinners at the same time.  There is a war in the Christian life.  The war is putting sin to death.  But not even these indwelling sins can separate God’s children from his love.  After all, Christ’s blood washes away all the sins of all his people – every one of them.  “Your sins, which remain in you contrary to your wishes, will neither pluck you out of the hand of Christ, nor will he cast you away because of them” (Ps. 37:24, Jer. 31:37).

5) It is a remedy against weak faith, darkness, and spiritual sluggishness.  Sometimes the Christian, in the dark moments of life, doubt that he is a child of God.  The cross becomes heavy to bear, the world’s attractions seem so wonderful, and Satan’s darts are so painful.  Christians are tempted to throw in the towel, so to speak.  “Nevertheless, the Lord preserves faith in their heart and causes it to resurface again.”  God’s people are kept by his sovereign power, not their emotions and feelings (1 Pet. 1:5).

6) It is a remedy against the fear of death.  “Death is contrary to nature and is the king of terrors.”  Even Christians often fear the grave because it is indeed a terrible and unnatural thing.  But because God preserves his elect, Christians need not fear death.  Jesus doesn’t just preserve his people in life, but also in the hour of death (1 Cor. 15:54-57).

7) It gives Christians a powerful motive for sanctification.  “There is nothing that moves man so sweetly and purely unto sanctification as grace and the permanency of this grace, for the love of God kindles the love of those whom he loves” (1 Jn. 4:19).  Saints can fight against sin knowing God gives the victory.  Christians can rejoice and hold fast to hope in trials and suffering, because God will bring them through.

The Canons of Dort are right: the doctrine of the preservation/perseverance of the saints is an “inestimable treasure.”  As I’ve said before, solid, deep, and clear Christian doctrine is eminently practical in every moment of the Christian life.  Rightly preached, taught, and confessed, the truth of perseverance/preservation fuels worship, piety, praise, and joy in life – and in death.  Because God is mercifully sovereign, and sovereignly merciful, his people can rest assured of his eternal care.

The above quotes by Brakel are found in volume four, pages 296-300 of The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

shane lems