The following is an excerpt from Michael Spencer’s upcoming book: Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. This week we are continuing with some of his thoughts on The Seed and the Soil from Mark 4:1-8; 13-20 that we introduced two weeks ago. Michael Spencer’s thoughts on Mark Chapter 4 are edited by Scott Lencke. Check out his excellent blog! If you would like to be contacted when Michael Spencer’s book is available for purchase, drop us a note at email@example.com.
Once Saved Always Saved?
Mark Shea is a sharp, Catholic thinker. His podcast with the “Catholic Exchange,” which finished in early 2011, was always provocative. In one of his episodes contrasting evangelical and Roman Catholic views on spiritual security and assurance, Shea made a unique comment about a common area of disagreement. There isn’t a transcript, but here’s the quote:
“I became more secure in my relationship with God once I was no longer certain I was going to heaven.”
Shea is skewering the common conception that evangelicals believe in easy salvation with instant assurance, but produce millions of believers who get “saved and resaved” with regularity or care so little about the possibility of hell that they never actually consider following Christ. It’s a bit of a caricature, but it’s also based in truth at some level. Some conservative evangelicals can make it difficult to reasonably discuss the topic at hand, especially those who run to extremes like that of making stupendous numerical claims in regards to evangelism.
So, perhaps, we need to take some time to properly assess the evangelical doctrine of assurance for a moment. It’s actually one of my favorite topics – having spent many hours wrestling with the Bible and Methodist friends over the question. And it can be one of the most misunderstood, distorted and pastorally damaging of evangelical teachings.
First of all, what are we talking about? Most usually, the discussion relates to the question: “Can I know for certain that I am going to heaven?” Some call the subject “assurance of salvation,” but that gets into the area of what a person feels at a given point and not into God’s work of salvation itself. Most Protestants call this subject “perseverance,” and, by that, they mean that quality of faith that continues through life into heaven.
On the question, “Can you know that you know that you know?”, I’ve heard at least a thousand Baptist preachers shout, “Yes!”, based on what we grew up calling “once saved always saved” (from now on OSAS). “Real” Baptists tend to like OSAS, while more reformation-influenced Baptists prefer perseverance. But all of them agree that the elect – the individual people of God, those who belong to Jesus – will persevere to the end, will not finally fall away and cannot lose their salvation.
Of course, many Protestants, following, but going beyond, John Wesley, believe that Christians may, at any moment, move into a state of unbelief and, therefore, into a loss of salvation which must be recovered. Depending on the group one is dealing with, this may take the form of only losing salvation through actual, explicit rejection of the faith – apostasy. Others, such as with some Pentecostal Holiness groups, might claim that there isn’t enough security in the Gospel to last out the morning worship service. “Born again….and again….and again….and…” is does not come across as a joke for them.
The strength of the doctrine of eternal security is that struggling, failing Christians hear the good news that God is truly on their side and will not abandon them. Pastorally, it is a powerful doctrine and, as I can attest, when working with young Christians, this can be important. Such recent converts are frequently overwhelmed with guilt and failure. That being so, offering a strong, biblical promise that their stumblings and departures from obedience have not disqualified them from God’s gift of salvation, this can be quite comforting. Christians that haunt young disciples with the threat of a God who will abandon or give up on them do little good, despite good intentions. Not to mention that a sole fear of hell produces something entirely different from transforming grace.
In terms of language, eternal security and perseverance are preferable to the more deceptive and misleading “once saved, always saved,” a phrase explicitly tied to certain evangelical evangelistic practices, like the phrase, “praying the sinners pray.” OSAS is not the actual stated view of any mainstream, historic Baptist doctrinal confession. For example, here’s part of the Baptist Faith and Message Statement 2000 on God’s Purpose In Grace:
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
Many who reject eternal security ridicule the idea that those persons who lived as Christians in some respect, but don’t finally go to heaven, were, in fact, not ever “true” or “real” believers.
Of course, we all have our examples.
A few years ago, our school had a student who was a religious fanatic – a hardcore zealot in every way, but seemingly completely sold out and sincere in his faith. We even gave him a special “Christian character award.” However, shortly after graduation, he abandoned the faith. Later, he embraced an apostate variety of the faith. He was young, but the trajectory was not encouraging.
Some who knew this young person would speculate about what had happened: Is this an example of lost salvation? Was he never actually saved? Still a Christian? Satanic counterfeit?
It feels good to look at early enthusiasm and announce that we have a real Christian in the house. The problem arises in that the Bible isn’t as easily convinced. At each stage, “reality” and “final reality” are different things. A young zealot may, from every human perspective, be “real,”, and prove out, at the day of judgment, to be false. And our preference for the word “saved” can cause its own problems because, without finally and safely arriving home in the eschaton, we’re not fully saved yet, in every normal sense of the word.
The language of the Baptist Faith and Message says that being a Christian and beginning to be a Christian are not the same thing. That’s the problem with “once saved always saved.” Christians are marked by perseverance, not just beginnings. Perseverance in what? Not in sinlessness, but perseverance in imperfect faith in Christ and imperfect obedience to Christ. We can say that “those with true faith” persevere to the end, despite certain failures in faith along the way.
A real beginning is, however, only one aspect of true faith. Jesus plainly taught in this parable of the four soils that the beginnings of those who have true faith and those who turn out to not have true faith may appear identical. In fact, the true believer’s “beginning” may not look “true” or be very impressive at all. What a person does now may indicate that they belong to Christ. If one abides in Christ through simple faith, the obvious conclusion is that you belong to Christ and have the Holy Spirit. But those who do not have true faith may also confess Christ, be baptized, join the church, do good works, pray, and have subjective experiences, etc. Hebrews 6 says all this and more may be things that “do not accompany salvation.”
In other words, there are “proofs” in the moment, and there is the ultimate proof: persevering faith.
What this means is that we need a way to talk about assurance in the present, and in the future. In both cases, we need to consider one’s faith and the promises of God. In both cases, we need to retain biblical realism about the importance of perseverance, for the Bible is never as anxious as some evangelicals in pronouncing an individual is either beyond apostasy or certain for heaven.
A good illustration is marriage. There may be a current description about any marriage that is considered “good”. But would we say that the described good marriage will last until one spouse dies? We simply do not know. If a completed marriage is a marriage in the full sense, then at any moment we can say, “Yes, this is a marriage,” all the while knowing that both spouses must abide in their marriage covenant to the end for the marriage to be complete.
So at any moment, a professing, baptized Christian is, from our perspective, a true Christian. But what about in the fullest, persevering-to-the-end sense? We know what God says about those who belong to him and we can confidently say that all of God’s promises to those who believe are true. However, we cannot predict the future or what may be revealed about our own misjudgments.
Therefore, perhaps we are faced with more than the perceived two options: people can lose their salvation or, if they fall away, we speak of a person’s salvation as if it wasn’t completely true or real.
Such a broader view of salvation is presented in Thomas Schreiner’s and Ardel Canneday’s work, The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance. Both are Baptist biblical scholars and they propose something beyond the two usual choices: salvation is always past, present and future. Consequently, the many warnings and commands of scripture work exactly as they were meant to work, providing the path for a past, present and future faith that a disciple travels towards a completed salvation.
In other words, “once saved, always saved” isn’t the actual confessional Baptist view and, so, it doesn’t need to be the view against which other Christian groups react. At the same time, Baptists and other evangelicals could do much to end the abuses of what we might term as “invitationalism,” stopping the pragmatic pronouncements of automatic salvation to anyone who makes a profession and refocus on emphasizing things like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church membership with integrity, public worship, growth in grace, etc. These aspects mark the life of the true believer. As one engaged primarily in evangelistic work, this part of the parable constantly reminds me that a mere profession is not salvation.
It’s never wise to defend the salvation of those who have no part in the people of God or no desire to walk in the way of discipleship. We don’t undermine anyone’s assurance by saying, “We’re walking the road of true discipleship in Christ.” Rather, we can increase assurance, as well as making the discussion and supposed appeal of losing salvation less likely.
No doubt this is truly controversial ground and my own point of view may not always stand as the majority view. Of course, it certainly makes a major difference here if one believes Jesus is teaching in this parable that unfruitfulness can be part of true faith. Still, I do believe the Bible teaches that true faith always bears fruit, in some measure and at some point. An unfruitful faith, in this parable, is one where a trust in God has been replaced by a trust in wealth and a concern for worldly success. I certainly see where it is reasonable to say Jesus is talking about a real Christian who is merely unfruitful. However, this does not comport with the rest of the parable, nor the rest of the Bible.
Martin Luther said: We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone. Fruit is a necessary evidence of true faith. A false profession of faith may initially have many characteristics of real faith, but if it ultimately loves wealth and not God, it is not true faith. This obviously warns us about the security that true faith provides and the danger western Christians face in a culture that daily tells us to trust in wealth and possessions for security, identity and self-worth.
The same parable also demonstrates that the fruitfulness that accompanies true faith may not necessarily be the same. There are different kinds of fruitfulness and differing amounts of fruitfulness. The Holy Spirit bears fruit in the life of every true Christian, but there are real differences in each believer. Sin has its consequences in our lives and most of us can say that there have been intended harvests which sin has taken from us. We should refrain from being overly judgmental towards others because of this very thing. All of us have seasons of more fruit and some of less fruit. But only God can truly judge the reality of a person’s faith and what is true fruit within that person’s life. What appears to be fruit to others may simply be the flesh and what is invisible to others may be fruit that God greatly desires and values.