I believe in what is called “perseverance of the saints.” I am less inclined toward the designation “eternal security of the believer,” but it will do. I can even accept “once-saved always-saved,” so long as it is properly qualified. However, I also believe there is a type of faith that does not save. What a statement of insecurity this may be to you! But I really don’t know what to do with some of the language of Scripture. Some have labeled me an enemy of the so-called “Lordship Salvation” position (look it up). While I do have some issues with certain articulations of the Lordship position, I am in agreement that as believers, we should be continually testing our faith to see if it is of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:5). Why? Because it may not be.
Let’s talk to Jesus just a bit:
“”I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.” (John 16:1)
(“Why this passage?” you ask. Because it was in my daily Bible reading today.)
What a fascinating passage this is. Here, in the middle of the great “Upper Room Discourse,” Christ is comforting his disciples and preparing them for his imminent departure. This passage follows on the heels of Christ’s warning that his disciples are going to suffer persecution for bearing his name. “If they hated me, they are going to hate you,” he tells them (John 15:18). “But don’t worry . . . this is your life now . . . a life filled with suffering and persecution.” Why is he telling them this? Well, that is where our current passage comes in: to keep them from “falling away.”
“But I thought a believer could never fall away? I thought you said that we were eternally secure.” Well, we are. But we are not. Forgive me for the apparent double-speak but, best as I can tell, I am just following in the footsteps of our Lord. You see, Christ has already said, in a previous John passage, that we are (eternally) secure in the hands of God:
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”
(What a comforting passage)
Yet here in John 16:1, he seems to suggest that his disciples could fall away from the faith. The word here for “fall away” is skandalizo. It is the word we get “scandal” from. It means “to be brought to a sinful downfall” (BAGD), or “to stumble or fall,” or “to fall away.” Louw-Nida (my favorite Lexicon so long as I am using Bibleworks) has it as “to cause to give up believing, to make someone no longer believe.” It is the word used in the parable of the soils for the soil which experiences persecution: “But he has no root and lasts only for a time. When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away [skandalizo]” (Matt 13:21). This is appropriate to Christ’s usage in John 16:1, since it parallels the thought. There is a type of faith that can be “scandalized” and fall away, never experiencing the benefit of true faith: the salvation of the believer’s soul.
Now, in response, my Calvinist friends would simply say that this is not true faith born of the Holy Spirit. My Arminian friends would say it was true faith that was lost. Neither view impacts our exposition here. The point is that Christ was calling, even pleading with, his disciples to keep the faith.
And we cannot miss the fact that these were his disciples with whom he was talking. His disciples! We call them Apostles. They were the heroes of the early church. They were the ones who would go on to establish the church and, indeed, die for their faith (well, most of them). Why would Christ feel the need to encourage his disciples not to leave the faith? After all, he knew those who were his and those who were not. He knew that Judas was the only one who would betray him and leave the faith. Why warn them of the persecution and hardship? Because, no matter what the security of their faith was from the vantage point of heaven, they needed to know that their perseverance in faith was necessary on earth.
If this was true of the disciples, how much more is it true for us? If it is true that, according to the parable of the soils, there is a type of faith that gains some ground and then “falls away,” doesn’t that mean that our faith can fall away too, and that we should take the encouragement of Christ seriously? I think so. But while I believe we are to always to be fully prepared not to fall away, I also believe that there is a great security we can have in our faith. However, this security is gained through time. This security is gained through suffering. Christ warned the disciples against the hardships that they had coming. He wanted them to know that their lives on this earth were not, by any means, going to be cake-walks. If they took to heart this teaching, their faith would be made strong because there would be no false expectations causing them to rethink their mission.
Again, if this was true for the disciples, how much more so is it true for us? I don’t necessarily think we are to preach the “insecurity of our faith.” Nevertheless, I do believe that the discipleship process must be accompanied with continual and stern warnings of the impending and certain troubles that will characterize our Christian life – a life filled with hardship, pain, and rejection. (Ahem…) Take courage in this!
Yet, how often do we exhort and teach, as Christ did, in our evangelism and discipleship? Instead, we assert ideas such as, “Your best life now,” “How to have a fulfilled, happy life,” and “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Yes, God does have a wonderful plan for your life . . . trials and hardships. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that this hardship is more severe for Christians! How is that for your best life now? However, it is a hardship that we face with the Creator of time, space, and eternity. It is a wonderful hardship. And yes, properly qualified, it is “your best life now.” Unfortunately, one of the most diseased and hideous teachings I have ever heard is being preached out there from pulpits all over the world: “God wants you to be healthy, happy, and safe from all harm.” God forbid such a message supplant the message that Christ preached. God forbid that safety is our good news. God forbid this monstrous creation of the insecurity in the faith of many. God forbid that we fail to follow Christ by preaching a Gospel of suffering early in the discipleship of the believer. God forbid we preach a “theology of the glory” rather than a “theology of the Cross” (On Being a Theologian of the Cross).
Be secure in your suffering and be secure in your faith. Be surprised by suffering and be insecure in your faith.
(Photograph by Mike Oblinski)