Eternal security vs. Human responsibility…
Reformed vs. Armeniast…
For centuries theologians and some of the brightest minds to walk the earth have considered, questioned, studied, discussed and debated the doctrinal divide of eternal security or “once saved, always saved” and the seeming juxtaposition of human responsibility otherwise known as “free will”.
While I do not count myself among these great minds, there are some foundational passages of Scripture that I have been working through and have wrestled with for years, all of which have lead me to a greater understanding of what I see as human responsibility with regards to our faith and salvation.
I am well aware that there are theological arguments; that whole camps and systems of theology and even denominations, that have divided over this issue of eternal security of the believer for generations. Men much smarter than I could ever imagine or hope for in my own life have studied and wrestled and fought hard over what they have come to understand in their own lives and systematic theology. These men on both sides have education and credentials that far surpass anything that I will likely ever know. And the point that I wrestle with is that they are on both sides of the fence. Both camps. Both sets of belief carry with them amazing theologians whom love Jesus and have been used of God, by God, for God in life and ministry. These are brothers in the faith that will encounter eternity, ushered into heaven by the same God and creator of all; men that have professed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Much has been said about these
I cannot say that I have it all figured out or all correct. I would never presume that what I believe about eternal security of the believer is the only line of thinking or correct system of belief. What I can say with assurance is that I have studied God’s Word, I have wrestled hard with these theological truths and ideas, and that I have come to an understanding of what I believe based on both education and personal experience. I am continuing to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, and I am ever-aware of my need and total dependence on the Spirit of God to lead me in every aspect and area of life and faith and ministry.
As a teacher of God’s Word I know all too well the ramifications of those that teach faulty faith and doctrine. I will be held accountable before God for what I teach. With that in mind I BEG God that the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart will be holy and pleasing and acceptable in His sight – that these words will flow out of a right-relationship with Jesus and discernment from the Holy Spirit of God!
I do not profess to be Calvinist. I am not fully Armeniast. I am a culmination of great reformers and holiness theologians and preachers that have gone before me to lay a foundation of faith, knowledge, understanding, and instruction. Most important, I am a child of God doing all that I can to live out of my salvation.
I hope what I have said and what I am about to share helps a little to understand where I’m coming from and how I arrived there. It’s not the only theological position and I’m always open for healthy discussion and dialogue so long as we keep with the unity of believers and in humility, consider one another better than ourselves as we seek to both understand as well as to be understood.
So what do I believe?
In short, I do not believe that any person that has experienced prevenient grace, initial sanctification, regeneration, and is growing in their faith through progressive sanctification can ever “lose” their salvation. This person has an assurance of salvation for all eternity. No sin is too great, confessed or otherwise, to keep us from God’s love and saving grace (Romans 6:1-12), but we have a responsibility to live out and live out of our salvation.
Salvation cannot be earned; it is a gift from God alone (Ephesians 2:8).
Salvation cannot be bought; God has already paid our ransom (1 Corinthians 6 & 7).
Salvation cannot be taken from us or lost (John 10:28-29).
Salvation requires a choice (Joshua 24:14-15; Romans 10:9-10) .
Salvation, once saved, cannot be separated from God (Romans 8:38).
Salvation is reserved for our Sovereign God alone whom illuminates our minds through the power of the Holy Spirit, drawing us unto Himself, and provides us with the opportunity to respond to His invitation (John 1:9, 16:13-16; Hebrew 6:4; Ephesians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 4:5).
What I am about to share is no commentary neither are these personal feelings or my interpretation(s). Instead, what I am about to share is little more than Scripture that I have wrestled with for years and the original language with which these words were intended, which have given me more than a compelling reason to hold to the doctrine of human responsibility. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Understanding Eternal Security
One of the passages that I have heard referenced and recited to me many times over the years, specifically the last 9 months, with regards to eternal security of the believer in the reformed camp comes from the gospel of John 10:28-29, which reads:
28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, 29 for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand.
At first blush it is easy to understand how theological arguments for “once saved, always saved” come into being. It seems to me that God is saying that once he chooses us, there is nothing that we can do to lose that election. However, when we dive into the original language (Greek) as well as culture and context, there are a few key words/ideas that we need to investigate further to really try and understand.
Let me offer the same passage of Scripture with the original Greek language included:
28 I give (δίδωμι // didomi // to offer or allow // requires acceptance) them eternal life (αἰώνιος // aionios // unending and/or ageless), and they will never perish (ἀπόλλυμι // apollumi // destroy, lose, perish resulting in death). No one can snatch (ἁρπάζω // harpazo // to take by force, obtain by robbery) them away from me, 29 for my Father has given (δίδωμι // didomi // to offer or allow // requires acceptance) them to me, and he is more powerful (μέγας // megas // greater, stronger) than anyone (πᾶς // pas // every kind) else. No one can snatch (ἁρπάζω // harpazo // snatch, obtain by robbery) them from the Father’s hand.
When we take a closer look at the text it becomes clear and I would agree fully that there is no one and no thing that can rob us of or take away our salvation. However, what we must account for is the word didomi or “give/given”, which we see used twice in these 2 verses. This language denotes that God offers us this eternal life, but as is the case with any gift, it must be accepted by the recipient. In order to accept this gift, we, as individuals, have human responsibility to make that choice (“free will”) to accept God’s gift.
The other piece that many have run through is the idea that our salvation can never be “snatched” away from us. I fully agree that our salvation cannot be snatched away from us! That said, we must understand the word snatched here, in the original language, is harpazo, which means “taken by force or robbed”. Once we are in Christ, there is no one and no thing that can ever take our salvation away from us. This does not excuse our responsibility to accept this salvation and does not suggest that we have no right or ability to abandon our salvation otherwise known as apostasy. I will discuss this more as we go on.
Another passage of Scripture that comes up time and again with regards to eternal security of the believer is Romans 8:31-39:
31 What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? 32 Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? 33 Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. 34 Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. 35 Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. 38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I would argue that we must look at the first 30 verses, specifically verses 4 through 16, which set up the context and show us clearly that we are not devoid of human responsibility and the necessity to make a choice. On the back end, once we have made our decision our salvation is secure from outside powers or influence to take away our salvation, but does not excuse our human responsibility.
Here are some examples of a quick word-study:
Romans 8:4 – “follow” // περιπατέω // peripateo // follow, walk, conduct my life
Romans 8:6 – “letting” // ἐάω // eao // allow, permit
Romans 8:9 – “if” // εἴπερ // eiper // result of a choice
Romans 8:12 – “obligation” // ὀφειλέτης // opheiletes // a debt owed
Romans 8:13 – “live” // ζάω // zao // to live, come alive
Romans 8:14 – “lead” // ἄγω // ago // to be lead or to follow a guide (not drug along)
Romans 8:15 – “receive” // λαμβάνω // lambano // to take hold of, accept (to choose)
Romans 8:16 – “affirm” // συμμαρτυρέω // summartureo // witness, testify
Romans 8:35 – “who” // τίς // tis // outside source
Romans 8:38 – “separate” // χωρίζω // chorizo // to separate, divide
When you take the totality of the context from Romans 8, specifically the first 16 verses, it does not excuse our human responsibility for choice but helps us understand, all the more, that when we make this decision for Christ, nothing outside of ourselves can strip this away from us. As I understand it, what Paul was telling the church in Rome was that no one and no thing can take away or strip us of our salvation. However, I can’t find anywhere in this text the absence of human responsibility and the ability for each person to make a decision based on God illuminating our mind through the power of the Spirit of God. It would seem, then, that God presents us with the truth and in his sovereign desire that we all come to salvation, but there is a choice that must be made by each individual. And once we experience this salvation, we can never lose it or have it stripped or taken from us, but we do have both the choice and the responsibility to live out and live out of our salvation.
Human responsibility in Scripture
The following are just a few passages of Scripture that I have wrestled with over the years with regards to human responsibility and what has helped to inform my theology, which is ever-growing. I have not added my own thoughts or personal commentaries. Instead, I have included original language (Greek), which has refined and shaped my beliefs.
Matthew 10:22-32 (NLT)
22 And all nations will hate you because you are my followers. But everyone who endures (“endures” // ὑπομένω // hupomeno // verb // remain, stand firm) to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next. I tell you the truth, the Son of Man will return before you have reached all the towns of Israel. 24 “Students are not greater than their teacher, and slaves are not greater than their master. 25 Students are to be like their teacher, and slaves are to be like their master. And since I, the master of the household, have been called the prince of demons, the members of my household will be called by even worse names! 26 “But don’t be afraid of those who threaten you. For the time is coming when everything that is covered will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. 27 What I tell you now in the darkness, shout abroad when daybreak comes. What I whisper in your ear, shout from the housetops for all to hear! 8 “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul (Refer to John 10:28-29). Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. 30 And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.32 “Everyone who acknowledges (ὁμολογέω // homologeo // verb // confess, agree with) me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.
Matthew 19:28-30 (NLT)
28 Jesus replied, “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers (ἀκολουθέω // akoloutheó // verb // to attend, follow, accompany one’s leading) will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has given (ἀφίημι // aphiemi // verb // release, sent away, permit to depart) up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.
John 15:1-8 (NLT)
“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. 3 You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. 4 Remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) in me, and I will remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) in me. 5 “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart (χωρίς // choris // adverb // to be without) from me you can do nothing. 6 Anyone who does not remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. 7 But if you remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) in me and my words remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted!8 When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father.
1 Corinthians 9:27 (NLT)
27 I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified (ἀδόκιμος // adokimos // adjective // unapproved, failing to pass) is.
1 Corinthians 15:1-2 (NLT)
Let me now remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed (παραλαμβάνω // paralambanó // verb // to take, to receive) it then, and you still stand firm in it. 2 It is this Good News that saves you if you continue (κατέχω // katecho // verb // take possession of, bind, cement) to believe the message I told you—unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.
Galatians 5:1-5 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm (στήκω // steko // verb // preserve, hold on to) therefore, and do not submit again (πάλιν // palin // adverb // go back to, return) to a yoke of slavery.2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed (καταργέω // katargeo // verb // abolish, separate from) from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
Galatians 5:13-14 (ESV)
13 For you were called (καλέω // kaleo // verb // invite, summon, call) to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Galatians 6:1-6 (NLT)
Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome (προλαμβάνω // prolambanó // verb // caught up in, a taken back) by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back (καταρτίζω // katartizó // verb // bring into its proper condition, return) onto the right path. And be careful not to fall ( πίπτω // pipto // verb // fall under, come under, prostrate, fall to) into the same temptation yourself. 2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. 3 If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important. 4 Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. 5 For we are each responsible for our own conduct. 6 Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them.
Philippians 2:12 (NLT)
12 Dear friends, you always followed (ὑπακούω // hupakouó // verb //listen, hearken to, obey) my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show (κατεργάζομαι // katergazomai // verb // labor, to accomplish) the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.
Colossians 1:21-23 (NLT)
21 This includes you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. 22 Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. 23 But you must continue (ἐπιμένω // epimeno // verb // remain, persist) to believe this truth and stand firmly (ἑδραῖος // hedraios // adjective // steadfast, not move away from) in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance (ἐλπίς // elpis // noun // hope, expectation) you received (ἀκούω // akouo // verb // to hear, to listen, respond) when you heard the Good News. The Good News has been preached all over the world, and I, Paul, have been appointed as God’s servant to proclaim it.
Hebrews 6:1-6 (NLT)
So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. 2 You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding. 4 For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once (ἅπαξ // hapax // adverb // once for all, once knew, once more) enlightened (φωτίζω // phótizó // verb // having brought to light, illuminate, make evident, reveal) —those who have experienced (γεύομαι // geuomai // verb // to taste, having experienced) the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted (γεύομαι // geuomai // verb // to taste, having experienced) the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come— 6 and who then turn away from (παραπίπτω // parapiptó // verb // to fall away, fall back (into the unbelieving and godless ways of the old time), return) God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame.
Hebrews 10:26-31 (NLT)
26 Dear friends, if we deliberately (ἑκουσίως // hekousiós // adverb // willingly, of one’s accord, choose) continue sinning after (μετά // meta // preposition // having already experienced, encountered) we have received knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins.27 There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies. 28 For anyone who refused to obey the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us. 30 For we know the one who said, “I will take revenge. I will pay them back.” He also said, “The LORD will judge his own people.” 31 It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
2 Peter 2:20-22 (NLT)
20 And when people escape from the wickedness of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then get tangled (ἐμπλέκω // empleko // verb // enfold, entangle, get involved with, caught up in) up and enslaved by sin again (πάλιν // palin // adverb // go back to, return), they are worse off than before. 21 It would be better if they had never known (ἐπιγινώσκω //epiginóskó // verb // to come to know, understand, recognize) the way to righteousness than to know it and then reject (ὑποστρέφω // hupostrephó // verb // turn back to) the command (ἐντολή // entole // noun // ordinance, instruction, demand) they were given to live a holy life. 22 They prove the truth of this proverb: “A dog returns (ἐπιστρέφω // epistrephó // verb // come back, towards, turn back to) to its vomit.” And another says, “A washed pig returns to the mud.”
Revelation 2:10 (NLT)
10 Don’t be afraid of what you are about to suffer. The devil will throw some of you into prison to test you. You will suffer for ten days. But if you remain (μένω // meno // verb // choose to stay, abide) faithful (πιστός // pistos // adjective // believing, continued faith) even when facing death, I will give (δίδωμι // didomi // to offer or allow // requires acceptance) you the crown of life.
Revelation 3:1-5 (NLT)
“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Sardis. This is the message from the one who has the sevenfold Spirit of God and the seven stars: “I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive (ζάω // zao // verb // to live, come alive, once have life) —but you are dead. 2 Wake up! Strengthen what little remains (λοιπός // loipos // adjective // to leave behind), for even what is left is almost dead. I find that your actions do not meet the requirements of my God.3 Go back to (μνημονεύω // mnémoneuó // verb // to remember, recall, make mention of) what you heard and believed (τηρέω // tereo // verb // guard, observe, watch over, keep) at first; hold (κατέχω // katecho // verb // take possession of, bind, cement) to it firmly. Repent and turn to me again (πάλιν // palin // adverb // go back to, return). If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief. 4 “Yet there are some in the church in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes with evil. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 All who are victorious (νικάω // nikao // verb // conquer, overcome) will be clothed in white. I will never erase their (αὐτός // autos // personal pronoun // specific to those that remain in Him, group of people or person) names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine.
Finishing where I started
As I stated early on, I do not pretend to have all of the answers. That is reserved for my Sovereign God alone. I’m so glad He reminds us that His ways are not our ways, neither are His thoughts like our thoughts (Isa 55). Instead of trying to fit an incredibly infinite God into a finite theological box that I can understand and am seemingly comfortable with, I would much rather live out my salvation rather than exhausting myself with whether or not I can ever lose my salvation.
There is too much at stake for us to get caught up in and divide over non-essential theological arguments. Instead, what would happen if we studied to show ourselves approved and looked to grow in God’s grace and our understanding so as to honor Him and not try to please and/or cause division amongst men?
These are just some humble thoughts from a Pastor in process.