Calvinism: My History 4

The Warning Passages of Hebrews, which have vexed both ordinary Christians and professional scholars for centuries, have four elements: the audience, the sin, the exhortation, and the consequences. Today we will look at the exhortation(s). In my own journey, this topic was more critical than I realized, and it is more important of a topic than many seem to think. Perseverance is the issue; you don’t really need to call a non-Christian to persevere.

What do you see in the expressions of exhortation below? Do you think “us” implies Christian?

Here are some terms the author uses for what he expects his audience to do instead of falling away, and most of the time the author — who presumably thinks he/she is a Christian — includes himself/herself in the exhortation:
2:1: pay attention
3:6, 14; 10:23: hold on
3:13: encourage one another
4:1: let us fear
4:11: let us strive hard
4:14: let us hold fast
6:1: let us carry on to perfection
10:35: do not cast away your confidence
10:36: you need perseverance
12:1: let us run with perseverance
12:7: endure hardship
12:12: strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees
12:15: see to it that no one misses the grace of God
12:25: see to it that you do not refuse

If we chose one term to put this all into one it would be either “perseverance” or “faithfulness.” This is both mental and personal: one both knows that God is faithful and one actively surrenders to God’s grace and empowerment.

Both Calvinists and Arminians agree on this point: each person needs to persevere. The oddest thing has happened in American Evangelicalism: it has taught, whether aloud or not, the idea of “once saved, always saved” as if perseverance were not needed.

In other words, it has taught that if a person has crossed the threshold by “receiving Christ” but then decides to abandon living for Christ, that person is eternally secure. This is rubbish theology. Perseverance is an indicator of what faith is all about: a relationship that continues, that is marked by steady love. No one equates marriage with a wedding day statement of intent, and no one should equate faithfulness with a decision.

What does it mean to persevere? It means that we continue to believe, that we live like it. It doesn’t mean sinlessness; it doesn’t mean that we are on some steady and never failing incline into sanctification; it does not deny stumbling or messy spirituality. It doesn’t deny doubt and problems. It simply means that the person continues to walk with Jesus and doesn’t walk away from him.

Our next two blogs are big ones: what is the sin and who is the audience?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Paul W

    I think the “us” is the ecclesia (church/community). It seems pretty obvious (to me at least) that those in the community are to have faith. No faith– not a part of the community. Not part of the community– not in the faith.

    The “us” I would say are Christians. I understand that the term “Christian” is primarily defined by the relationship that exists to Christ’s body (i.e., the Church).

    I do not think that this particular discussion is progressed by through talk about the “genuineness” of the person’s faith who falls away. The same goes for the more metaphysical aspects of “union with Christ/in him” language to the issue of apostasy.

    Why is it not fine to simply assert that to be part of the church one must have faith, to stay in the church one must persevere in the faith, and that without a persevering faith there are no the final benefits of salvation? That is were the practical issues reside is it not?

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    The “us” is said to be professing Christians. And how in a church setting, we can’t know who for sure are genuine. And that therefore these warning passages have teeth because the genuine believers will heed them, while those whose profession of faith is spurious will not.

    I used to hold to that view, but have held to more of an Arminian view for some time now.

    I’ve wondered if in the practical realm what one might call a balanced Calvinist view, and a balanced Arminian view may not be all that much different. Both believe one can apostatize from the faith. I believe a genuinely true believer can. The Calvinist might say that one can be deceived to believe they are, but in the end they defect because they are not.

    So I tend to want to downplay the difference, though actually it does matter. But the more mildly Calvinist side in evangelicalism has won the day. Showed in the publication and the convictions of most everyone at RBC Ministries where I work. A hub in the evangelical world.

  • davey

    The ‘us’ seems to be the people in the congregation listening. They are not people who have apostatized in the sense of having walked away and are not present! (I suppose a complication might be that somebody could have walked away from the congregation and come back! And, let’s not forget that people sometimes walk out on one congregation because for good reasons they just can’t get on with that congregation, and it may be a while before they go to another.) But, not all will be Christians, as not all the people who left Egypt with Moses believed, and ‘not all Israel are Israel’.

  • Paul W

    I’ve got to say that I’m not sure what the interest (fascination?) is with evaluating the nature of the faith of someone who stopped believing. What does it matter in the long run if the faith that was lost was ‘true/genuine’ or if was deficient in some way or if some sort of self-deception had taken place?

    I don’t intend to be rattling cages but I’ve got to say that to some extent this discussion sounds like the sort of theological posturing that desires to win an argument. A topic of this nature begs for a more practical (dare we say even pastoral) theological approach does it not?

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    So what label do we give to those who deny the need for perseverance insisting a previous confession/baptism is all that is required?

  • Paul W

    @5 John

    Back in the 80′s didn’t they call such a position “easy believism.”

  • DanS

    Christ himself taught all sins could be forgiven save one, blasphemy against the holy spirit.

    I am not a Calvinist, but neither do I think Christians can “lose” their salvation in a careless way.

    Hebrews is written to Hebrews. I believe all the troubling passages are dealing with Jews who turn their backs on the sacrifice of Christ and return to the old covenant, which no longer exists. Hence, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, (Heb 10:26).

    We have to turn our back on Christ and embrace another gospel to “lose” salvation. It doesn’t happen by just backsliding or falling into some particular sin. It is a willful rejection of the truth.

  • Joel

    My favorite part? The discussion of “Rubbish Theology”.

    I didn’t see “Once Saved Always Saved” in scripture at all, even though I grew up hearing that…

    When did that start up?

  • Ken Ritchey

    The exhortation passages clearly underline the emphasis throughout the book on the idea that one came come to faith and later reject the faith, but the letter from beginning to end seems to be about that subject, whether it is the passages on the preeminence of Jesus, on the possibility of failing to enter “the rest,” the fact that past people of faith perserved to the very end (and you run the risk of not doing so), etc.

  • Paul W

    I’ve got to say that the language of losing one’s salvation sounds strange to me. Doesn’t “salvation” have an inextricably eschatological dimension to it which includes the final end. I’m assuming that I’m missing something.

    It sounds like near nonsense, to me, to claim that a particular relationship to Christ were truly “saving,” (or consisting of a saving union with Christ or of saving faith etc.)and not end up, in fact, “saved.” Does it make sense to say that someone has a saving relationship that doesn’t result in salvation?

    I am simply not accustomed to speaking of salvation in a way that is not tied, at least in part, to its eschatologcal end.

  • Bill

    Demas comes to mind.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    The people the author of Hebrews is writing too are Jewish believers in Jesus. The issue is perseverance, continuing in their faith in Jesus, even in the face of serious persecution and pressure let go of it.

    In Bible college, we were taught OSAS. Though they did not say it this way, faith was a “once and done” proposition that could never be undone. If someone “trusted Christ” at some point in their life, regardless of whether they believed subsequent to that, there was a consolation that he was “saved.” Of course, the language of John 3:16 and other passages is “whoever believes,” which indicates a present and continuing faith, not a one-time-in-the-past faith. This understanding of OSAS became the overlay through which we viewed the book of Hebrews. We were trying to answer a question the author of Hebrews was not asking. We were, in effect, asking about the sufficiency of a one-time faith, but the burden of the author was about persevering in the faith.

  • dopderbeck

    Again, I think the way the issue is being the framed — whether an individual can lose his or her salvation — in significant ways misses the point.

    In my view, the purpose of all these passages, as well as of similar passages in Revelation, is to encourage the Church. “Church: stand strong in Christ and your faith will be vindicated.” IMHO, that is the message.

    Is there an implied and sometimes express warning that failing to stand strong in Christ will prove disastrous for the Church? Certainly, just as there were always similar warnings to Israel. And if a particular person who was once engaged in the Church ceases to engage in the Church’s practices and worship and becomes unrooted from the Church’s beliefs, is that person in trouble? Indeed.

    But, IMHO it’s not really correct to this to this person or that person or even to one’s self in a sort of solipsistic, obsessive-Martin-Luther-prior-to-his-Tower-experience sort of way. IMHO, it all needs to be understood first in terms of the Church’s participation in Christ through its worship and practices, similar to Israel’s participation in Yahweh through the Law and the Temple; and only then extended to any person’s participation in the life of the Church.

  • dopderbeck

    An analogy: 20 years ago I was married to my wife. Our vows participated in a long tradition of what “marriage” means — a tradition I believe is inherent in what it means to be created human beings as “male” and “female.” Embedded in our vows was a rich promise: until the end of life, we will live together in a community of love — we will never be alone.

    Now, there are days, weeks, months when one or both of us is fed up with the whole thing, tired, worn out, angry, doubting the very core of this idea of “marriage” as an enduring bond. And we’ve continually had to re-think just how we are going to live out that bond and exactly what it means. Yet we’ve ever and again and continually committed and re-committed ourselves to the practices that are central to “marriage” — communication, patience, forgiveness, intimacy, fidelity. As hard as it is sometimes, as confused as we sometimes are, as often as we fail each other, we persevere in the hope and faith that the promise of “marriage” transcends us and will endure.

    What if, one day, one of us threw in the towel and decided to divorce? Could we still expect that the two of us together would continue to experience the promise of all that “marriage” means? No, we couldn’t. It would be a tragedy.

    This sort of analogy is why scripture often speaks of marriage, or a household, as a metaphor of life in Christ.

  • LexCro

    First, it is clear from the context that “us” in the warning passages refers to the saints to whom the author is writing. The author of Hebrews in no way indicates that he is only referring to some pseudo-believer, superficial sub-set of these saints. Folks can attempt to correlate the contemporary church’s problem with pseudo-believers among the redeemed with the ancient situation all they’d like. At issue is not the POSSIBILITY of pseudo-believers among the redeemed. At issue is to whom the author was PROBABLY referring to according to his own letter. It is incredibly obvious (as the “identity” discussion will demonstrate) that he is speaking to believers. If not, we’ve got to eisogetically read an assortment of bizarre and convoluted “almost-saved” categories into the text. Sadly, this is how many handle the warning passages in Hebrews and in other biblical passages.

    Second, in contemporary evangelicalism perseverance is (wrongly) thought to be inevitable for those who have crossed the threshold into salvation in Christ. For many who hold to this (be it OSAS or perseverance of the saints), the trajectory for perseverance serves only to authenticate what happened in the past: You “got saved,” and your ongoing establishment in Christ verifies that your got-savedness was for real. Without question, there is some truth to this backward-looking aspect of salvation. Our progressive conformity to Christ and fruitfulness in Christ DOES point to the truthfulness of our initial conversion. Here, perseverance is the RESULT of authentic submission to Christ. The problem is that contemporary evangelicalism (yes, even the Bible-believing, conservative stripe) often REDUCES perseverance to this authenticating aspect. Here are a few reasons we do this:

    1) Protestant evangelicalism persists in a Cartesian split between BEING and DOING. So one can be spiritually saved even though one’s actions are at odds with being in Christ. If anyone dares to suggest that your actions have anything to do with your final salvation, we merely drop the “P-bomb” (“Pelagian”). This is why we so readily throw the heresy flag when it comes to orthodoxic heresy, while we have little problem tolerating many orthopraxic heresies.

    2) We have segregated perseverance in Christ from maturity in Christ. Typically, when we talk about perseverance, we are referring ONLY to God’s gracious work to keep us in Christ. And it is without question true that God graciously labors to that end (1 Pet. 1:4-5). But what of maturity as a means to perseverance? The biblical authors treat maturity as a Spirit-empowered means to perseverance. Again, in many evangeligcal circles if you suggest such a thing, the “P-bomb” (“Pelagianism”) inevitably rears its ugly head. But such thinking explains why we don’t preach passages like this more often:

    `I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. So remember what you have received and heard; and keep [it], and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (Rev. 3:1-5, NASB)

    3) Evangelical Christians typically don’t acknowledge that the shape of God’s grace changes from conversion to maturity. Notice, not the presence or sufficiency of God’s grace, but the shape. Even though we are saints growing in saintliness and Christ-likeness, we tend to think of ourselves as folks who are sinners in Christ. While we are saints who may be struggling with (not wallowing in) sin, the notion that we’re sinners in Christ is biblically inaccurate. The shape of God’s grace for saints is no longer saving grace extended towards alienated sinners. Instead, the shape of God’s grace in the life of a saint is geared towards maturity in Christ. Without question, such grace also accounts for the long, hard slog of overcoming sins. But Christ-likenesss, not sin-maintenance, is the goal for God’s gracious laboring in the lives of saints in Christ.

  • John W Frye

    A misguided form of the forensic nature of justification requires a OSAS conclusion. God is keeping the heavenly books and the non-experienced transaction of Christ taking our sin and our being “accredited” righteousness by faith alone means that these things cannot be undone. A popular apologetic for OSAS is to list all the things that happen at the point of “genuine” faith–a lot of which are God’s actions. Thus, the idea that a genuine believer (and I writing from the popular viewpoint) can have all of God’s works negated is, quite frankly, ridiculed. That is why 1 John 2:19 is so needed by the OSAS group: those who do not persevere (they go out from us) were never really “of” us, that is, genuinely born again. Yet, in our contemporary evangelism, converts are ASSURED of heaven when they die simply because they prayed the prayer in faith. It’s a kind of evangelistic clairvoyance in assuring someone of heaven without a shred of teaching about the need to persevere. Scot uses a good word for all this: rubbish.

  • Percival

    It makes no sense to exhort someone persevere in holding on to something that they are not holding. All the language in this passage is in favor of continuing in the path that they are on.

    Salvation is not just a state of being; it is a path and a destination as well. It is being in Christ, walking with Christ, and fixing our eyes on Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.

    Dop #13 & #14
    I liked your illustration in 14 of the continuing in the marriage but it doesn’t seem to support your point in 13. It made me think that I misunderstood either your point or your illustration.

  • http://evangelicalarminians.org/ Arminian

    Joel (# 8) asked when OSAS started up. Well, that’s a good question and raises an important point in the general discussion of the issue. As Steve Witzki states, ” ‘once saved, always saved’ or unconditional eternal security was not a doctrine that was taught by the ancient church, nor for that manner, by any well-known theologian before John Calvin. This doctrine is, in fact, completely foreign in the history of Christianity [until Calvin]” (Steve Wtizki, “The Inadequate Historical Precedent for ‘Once Saved, Always Saved’”). The Calvinistic version of the doctrine seems to have been basically absent from church history for the first 1600 years. And “the brand of “once saved, always saved” teaching that tells people that they can stop believing and still be on their way to heaven (but with less rewards) [the kind Scot aptly calls rubbish theology] is nowhere to be found in historic Christianity prior to the twentieth century” (Witzki). This cannot be taken as decisive of whether these are scriptural or not. But it is weighty evidence against any form of unconditional eternal security being so. You can find Witzki’s article at http://evangelicalarminians.org/Perseverance-Wtizki-The-Inadequate-Historical-Precedent-for-Once-Saved-Always-Saved .

  • http://evangelicalarminians.org/ Arminian

    For some reason, the site placed an emoticon for my attempt to indicate post number 8 as a reference. Unintentional emoticon alert! Now htis is purposeful: 8)

  • PaulE

    “Perseverance is the issue; you don’t really need to call a non-Christian to persevere.”

    I don’t think it is that easy. One could similarly argue from 3:12 that believers don’t need to be warned that they might have unbelieving hearts. This too, I think, would be too simple of a reading.

    The exhortations suggest to me a group of people who have professed faith (cf. 4:14, 10:23), who the author anticipates will indeed inherit salvation through faith (6:9, 12), but who are in danger of falling short by not substantiating the faith they profess (cf. 4:1-2, 11).

  • http://evangelicalarminians.org/ Arminian

    PaulE ( # 20 ), your argument does not seem to follow on more than one level. I will addrerss just one. Heb 3:12 is a warning to not let there develop an unbelieving heart. This verse only supports Scot’s point. In the epistle, believers are warned not to become unbelievers. I think Scot’s point remains quite solid : “Perseverance is the issue; you don’t really need to call a non-Christian to persevere.”

    I should also mention that there does not see to be any stress whatsoever on the idea of professed belief vs. genuine belief in the epistle.

  • Joe Canner

    John #16: It seems that there may be several different versions of “assurance” of salvation and that these cause some confusion in evangelical circles.

    There are many people out there who do not have assurance of salvation because they are trusting in their own abilities or because they believe God to be capricious. These people need a better understanding of God’s grace and of his faithfulness to his promises. The Apostle John said “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may *know* that you have eternal life.” (I Jn. 5:13)

    This type of assurance is not a prediction of the person’s likelihood of persevering nor should it provide a false sense of security. Such “evangelical clairvoyance” does indeed seem to be unwarranted. However, this misapplication of assurance should not preclude reassuring insecure believers (or believers-to-be) about God’s grace and faithfulness.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    ISTM that there are two qualities that are discussed here. One is tenacity (hold on, do not cast away, etc), and the other is advance (strengthen, encourage, etc.). Perhaps perseverance has both of those ideas but Scot only used the tenacity aspect, I think (It means that we continue to believe).

    And the balance of the two, and the objective of a person, is individual, no doubt. For some it is all they can do to hold to what they have, and not fall back into disbelief or hostility. For others it is to move forward, to make disciples of others, to be given more.

    Now for a soapbox. I don’t like the framing of these things with the language *believe*. Yes, I recognize that we all hold more nuance to that word than simply attestation of existence, but it seems we could do better. So when Scot says “It means that we continue to believe” it often comes across to me that we are saying the less nuanced version of this word. And that is part of the problem. So we used commit, then it would be less of an issue. Whosoever commits to Jesus, …we continue to commitl….). That makes the idea of perseverance more obvious. Those who continue to commit will not lose their salvation.

  • Kyle

    Having not read all the comments and just reacting to the post:

    I agree…Jesus is not fire insurance that you can buy and forget about until you need it.

    I keep seeing “us” and “each other” in those verses. It seems to me that American Christianity has developed a Lone Ranger syndrome and that we have lost the need to work our our salvation with others in community. To read the Bible and pray with others as an encouragement, and not to fly solo.

  • PaulE

    Arminian #21 – What reason would you give for ignoring the present tense in 3:12?

    Also, I’m not saying there is an emphasis in Hebrews between “genuine” belief and merely professed belief. (Although, certainly in James there is.) The author of Hebrews isn’t concerned like James with warning people against the self-deception in claiming faith but not substantiating it. That’s because the danger in Hebrews isn’t that they would be deceived about their faith while continuing to profess it, but that they might give up even their profession.

    I would argue that in Hebrews “having faith” is synonymous with persevering. There are only two groups to belong to: “those who have faith and are saved” and “those who shrink back and are destroyed.” In the epistle, the readers are warned not to be unbelievers.

  • http://evangelicalarminians.org/ Arminian

    PaulE # 25: You seem to have based your view on an error. Heb 3:12 uses the future tense in Greek! The verb used of there being an evil heart of unbelief is the future tense verb ἔσται (estai).

    Even if it were present, I don’t think it would matter. But I don’t need to bother explaining why since it is a future tense.

    I must say that your view seems strange that the problem in Hebrews the author is concerned about is that people would give up their false profession of faith rather than that they would give up their faith. Why would giving up a false profession of faith be bad anyway? Such a view seems very artificial to me.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Well, I don’t know about all that. I just know God loves coffee because ….. He-brews. :)

    I know it’s old, but it still makes me smile.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I think that if salvation is dependant upon us then, well, we can now have no assurance until we are with God in heaven. And if God chooses some for and some not for salvation, then again we can ultimately have no assurance now until, well, we’re there. Only if salvation is based solely upon the grace of God for all of us then can any of us have assurance now as we put our faith in God.

  • http://www.davidsnet.ws/biblical Peter Davids

    This discussion is fascinating, for I set my own direction on this topic some 27 or 28 years ago when I took over the supervision of a Regent College M.C.S. thesis on the warning passages in Hebrews. (I took it over due to someone’s going on sabbatical, I believe – I was the new guy, so available). I realized through this student’s careful work (about 200 pages of it, I believe) that Hebrews was talking about the real possibility of real believers leaving the faith with permanent consequences of condemnation at the last judgment. That, of course, shaped my view of a number of doctrines, although Hebrews is just a handy starting place for me now.

  • Mark B

    I’ve wondered if God wants me to know I’m a child of God and nothing (including me) can separate me from God. Does God want us to guess if we will make it to heaven? We certainly fail every day.

  • PaulE

    Thanks, Arminian. I should not have been so uncharitable when I said “ignore”. Forgive me. I was indeed in error about the grammar; but I have not based my view on it as you say. If you look at my original comment, you’ll see that I reject as too simple the very understanding of 3:12 that I proposed.

    Perhaps also I badly explained the comparison of Hebrews and James, because I too find the view you describe “strange”. My view is that the situation in Hebrews is one where people are considering giving up their profession of faith. If so, the author wouldn’t be concerned with false professions of faith since there would be no professions that any might be false. Does that make sense? I’m not saying what the author is concerned about, only what he is not concerned about.

  • John W Frye

    Mark B (#30),
    I’ve wondered if Julie, my wife, wants me to know that I’m her husband and nothing, including me, can separate her and me. Does she want me to guess if we will make it married together through life? I certainly fail everyday.

    What’s missing in your comment and mine? The necessity to persevere. The Book of Hebrews is calling believers to persevere in their relationship with God in Christ and warning them, believers, of dire consequences if they don’t.


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