Dialogue w Calvinist Re: Falling from Grace or Salvation

Dialogue w Calvinist Re: Falling from Grace or Salvation February 4, 2017
John Calvin (anonymous: 1550s) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Calvinist “Michael” commented (three typos corrected):

If it is God who saves sinners, then who might arise and declare unjust what the Lord of Glory has made anew? If it is God who regenerates (1 Pet 1:3), if it is God who justifies (Rom 5:1), and if it is the Lord Jesus Christ who keeps His people and decrees that no one (not even one’s self) can snatch them out of His hand (John 10:28) then who dares usurp the CLEAR teaching of scripture regarding the perseverance of God’s people? This doctrine of Rome that supposes one might loose their salvation by some grievous sin or other action is ad hock and divorced from the text of scripture. In fact, the concept of the loss of one’s salvation after regeneration undermines the effectiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ’s atonement. Any and all who profess The Name should immediately repent of such nonsense and rest in the assurance of what has been done on Calvary alone. (23 July 2009)

I then provided passages that suggest “the possibility of falling away from faith and justification and salvation” (from the first RSV draft my book, Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths). I also noted (at no extra charge):

And of course, what we know from Scripture about how God judges us in the end is completely in accord with justification and sanctification being intertwined and organically related, and opposed to the strictness and separationism of sola fide:

“Final Judgment in Scripture is Always Associated With Works And Never With Faith Alone (50 Passages)”

Also, Paul’s constant teaching shows how they cannot be separated:

“St. Paul’s Teaching on the Organic Relationship of Grace / Faith and Works / Obedience (Collection of 50 Passages)”

You Reformed folks will be in big trouble if we delve into Scripture too deeply. All kinds of difficulties for your position arise. :-)

Pilgrimsarbour, a Reformed Presbyterian (OPC) who is (quite refreshingly) willing to intelligently interact with Catholics sans the insults and misrepresentations at every turn, then replied. His words will be in blue:

Don’t you ever post anything, you know, short? You’re killing me here! ;-) I’d love to post responses but I’m a bit overwhelmed by the volume of material presented and under time constraints, of course. I think what I’ll do is take one thing at a time, make a few brief comments on it, then move on to the next point. In any case, I doubt I’ll be able to respond to everything, and certainly not all at once.

Understood; same here. We have time to develop and pursue the conversation if we want to. No rush.

Quoting Scripture you said…

1 Samuel 11:6; 18:12 And the spirit of God came mightily upon Saul when he heard these words, . . . Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with him but had departed from Saul.

I gather from what you are saying the following premise: anytime we see the Spirit of God coming upon someone we should understand this to mean that that person is among the elect, or “saved.”

Not necessarily; I agree with you. I do think, however, that it indicates that God is involved with the person to some extent, as opposed to them being totally depraved and capable of no good whatever. If the Spirit is there, there is something good going on, no?

And if the Spirit should remove Himself, this indicates that a saved or elect person can lose his salvation.

I think it is certainly consistent with that proposition, but not an absolute proof in and of itself, unless the question of their being saved or elect is specifically dealt with as well. There are proofs in Scripture and there are possible or likely indications that are harmonious with a particular theology. Likewise, there are passages that appear to be inconsistent with other belief-systems, such as the many Hebrew passages about “falling away” in relation to Calvinism.

I would argue that not every intervention in the lives of individuals (or whole peoples) by the Spirit of God means that they were regenerated by Him, that is, chosen, elect or saved, even those whom He has appointed to positions of authority within the Church (see my previous comments on Judas). 

A good example of this in the Old Testament is to be found in Genesis 20. Abraham tells Abimelech that Sarah is his sister instead of his wife, so Abimelech takes Sarah as his wife. When Abimelech finds out about Abraham’s treachery, he has a discussion with the Lord Himself:

5 Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. 7 Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours” (Genesis 20: 5-7 ESV, emphasis mine).

This is a good OT example of the Holy Spirit of God intervening in a non-elect gentile’s heart and life to spare both His people and His non-people from His judgement. The Spirit essentially overrode Abimelech’s will in order that God’s purposes would be obtained.

But as far as I can tell, Scripture doesn’t inform us that Abimelech is not of the elect. You have assumed that without proof. So your example proves little. We’re both assuming things that we bring to the text (which is okay; everyone does it): you assume (far as I can tell) that a Gentile in Old Testament times isn’t in the elect and I assume it is possible to fall away from grace.

Of course, the Spirit can remove His restraint on the sinner for God’s purposes as he did with Pharoah in Exodus 9:12. This verse says that God actively hardened Pharoah’s heart. I think that no one would make the case that either Abimelech or Pharoah were among those who would be saved.

Pharaoh was likely unsaved because of how he acted (everything we know is pretty much negative). But the record in Abimelech’s case is a lot brighter. How do we know for sure he wasn’t saved in the end? The “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” issue is somewhat complex. I’ve dealt with it in the past.

For one thing they were outside the covenant, and for another, their fruits or lack thereof do not give us confidence to view them as saved persons.

Romans 2:9-16 refers to those outside the law who could still be justified by doing good works and following their conscience. I think there is enough indication that non-Jews in the Old Covenant could possibly be saved. This is particularly the case in New Testament teaching, which could then be applied back to the Old Testament situation, as a fuller revelation of the place of Gentiles in the plan of salvation. People weren’t automatically damned simply because they lived before Christ and weren’t Jewish.

Interestingly, this is also a good verse to illustrate to some who would object to the idea of original sin. Adam is seen as the federal head of the human race. God does treat kings as a federal head of his people, and holds those people responsible for their king’s behaviour. In this verse not only Abimelech was in danger but all his subjects as well. Thankfully, everyone was spared.

Original sin is not being questioned, so I’ll pass on that for now . . . There is a sense of corporate judgment in Scripture (that I’ve also dealt with).

* * *

I agree with you whole-heartedly that we can’t know Abimelech’s final disposition regarding salvation. I did not mean to say that no Old Testament gentile could possibly be saved. I do believe that there are Old Testament gentiles that will be found among the elect in eternity. I think you would agree, though, that that is much more rare than what was to happen under the New Covenant. God expands His covenantal blessings in the New Testament to include the gentiles.

Yes, He makes it explicit at that time that Gentiles are included. But God doesn’t change (and I’m sure you agree with that!). Whoever is saved at any time, whether it is 3000 BC or yesterday, is saved because of Jesus Christ and His work for us. I don’t see that it makes any difference. If they haven’t heard the gospel and accepted or rejected it, then they are judged by what they know (Romans 2). That would apply to Abimelech as much as it would to a person today or any time since the crucifixion.

But further, it seems clear to me that there was nothing which inhered in Abimelech which brought him into God’s favour. It was, in fact, God Himself who placed integrity in Abimelech’s heart:

Of course; that is true for all of us. But we have to cooperate with God’s grace. That’s the key. You guys make grace irresistible, so there is no sense of cooperation in the fundamental, causal sense. But I think that understanding distorts the biblical “both/and” outlook and makes it an “either/or” thing that is rather unbiblical.

“Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”

There is always a sense of God’s providence, that He ultimately causes every good thing to happen; thus He will say “I did [so-and-so].” It doesn’t follow that the person didn’t also freely do whatever it was. That was my argument in the case of Pharaoh. We see this clearly in the book of Job, where we know that Satan was doing the evil things to Job, yet 42:11 refers to “all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him”. But God had said to Satan in 2:6: “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.” Satan brought the evil, not God. God allowed it, but He didn’t cause it.

Abimelech is pleading his case before God in this dream, based on his own understanding of his heart. He thinks he’s a mighty good fellow, or at least he wants to persuade God that he is. But God is saying, “I know you have integrity; it is I who put it there.”

That’s not the whole picture of what occurred. Abraham had lied, that Sarah was his sister. How was Abimmy to be blamed for that (20:3-5)? He didn’t know. God simply caused him not to approach her (sexually). God acknowledges the purity of his motives: “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart” (20:6a). Then God said (20:6b): “it was I who kept you from sinning against me; therefore I did not let you touch her.”

So the issue of his integrity and whether he engaged in sex with Sarah are separated. God prevented the thing that Abimmy didn’t know about because Abraham lied. None of this suggests to me that Abimmy was an unutterably wicked fellow who couldn’t possibly be saved. Yet you originally stated, in describing this scene, that it was “God intervening in a non-elect gentile’s heart and life.”

Now you admit that we can’t know for sure if he was elect or not, so your argument falters, then, because it was based on that unknowable premise, that you now concede is unknowable.

If Abimelech’s integrity was inherent, that is, his own,

It was not “his own” insofar as none of our integrity is ultimately our own (in origin). It comes from God’s grace. The question here is whether God gave him grace or not. I am saying there is no compelling reason to think that He didn’t, or that Abimmy is damned. He’s not presented as that bad of a guy, in his outward actions. He gave Abraham stuff, even though it was Abraham who had wronged him (20:14-16) and God blessed his house with [implied] many children (20:17-18).

why should God punish him at all for taking Sarah?

I don’t know. The text is unclear as to why that is, but it does show God agreeing that Abimmy hadn’t wronged Sarah, because he didn’t know she was married. It could have been as an outward display for those who didn’t know all the details. This was, after all, a pretty primitive time in salvation history.

An argument could be made that A.D. 70 was the end of the Jewish age, and that with the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem God has abandoned His people in favour of the gentiles. The Reformed position is that there is a future work or other kind of inclusion for the nation of Israel based upon certain statements in the book of Revelation, but I have not studied that completely.

That wouldn’t have any bearing on the question at hand, one way or the other. And even if God had abandoned the Jews entirely (which is another big question we don’t need to pursue now), that is in a corporate sense, as in instances of the judgment of nations, and would still allow exceptions for righteous individuals who chose to follow Him, as is seen in the OT as well.

Now here is where the question of whether God abandons His elect or not comes up; that is, can the elect lose their salvation?

No, of course the elect cannot. Individuals can lose their salvation. If they lose it, they obviously are not of the elect, because that refers to eschatological salvation. Where Calvinists go awry is in going to extremes and denying that anyone (elect or no) could be “saved” (Protestant definition) or in God’s graces (more how we Catholics put it) or regenerate or once filled with the Holy Spirit, and then fall away from that salvation and grace. You guys simply say (as you must, by the internal demands of your system) that they never possessed it in the first place. But you can’t prove that, and denying the very possibility (because of false premises) seems to go against much biblical indication (hence my collection of passages to the contrary earlier on in this discussion).

I would answer this way.

The Jews were God’s elect people in the sense that they as a nation were to be the bearers of the oracles of God. The covenant was made with Abraham, the father-to-be of a whole people, chosen by God for a very specific purpose. It was from this chosen or elect group that the Messiah, first referred to in Genesis 3, was to come. This is different than saying that every single Jew is destined for eternal life merely because he was a part of the covenant.

Yes, I agree. It is in the covenantal sense of “chosen.”

We clearly see in our reading of the New Testament where Jesus has interactions with the Pharisees and Saducees, as well as others, that individuals are not guaranteed eternal life merely by being a part of the Abrahamic covenant.

Correct. Rightly understood, even the Jews (some of them, anyway: the more spiritually advanced) had a notion of salvation by faith and grace, not works alone, as Christians have typically portrayed them as “officially” believing.

So it could be said, if I may say it this way, that God has His elect among His elect; that is, among His chosen people are a remnant people He has chosen for eternal life. This is the Reformed position that so it is with His Church today.

No problem. None of this resolves the dilemma with Abimmy that you have gotten yourself into, with incoherent reasoning. I think you’re now forced by logic to ditch his alleged “counter-example”.

By this understanding, those who fall away were never elected to eternal life from the beginning, although they partook of the covenant:

But that is a truism and not under dispute (i.e., that the elect are those who actually make it to heaven: yes, of course!). We aren’t saying that the elect fell away, but that persons can possess good graces and the spirit, etc., and fall away (which Calvinists deny).

21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21).

Some people seem to be in the fold but never actually were, as this passage affirms. Others, however (based on many other passages) actually were in the fold. God did “know” them, and they fell away. Calvinists and Catholics agree on the first proposition, but greatly disagree on the second. I contend that it is because Calvinists have put their flawed system above the biblical data in this regard. They can’t accept the plain teaching of the passages that refute their view on perseverance because that would knock out a plank of TULIP, and then the other ones would be in peril, too, because they all work together. I say, let it come down, because it is unbiblical in most respects.

Perhaps they grew up in the church. Perhaps they attended the worship service and Sunday school religiously. Perhaps they did all kinds of “mighty works” in His Name. But their hearts were never regenerated. They had never become “born again.”

This is your Calvinist assumption, that cannot be absolutely proven in every case. Sometimes (part from our human interpretations of sad individual cases) this is true (without question), but not always, and the Bible seems to back up what I am maintaining here.

There was always some other agenda driving them quite aside from a desire to serve Jesus Christ.

We can’t see into other people’s hearts as God can.

To these people, identified as “tares” in Matthew 13, He says, “I never knew you.” What the Reformed acknowledge is that we cannot know with absolute certainty who they are. Likewise, to reiterate what I said in another place, we do not require a standard of absolute certain knowledge when ordaining those to the ministry.

But also, in denying that anyone could fall away, the position goes too far, and stretches the biblical data beyond the breaking point. Something’s gotta give: the Bible or Calvinism. I say (big surprise!) that the Bible teaches Catholic soteriology, not Calvinist.

I would add briefly these two things.

Non-Reformed folks tend to use the term “faith alone” to mean something other than the way we Reformed folks use it. They tend to use it to mean namely “belief alone,” or “mental assent alone.” This is not how we see it.

Faith alone is shorthand for “By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but a faith which is not alone.” And what is meant by that is that simple belief or mental assent is not what the Bible has in view.

I agree, which is why I defended y’all from that charge in my last post along those lines, where this discussion got started. I commended your post that rightly pointed this out.

Now it’s true that American Evangelical Protestantism of the 19th through 20th century Arminian variety often promulgates that anything other than a mere mental assent to some truths constitutes a “work” on our part and is to be disallowed doctrinally. This is not the Reformed view. We concur with James when he says:

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Good. So do we. But we tie together sanctification and justification in a way that you do not, since they were formally separated by Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. It is that separation that (I would argue, and have argued) that has led (at least partially) to the state of affairs that Lutherans and Calvinists themselves decry, as you describe above. When one wrong move is made, then the devil has a field day bringing in other errors that either flow or falsely seem to the adherents to flow from the prior false premise.

Paul uses faith to mean “belief in action,” whereas James seems to make a distinction between the two. The result is the same, however, as we see works as integral to belief and indeed, inseparable.

I have also often noted in the past, that Catholic and Calvinist stress on the importance of good works come out the same way in practice, rightly understood. Now if your party would cease falsely accusing us of being Pelagians (let alone non-Christians, from many of your comrades), perhaps we could garner more unity than is usually present between us, and rejoice in practical common ground.

So when a comment is made about “faith alone,” we must be sure that we’re on the same page before the discussion can move forward. If one means “belief alone” without any actual change of attitude toward God and change in lifestyle, then any Reformed person would disavow that as a biblical doctrine.

I understand and agree with that point, but (on the other hand) by formally separating sanctification from justification and salvation, you leave yourself open to an easy misunderstanding and the internal logic creates further problems as time goes on. These have been fulfilled in the development of Protestantism.

A person who said a prayer, signed a paper or raised his hand but never grew in grace the rest of his life would likely be considered unregenerate in Reformed thinking (as much as could be discerned, and we are called to be discerning).

That’s why I have written papers documenting how Luther and Calvin both taught that.

Secondly, the Reformed don’t make as sharp a distinction between justification and sanctification as has been suggested. We view them as distinct, but not separable. They are, in fact, organically connected in the process of salvation.

You do connect them in some fashion, even significantly so, but not with regard to salvation itself. I agree that there is a closeness in Reformed thought that is often distorted by non-Reformed and poorly understood even by many within your camp (as is the case in all camps: ignorance and nominalism being unfortunately widespread). But Francois Wendel, in his Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1963; translated by Philip Mairet) confirms my observation that a formal separation was made between the two:

Sanctification is not the purpose of justification. It proceeds from the same source but remains independent, or, more correctly, is logically distinct from justification . . .

. . . it is important not to confuse them together, ‘in order that the variety of the graces of God may so much the better appear to us . . . [St Paul] shows clearly enough that it is one thing to be justified and another to be made new creatures.’ [Inst., III, 11, 6] . . .

The notion of justification does therefore include (as with Luther and Melanchthon) the idea of a righteousness which is extrinsic and is only imputed to us, without any prejudgment of the real state in which we happen to be. Since 1536 Calvin had affirmed that ‘the righteousness of faith is Christ’s righteousness, not our own, that it is in him and not in us, but that it becomes ours by imputation’ . . . Thus we are not really righteous, except by imputation; and we are unrighteous but held to be righteous by imputation, in so far as we possess the righteousness of Christ by faith.’ [Opp, 1, 60; O.S., vol. 1, p. 73] . . .

The logical consequence of that doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is that never, not even after the remission of our sins, are we really righteous. . . .

Even after we have received the faith, our works are still contaminated with sin: nevertheless God does not impute them to us as sins but holds them acceptable. Calvin is thus led to formulate the doctrine of double justification; first, the justification of the sinner, and then the justification of the justified, or more correctly of their works.

(pp. 256-260; ellipses and brackets in the middle of the second paragraph and ellipses in the middle of the third paragraph were in the original)

This is where the fundamental error lies: in the extreme emphasis on imputation and formal separation of justification and sanctification (and resultant denial of merit and infused justification and cooperation with God, etc.). That helps (even though Calvin would protest) produce the error of separating good works and charity and sanctity in general from justification and salvation itself, as in the evangelicalism that you decry (and that I also severely criticize).

From our point of view, Calvin is still wrong; just less wrong in degree or along the spectrum, than antinomian-types of evangelicals are. But I agree that aspects of his teaching, and of Reformed thought, are quite close to our own conception of faith and works in the practical sense and in terms of how a Christian ought to live his life day by day: things we can abundantly verify from the Bible itself.


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