I have expressed my alarm many times about the current teaching and emphases of American evangelical churches. Honestly, the emphases are in many ways more disturbing than the specific doctrines with which I disagree. Living in the Bible Belt and interreacting with those having a past or present history in these churches shows me what they really believe in their heart of hearts. They are in the majority quite comfortable with wrong teachings about both doctrine and lifestyle. Regarding lifestyle, Jesus made it abundantly clear that his followers had to be “all in,” “sold out,” “heart and soul” disciples of his. This means far more than just getting a vaccination to protect you from the consequences of sin when you die and then going on about your business as usual, with little changed. Just look at a few of the many passages that could be listed which teach this truth.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Is total commitment to Jesus and his spiritual body, the church, the emphasis of evangelicalism? I don’t think so, based on what I hear from individuals and preachers and what I read in their writings. Their main focus is usually on “getting saved,” a part of the basic stated definition of their purpose as evangelicals. It is quite common for preachers or the more committed members to urge the “unsaved” to invite Jesus into their hearts or to pray the sinner’s prayer, with little or nothing said about what becoming a follower of Jesus includes from that point forward. Not only is what is being offered as the salvation process not in line with New Testament teaching, becoming a sold-out disciple of Jesus for a lifetime is not taught and/or emphasized. The offer of salvation in this case is much more of an offer of “fire insurance” to keep you out of hell when you die than a lifetime commitment to Jesus as the very Lord of our lives.
The Problem Compounded
But this is only the first part of the problem. Most evangelicals still believe and teach that once you are saved, then you are always saved. You cannot lose your salvation. One of my good friends related a conversation he had with the preacher at his girlfriend’s church decades ago, and it illustrates my point well. He told the preacher that his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him unless he was a Christian, and since he really wanted to marry her, he needed to know what becoming a Christian entailed. The preacher said that he simply needed to accept Christ as his personal Savior and that was it – he would then be a Christian and set for eternity. Of course he would, if you accept this answer as the way to enter a saved relationship with Jesus, and if you cannot lose your relationship with him once you have it. My friend said, rather incredulously, “So what’s the downside?” The preacher said, “No downside; at that point you are set for life and eternity.”
Again, I could quote passage after passage showing the total commitment Jesus is asking for – demanding, really. But in our Christian culture, you just need to get your eternity set and then you can go about your business just like everyone else does. Most who claim Christianity appear little different from those who don’t. Of course, you are encouraged to attend church and avoid the really “bad” sins, but rest assured that no matter what, you will be pronounced “at home with God” and “safe in the arms of Jesus” at your funeral. If you have been to many funerals (or pretty much any funeral), you know what I am saying here is correct. Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 talked about a narrow way to eternal life found only by a few, and a broad way that the majority end up on, the way of eternal destruction. He taught that most will be lost in eternity, not saved. But you will not hear anything close to that in the Bible Belt, rest assured.
Enough Preaching, Gordo!
Okay, I’ll quit preaching and get back to teaching – teaching about what is wrong with the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Interestingly, this doctrine is a part of historic Calvinism and the only part still accepted by most evangelicals. Yet, it rests upon the foundation of the other four parts of the Calvinistic system. In short, the word TULIP represents the basic tenets of that system. T stands for Total Depravity. John Calvin (and many others) during the period of the Reformation overreacted to the focus on human works in the Catholic Church and went to the other extreme. Now it was all up to God in way that boggles the imagination (and contradicts the Bible). Thus, children were said to be born totally incapable of doing good, lost sinners at birth.
If that is accepted, then the U stands for Unconditional Election. If you are totally depraved and cannot choose good, God must make the choice for you and so only those whom he unconditionally elects will ultimately be saved. By the way, those not elected to salvation are by necessary logic elected BY GOD to be lost. Next comes the L, which stands for Limited Atonement, meaning that Jesus died only for the elect, not for the the rest of the world. Then comes the I, standing for Irresistible Grace. If you are born totally depraved and unconditionally elected, with Christ dying for you as one of the fortunate elect, then you certainly cannot resist God changing your heart and saving you. It’s his choice and not yours.
Finally, we get to the P in our TULIP system, and that stands for the Perseverance of the Saints – another way of saying “once saved, always saved.” In my first book, “Prepared to Answer,” I devoted a full chapter to these five tenets of Calvinism. Regarding the perseverance doctrine, I will use some of the material in my book here. It is still quite relevant in this one area of teaching which is a part of evangelical doctrine, although an increasing number of evangelical teachers are questioning it or outright rejecting it. Get ready to dig in and dig in deeply!
Digging in More Deeply
This doctrine is about the only part of the Calvinistic system that remains in many denominational groups which once accepted the entire system. In the introduction of a book on election by a former Baptist writer, another Baptist scholar had this to say: “Let it be remembered that, less than a hundred years ago, all five cardinal points of Calvin’s system of theology generally prevailed among Baptists, as theological textbooks of the times will confirm. Today, only one point remains to any appreciable extent among Baptists, inevitable perseverance, and there is growing evidence that Baptists are increasingly questioning this last vestige of the central core of Calvin’s system of theology.” (Elect in the Son, by Robert Shank, p.16).
Back in 1960, Shank wrote a book entitled Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance. He started writing that book for the express purpose of supporting the Calvinistic position, since that position was the accepted one within his denomination. However, as he looked carefully at all of the supposed Calvinistic proof-texts, they did not support the position. His book is especially good in looking at the Greek tenses of the verbs. He shows that perseverance of the saints is completely tied in to a perseverance of faith. In other words, a Christian’s security is always intact as long as his faith continues. The idea of the security of the believer is a beautiful biblical concept. But the truth is that a believer can become an unbeliever, and at that point, there is no security at all. What does the Bible have to say on the subject?
In teaching those who are not really entrenched in this doctrine, pointing out a few passages often solves their problem. The entire book of Hebrews is dealing with the possibility of apostasy. See especially 2:1-3; 3:7-13; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:25. James, in his epistle, told brothers (1:2) that sin can become full-grown and bring about spiritual death once again (1:13-15). Paul clearly stated that if we deny Christ, he will also deny us (2 Timothy 2:12). He wrote in Romans 6:16 that “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In 1 Corinthians 10: 1-12, the disobedient of the Old Testament are presented as examples, that New Testament people should “be careful that you don’t fall!” An unbiased person should be able to grasp this point readily, for the NT is absolutely full of such passages.
The Real Security of the Believer
However, some are so rooted and grounded in this error that time and patience must be expended with them before they are willing to give it up. With such people, we suggest approaching the subject from a slightly different angle. Admit readily that the NT does teach the “security of the believer.” The key to the whole misunderstanding is found in the term believer. A believer is one who has become a Christian through an obedient faith, and who then continues to exercise the same obedient faith. Once he stops exercising this faith, he ceases to be a believer. A believer can become an unbeliever. It is just that simple.
Notice carefully the wording of Hebrews 3:12: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Therefore, a brother can become an unbeliever and, as such, fall away. In John 5:24, we are told “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” Then, in John 3:36 we find, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Now, which will not is stronger? Why should either of these statements be irreversible? If an unbeliever can become a believer and escape the wrath of God, a believer can turn back to the state of unbelief and thereby be under condemnation again.
At this point, a trained Calvinist will usually say something like this: “Well, if they fall away, they never really were saved in the first place.” If they resort to this even after we have studied how believers can become unbelievers, their minds may be closed. In this case, about all that we can do is turn to a passage like 2 Peter. 2:20-22 and camp there until they either deny the passage or deny their error. Do not be sidetracked. Stay with this passage until they accept it or deny that Peter was correct when he wrote: “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them.”
For further study on the perseverance issue, see John 15:5-6 which shows that a branch in Christ can be cut off and burned. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul states: “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 10:5-12 uses the OT people in the wilderness wandering period as examples of those who sinned and lost the grace of God. Can a Christian fall from grace? If we wanted to prove it beyond any doubt in words that are precisely to the point, no better statement could be penned that the one in Galatians 5:4: “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
Yup – I’m Talking to You Too!
I have two cautions with which to end the article. One, never focus so much on the fact that we can lose our salvation that you forget the beauty of Jesus’ assurance of the security of the believer. Insecurity in a child of God is hurtful to everyone, especially to our heavenly Father who loves us so dearly. I love this passage and I need this passage: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). Walking in the light is not sinlessness or there wouldn’t be any sin from which to be purified. The verb, “purifies,” is a continual action verb, meaning that if our lives are characterized by walking with Jesus, sins are continually taken away by his blood on the cross. As Paul put it in quoting from David, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them” (Romans 4:8). Perseverance of the believer is a precious doctrine indeed!
Two, while I wrote this article addressing a teaching found mainly in evangelical circles, I am concerned about any supposed Christian with a watered-down commitment to Christ and his Cause. I continue to see a lessened commitment level among members of my own family of churches, the ICOC, and the pandemic lifestyle has surely increased this malady. When (sometimes I just say “if”) this pandemic ends and we are able to return to mixing and mingling with others at will, I am concerned about what we may likely see – that many have become too comfortable with isolation. Being an active part of a church fellowship may seem too high a price to pay at that point. I pray to be wrong, but the dangers are there. We need to be helping each other right now by being in each other’s lives in every way possible. Brightly burning coals don’t last long when removed from the fire and left alone. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24).