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Born Again… and Again and Again and…

saved-lostIn his review of Scot McKnight’s A Long Faithfulness: The Case for Christian Perseverance, Ardel Caneday, professor of New Testament and Greek at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota, concentrates on the linchpin of McKnight’s rejection of Calvinism: the perseverance of the saints.

McKnight… challenges God’s sovereignty with regard to salvation—“whether or not humans can both choose for God and then later choose against God.” In his aim to refute the doctrines of unconditional election and meticulous sovereignty, McKnight extrapolates on the premise that the “debate about meticulous sovereignty, at times, hangs on how best to read the Warning Passages in the book of Hebrews” (249).

“Eternal security,” or “The perseverance of the saints,” is critical in the Calvinistic scheme. If regeneration is entirely God’s deal (monergism) and not a result of God and Man in tandem (synergism), then losing ones salvation is not possible. If salvation doesn’t originate with you, it can’t be terminated by you.

But then there’s those pesky Warning Passages. Perhaps the most important is this one:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. — Hebrews 6:4-6 NIV

Caneday summarizes McKnight’s conclusions regarding the application of the above verses:

Concerning the warnings in Hebrews, McKnight reasons, “[I]f we let these passages say what they really do say we cannot believe in meticulous sovereignty. These passages teach us that God’s sovereignty entails his decision to give humans the freedom to choose God and even after choosing God to walk away from that choice and un-choose God” (498-500). Given his reading of the warnings, McKnight claims that Scripture counters belief in meticulous sovereignty since God has “surrendered an element of sovereignty to humans because he values their freedom” (870). These warnings, he concludes, teach that even Christians can resist God’s grace—that believers “can choose to un-choose God and walk away from God’s grace” (881). (bold mine)

So the equation is pretty simple:

  • If you can “choose” God, you can “un-choose” God.
  • If God chooses you, you can’t “un-choose” God.

For a while, I attended a church that believed that a Christian could lose their salvation. They scoffed at the phrase, “Once saved, always saved.” Proof texts like the Warning Passages above were very important in that they kept believers on edge, driven, sometimes guilty, providing motivation to good works and striking fear into the hearts of sinning saints. I mean, what better reason to keep the faith than that you might lose it tomorrow?

I am not a biblical scholar. Also, I’m not a full-blown Calvinist. But I tend to side with Calvinists here. With a caveat. Here’s my reasoning:

My children will always be my children. That is their nature. They were conceived and born bearing my imprint (I know, bummer for them). No matter what they do, they will be intrinsically linked to me. If they become serial killers, pirates, or Yankee fans, they will still be my children. They cannot “un-choose” me as their father.

Likewise, once a person is “born again,” invested with God’s nature, and possess “the right to become children of God” (Jn. 1:12), they cannot go back. Scripture does not portray salvation as something one drifts in and out of. Today, you’re saved. Tomorrow, you’re not. The next day is anyone’s guess. If salvation is this fluid, it would imply that someone can be “born again” multiple times. Saved. Then lost. Then saved again.

From my layman’s perspective, there is no category for being born again, again. Salvation is a unique, singular event, that permanently alters your nature. You can no more “un-choose” your Father as my children can “un-choose” theirs.

So what do we do with passages like the above? I mean, it seems rather clear. The author is speaking of someone who has

  • once been enlightened
  • tasted the heavenly gift
  • shared in the Holy Spirit
  • tasted the goodness of the word of God
  • and the powers of the coming age

Is this individual saved? Some argue “no.” They’ve just witnessed, sampled, or flirted with salvation. Which is why those who prescribe to an “eternal security” position take great pains to deconstruct such Warning Passages. If this person was never saved, then they aren’t losing anything.

Once again, from my uneducated view, this interpretation seems unlikely. For the writer goes on to contrast those experiential elements (being “enlightened,” tasting the “heavenly gift,” and sharing in the Holy Spirit) against those “who have fallen away” and cannot be “brought back to repentance.” But…

  • One cannot “fall away” from an estate they never inhabited.
  • One cannot be “brought back” to a place they never occupied.

So does this mean a Christian CAN lose their salvation? Here’s where I’m at on the matter. It might sound wishy-washy. I’m open for other interpretations. But based on this Warning Passage, particularly this phrase,

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened…  and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance (bold mine)

I’ve concluded that: If — IF — a person can lose their salvation, they can NEVER go back. They are in a permanently apostate condition.

Your thoughts?

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{ 22 comments… add one }
  • billgncs September 16, 2013, 7:32 AM

    prodigal son ?

    wouldn’t that illustrate having salvation, abandoning it, and returning ?

    • Mike Duran September 16, 2013, 7:38 AM

      He never stopped being his father’s son, even in the pig sty. In fact, it was the knowledge of who he really was that returned him to his senses.

  • David Tuggy September 16, 2013, 8:28 AM

    All I can say is that (1) if your interpretation, Mike (which makes sense and takes the passages seriously) is correct, and (2) if every turning away from God counts, then I have no hope, and have had none since very, very early childhood. I have turned away from him many, many times over the years, including yesterday and already today. And yet, I refuse to believe that I have counteracted God’s grace successfully in these choices. I believe rather that the times I have chosen to submit to God’s grace are evidence that Christ is in me, the hope of glory, and that it is God at work in me, both to choose (to will) and to do his good pleasure. His love is by no means conditional upon my perfect response to it. (Nevertheless the Hebrews passages do, and I think should, continue to frighten me.)

    • Christian Jaeschke September 17, 2013, 5:59 AM

      David, I believe the fact that it worries you, makes it clear that you are not lost. If you didn’t care at all, then I’d be less certain.

  • Mark Skillin September 16, 2013, 9:31 AM

    This is a crucial topic, that so easily gets mired in philosophical speculation in pursuit of an absolute coherence that obliterates any tension between revealed truths. This pursuit of absolute coherence could be a form of intellectual idolatry. (i.e. God cannot have chosen specific people to be saved, as the Scriptures seem to say, because he commands us to choose Him OR vice versa) Then we form parties and go at it. Paul seems remarkably at ease with the tension- God chooses whom He will, and we need to choose Him or be lost. The idea that no REAL choice is made if God chooses us to choose him is a philosophical objection based on an assumption about what constitutes a REAL choice. Once again, the philosophers in Athens are raising a ruckus.

  • Abimael Jr September 16, 2013, 9:53 AM

    That’s why I follow your blog!
    Well, I think that it is a tough subject, because we just do some assumptions based in the Word Of God – The Holy Bible, and the Bible uses several analogies to clarify to us the meaning that perhaps, we could not understand properly.
    I think that it very connected with holiness . I attend a church that agree that “you can loose your salvation”.
    Paul writed several times that we need to keep away from sin and be in holiness. I think that if you try everyday be holy, you will be near to God. But, if you decide go away from God, you start to became far and , more, far and far , until you really apostate.
    But , I guess that most part of the time, you will be like the “prodigal son” in Luke 15.
    That boy was the son of the rich farmer, but he was with the pigs. Not because the rich farmer (his father) wants, but because HE , the son wants.
    In the same manner you said about your child, I use this : for the farmer, the boy still was his son, however, he was away.
    I live in Brazil , where people usual think in God due the Catholic religion, but most part of people are not REALLY sons of God and unfortunely, much christians go out or away from church, but in some day, they decide go back, usually for some kind of situation that “talk” to them.
    Maybe theses situations are the “god calling” or “god ways” to call back his children.
    Using the same analogy that you did with your children, these “erring” or “apart” (sorry , I do not know the proper english word to translate from portuguese) christians were Sons of God .They still are, but God start “call” them back. If they decide come back, they will “get it back” to the salvation.
    It is a very interesting theme and complicated one, but , based in the several parts that Paul says about the santification, I think that we really needs to keep saints in our way of life.
    But, anyway , there are several orientations from Jesus himself :
    Revelation 2.7, 11, 17,26
    “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches”
    “To the one who is victorious”
    It seems that you need to win
    God bless you

    • Robert H. Woodman September 16, 2013, 7:39 PM

      “I live in Brazil , where people usual think in God due the Catholic religion, but most part of people are not REALLY sons of God and unfortunely, much christians go out or away from church, but in some day, they decide go back, usually for some kind of situation that “talk” to them.”

      In churches all over the world, I think it is safe to say that the majority of the members of the Church are members of the Church, but no part of Christ. I have seen numbers in this country that between 67% and 80% of professing Christians do not have neither a Biblical worldview nor correct understanding of the gospels and of salvation. Caveat: the terms “Biblical worldview” and “correct understanding” are defined by the questioner and based on his/her own beliefs, so take those numbers with a grain or three of salt, because the questioner may be deluded.

      I do think that Scripture is clear that it is possible to lose one’s salvation (see my response below).

  • D.M. Dutcher September 16, 2013, 11:24 AM

    I agree with this. I think we are like children in that we are growing to become like the image of God, and He will take into consideration that children often fail, act poorly, and don’t always understand or live up to expectations. I think though if we believe God shows us mercy, we really have to be careful about making blanket statements about losing it, because His mercy originates with Him, and it can be presuming a bit to try and make a science of refusing His gifts.

  • Abby Normal September 16, 2013, 11:29 AM

    I was raised in the Methodist church, which is not overly hung up on the possibility of “losing” one’s salvation. However, as a teenager I still became concerned that it would happen. The church camp that I went to had an alter call the last night, and every summer I would go up there, again and again. It always troubled me that I never really felt all that “different” afterwards–oh, sure, I’d have a bit of a post-camp rush and spent a few weeks trying to “do better”, but by the time camp rolled around again, I was pretty much the same old person.

    This was troubling as a kid to be around people who could name a time and a place when they “became saved”. I didn’t have a date. I still don’t. I also couldn’t understand (and still don’t) what is meant by “the enlightenment” or “heavenly gift” that the writer of Hebrews talks about–is it supposed to be some kind of miraculous sign? A vision? How am I supposed to know when I’ve received it–since I obviously haven’t since I’m still the same (flawed) person. I mean, if it’s supposedly permanent, since it’s “impossible to fall away from”, it should be glaringly obvious, right?

    I don’t know a Calvinist from a hole in the ground, so it’s hard for me to discuss this with anything resembling intelligience.

  • Lisa Godfrees September 16, 2013, 1:11 PM

    Great post. I love it when you talk theology. 🙂

    It reminds me of King Saul. He was anointed but later God took His Spirit away from him.

    But when I go back and read Hebrews in context, it sounds as if the writer is speaking rhetorically. He’s calling the readers spiritually immature and saying that you can’t go back to before you believed because it would mean crucifying Jesus again. I think he’s using it as an argument to prove a point, not as a warning that you can lose your salvation.

    I believe that once the Spirit resides within you, you are saved.

    • Robert H. Woodman September 16, 2013, 7:46 PM

      The theology posts are great, aren’t they?

      I don’t see Hebrews as rhetorical at all. The writer of Hebrews was approaching the subject from a very Jewish point of view (even though written in polished Greek), and I don’t see rhetoric in his warning passages. I see a very clear warning that you can reject Christ (remember, this was a time when admitting that Jesus of Nazareth was the Anointed One of the Most High earned you beatings, imprisonment, torture, and death from the Jews and the Romans), and that if you do so, you are permanently disinherited from the Kingdom of God.

      Of course, God has the final say, not me, but I like to believe that I’m correct on this. 🙂

  • Abby Normal September 16, 2013, 3:34 PM

    Hey, this post is actually pretty intriguing and has potential for some interesting discussion–but Saturday’s stupid post is at 142 fraking comments? What the heck???

  • Robert H. Woodman September 16, 2013, 7:31 PM

    Mike, you’re right, that your children will always be your children, just as my children will always be my children. However, as a father, I can choose to disinherit my children if I see fit. My children can disown me and refuse any inheritance I offer them.

    I don’t see the Warning Passages (I like your adjective “pesky”) as mere hypotheticals. I see them as real, and I add to that the passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he acknowledged that there will be people on Judgment Day who have done great deeds for God in Christ’s name, preached great sermons in His name, and prayed eloquent prayers in His name, but are no part of His body and will be cast into the lake of fire (Matthew 7:21-23). I long ago came to the conclusion that if one apostasizes from the faith with full knowledge of what he or she is doing, then that person has lost his or her salvation and has no chance of regaining it. You can’t be lost, then saved, then lost again.

    God the Father, through the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the Bible writers, has laid down some very clear rules for who inherits the kingdom and who does not. The testimonies of many of the Ante-Nicene Fathers were clear that disinheritance was permanent. For example:

    “There is but one repentance to the servants of God.” Shepherd of Hermas.

    “If you do not guard yourself against [anger], you and your house will lose all hope of salvation.” Shepherd of Hermas.

    “[T]hose of you who have confessed and known this man to be Christ, yet who have gone back for some reason to the legal dispensation [meaning, “the Mosaic Law”], and have denied that this man is Christ, and have not repented before death — you will by no means be saved.” Justin Martyr (okay, Justin’s a little wishy-washy on the subject).

    “Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons.” Irenaeus.

    “It is neither the faith, nor the love, nor the hope, nor the endurance of one day; rather, ‘he that endures to the end will be saved.'” Clement of Alexandria.

    “No one is a Christian but he who perseveres even to the end.” Tertullian.

    “The world returned to sin … and so it is destined to fire. So is the man who after baptism renews his sins.” Tertullian

    “He who has not denied himself, but denied Christ, will experience the saying, ‘I also will deny him.'” Origen.

    I could go on, but by themselves, these quotes are nothing more than proof texts. Coupled with Scripture, though, I think it is clear that (1) loss of salvation (that is disinheritance from the Kingdom of God) is possible provided that one’s apostasy is done deliberately and with knowledge of the consequences, and (2) that such loss of salvation is irreversible and irrevocable (Justin Martyr’s comment notwithstanding).

    I think this is a great post and has a much greater potential to be fruitful than your “for fun” Saturday post that is cluttering up my inbox with some many responses, most of which I don’t want to read (but being OCD can’t help but read). 🙂

    • D.M. Dutcher September 16, 2013, 11:20 PM

      I can’t really see this. I look at the Bible, and see Peter, who denied Christ three times, or Jonah, who ran away from God’s call. If God would forgive them when they outright denied a God who they saw and experienced in the flesh, I think He would forgive those who backslid so long as they repent. I mean, we need God’s grace to be saved, and we can’t simply affirm He is Lord without His spirit as well as our effort combining. I’m not sure our own effort alone can also sever us from Him once we’ve known Him.

      I think we can be too hard on ourselves, because we forget we only know God in part and see Him in part. I’m not saying this to say “sin is no big deal,” but human weakness and frailty as well as a world where God is not fully able to be perceived would make me wary of the possibility of losing salvation apart from insane measures to do so.

      • David Tuggy September 17, 2013, 2:08 AM

        Of course, the “sin against the Holy Spirit” passages come in here too. Peter certainly spoke a word against the Son of Man (Mat 12.32) three times in fact (as you note), but Jesus himself said that could be forgiven: evidently neither what Peter nor what Jonah did amounted to the blasphemy against the Spirit, which “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

      • Robert H. Woodman September 17, 2013, 2:24 AM

        The instances you cite (Peter, Jonah) don’t meet the conditions set forth by the writer of Hebrews (renunciation of the faith after having come to a full knowledge of the truth). The measures a person would need to take to apostasize, though, as I understand Hebrews, are pretty severe. The person would have to be deliberate in his or her intentions after having come to knowledge (not perfect knowledge, just sufficient knowledge) of the truth and then falling away, understanding the consequences of having done so. Think of the fall not so much as “slip and fall” (i.e., accident) but intentional spiritual suicide by leaping off a cliff.

        I also add that we in modern Western Christianity (I speak generally here; I know there are exceptions to what I’m about to say) don’t have nearly as great a horror of sin as Christians in the first three centuries of the Church had. For that matter, we largely don’t have as great a horror of sin as Christians of just a century or two ago had. In losing that sense of horror of sin, we have lost something infinitely precious in our relationship with God.

        • D.M. Dutcher September 17, 2013, 4:45 PM

          The problem would be in “full knowledge.” I list Peter because he had far more knowledge than any of us possess of Jesus and the truth, and even then he turned away. It really was only until Pentecost that he seemed to settle into it, and he was an apostle and the founder of the church. I think that for us, who rely on faith and perceive God as through a glass darkly, it will be hard to argue we come to a full enough knowledge to sever us irrevocably from God.

          Christianity is odd in that it’s probably the only religion where people see God and His power physically, and yet still refuse to follow Him, or fall away, or doubt. The entire section of the prophets is one constant letter by God where he has to literally plague them in order to remember the things He did for them. I think He wouldn’t allow us to self-destruct so easily once we know Him.

          I do agree about the horror of sin, but no Christian is sinless, and a lot of us suffered that horror over things where if we’d be honest, the proper response is just to ask for forgiveness and try again. This is actually something I struggled with in other areas; if you really want to change, you can’t let yourself be horrified by your mistakes or it will quickly sabotage you.

  • Tom Wright September 17, 2013, 3:28 PM

    The fact that your name CAN be blotted out from the Book of Life speaks volumes to me: First, that your name WAS there and now, it’s not. Speaks highly for the Arminian camp, BUT this question (which you have rabble-rousedly renewed!) will not be agreed upon by all believers this side of heaven, because the truth is simply that both opinions hold water scripturally – it just matters which passages you choose to build with.

  • GEOFF WRIGHT September 17, 2013, 4:13 PM

    There is a definite tension here, and it should stay that way. My pragmatic advise would be to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Phil.2;12 God is never to be taken for granted. As C.S.Lewis so eloquently put it in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, “He’s not a tame lion.” Or as Bob Dylan once wrote, “He who isn’t busy being born is busy dying.”

  • E. September 18, 2013, 5:42 AM

    God’s salvation is bigger, powerful, and more potent then we can ever imagine. My logic is this: If you can “lose” salvation at anytime- were you ever truly saved? Secondly, is salvation a feeling or a knowing in the innermost parts? Third: Are we jaded by what we see? Who is telling us that salvation can be lost? Who is “showing” us a lost salvation?

    We must all come into repentance daily. This is why I pray the Lord’s Prayer daily(Matthew 6:9-13)

  • leanne mckinley September 22, 2013, 5:00 AM

    I’ve never posted here before but I have been really enjoying some of your blog posts.

    To Abby Normal: You just described me! I grew up Methodist, and partly due to my own growing faith and general ignorance, I felt more and more that I wanted to be saved and did not feel that I was. I went forward at lots of altar calls, at a friend’s pentecostal church and elsewhere, but nothing seemed to make much difference. I seemed to ‘feel’ the same and fail in all the same ways no matter what I did.

    At the time I was attending an adult Sunday school class as a high school kid, (sometimes I was the only one in the class), and the teacher was talking about Ephesians 2:8-9 and explained that we are saved by grace through faith, and that no special feelings or deeds were required of me. I just had to believe. And once that sunk in, (it took a while), I felt like: that’s it? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

    Of course nothing really stays the same when you believe. But I really don’t think a dramatic conversion is required. I certainly never had one.

    My only thought on the post is that Mike’s children know for certain that he is their father. He can show them pictures, tell them about it, they have shared memories, etc. But we do not ‘know’ we are children of God in the same way. We believe we are children of God because of the promises he gives us that we are, if we trust in Him. So it’s an interesting analogy, but limited.

    We can all find comfort in the promises, and be kept from complacency by the warnings.

    • Mark Skillin September 22, 2013, 5:37 AM

      Leanne, I appreciate your struggle and your comments. It is so true, believing the promise is crucial, and you are right, the human father analogy is limited. However, I wonder what the “warnings” would refer to, if all you have to do is believe in God’s love for you no matter what you do. (no good deeds required)? Warnings almost always refer to deeds or covenant faithfulness. I don’t know of a biblical warning that refers to believing in “faith alone” as the sole condition. I suspect we have confused deeds required for acceptance with sinless perfection, or some sort of ecstatic love state. (hyper-spirituality) God’s covenant is realistic and very earthy. We will live our lives in a “fight of faith” renouncing sin and pursuing God’s ways. Christ’s blood continues to cleanse, not just once at the beginning of the Christian life, but daily. This is our daily peace with God. We are being saved. Understanding the covenant has helped me and my family and church immensely! God’s mercies are indeed new for us every morning.

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