P is for…

Today's sermon in the series on Hebrews was a long-awaited (for me) treatment of the biggest stumbling block for the the last petal of TULIP (Perseverance of the Saints, AKA Once-Saved-Always-Saved). In a few weeks, mp3 will be posted here, and I'll edit this post to link to it.

[A quick side note; #1 actually paid enough attention to the sermon (while copying verses into his notebook) to hear Pastor mention in passing the similarity of this passage with recent "grown-up" musicians (rappers?) who had a short-lived fashion statement of wearing pacifiers. He thought that was pretty funny.]

Perseverance seems like a no-brainer for any calvinist-type who believes that God brought them into salvation in the first place — beyond just by providing his Son as an atoning sacrifice, but by graciously providing (nay, installing/instilling) the conviction and faith without which no man could respond to God's offer of salvation on his own. So if God's choice monergistically (opposite of synergistically) brought us in, it is silly to think that we could do anything to remove ourselves. Even for my buddy AlbinoShaq, who claims to be only a "one and a half-point calvinist" (setting aside the fact that I don't grant him the one point for 'T'), the half is because "the older I get, the more I lean towards Perseverance".

And yet we are faced with the reality of apostasy: apparent Christians do indeed fall away. We all know somebody. Given the doctrine of perseverance, it is only natural to fall back on the invisibility of the human heart, and the sovereignty of God: "they must never have been elect after all; they must have just been faking it under their own human power."

But then comes Hebrews 6:4-6:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

How could it be that that is not a description of (formerly) Real Christians? How is it that that passage doesn't describe Actually Saved members of the Invisible Church falling away, failing to Persevere — God failing to execute the plan he started when he first caused them to believe unto salvation?

Well indeed, one of the many other interpretations that Pastor mentioned (but did not have time just one sermon to fully address) was that this describes people who were never truly Christians. There were a number of others, including the "Calvinistic: Hypothetical" interpretation that states that these verses describe a situation that is only hypothetically possible (since Predestination makes this not actually possible). (Another famous hypothetical theological question is "if man could live without sinning (which, biblically speaking is clearly only a hypothetical possibility), would he merit salvation?")

Pastor presented instead the similar argument, which is labeled "Calvinistic: Warning." The passage is not hypothetical, but a warning against a very real danger, but we should focus not on the meaning, but rather on the purpose of the passage, which is to prevent us from falling into that real danger. Just like a sign on the edge of a cliff that says "If you jump, you will die" — we don't waste time arguing about whether we would actually die if we jumped, but we give thanks for the presence of the warning, without which we might go off the cliff.

That's all well and good; I do believe that God has many diverse & subtle means of accomplishing His will in our lives. But that doesn't undo the Gordian knot of Perseverance (I have to confess, I may have missed the part of the sermon that explained it all — with the kids, I can only listen at 75% at best!). It seems that the "Calvinistic: Warning" argument can only be a nuancing on top of the Hypothetical argument. One part of the question is "Do I (who have Assurance of my salvation) have to worry about this passage?" Hypothetical says no, Warning says yes (but still be Assured that Perseverance (working through this warning) will not let it happen to you).

But the other part of the question is "What about all those other apparent Apostates? Did this happen to them?" It seems to me that either God's sovereign plan can never be foiled by human weakness, so any Apostates must not have been elect (and thus were never really saved); or Perseverance is plucked from the TULIP (and the other 4 probably wither too). In the former case, the Hebrews passage is hypothetical, since it can never happen to the truly elect.

My friend Ron believes (and no doubt we'll continue to go round and round the tree on this one) that "Remaining in Covenant with God is always conditional on our continued obedience." A halfway compromise could be to stress the rest of the P: Perseverance of the Saints. So by definition the elect will persevere, but it is possible for the non-elect to temporarily be really saved. Not much Assurance of salvation in that doctrine, though, as it reduces Perseverance to a purely academic concern. I don't like it.

I'm sure (possibly even Assured) that I will not reach contentment with Heb 6 in my lifetime. But I did notice one interesting thing in the Good Cop passage that follows the Bad Cop above. The final admonition is to "imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." Not to say that works are meaningless (your works can't cause to to be out of the covenant, but they sure can demonstrate that you are out of the covenant!), but the final yardstick against which we are to measure ourselves in terms of "fallen away" in v. 6, is persevering in faith.

I still have yet to hear a definitive accounting in Heb. 6 terms by my dad of the 30-some-odd years he was fallen away from his CRC upbringing, until getting saved in 1979 at Bible Missionary Temple. So how about it; had you tasted the Heavenly Gift, the Holy Spirit, and the goodness of the Word of God? Did you fall away? Or were you never really saved until you were an adult?


7 Responses

  1. In Heb 6:9, Paul confirms ‘P’ by saying he is convinced of better things ‘from believers concerning salvation’ [paraphrase].

    The real problem in this verse is for the Arminian. They will say “sure, no one can snatch me from Jesus’ hand” but “I can certainly jump out of my own accord.” The question is whether or not they can jump back in of their own accord. According to this Heb 6 passage, the answer is clearly that one can’t jump back in and God is unable to restore this person either.

    We ran into this all the time in jail. We met guys who “got saved” when they were young. Then, somehow it didn’t stick. Later on, [behind bars] they decide to jump back in again. It is this cycle that really shows the criminality of the “decisional regeneration” doctrine.

    I dispute your characterization of what transpired with myself in 1979 as “getting saved”. I believe that God sovereignly chose to intensify his sanctification program on myself at that point. However, I am careful to note that the Bible clearly speaks of salvation in three separate verb tenses. 1) the past tense, which is fairly common 2) the present tense – as in “are being saved”, 3) and the future tense which holds out the hope that we will be saved.

    I gained entrance into the covenant of grace as an infant. I have been a believer since I first demonstrated sentience. This is most easily demonstrated today by the numerous doubts and battles I undergo on an almost daily basis.

  2. I think you’re on the right track, RubeRad, when you lay the Calvinistic Warning on top of the Calvinistic Hypothetical arguement. It does nuance the Hypothetical. There are lots of biblical passages that treat assurance of salvation, like John 10. However, Hebrews was most likely written before the Gospel of John. That doesn’t mean the theology of the biblical writers evolved, but the primary impact of Hebrews 6 is better received apart from John 10. Yes, once saved, always saved, but don’t think Hebrews 6 isn’t addressed to you, even if you are one of those who is once and always saved. Like you said, this warning is one of the means by which God makes sure you don’t apostasize.

    I think you have to set the passages on assurance aside while you read Hebrews 6. You should think like the apostles do in Matthew 26, when Jesus said one of them would betray him. Each of them said, “Is it I?”

    Remember that Peter denied the name of Jesus and returned to the church later. He didn’t apostasize and deny that Christ is Lord, but rather said he didn’t know Christ. True Christians stumble and fall away sometimes, and then repent and are restored. The warning in Hebrews 6 doesn’t address that situation, but addresses the case of apostasy…the denial of the lordship and divinity of Christ.

  3. I take a slightly different tract. The one “mortal sin” named in the New Testament is “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.” (From Mark 3:29 and Mat. 12:31-32) The context of the verse in Mark is addressing Christians—an important point IMO. For someone who is saved (read: has let the Holy Spirit dwell within them) the only way to commit a mortal (read: unforgivable and punishable by death) sin is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit (read: God within you.)

    The tense in the verse is a present progressive—how I interpret it, is that yes, the verse in Hebrews is metaphysically correct—once you invite God to dwell within you he will not cease to reside in you, therefore you cannot invite him in again.

    For me, the question is “how do you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit?” I would define it as constant (present progressive tense) denial. As I see it, a soul who has met with salvation must actively deny the presence of the Spirit of God in order to commit blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. This would be an ongoing denial—an unwillingness to listen to the Holy Spirit within you and, indeed, a denial of its existence. (I visualize it as actively pushing him away, constantly ignoring him like a puppy nipping at your ankles just begging for attention, it sits there, waiting for you to look at him, but you, intentionally, do not. Though yes I know, some may consider me comparing God to a puppy as blaspheme—though I would say it is not blaspheme against the Holy Spirit in the strictest sense, so I’m cool… I hope.)

    So, how I read it based upon the verses from Mark and Matt is that the only way to lose salvation is to deny the Holy Spirit and, given the tenses and my general interpretation of life the universe and everything (which is subject to change), I believe that blaspheme against the Holy Spirit must be a continual act. Constant. If he has been invited to live within a man (as Christian metaphysics say) then the only way to truly blaspheme would be a constant denial. If you cease to deny (aka Blaspheme) then the balance would be restored and you would be forgiven (I am unsure on this point, naturally). Under this interpretation, the only way a Christian (someone who has ever accepted the Holy Spirit) to lose salvation is an active denial of the Holy Spirit (AKA blaspheme).

  4. Bloogist, you may be right, but how could someone indwelt by the Holy Spirit continually deny the Holy Spirit? It is not I that lives, but Christ lives in me; a kingdom divided against itself will not stand.

    So we're back to Hypothetical again… (and also back to Assurance, thankfully)

  5. I have been a believer since I first demonstrated sentience.

    When did that happen — did I miss it? Sorry, I can’t pass up a straight line like that.

    So how would you characterize your hiatus-of-less-than-intense-sanctification along the axes of active/passive denial/ignorance/apathy? I.e. when you were a hippie, were you in it for the ideology, or just the sex, drugs, rock and/or roll?

  6. Training for the praise band?

    I, too, can’t pass up a quip.

    My hiatus was a cycle of sin followed by un-repentance. I definitely was not a hippie. Precisely because I was a Christian, I could not accept their ideology, even though I gave it a hearing.

    I think God has given me a very interesting part to play in his drama of history – especially when you consider the last 6 plus years.

  7. Well, I think the answer to the how you can continually deny the Holy Spirit if it dwells within us is in Mark 3:27 right before the verse I cited above..

    Mark 3:27: No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.

    In this interp. A blasphemous denial of the Spirit is holding the spirit hostage, tying him up. And even though Christian metaphysics says that if God dwells in us, evil cannot–if we tie up God the house can still be pillaged. Thus making a once-faithful man who does still have the Spirit within him a sinful man–the unforgivable sin is not his daily sinful life–it is the denial of the spirit-but as long as man denies the holy spirit within him, his sin is mortal and he is unsaved.

    I hope that clarifies a bit where I’m coming from.

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