In Christ, Out of Christ? For Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective

[For the second of these two essays, I will be arguing a defense of eternal security, after having written in opposition, again from a union with Christ perspective. You readers can judge between the two.]

For Eternal Security: Born Anew in Christ to a Faithful Father

In his first epistle, John explains the existence of false teachers in the church in this way: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us.”1 While one verse should never be the end-all be-all of any theology, there is much reason to believe that this verse should be understood not only as an explanation of false teachers, but for all who might appear to have “lost their salvation.” The grounds for this: Biblically, those who have truly been born again into union with Christ find that their union is firm and unchangeable, protected by their gracious new Father, unlike the apostates who embed themselves like cancer cells into Christ’s body on earth. The blessings of union with Christ should be understood as permanent, beginning with the moment of regeneration, the new birth.

At what point is someone to be understood as “saved?” In the Biblical order, this can first be said after regeneration, what John records Jesus as also calling being born again (or born from above, depending on the translation).2 This is the work of God, by which one enters into union with Christ, from whom all saving blessings flow.3 Scripture teaches that everyone who believes in Jesus as the Christ has been born of God,4 and that everyone who believes in Jesus and comes to Him will never be cast out, but in fact will be raised from the dead on the last day.5 Therefore the new birth is accompanied with the promise of resurrection, which is just that: a promise. In fact, there is good Biblical reason to believe that the new birth is nothing other than the personal beginning of the resurrection, though arguing that point is beyond the scope of this essay. Once born again into union with Christ, then, resurrection is assured. As brothers of Christ6 and children of God, there is no plausible alternative. Paul says in simple terms on this, “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection.”7 To be born again at all is to be born into a firm and secure union with the faithful Son of a faithful Father, which ends in resurrection.

The security of the believer’s union with Christ is not magic or automatic, though, but the result of the kindness of the Father. He is the one who has promised to finish the good work which He began through Christ,8 to strengthen His children to the end so that they will be blameless on the last Day.9 Jesus explains that His work is not only to save, but to save all the way to the resurrection, those whom the Father has entrusted into His care, because this is the Father’s will.10 This is indeed the entire point of Romans 8:28-39. God works all things for good for His children, carrying them through the whole timeline of salvation from beginning to end, and allows nothing in heaven and earth to undo what He has accomplished. To suggest that salvation might somehow end is to say that there are things in heaven or earth which for some reason the Father will fail to work out for the good of His children. Yet there is no reason to suspect that the human heart’s weaknesses and sinfulness is exempt from the endless dangers God promises to carry His people through. God is able to save His people to the uttermost, for “nothing is impossible with God,”11 and He will do so, for He “does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”12 Ultimately, the Father will save all who are born of God, because they are brothers in union with His only-begotten Son, to whom He will ever be faithful.13

If, though, the Father does graciously preserve all who are born again into union with Christ, how should those who appear to be united to Christ by faith but later fall away be understood? To understand this, the previously cited text from 1 John is key. The false teachers only broke fellowship with the true Church because they never truly shared the same union with the Head of the Church. This is, to be sure, not only true of false teachers, but everyone who apostatizes (leaves the faith). There is ample evidence for this. For example, 2 Peter 2:20-22, which so often is cited to say that salvation can be lost, ends with two proverbs that make essentially the opposite point. “A dog returns to its own vomit” and “A sow, after washing herself, wallows in the mire” both indicate that the nature of apostates never changed. They were dogs and pigs in the beginning, and remained dogs and pigs until the end. They never experienced the transformation of new birth into sanctifying union with Christ, or else how would they still be dogs and pigs? Jesus likewise, in His parable of the soils, indicates that there was always a difference between those who believe to the end and those who fall away: they were different kinds of soil all along.14 This all is consistent with the view of the new birth presented above: those who truly believe are united to Christ in a transforming new birth, initiating them into the resurrection life which will not fail or perish. If someone falls away, this is evidence that they never were part of Christ. Rather, they are like a cancer: destructive cells of different DNA that may embed themselves in the body for a time, but a good surgeon will eventually expose and remove them.

All of this comes together in a coherent and Biblical picture. For a person to be united with Jesus in His death and resurrection through the new birth brings a permanent transformation in nature and relationship. Because of the careful concern and by the omnipotent power of the Father, all whom He has redeemed will remain redeemed. To be “in Christ” is permanent, for no one who comes to Him will ever be cast out. Those who do leave the faith are false converts, cancerous insertions into the body of Christ which do not belong. Ultimately, Christians can have confidence that they will are secure in Christ, born into a new, imperishable resurrection life, sustained by grace through faith.

Brief Response against Eternal Security

This is, no doubt, a good case, and the new birth was certainly not given a full place in my other essay. Nonetheless, some problems remain in this case. For one, the last point, that apostates were never really born again, is itself not particularly strong. If you take it as the logical outworking of the first two paragraphs, it makes sense, but the Scriptural case isn’t very tight. Using possible implications of two proverbial phrases to overturn the natural reading of 2 Peter 2:20-22 is, for example, at best questionable. Likewise, all of the verses cited are in their contexts specifically about false teachers. That doesn’t prove they don’t also apply to all people who fall away, but it nonetheless raises something of a red flag.

I also think it was a mistake not to address John 15 at all, given that it is one of the major texts for the other side and the pro-eternal security interpretation is not obvious. It seems to make the exact opposite point as the second paragraph of this essay. Does the Father guarantee unconditional perseverance? That text is relevant to the question.

Finally, it seems that the argument establishing the new birth as creating a permanent situation overstates the Scriptural case. Most of the promises cited in the first paragraph still make perfect sense with the conception of union with Christ in my other essay, as applying to whoever is a believer, without assuming that all believers will stay believers. On the flip side, the warning passages do not make obvious sense using this essay’s approach.

In Christ, Out of Christ? For Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective

In Christ, Out of Christ? Against Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective

[For the first of my two “union with Christ”-focused eternal security essays, I will argue that salvation can be lost. In the next post I will argue that it cannot, and leave you readers to judge.]

Against Eternal Security: Union with Christ, Tended by the Father

“You have fallen away from grace!”1 declared Paul to the Galatians who followed the Judaizers. There are many more statements like this one, and warnings along the same lines, in the New Testament. Paul, the author of Hebrews, John, and even Jesus all make similar remarks. Taken at face value, they seem to teach that one you are in God’s grace, a state most would call “saved,” there is still a possibility that you can walk (or perhaps, as in the Galatians’ case, fall) away. This essay will argue that the face value, one might say “literal,” reading is correct. In particular, three points must be made: that salvation is Christ’s possession alone in which believers share by spiritual union, that this union is maintained at the discretion of the Father and may be cut off in His judgment, and that these two factors nonetheless allow for a believer to be secure in his place and encourage a godly lifestyle. This whole appears to be the clear teaching of Scripture. The Biblical nature of this model is clear from the first point, that “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”2

That salvation is first and foremost the possession of Jesus Himself rather than that of individual believers is key to understanding why people can forfeit grace. Christians do not “have” salvation like one “has” a car. Rather, if the car analogy is continued, Christians share in salvation much like a child shares in the use of his parents’ vehicles. This continued sharing is sustained by union with Christ through His Spirit. Many lines of Biblical evidence support this view. In Revelation, the saints cry out that “salvation belongs to our God!”3 The apostle John defines eternal life not as something Christians get, but as the Lord Jesus Himself and knowing Him.4 Paul likewise explains that God gives eternal life as a gift which is located “in Christ Jesus our Lord,”5 and that there is no condemnation specifically for people who are “in Christ Jesus.”6 Believers are not sons of God in and of themselves, but by virtue of their union with Christ.7 This “in Christ” language is not mere fluff, decoration designed to remind the reader that Jesus saves. Rather, to say people are saved in Christ is to say that their salvation is altogether experienced through personal union with Him, who Himself is “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”8 None should forget: what a person has by sharing with the owner, he may lose if he ruins the relationship.

If salvation is enjoyed exclusively as Christ’s possession by union with Him, then the possibility presents itself that one could lose what is not properly his own. There is evidence in Scripture that this can and indeed does happen at the discretion of the Father. The primary evidence for this can be found John 15. Jesus says that He is the Vine, and His Father is the Gardener. The Gardener removes every branch in Him which does not bear fruit.9 These removed branches are thrown into the fire and burned up.10 While various attempts have been made to argue that Jesus is speaking here of people who only appear to be united to Him, or perhaps are only united to Him “externally” through the “visible church,” nothing in the passage indicates this, and such an interpretation smacks of eisegesis. Jesus commands His disciples to remain in Him, quite directly implying that they might not do so, instead to be pruned by the Father. The most straightforward reading of the text is as follows: people who believe in Christ are united to Him like branches on a vine. If they do not remain in Him (presumably through faith), and thus they do not produce fruit, and the Father will cut them off and cast them into fire. Outside of this text, there is other evidence that judgment awaits those who once believed in Christ but depart from the faith.11 While people often argue that this temporary faith is not a “true” faith, a “saving” faith, this seems to be a cop-out. Of course faith without works is dead,12 but this does not imply that people who live active Christian lives for years before apostatizing (of whom there are very many) never had real faith. All of this evidence, on the other hand, makes straightforward sense if union with Christ through faith is the controlling concept. Those who trust in Christ are in Christ and enjoy salvation so long as they believe, but if they lose faith, if they stop trusting and abiding in Jesus, they are cut off from the only source of salvation.

None of this is to say that there is no security for the believer, or that his salvation becomes dependent upon himself. That would contradict the entire first point of this argument, that salvation is of Christ from first to last, and is entirely His work and possession. As mentioned earlier, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”13 Jesus will never cast out anyone who comes to Him.14 God promises to work in His children and sanctify them continually until the day of Christ.[Philippians 1:9] Yet the error of one-sidedness must be avoided. The Lord may be faithful, and He will not break His promises to those who are in Christ, but there is no promise that everyone who is in Christ will automatically remain in Christ. Even though the faith through which one is united to Christ is a gift from God,15 faith is a gift which can wither away through neglect and disobedience, leading to judgment.16 This is not a works-salvation, requiring continued obedience to stay justified before God. Rather, this is union-with-Christ-salvation, which requires only that the union not be broken through abandonment. For those who believe but wish to believe more,17 there is always grace. Whoever trusts in Christ, and only ever comes to Him alone in faith seeking His acceptance, he will find rest and security. This could even be called a kind of “eternal security:” everyone who is united to Christ through faith can be assured that his eternity is secure in Christ. Yet no one should think that he will enjoy permanent blessings if he stops trusting in the Son who is Himself eternal life. The Father loves the Son too much to allow such an offense to go unchallenged.

The conclusion, then, is not difficult to follow. Salvation is enjoyed by union with Christ, but union with Christ is through faith, and if faith departs the salvation in Christ is no longer accessible. Yet from the position of being in Christ, salvation is fully secure, as Jesus has full possession of it. Each of these points makes sense both from what Scripture says and what is theologically consistent. The doctrine of eternal security must deny the Father’s pruning of the faith-less branches, or change the vine from Jesus Himself into a visible representation of Him (e.g. the outward church), or redefine the nature of the relationship between vine and branch. Yet Christ is the true Vine, all who trust in Him, even for a time, are His true branches, and those who cease to believe in Him are cast into the fire, just as the Scriptures teach.

Brief Response for Eternal Security

Naturally, being myself the writer of this essay, I think it makes sense and the points are fairly good. But I can represent both sides easily, so from the other side I have a few criticisms. First off, the “take the Bible at face value” setup in the beginning is, as almost always, unnecessary. Proponents of eternal security will only take the verses used here as something besides face value because they want to take certain other verses at face value (e.g. Romans 8:28-39).

This essay also seems to neglect the role of the new birth which occurs when people are first united to Christ. While one can easily grant that salvation is exclusively Jesus’ own possession, in which we share simply by faith, is it unreasonable to think that, once united to Jesus and born again, certain permanent changes occur which prevent falling away? The Apostle John, cited so much in this essay, seems to give that impression throughout his first epistle. Likewise, John 6, which is also cited here at one point, seems to state quite strongly that those who come to Christ will certainly be raised at the last day, unless an alternative interpretation can be set forth (which, if possible, is at least not attempted in this essay).

It should also be noted that on both sides, we agree that unfaithful people, even if they used to act like good Christians, will not be saved. Yet is it really as implausible as this essay dismissively states that those who fall away like this were never really united to Christ to begin with? There is some Biblical reason to think so (1 Jn. 2:19, 2 Pet. 2:22).

In the end, while there are some good points here, there still seem to be some important unanswered questions and concerns which may warrant backing away from this approach. A fatal blow to the doctrine of eternal security this is not.

In Christ, Out of Christ? Against Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective

In Christ, Out of Christ? Two Essays on “Losing” Salvation

The question of whether or not people can “lose” their salvation, to the extent that this language even makes sense, has been traditionally controversial. In the time in between the completion of the New Testament and, say, St. Augustine, competing views on how salvation works, who will enjoy it, and how we truly receive it proliferated. Augustine wrote of many positions he had heard of, everything from “only persevering, faithful, orthodox, baptized Christians will be saved” to “everyone will be eventually saved.” It would be hard to pick out one as the most common for a long time.

Augustine himself is notable for his belief that, while only certain Christians were predestined to persevere and finally be saved, other Christians could still be Christians but not persevere and so not be saved. This position seems to have set the basic tone for the Catholic Church for the next 1000 years or so. With the Reformation, views began to multiply yet again, with most of the Calvinist/Reformed holding to perseverance of the saints (specifically, the true Christians, who are God’s elect, will persevere in the faith by the work of the Spirit, and they will be saved), Lutherans coming to believe that salvation, given at baptism, could be lost through unbelief, and Arminians believing pretty much either way (though eventually the position that you can lose salvation became the standard for them).

Today, views are nearly as diverse as the early church, though in evangelical Protestantism a few of the early views (like universalism and baptism as absolutely required) are mostly absent. In the really basic, everyday evangelical/Baptist/Pentecostal/nondenominational world I’ve always lived in, you can identify two basic, common views. They are:

(1) that once you truly believe in Jesus with authentic, saving faith, you are presently saved and assured final salvation with no possibility of loss, and the Holy Spirit will keep you from falling away permanently, and

(2) that once you truly believe in Jesus with authentic, saving faith, you are presently saved but only assured final salvation inasmuch as you continue to trust in Christ, which you might cease doing if you choose.

Both of these have their own ways of interpreting the Biblical evidence, but obviously both cannot be true. Either one is right, the other is right, or, perhaps, both are wrong and another conception of how salvation works might be true (e.g. some people believe that any belief in Jesus, even obviously dead faith which immediately changes its mind, guarantees final salvation, and some people would require a host of other things).

I write because I am going to write two essays, one representing each side of this debate, from a very specific vantage point. Given that Jesus is the center and source of our salvation, and our connection to Him by the Holy Spirit is essential to the whole question, I think it makes sense to approach this issue from the angle of union with Christ. Salvation consists of us being “in Christ,” to borrow a phrase from Paul (Rom. 8:1, 1 Cor. 15:18, 2 Cor. 5:19, Gal. 3:28, Eph. 1:3, 4:23, Phil. 4:19, Col. 3:11, 1 Thess. 5:18, etc.). As such, I want to present unbiased arguments for both views using union with Christ as the controlling concept. Hopefully, this will be helpful and enlightening, and perhaps help each side converse more clearly and charitably.

In Christ, Out of Christ? Two Essays on “Losing” Salvation