With all the transgender issues on the news lately, I think we as conservative Christians need to take a step back. From there we must ask and then articulate what precisely it is that we find objectionable in transsexualism and why. For example, I assume that most of us do not agree that merely the psychological aspect of feeling or believing that your mind is aligned with the opposite sex that your body constitutes a sin. After all, we don’t usually agree that experiencing attraction to the same sex is a sin, either.
Likewise, most of us I believe would not consider a woman being into “masculine interests” (e.g. cars, football, fighting skills, hunting) or a man being into “feminine interests” (e.g. sewing, homemaking, childcare, chick flicks) as sinful. We would still agree even if someone was completely the opposite of the norm for their gender.
Then come the more ambiguous questions about appearance. Most Christians in my experience would not condemn a man with long hair or a woman with short hair, or a woman wearing a pantsuit. Yet a total conversion, say a man with long, braided hair, a short skirt, high heels, and a flowery pink blouse, would garner a less favorable response. Where is the line, if it both exists and can be defined, and why? (Remember: if we were to appeal to Old Testament law we’d need to show that it still applies, and why it does.)
Then what about calling yourself a member of the opposite sex? Is that the line? Is it a form of lying? Then again, maybe it’s not lying if you’re not trying to say that you’re physically that gender. Is it sinful for attempting to redefine yourself in contradiction to the bodily reality gifted to you by God?
On the other hand, I expect most of us would agree that it’s crossing any lines to go through a sex change operation. Yet if we want to hold this line, we will need to articulate why it’s wrong. What makes a surgery to fix this mind-body disorder different from surgeries to fix other non-life and death issues? Is it, as some might argue, no worse than problems your hair or toning your abs? Is it more like a cosmetic surgery, and are cosmetic surgeries appropriate? Why or why not?
Of course, I imagine nearly all of us Christians with conservative views on sexuality would also agree that it crosses the last line for a transgender person to have sex with someone of the same biological sex, even after surgery. The only way out would be to say that the transgender person actually counts before God as their chosen sex, which seems a difficult argument to make.
Yet what about a celibate transgender? Are they in the clear, especially if they forgo a sex change operation? Or are they still in sin for identifying with a gender which is not their biological sex? Yet the latter would seem to place a greater burden on transgender people than we usually affirm for gay people, whom we will not generally condemn if they remain celibate. Or are the issues in fact just that different?
For some of these questions I have fairly dogmatic answers, yet for others, I am less certain. I’m quite confident that sex between a transgender person and someone of the same biological sex is as sinful as any homosexuality. I also believe that sex change operations do great violence to the inherent aim and meaning of bodily sexuality. But the celibate transgender? I’m not sure what to make of someone who remains sexually pure while identifying with a gender which is not their own. I’m suspicious, but not dogmatically certain of sin. (I also realize that this situation is highly hypothetical since people who commit to celibacy are rare enough in the 99% of society that isn’t transgender, and even in the Church.) There are other ambiguities as well, such as how someone who had a sex change operation in the past, but since repented, should go on to live.
Despite the issues that arise, we must be clear, confident, and courteous on this matter. It is not enough simply to express outrage, or mere confusion or head-shaking. The changing world will most likely not respect us no matter how we handle this, but at least if we respectfully offer a full, rationally defensible, coherent alternative vision of gender and sexuality then we can stand before God and conscience as level-headed, innocent peacemakers rather than obtuse, contentious reactionaries. And maybe, just maybe, when we adorn the Gospel with such grace and wisdom, some folks out there will be drawn to come to the Light. Not the light of our right side, of course, but the Light who is Christ and makes all things new, even broken gender identities.
P.S. For really good further reading, I recommend this post by Alastair Roberts and the accompanying podcast.
God cannot be good, or He cannot be real. This is basically the thrust of the argument which uses the problem of evil against God, at least as He is traditionally understood. The Greek philosopher Epicurus put it this way:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
This dilemma, called in the above form the Epicurean Paradox or more generally just the problem of evil, has always been a difficult problem for Christians. Yes, there have always been answers, but not all of the proposed answers have been good, clear, and coherent. The most popular answer has usually involved free will, but even that idea has been fraught with questions and philosophical challenges (e.g. “Can free will truly exist alongside divine sovereignty, omnipotence, and omniscience?”). Another popular answer, though almost exclusively in Calvinist circles, is that evil was essentially imagined and decreed by God so that He could use it to glorify Himself.
Because of these difficulties, some people have attempted reevaluate Biblical teachings on God to see if we are getting something wrong in the start. This has led some people to startling conclusions.
What if God isn’t actually omniscience (all-knowing)?
What if God isn’t actually omnipotent (all-powerful)?
At first glance, both of these objections sound absurd. Yet there are people who charge that omniscience and omnipotence, at least as traditionally understood, are philosophical traditions imposed on the Bible from the outside, and not actually Biblical teachings themselves.
For those of us who seek to be true Biblicists, sola Scriptura Protestants, we should feel compelled to examine all such claims that our traditions are misleading us from Scripture. We must take them seriously and find out if they are true. Could we be wrong, misled by worldly philosophy?
If we are wrong, there are obvious implications for the problem of evil. If God is not truly all-knowing, and in this case usually people mean He doesn’t fully know the future, then the devastation of sin on the world may have been essentially a surprise to God. Maybe He didn’t mean for the world to turn out so bad, but He took a risk for the sake of love.
For some people, though, even this isn’t enough. Maybe God didn’t see it coming, but surely if He was omnipotent and good, He would have immediately responded to evil by wiping it out. He could have destroyed Satan, or found a way to give people free will without giving them the ability to do evil, just like He gives us free will without the ability to turn into sausage. So if God was not fully omnipotent, at least in the traditional sense, then it might make sense that God did not immediately stop evil in the beginning.
With such a solution to the problem of evil at hand, and with an accusation that full omniscience and omnipotence are unbiblical, it is worth a search to see what Scripture actually says. I’ll tackle the two questions, omniscience and omnipotence, separately.
Does God know everything? More specifically, does God know all about the future, or does He perhaps not know what free humans will choose to do every time? The Biblical evidence is interesting. There are some statements in Scripture which seem to indicate that God doesn’t know absolutely everything. God responded to man’s wickedness before the Flood with regret as though it were a surprise (Gen. 6:5-6), asked Abraham where Sarah was (Gen. 18:9), seemed to need to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah before He judged them (Gen. 18:20-21), apparently found out Abraham’s faith at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22:12), searched out the hearts of the Israelites for 40 years in the desert (Deut. 8:2), only said “perhaps” about Israel’s repentance from Jeremiah’s preaching (Jer. 26:3), and in many other places acted as though He did not know what was coming. Many people have argued that these narratives provide a portrait of a God who does not know all the future, or even necessarily the whole of the present.
On the one hand, there are statements to the effect that God knows everything. Examples include 1 John 3:20, Psalm 139, Hebrews 4:13, John 21:17, etc. One might argue, though, that in context none of these have anything to do with the important question about the future. It still might make sense to say God knows “everything” but speak loosely and only really mean the present, or perhaps be using hyperbole. Some people even argue that God knows absolutely everything, but that the future is literally nothing until it happens. God knows everything, but the future isn’t part of everything. So does the Bible offer any specific reasons to believe that God knows the future?
There is, to the best of my knowledge, no verse that specifically says that God knows the future exhaustively, but there is evidence that He must know at least some or most of it. A classic example is Isaiah 42:9, in which God declares that He speaks of events yet to come. In fact, in Isaiah God’s knowledge of major coming events is repeatedly brought forth as evidence that He, not the idols Israel and the Gentiles loved to worship, is the true God (Isa. 41:22-23, 44:7-8, 46:9-10). While one might respond that this knowledge seems to be limited to what God is planning to do Himself (e.g. 46:10), such a limitation is hardly compatible with the way this knowledge is used against the idols. Any false god could know what it plans to do, and there is nothing uniquely impressive about Yahweh knowing His own plans.
More evidence that God must know the future at least pretty fully is found in the prophecies of Daniel. Daniel prophesied the rise and fall of many empires in God’s power, and yet these prophecies cover a wide range of types of knowledge. They include God’s own plans, the actions of individual kings and leaders, and the larger movements of history and empire. Sense can hardly be made of the prophecies of Daniel unless God knows every, or nearly every, kind of future action, including the free choices of people.
That said, is there any Biblical “smoking gun” statement proving unambiguously that God knows absolutely everything about the future? No. So it is certainly possible to interpret the Biblical evidence in a way which leaves the future at least partially uncertain to God. Nonetheless, it seems far more likely, given the totality of the Biblical testimony, to say that God does indeed know the future to the same extent that He knows the present and the past. More problems are solved by acknowledging this than by denying it, or at least it seems so to me. This is further supported by the unanimous testimony of the entire Church throughout history up until very recently (for most of Church history no other understanding has existed at all), and by reflections on space, time, creation, and physics, though this latter line of evidence is beyond the scope of this post. If everything must be established by two or three witnesses, then the full omniscience of God seems well grounded.
Of course, I should not skim over the many Biblical texts brought against this view earlier. What of all of these references, mostly in Genesis, which make God sound as though He needed to find things out which He did not know? My answer on this must remain somewhat traditional, not out of any necessary loyalty to tradition but because it seems the most sensible explanation to me out of all the possibilities. I believe John Calvin got it mostly right with his strong notion of accommodation. To Calvin, we see in the Scriptures, and especially in the early Old Testament, God reaching down to speak to us in a way that we can understand, even if this is very limited and even perhaps not always fully accurate in translation. He likened God’s condescension in speaking to us to a parent babbling to their infant child.
I would, in fact, take this line even further. I believe that what we see in the early Old Testament is God revealing Himself first in a way which would simultaneously be understandable and subversive to the original audience, an ancient people steeped in primitive polytheism. They came from a religious culture where the gods were almost exclusively viewed in a very limited and human-like way. They had no other concept of what a deity might be like. So God showed Himself primarily in such terms, as though He were one of their tribal deities, but throughout this revelation also planted the seeds of fuller knowledge, so that the knowledge of God by condescending analogy and the knowledge of God as He truly is wrestled in tension until the fullness of revelation in Jesus.
On an additional note to this, I would suggest that in interacting with man God can do so most freely and easily when He interacts with us on our level, like a character in time rather than simply as the God above time. Just try to imagine the weirdness of interacting with someone from a strictly transcendent, timeless posture. For our comprehension alone, it was necessary for God to speak like one of us.
So, with a decent case for God’s comprehensive foreknowledge established with at least some strength, we will need to move on to look at God’s omnipotence, His all-power. After all, perhaps God knew what was coming, and knew that in the long run He could work all things out, but in the meantime did not have the ability to prevent all evil. Yet I have run wildly long so far, thus I will have to save the next part for another post.
[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.
[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.
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.
The New Testament frequently cites Old Testament prophecy about Jesus. A quick glance, even just through Matthew, shows just how much this was emphasized. Core to the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus fulfills the prophetic word of God in the Old Testament. The ancient Nicene Creed says Jesus “suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”1
Yet another quick glance can make this whole concept confusing. If you try to peek at the Old Testament references for these prophecies, you usually don’t see what they have to do with Jesus. Take, for example, Matthew 2:15. It says:
He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son.
The reference for this quote is Hosea 11:1. So you go back and take a look at Hosea 11:1, and what do you find?
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.
The verse that was cited as a prophecy about Jesus was originally quite specifically about Israel. So how does that work? Was Matthew wrong? Did he misuse Hosea 11:1 and take it out of context?
I’ve heard a lot of people respond to this basically like this: “Well, maybe the verse was mainly talking about Israel, but it was also secretly a prophecy about Jesus. Then God revealed this to Matthew in the New Testament.” You get the impression from answers like this that the Old Testament is just sprinkled with random references to Jesus, almost like inspired Easter eggs, unnoticeable until the Holy Spirit points them out.
I don’t think this is the right way to understand these prophecies. There is no Easter egg hunt, nor are hidden meanings in play, at least in most cases. What we’re missing is that the prophecies for Christ aren’t a connect-the-dots game. People assume that these prophecies are a strict progression of prediction to fulfillment, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, they’re more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff. Oh, wait, that’s Doctor Who.2
What I mean to say is that these prophecies are a lot more about major themes in the relationship, covenant, and history of God and man than they are about checkboxes for Jesus’ life. The story of God, creation, mankind, and Israel all comes together in Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection. So Jesus fulfills, as it were, all of the destinies of election. The promises to David, Moses, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, and even Adam all reach their goals in Jesus, the only human who could, being Himself God, work out the right relationship in covenant between God and man.3
What does this mean for Old Testament prophecies about Christ? Their main point is not to make a list of criteria for the Messiah to fulfill. In fact, they can’t really be used that way. (Some people who invented statistical apologetics may be unhappy, but ah, well.) Instead, the primary links are about ongoing themes in the God/world/Israel relationship. So applying that to Hosea 11:1, it’s clear what is going on. Israel was essentially born out of Egypt, before wandering in the wilderness and finally claiming the Promised Land. Jesus now stands to reinvent Israel’s history in His own life, representing His people and undoing all of their mistakes. So He too was called out of Egypt in His youth, and before long spent 40 days in the wilderness before invading the Promised Land with the kingdom of God.4
This same idea can apply to stuff in the Psalms. For example, today I was reading Psalm 34 and ran across verse 20, which was cited in the Gospels about Jesus’ bones not being broken on the cross. Yet in context, this hardly appears to be about the coming Messiah. Here is the last paragraph5 of the psalm, which includes verse 20:
Many adversities come to the one who is righteous, but the Lord delivers him from them all. He protects all his bones; not one of them is broken. Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be punished. The Lord redeems the life of His servants, and all who take refuge in Him will not be punished.
This passage is talking about how God treats His righteous followers. He protects them, saves them, and vindicates them. This ideal of a righteous servant suffering for God is prominent both in the Psalms and in the prophets, and in both cases Israel is often treated as just such a servant. God’s people suffer unjustly as they try to follow Him, but He promises to protect them and ultimately save them from all harm and give them triumph and glory over their enemies.
Jesus, as we see, becomes the ultimate embodiment of this ideal. He fulfills by Himself perfectly the role of the suffering, righteous servant present in this psalm, and in other places like Isaiah 53. The role that Israel was meant to play, Jesus performed perfectly. He lived and died as the Righteous One, the true Israel, and so God fulfilled His promises. He protected His bones from being broken, and indeed raised Him back to life in glory and honor.
I hope by now you can start to see what I’m talking about. Very few of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus are fulfilled in a straightforward, literal detail. But that doesn’t mean they’re random or hidden. The whole story of God and His people is wrapped up in Christ and His fulfillment of all God’s purposes. If you just study the Scriptures, you can see how His story shines brightly.
The second item for the year’s reading list was a biography. I’ve never been particularly interested in biographies, but I found an exception. I was listening to the radio a week or two ago and ran across someone giving an interview about her biography of Joan of Arc. I kind of thought it was interesting, and remembered St. Joan from my medieval war obsession of my childhood. So I decided to check it out. Alas, a couple of Amazon reviews showed me quickly that this particular Joan biography was not something I’d like. My curiosity had already been piqued, so I did more research and found one more to my liking. I learned that, of all people, Mark Twain wrote a book on Joan of Arc, entitled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. I expected this to be a simple biography. It was not. Rather, I found it to be a highly engaging, fictionalized account of Joan’s life from the perspective of a made-up lifelong friend, page, and secretary, which nonetheless remains very historically accurate.
I finished this book tonight, and it is already among my favorite books I’ve ever read. If Twain’s portrayal of St. Joan is at all accurate, and it seems to be based on my outside research, then she was without doubt one of the most outstanding women in history (besides my lovely wife, of course). If you’re not familiar with her story, I’ll give you the rundown:
It all happened during the medieval Hundred Years’ War between France and England, which had been raging for 92 years. The country was essentially divided in half, with the northern half firmly under the control of England. The southern half in theory still belonged the Charles VII, the Dauphin, heir of the French throne. This was meaningless, as he mostly was holding up in safety doing nothing while the English and French in his territory fought to no purpose but destruction. France’s situation was apparently hopeless. By the end of the hundred years, surely France would be naught but a British province.
In the midst of this turmoil, a 16-year-old peasant girl named Joan (or Jeanne in French) from the small village of Domrémy embarked on a strange quest. She claimed to have been told by angels and saints, which she called her Voices, that she was called by God to lead France to raise the ongoing siege of the city of Orléans, and to get the Dauphin crowned king at the city of Reims. This all seemed rather far-fetched, if not altogether impossible, but it worked. She impressed everyone she met along her journey, first securing a troop to go to the king at Chinon, then convincing the Dauphin to send her to Orléans to raise the siege, then actually raising the siege in only a week, and finally blazing a trail through enemy territory to the city of Reims, where the Dauphin was crowned king with Joan in a prominent place. All along the way, she demonstrated humility, mercy, intelligence, war prowess, bravery, and even prophetic abilities.
Alas, after her successes she fell victim to the evils of politics. She was not allowed to go home, but instead the king sent her out to continue her military work. Yet he also did not allow her to do what all she suggested. Because of the king and his advisors, she lost the chance to reclaim Paris, and in another battle was finally captured. She was ransomed by the English, who set up a series of brutally rigged trials for revenge against her victories. In the end, at the age of 19 she was burned at the stake as a heretic, primarily for cross-dressing (i.e. wearing men’s military attire in battle, and in her prison cell to prevent rape by guards). Twenty-five years later, the Pope ordered a retrial, in which she was declared innocent and a martyr.
I already feel as if I have sorely mistreated St. Joan by giving her story in this painfully brief form. Alas, time fails me to tell of her many virtues. To this day we possess the full transcripts of both her trials, in which her character is plainly shown as sincere, honest, pious, merciful, bold, innocent, and chaste. No one ever did find any real fault in her. The closest thing to a flaw which can be found in history is her temper, which was only ever provoked by people misbehaving (e.g. she drove out the prostitutes from her army’s camp in a rage, and lambasted the king’s advisors for being manipulative cowards). Even as a war hero, she claimed to have never killed anyone, and to have loved her banner 40 times more than her sword (which she seems to have found miraculously).
I want to dwell for the rest of this post on the challenges presented by Joan of Arc to us. The first challenges I want to peek at are theological. Most of you readers are, like myself, Protestants. So St. Joan makes for an odd case. On the one hand, she shows all the signs of being truly of God. Her prophecies all came true, including ones made during her trial that came true after her death. Her character was impeccable. The tide she turned in the war came against all odds, comparable to Old Testament campaigns where God was with Israel. Her accusers at her trial tried relentlessly to find evidence that her Voices came from demons rather than angels or saints, yet never could. On the other hand, though, she was a devout Catholic, who claimed in particular that she spoke with dead saints, and certainly adhered to an unlearned, medieval Catholic view of the sacraments and salvation. The same Voices which gave her the fulfilled prophecies also told her very Catholic things about how she would be saved. What are the implications of all this? In addition, if she was of God, then God apparently didn’t give up getting His hands dirty in war and national conflict with the coming of Christ. Instead, He seems to have picked sides and led the French to impossible victory using a young peasant girl, something which sounds more like a story from the book of Judges. If she wasn’t from God, then why did she achieve so much of the impossible in His name, giving true prophecies and being remembered as a martyr? What does this mean for how God acts today?
But theological questions aside, I also want to briefly consider the practical challenge St. Joan puts to us. She was only an ignorant, illiterate, and humble peasant girl, yet she felt called by God to accomplish great things, and following faithfully all the way through. Through dangers, political opposition, and severe injuries (she was once actually shot in the neck by a crossbow!), she persevered. She never yielded to the pressures of fear and intimidation. Her faith in God always remained strong, so much so that the only leverage her enemies could use against her was her desire to continue taking Communion. She was committed to her personal purity, and the purity of her entire army. She made her soldiers pray and worship on a regular basis. All reports show she was selfless as could be. Even when the king offered to give her anything in repayment for her help in his coronation, she asked for nothing but that the poor people of her hometown, which she never saw again, be free of taxes. (This request, by the way, was granted and stood for 300 years until the French Revolution.)
Basically, Joan of Arc was more noble, brave, persistent, and faithful than I am, and than many of us could ever hope to be. Even if she was crazy, or a heretic, or what have you (a question I think C. S. Lewis would have something to say about), the standard she sets is amazing and deserves emulation. We could all use to be a little more like Joan of Arc.