I have been struggling to understand some things around the nature of Salvation, God’s disposition toward people, the means by which people are saved, the possibility of apostasy, and other things of that nature. Having just read or listened through Romans, Ephesians, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, and 1 John, I want to try to summarize what is flowing through my head, so that I do not lose it. I don’t claim to have these weighty matters all figured out, but by the grace of God, I believe I have a strong foundation in faith.
The core of the gospel, which I see solidly proclaimed through each of those epistles is that God will save all who have faith in Jesus. Salvation is, as Paul states clearly in Ephesians, a gift of God given by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and not dependant, in any way, upon works of righteousness, or works of the law.
Yet a faith that is alive will always produce fruit. Any faith that never produces fruit is a dead faith, and any person who continues in deliberate sin demonstrates evidence that they do not have a living faith. Hebrews and John make that clear, but also make clear that it is not simply the presence of sin in the life of a believer that demonstrates their lack of faith, but a willful persistence in sin. A believer may sin, as John says, and struggles with many things, as James says, but will be grieved by their sin. Believers are encouraged to take advantage of the blessing of confession and forgiveness, which is theirs in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, good works are not only the fruit of our faith in God, but also a means by which we are able to strengthen our faith. 2 Peter encourages each of us to supplement our faith with virtue, knowledge, self-control, and godliness, because by practicing those things we are confirming our calling and election and will never fall.
1 Peter says that those who oppose the Gospel and disobey the Word were destined for destruction not, as I read it, by decree of God, but rather by the fact that the natural outcome of their sinful nature is to continue in disbelief and opposition to God until judgement. They are, as 2 Peter says, like irrational animals, only capable of acting on instinct, and born to be captured and destroyed. Such is the expectation for each of us if God does not enlighten our minds and hearts to his the Gospel of his son, Jesus. There are also some passages that suggest that for at least some individuals at some time for some purposes God has hardened their hearts so that they cannot respond in faith to God.
The writers of these epistles seem to agree that God is the actor in bringing an individual to faith and salvation. He renews, gives birth, enlightens, calls, preserves, and saves, and he does all this through the preaching of the word and through the christian life. Paul states in Romans that those whom God had foreknown were predestined, called, justified, and glorified. 1 Peter says we are a chosen race, and 2 Peter tells us that “God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness”, and 1 John tells us that “everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God”.
So far all of that sounds like more or less standard Reformed theology. What I have found the most difficult to understand in light of those truths is the repeated, heartfelt, warnings of each of those writers against apostasy. The texts seems to suggest that God preserves his elect, but also that there is a real risk of true believers rejecting their faith in God and falling from grace. There are the obvious passages in Hebrews 6 and 10 that seem to suggest this most explicitly, but each of the other writers has similar warnings. I have seen how reformed writers try to wiggle out of the fairly strong language of Hebrews 6, which seem to be read most plainly as describing an individual who had a real faith, but those attempts always seem forced. The encouragement in 2 Peter to supplement your faith with virture, etc, is given as a means by which we can see that we do not fall into disbelief, not simply as a means of sanctification, which, if omitted, would produce a “worldy christian”, if there is such a thing.
God will preserve his elect. That seems clear to me, but if the warnings given against apostasy are real, it would seem that believers could, by abandoning their faith, forfeit their salvation. Does this mean that not all those who really believe (at some point in their life) are elect? That doesn’t feel great to me in my quest for assurance, but maybe that is because I am trying to depend on a decision at a point in time in my life for assurance more than my active trust in the work of Jesus.
What does seem clear to me is this: If you believe in the work of Jesus you are saved, if you do not believe, you are not saved. How one gets to the state of belief or unbelief doesn’t seem particularly relevant to the outcome which flows from either state. 1 John says “Whoever believes in the son of God has the testimony in himself…and this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his son.
So when I am feeling doubt and in need of assurance, I need to look not to the fact that at some point in time I made a decision, but I need to look to the cross of Jesus Christ and ask, do I believe that Jesus Christ died for me. If my answer is “yes”, then I have the promise that those who call on His name will not be put to shame. If I doubt because my works appear to me to be absent, or because I am struggling in sin (these things are given in the epistles as potential indications that faith may be dead), the answer is the same. I look to the cross in faith, I ask God to work in me, and I abide in Him. As I read the scriptures, I don’t think assurance is meant for those who cannot say “today, I believe”, but can only say “once, I believed”.
Also, I don’t think the scriptures are suggesting that a person who doubts does not believe. Belief and disbelief in the bible seem to be acts of will. Maybe it is possible that overtime through neglect or apathy an individual slowly loses their faith until they look up and realize that they do not believe, but if a person is concerned about such things at all, it seems likely that they have at least a mustard seed of faith, and to go from that state to disbelief would take an act of the will.
So where it seems to me that the Bible stands at the moment, and I am still working through this, can be summed up in the following statements: Salvation is by grace through faith, initiated and preserved by God for his elect. A person who never chooses to believe, or chooses to disbelieve are not included in God’s elect and have no hope of salvation. How it is that a believer could come to a place of disbelief is a mystery to me in light of God’s initiation of belief and preservation of his elect, but the Bible seems to suggest it as a real possibility, and encourages believers that God will strengthen their faith through the word, worship, sacraments, and works.
This seems, I think, to be similar to how Luther, and by extension, Lutherans view salvation. I’m not sure, and need to research further; perhaps they can clarify or simplify some of the passages that I have been wrestling with.
Have you thought about these questions? I’d love to hear how others parse these topics and read the scriptures. The Christian life and Christian theology are not things that thrive in isolation.