The Corruption of a Concept – of Perseverance and Saints

Last week I signed off before I got to the end of my discussion of the Calvinist acronym, TULIP. I saved the best for last ---

The West is burning in forest fire hell. A large part of the eastern half of the country is being steamed like dumplings. Even the Constitution has taken a gut punch. This last week has been enough to remind us that human beings have a serious security deficit. We’ve trudged through all of history sadly lacking in that commodity. Ever since Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden and death became a reality, we’ve struggled; something innate in us wants to live and live forever, happily, comfortably, surrounded by love and beauty, and we know that won’t happen here.

Instinctively we know there’s something better – some place that doesn’t involve car crashes and cannibalism, tornadoes and terrorists, adultery and atrocities. We know that. We also know that Christ looked at the criminal beside him on the cross and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Hmm… how does that work? The guy was a thief; he wasn’t a good guy, he didn’t have time to become a good guy, and yet Christ didn’t say that to the man on His other side. So, what did Thief 1 have going for him?

Belief. He recognized Christ as the Messiah -- “Lord,[k] remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” (Luke 23: 39-43).  Perhaps he had heard the Lord declare earlier, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me,” (John 14:6). Thief 1 didn’t seem to see things from a Calvinist point of view – he had no reason to think he was one of the elect, which brings us to what the Council of Dort in the early 17th century called “Perseverance of the Saints.”

At first glance it sounds like the Saints have got a tough road ahead of them. Like endurance is going to be required (not entirely untrue). Calvinist thinking went like this: if God the Father has chosen you, God the Son has died for your sins, and the Holy Spirit has regenerated you, then you are forever saved – whenever you die, you will be with Him in Heaven (technically not the same as Paradise, but that’s another discussion.).

It is totally scriptural that once saved always saved. It is totally logical – if we can’t do anything to attain salvation, then logically neither can we do anything to ruin salvation. This is one of the most important Christian doctrines. Salvation is free; it’s not just on loan.

But here’s what happens in the light of the first four Calvinist doctrines:
            Total Depravity:  If we’re totally depraved to the point where we can’t even believe on our own and have to have God force us into it, then how do we know that we’ve ever been saved in the first place? Maybe our depravity deceived us into believing we believed. I know, my head is spinning, too, and we just got started.
            Unlimited Election:   If God selects those whom He will save, and does so without any true input from our volition, then how do we know He picked us? One of the biggest questions throttling Christianity today is, “How do I know I’ve been saved?”  How indeed? By the same method the Puritans used. They worked very, very hard to become very, very prosperous, thereby proving to themselves that they were among the elect. God wouldn’t prosper a sinner, would He? And now we’re back to works. Joseph Arminius, who actually published his 5-point theology before Calvin did, took a wrong turn too. He thought you could lose your salvation.  The Calvinists had it right in that you can’t, but their other points robbed them of ever knowing they were saved in the first place. The end result is the same. Disabling insecurity.
            Limited Atonement:   If Christ died on the cross only for those whom God chose, then the salvation it provided becomes a scarce commodity, and though the Calvinists rightly believe that you can’t work to gain it, you jolly well better work if you ever want to believe that you believe, and believe enough, and you better work harder than everyone else; what’s scarce has to be competed for.
            Irresistible Grace:   If God’s grace is indeed irresistible and your will had nothing at all to do with your salvation, then how can you ever know that you received His grace to begin with? Becoming a Christian does not involve a trumpet salute, a decendance of angels, and a signed decree. (“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”Acts 16:31) Living as a Christian is not just one blessed delight after another. It’s tough going – ask Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor who has been sentenced to death for leaving Islam. Being a Christian is, for him, a definite matter of his will; he would be much better off, from a human standpoint, to back up and say, “Never mind – Allah Akbar!” which he knows he can do – God isn’t stopping him.
            So, we’re back to Perseverance of the Saints:  If all the above is true, then it makes no difference in a Christian’s sense of eternal security whether he can lose his salvation or not, since he’s never really known he had it in the first place. It would take perseverance indeed to live one’s whole life dedicated to a God who won’t tell you where you’re going until you get there. I wouldn’t get on a plane under those conditions, would you?

The Christian church today is infected with unwarranted insecurity. A friend said to me the other day, “But shouldn’t there be evidence?” We had been discussing Calvinism and eternal security. Shouldn’t there be evidence of a Christian’s belief? Evidence for whom? It’s not really any of my business whether or not you are “truly saved.” If you tell me you are, as far as I need to know, you are.  That’s between you and God. The evidence must be needed for the insecure Christian to assure himself of his relationship with God.

This uncertainty has produced some disturbing results. The Lordship movement – “If He’s not Lord of all, He’s not Lord at all,” – is a tumor growing off of the Perseverance doctrine. It has resulted in a massive amount of churchy activity and nothing to show for it. We have astounding youth programs, but we still lose 70% of our young people when they go off to college. We build giant compounds and pull in thousands of people on Sundays, but 95% of those people are not out spreading the gospel, 33% of those people end up in divorces.  We’ve blended in with our deteriorating culture so well that we’re hardly noticeable.

And we should be noticeable. But didn’t I just say we didn’t need evidence? We shouldn’t, for ourselves. But we are Christ’s ambassadors to an unsaved world. We can’t fulfill that mandate by running an ice cream social.

If, however, we are, “taking every thought into captivity for Christ,”(2nd Corinthians 10:5) if we are “rightly dividing the word of truth,”(2nd Timothy 2:15) then we are likely to be recognizable in our communities. If we are secure in our position with Him, we will become different people, able to look calmly into a heavenly future regardless of the hell going on around us. That will win people to the Lord better than all the Christmas pageants ever produced, better than all the theologies ever written.

For if we died with Him,
We shall also live with Him.
If we endure,
We shall also reign with Him.
If we deny Him,
He also will deny us (rewards).
If we are faithless,
He remains faithful;
He cannot deny Himself.  2nd Timothy 2:11-13