Perseverance of the Saints Part 13: Salvation Assurance

[Go to Part One here]

We now come to the important topic of salvation assurance.  Calvinists have often claimed that Arminians do not have solid ground for assurance because Arminians do not hold to inevitable perseverance.  The Calvinist assumes that if one cannot be sure that they will indeed persevere in the faith, then that person cannot possibly have assurance of salvation.  This is partially true.  The Arminian acknowledges that one cannot have infallible assurance of final salvation.  But the Arminian also believes that the Bible gives no such assurance either.  Rather, the Bible gives assurance of present salvation only.  This assurance is based on present faith and reliance on the merits of Christ’s blood.  As one trusts in Christ he can rest assured that he is in saving union with Christ.  So long as one trusts in Christ he can have assurance of salvation.  We can see this truth expressed well in 1 John 5:11-13,

And this is the testimony: God has given us [believers] eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He who has [presently] the Son has [presently] life; he who does not have [presently] the Son of God does not have [presently] life.  I write these things to you who believe [presently] in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have [presently] eternal life.

We see that life abides in the Son and only those who presently “have” the Son “have” the life that abides in Him.  This is how John assures his believing audience that they can “know” they have eternal life.  Those who presently “believe” in Christ’s name are those who are assured life in Him.  This, of course, reminds us of the passage in John 15 concerning the Vine and the branches.  The branches enjoy the life of the Vine (Christ) only as they “abide” (remain, stay, continue) in Him.  As they remain in Him by faith they receive the spiritual life that resides in Him alone.  If they cease to remain in Christ by faith (i.e. become unbelievers), they are cut off from Christ and the life that resides in Him alone.  As one remains in Christ he will produce fruit which gives further assurance of salvation as one cannot possibly produce fruit outside of Christ for “without Me you can do nothing.”

So the Bible gives strong assurance of present salvation for those who are in Christ Jesus,  but, as we have seen in this series, it offers no guarantee that one who is presently believing will infallibly endure to the end in that faith.  The Calvinist may perceive this to be a weakness in the Arminian doctrine of salvation assurance but it proves to be an even greater weakness for the Calvinist given his doctrine of inevitable perseverance.  The Calvinist likewise insists that one must persevere in faith to attain final salvation.  The problem for the Calvinist is the rather obvious reality that many who put faith in Christ do not endure in that faith until the end.  Many who ultimately fall away have impressive track records of loving, trusting, and serving Christ, and very often have produced godly fruit for many years.

The Calvinist is forced to insist that such “apostates” were never true believers in the first place.  They are forced to conclude that the faith, love, and service of such seemingly godly individuals were nothing but a ruse from beginning to end.  They are forced to question the integrity of those who abandon the faith and yet claim that they once trusted Christ with all of their hearts and loved God dearly.  They are forced to call them liars and vile hypocrites who may have “thought” they trusted Christ and “thought” they loved Him but were simply deluded and never experienced true faith or genuine love for God.  All of their godly fruit was nothing more than the works of the flesh that only seemed to bear testimony of a genuine relationship with Christ.

We must wonder then how these true believers who stand in judgment of these apostates and boldly proclaim that their faith and love was not genuine can be certain that their present faith and love is real.  They have no problem conceding that the apostate may have truly “thought” their faith and love was genuine despite the fact that it wasn’t.  How then can they be sure that they are not likewise deceived by their present faith and love for Christ?  Perhaps it only “seems” real to them.  How can they be sure that their faith and love for Christ will not someday fail, thereby proving that their faith was never “real” and they were never “really” saved to begin with, but merely a deluded hypocrite all along?  It is common for Calvinists to speak of those who were convinced that their faith was real when in fact it was not,

In the past, dear reader, there have been thousands who were just as confident that they had been genuinely saved and were truly trusting in the merits of the finished work of Christ to take them safely through to Heaven, as you may be; nevertheless, they are now in the torments of Hell. Their confidence was a carnal one; their “faith,” no better than that which the demons have. Their faith was but a natural one which rested on the bare letter of Scripture. It was not a supernatural one, wrought in the heart by God. They were too confident that their faith was a saving one, to thoroughly, searchingly, frequently, test it by the Scriptures, to discover whether or no it was bringing forth those fruits which are inseparable from the faith of God’s elect. If they read an article like this, they proudly concluded that it belonged to some one else. So cocksure were they that they were born again so many years ago, they refused to heed the command of 2 Corinthians 13:5 “Prove your own selves.” And now it is too late. They wasted their day of opportunity, and the “blackness of darkness” is their portion forever. (Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews– Emphasis his)

[Notice also how Pink mentions a “day of opportunity” as if the reprobate can possibly have such a “day of opportunity” given the eternal irrevocable nature of their reprobated state.]

So the Calvinist cannot even have assurance of present salvation as he can never be sure that his faith will in fact endure to the end until it actually endures to the end.  It may yet fail and the Calvinist must admit to this.  Therefore, they cannot possibly know “now” that their faith is real and that salvation is truly theirs.  Their faith may be false since the only infallible test of genuine faith, according to their doctrines, is the test of ultimate and final endurance.

John Calvin recognized this difficulty and tried to address it with a doctrine that many Calvinists today find embarrassing.  But Calvin is to be commended for being honest with the reality of those who fall away after many years of impressive testimony and service to God.  He recognized and tried to grapple with a serious problem in his theology that many Calvinists today simply pretend isn’t real.  His solution: “Evanescent grace.”  Calvin proposed the idea that God sometimes gives the reprobate a grace and subsequent faith so similar to that of the elect that it is nearly impossible to tell the difference.  He says that “experience shows that the reprobate are sometimes affected in a way similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.” He calls this “an inferior operation of the Holy Spirit” by which God “illumines their minds to this extent, that they recognize his grace.”  The Lord apparently gives the reprobate this temporary grace so that He might better…convict them, and leave them without excuse.”

Calvin tried hard to make a valid distinction between the faith produced by evanescent grace and the faith produced in the elect by genuine regeneration.  For instance, he noted that the reprobate do not “truly perceive the power of spiritual grace and the sure light of faith” and that they “never have any other than a confused sense of grace, laying hold of the shadow, rather than the substance, because the Spirit properly seals forgiveness of sins in the elect only.”  “Still”, he says “the reprobate believe God to be propitious to them, inasmuch as they accept the gift of reconciliation, though confusedly and without due discernment; not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God; but because under a covering of hypocrisy, they seem to have a principle of faith in common with them.”  He also states “that conviction he distinguishes from the peculiar testimony which he gives to his elect in this respect, that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition.”

Much more could be quoted.  In this last statement we find some interesting points.  Calvin mainly points to the difference being that the faith of the elect endures while the “faith” of the reprobate will “never attain to the full result or to fruition.”  The difference again being that the gracious, yet “inferior”, work of the Spirit in the reprobate eventually “vanishes in those who are temporarily impressed” which gives evidence that such grace was only “evanescent” while “In the elect alone he implants the living root of faith, so that they persevere even to the end.”  So for all his trying Calvin never really solved the difficulty.  We can see this in the fact that genuine faith only proves genuine if it endures and that the “faith” of the reprobate is “affected in a way similar to the elect, that even in their own judgment there is no difference between them.”  So one cannot possibly know if his present faith is genuine and salvation within his possession since it is conceded that the reprobate “in their own judgment” have the same faith as the elect, and until that faith “perseveres even to the end” it may yet prove to be the result of divine deception upon the reprobate; an inferior work of the Spirit, thebetter to convict them, and leave them without excuse.”

At one point Calvin seems to say that the “faith” of the “reprobate” does not produce fruit, “that the reprobate never attain to the full result or to fruition” but later contradicts this when he says,

I therefore deny that [reprobates] either understand his will considered as immutable, or steadily embrace his truth, inasmuch as they rest satisfied with an evanescent impression; just as a tree not planted deep enough may take root, but in the process of time wither away, though it may for several years not only put forth leaves and flowers, but produce fruit. (All quotes were taken from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:11,12, translated by Henry Beveridge, pp. 478, 479, Emphases mine)

So the reprobate may for years produce fruit while merely experiencing the vanishing affects of evanescent faith.   While Calvin tries hard to assure the “elect” that their faith is superior to the false faith of those under evanescent grace, no assurance can be found in the face of such statements.  There is just no way for one to possibly know that his faith is real until he endures in that faith to the end.  Therefore, there is no ground for assurance of salvation until the “end” in Calvinism.  This is the “inevitable” result of the doctrine of “inevitable” perseverance.  While the Arminian can at least have present assurance of salvation, the Calvinist cannot even have that.  The Arminian finds further assurance in the Biblical truth, denied by Calvinists, that God truly desires the salvation of all men and has made provision for the salvation of all in the atonement.  We must acknowledge that both Arminians and Calvinists deal with times of spiritual struggles and doubts.  What assurance can be found during these times?  Walls and Dongell point out the pastoral challenges presented to those who counsel believers in such struggles:

Calvinism deprives those struggling with their faith of the single most important resource available: the confidence that God loves all of us with every kind of love we need to enable and encourage our eternal flourishing and well being.  Again, Calvinists cannot honestly assure people that God loves them in this way without claiming to know more about God’s secret counsels than any human being can know. (Why I Am Not A Calvinist, pg. 201)

They then go on to quote another passage from Calvin in which he speaks of temporary illumination for the reprobate and conclude,

What is truly remarkable here is that persons who receive this partial and temporary illumination appear for a time to be truly elect but in fact aren’t.  They are deluded by a false hope.  This dreadful possibility is what haunts Calvinists who struggle with the assurance and certainty of salvation.  Times of moral failure and depression can be construed as evidence that one is not chosen after all and that God is hardening one’s heart for not responding more faithfully to his grace….Calvinism lacks the clear warrant to speak the most liberating word of encouragement for persons struggling with their faith and doubtful of God’s attitude towards them- the unqualified assurance that God loves them and is for them! (ibid. 203)

Arminians and Calvinists have much common ground with regards to the doctrine of salvation assurance.  Both traditions believe that assurance can be gained through fruit bearing and the inner witness of the Spirit.  Both traditions believe that assurance is based on a confidence in the merits of Christ’s blood and union with Him.  Both traditions believe that one should examine himself and his lifestyle to be sure that his faith is presently focused on Christ and the merit of His blood.  But the Calvinistic doctrine of inevitable perseverance actually serves to undercut much of these Biblical markers of salvation assurance.  One cannot know that his faith is presently genuine as one’s faith can only “really” be proven genuine if it endures to the end.  One cannot be sure that the inner witness of the Spirit is not an “inferior” work of the Spirit which will eventually prove to be evanescent.  One cannot even find assurance in the seeming fruit that is being produced in his life as such fruit may eventually prove to be less than genuine, regardless of how real it presently seems (and according to Calvin one might even produce genuine fruit for several years while under the influence of evanescent faith).

Both Arminians and Calvinists must grapple with the reality of false professors like those described by Christ in Matthew 7:22, but Christ makes it clear that such false professors did not do the will of the Father and were in fact “evil doers.”  Christ is not speaking of those who live many years in faithful and loving service to God who yet abandon the faith. Arminians can easily assimilate such persons into their theology (since they believe that true believers can fall away) while the Calvinist is forced to create problematic doctrines like “evanescent grace” which only serve to undermine salvation assurance.  The Arminian can also easily accept the many passages of Scripture which comport with this experiential knowledge of true believers falling away from the faith and accept the warnings against falling away as serious and profoundly meaningful.

And finally, the Arminian can have a present assurance of salvation that the Calvinist cannot have while being consistent with his doctrines.  This fully comports with what Paul says in 2 Cor, 13:5,

Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!  Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you- unless indeed you fail the test.

Paul clearly says that we can know now whether or not we are “in the faith”.  We can “examine” and “test” our present faith to see if it is in fact genuine.  This simply is not true of Calvinism since the only infallible test of genuine faith is its ultimate endurance to the end.  Therefore, one cannot possibly know for certain “now” that he is genuinely “in the faith” contrary to Paul’s plain words.

Despite the claims by Calvinists that their doctrine of inevitable perseverance gives them a more solid footing than the Arminian with regards to salvation assurance, we have seen that Arminian salvation assurance better comports with the Biblical data and avoids the need to construct strange doctrines like that of Calvin’s “evanescent grace.”  In the final analysis the Arminian doctrine of perseverance supports the Biblical reality that one can have present assurance of salvation while the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance falls alarmingly short in the same area.

Go to Part 1

Related: An Important Admission on Salvation Assurance From Prominent Calvinist C. Michael Patton

Perseverance of the Saints Part 12: Examining Passages Commonly Appealed to by the Advocates of Unconditional Eternal Security

Having examined the primary passages that teach apostasy we now examine the passages that the advocates of unconditional eternal security believe clearly support their doctrine:

John 10:27-29

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.

The first thing that needs to be noted is that there is nothing in this passage to suggest that the security being described by Christ is unconditional.  This is one of the greatest weaknesses of the Calvinist position.  One will look in vain for a passage of Scripture that explicitly makes salvation security unconditional.  The best that can be produced are passages which do not explicitly state a condition, but the absence of a stated condition does not necessitate the absence of a condition (e.g. Hebrews 13:5, cf. Deut. 31:6, 8, 16-18; 2 Chronicles 15:2; Joshua 24:19, 20). This is especially true since there are numerous passages which do state conditions and warn of defection from saving faith (as we have seen in parts 2-11 of this series).

In the case of John 10:27 we can even argue that a condition is stated, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  The verbs “listen” and “follow” are present active indicative in the Greek describing continual action.  The “sheep” are characterized by their “listening” to and “following” of Christ.  They are the listening and following ones, and only those who are listening and following can rightly be called Christ’s “sheep” and lay claim to the promises stated in John 10:28 and 29.  In other words, the sheep are believers who are presently believing.  It is to these believers alone that the promises are made.  Surely, those who are listening to and following Christ are secure in His arms and cannot be snatched out.  They also possess the eternal life that resides in Christ since they are in union with Him by faith (vs. 28).  There is nothing in the passage, however, to suggest that the sheep can never stop “listening” or “following” and no promise given for those who might indeed cease to do so.  The passage is only speaking of those who are presently listening and following.  It is a powerful promise to believers that as long as they are believing they are secure in Christ.  F. Leroy Forlines comments on this security in The Quest For Truth:

The teaching is simply this:  The believer’s relationship with God is a personal one between him and God.  Though all the powers of the universe were to combine against the believer, they could not take the believer away from God.  Some would add, ‘Neither can the believer take himself out of the body of Christ.’  Yes, that is true.  But, it is also true that he could not place himself into the body of Christ.  However, upon his faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit placed the believer into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).  If the believer renounces his faith, God will take him out (Jn. 15:2, 6).  There is no contradiction between the statements ‘No man can take us out of Christ’ and the statement ‘God the Father takes those people out of Christ who turn from Christ in unbelief.’ (pg. 275)

The passage does not state that faith cannot be renounced nor does it state that any such promise of security is given to unbelievers.  The promise of security in Christ described in John 10:27-29 is for believers who continue to believe and for them only.  The question then becomes, “Can believers cease to believe?”  The answer to that question cannot be resolved in John 10:27-29 and for that reason it fails as a proof text for inevitable perseverance.

Special Contextual Considerations for John 10:27-29

The Calvinist might object that verse 25 is not in harmony with the above interpretation due to the fact that Jesus tells the Jews that they do not believe because they are not His sheep.  It could be argued that verse 25 refers to a predetermined and unconditional election:  The sheep are those who were elected by God prior to creation and then given faith to believe in Christ.  The problem with this suggestion is that there is nothing in the text to indicate that Jesus is describing a pre-temporal election of certain individuals for salvation.  Such an eternal decree must be first assumed and then read into the text.

A more plausible interpretation is to understand Jesus’ words in John 10:27-29 in the context of the unique historical situation taking place at the time of His ministry with regards to the transition from the old dispensation to the new.  The passage has a secondary application to believers of all ages (as described above) but the primary application concerned only the Jews who were alive during Christ’s ministry and were specifically being addressed in this and other similar chapters in John (John 5:24-27; 6:37, 40-44, 65; 8:12-59).  The “sheep” in this context are the Jews who are currently living in right covenant relationship with the Father during the time of Jesus’ ministry.  The Jews that Jesus is addressing in this discourse and others like it throughout John’s gospel are not in right relationship with the Father during the time of Christ’s ministry.  Since they do not know the Father (are not “of God”) they cannot recognize the perfect revelation of the Father in the Son (Jn. 7:16, 17; 8:19, 42-47).  They reject the Son and refuse to trust in Him because they have rejected the Father.  Therefore, they are not Christ’s sheep and cannot be given to the Son (John 6:37).  If they had known the Father they would have recognized the Son as their Messiah and would have been given to Him.

So the primary application still addresses the issue of faith but not in the same way as we would tend to apply it today since our situation is different from that of the Jews and we are not living at a critical time in history where the faithful Jews were being given, by the Father, to their Shepherd and Messiah.  For them it primarily involved the transition from one sphere of believing (in the Father) to another (in the Son).  Those faithful Jews recognized the Father in the Son and as a result listened to Him and followed Him as their long awaited Messiah.  In either case the “sheep” are those who are “listening” and “following” and the passage gives no indication that one cannot cease to be one of Christ’s sheep by later refusing to listen and follow.

Romans 8:35-39

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: ‘For you sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Again, the promise and security presented in this passage of Scripture is only for believers (“us” in verse 35).  None of these things are true of unbelievers and nothing in the passage suggests that faith cannot be abandoned or that love for God cannot grow cold (Matt. 24:12).  This passage gives assurance to believers who are suffering persecution that such sufferings should not be interpreted as indicating that God no longer favors them or loves them.  No amount of persecution or opposition can overwhelm the believer since the believer always has the victory in Christ.  Neither the turmoil of this life nor death itself can separate the believer from Christ’s love.  Through Him and because of Him we are more than conquerors despite any obstacle or battle that we may encounter.  However, just as in John 10:27-29 there is nothing in the passage to suggest that God’s saving love is unconditional or that believers cannot separate themselves from the love of Christ by abandoning Him during trials and persecutions.  The one who remains will certainly triumph but there is no such promise of victory for the one who shrinks back in unbelief (Hebrews 10:38; Matt 10:22, 28, 32, 33).  Indeed, the Scriptures admonish believers to remain in God’s love (Jude 21) and Christ’s love (Jn. 15:9).  If the promise of Romans 8:35 was unconditional then such passages as Jude 21 and John 15:9 would be rendered nonsensical. Forlines observes:

It is my opinion that this passage does not deal with the question of whether a saved person can ever be lost again.  Rather, it teaches that a person who is a child of God can never, at the same time, be separated from God’s love.  In other words, the believer is never to interpret hardships as meaning that God does not love him.  Instead, he should recognize that God’s love is still with him and should say with Paul, ‘Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us’ (Rom. 8:37)…Suppose the passage does deal with the matter of security.  It would be explained the same way as the statement of Jesus when He said, ‘Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand’ (John 10:28).  Paul would be saying as emphatically as human language can make it that our personal salvation is a matter between the individual and God.  He would be saying that neither tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, peril, sword (verse 35), death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come (verse 38), height, depth, nor any other creature viewed collectively or singularly can take a believer away from Christ.  I believe that. What Paul says in these verses in no way contradicts the viewpoint that if a believer turns away from God in defiant, arrogant, unbelief that God will take him out of Christ (Jn. 15:2, 6). (ibid.)

Some believe that verse 39 gives just such an unconditional promise, “…nor anything else in all creation [or “any other created thing”], will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  They reason that since the believer is a “created thing” then it follows that even the believer cannot remove himself from God’s love.  This appeal is problematic on many fronts.

First, it ignores the context of the passage which is dealing with persecutions and tribulations that are brought to bear on the believer (forces, circumstances, and influences outside of the believer).  Verse 39 is still speaking about these things and therefore cannot have reference to the believer himself.  Indeed, this seems like a very awkward and unnatural reading of the text and I am fairly confident that one would never think to read it that way if they weren’t driven by a prior commitment to unconditional security, and trying to find support for the doctrine in this passage.  Grant Osborne captures this truth well when he writes, “Outside pressures can’t separate us from Christ’s love, but inward apostasy can (Grace Unlimited, pg. 179).

Second, the suggestion that the believer cannot separate himself from the love of God stands in contradiction to passages like Jude 21 and John 15:9 as noted above. Third, while there is a sense in which the believer can separate himself from the love of God in Christ by abandoning the faith, it needs to be remembered that according to Scripture the believer does not ultimately separate Himself from Christ (the sphere of God’s special and saving love) as Forlines pointed out above.  When a believer abandons the faith and becomes an unbeliever God Himself separates that person (now an unbeliever) from His Son (Jn. 15:2, 6), and God is not a “created thing.”

1 John 2:18-19

Little children, it is the last hour and as you have heard that the Anti-Christ is coming, even now many anti-christs have come, by which we know that it is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be manifest, that none of them were of us.

This passage has been held up by Calvinists as teaching a universal principal of what “apostasy” constitutes.  Remember, apostasy in Calvinism means only that one rejects the gospel.  It is not a falling away from true faith.  True faith endures since God infallibly preserves it and if one should seem to fall away it only proves that the person never possessed genuine faith and had never been regenerated.  It is impossible, according to Calvinism, to fall away from true faith.  One can only fall away from a false profession of true faith and prove that one was always just a hypocrite.  Calvinists believe that this single passage of Scripture proves their strange definition of apostasy to be the Biblical definition.

John speaks of false teachers (anti-christs) who went out “from us” (the true gospel teachers) and thus proved by their going that they were not “of us.”  Does John then teach the Calvinistic definition of apostasy?  Not at all.  The passage simply does not say what the Calvinist needs it to say for several reasons.

First, John is not laying down a universal principle concerning what it means to be an apostate.  John is specifically speaking of false teachers leaving the company of the true gospel teachers and proving by their leaving that they are not in harmony with the true gospel.  Had they continued in the truth they would have no reason to leave but since they had abandoned the truth they could no longer keep company with the true gospel teachers and went out from them to spread their heresies.  By doing so they proved that their authority is not from God, and their teachings should not be trusted. This is John’s primary point in this passage.

Second, the passage says nothing of the false teachers’ prior spiritual condition.  It only tells us that at the time of their going they were not “of” the true gospel teachers.  They were committed to false doctrine when they left and left for that reason, but we have no way of knowing whether or not they had at one time genuinely embraced the truth.  The passage does not address their spiritual condition prior to their leaving, and this is exactly what the Calvinist needs the passage to do in order to support their doctrine.  The Calvinist needs the passage to say, “They went out from us, but they were not [ever] of us; for if they had [ever] been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be manifest, that none of them were [ever at any time] of us.”  The “ever” must be read into the text.  It is simply not there and the Calvinist must beg the question to assume that this is what John meant to imply.  For this reason alone, this passage fails as a proof text for Calvinistic apostasy.

Third, the context of the epistle argues for the view that these false teachers were indeed saved prior to their defection and left only after embracing false teaching and thereby apostatizing from the truth they once embraced.  One of the main issues being addressed throughout 1 John is how one can determine whether or not one is truly saved (“born of God”). The Gnostics (i.e. anti-christs) were teaching that there was no connection between behavior and salvation. They believed that the human spirit was incorruptible and could in no way be affected by the sins of the flesh. John directly opposes such teaching numerous times in his epistle (1:5-10; 2:1, 3-6, 9-11, 15; 3:4-11, 15, 17, 18, 24; 4:7, 16, 20, 21; 5:1, 2).  John is primarily encouraging his readers to reject the false teachings of the “anti-christs” who are teaching that one can sin with spiritual immunity, and helping them to understand the true characteristics of God’s children.

Now for us to believe that the anti-christs who left the company of the true gospel teachers were never true believers would suggest that John and the true gospel teachers were not able to detect their hypocrisy while they kept their company.  This runs contrary to one of John’s main concerns in the epistle, that one can discern the difference between true followers of Christ and unbelievers by character and behavior.  To believe that John was incapable of detecting their hypocrisy prior to their actual defection is out of harmony with one of the most prominent themes of the entire letter.

John 3:16

For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Some emphasize the fact that eternal life is eternal.  It is claimed that if we could forfeit salvation, eternal life would then cease to be eternal.  This fails to recognize the important truth that there is no eternal life outside of Christ (John 1:4; 5:26; 6:35; 11:25; 14:6; 1 John 1:2; 5:11; Col. 3:3, 4; 2 Pet, 1:4), and we share in his life only as we remain in Him through saving faith (those “believing” in this passage).  Eternal life does not cease to be eternal if we fail to continue in saving faith, we will simply cease to participate in the eternal life which resides only in the Son of God.  Eternal life will continue on just fine without us, if we fail to meet the condition of faith.

Robert Picirilli comments:

Those passages, especially in the Gospel of John, which contain strong promises of (final) salvation to believers and are therefore thought to imply necessary perseverance can not be used for that purpose lest they ‘prove too much.’  In other words, to say that those promises require the impossibility of a changed situation places too great a burden on the syntax of the statements.  And this can quickly be seen by comparing similar promises, using the very same syntax, to unbelievers.  For example:

John 5:24

He that believes shall not come into condemnation.


John 3:36

He that believes not shall not see life.

Grammatically, if the first means the condition of the believer can not be changed, then the second means the condition of the unbeliever likewise can not be changed.  In fact, neither passage is even speaking to that issue.  The unbeliever can leave his unbelief, become a believer, and see life- thus escaping from the promise made to the unbeliever who continues in his unbelief.  Likewise, the believer can leave his belief, become an unbeliever, and come into condemnation- thus escaping from the promise made to believers who continue in faith.  Each promise applies with equal force to those who continue in the respective state described.  (Grace, Faith, Free Will, pp. 200-201)

Romans 6:23; 11:29

For the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord….For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.

Many see here a strong assertion of unconditional eternal security based on the fact that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (NAS), and that eternal life is a gift (Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8, 9), therefore, they reason, eternal life must be irrevocable.  God is always faithful to his promises (both pleasant and terrible, e.g. Joshua 23:15, 16), but his promises are not without conditions.  God’s gift of salvation is irrevocable so long as the condition is met.  Paul was speaking of Israel’s final restoration in Rom.11:29, but he was giving no assurance to those branches that had been broken off in unbelief (verse 20), and sternly warned that those who were now standing by faith, could yet be broken off through unbelief (verses 20, and 21).  God’s divine gift (of life) is always and only for believers!  God does not revoke his gift, for it cannot exist outside of Christ.  Only believers are “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).  If we fail to meet the condition for union with Christ, we can have no claim on the gift (see Jn. 3:16 and 10:27-29 discussed above).

Eph.1:13, 14; 4:30

In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation- having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory….Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Much has been made of the “sealing” of the Holy Spirit by defenders of unconditional eternal security.  The “sealing” of the Holy Spirit is clearly conditional since we can “grieve”, and eventually “insult” the Sprit of Grace, which constitutes total apostasy without remedy (Eph. 4:30, and Heb. 10:29). The Holy Spirit is received by faith (Gal. 3:2, 14) and can only seal us as we remain in Christ through faith. We are, in fact, sealed in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, as a direct result of faith (Eph. 1:13). The sealing of the Holy Spirit presupposes the possession of the Holy Spirit, and only believers can possess the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9).  He is therefore the guarantee of an inheritance for believers and not unbelievers.

There may be a parallel with circumcision which was also a “seal” for those under the old covenant (Rom. 4:11). We know that that seal was broken and guaranteed nothing when those who were circumcised broke the covenant and were cut off from the people of God (Rom. 2:25). The seal was conditioned on continued faith and obedience (2:26-29). The Holy Spirit marks us as children of the new covenant through faith in Christ, but if we abandon the faith then the Spirit of God no longer remains in us and we are no longer sealed in Christ (partakers of the covenant blessings that are found in Him alone- Eph. 1:3, 7, 10,11).  Only those that continue in obedient faith remain sealed (Acts 5:32, Jn. 14:15-17; Rom. 8:5, 6, 9).

Notice that the sealing of the Holy Spirit is coupled with a warning not to “grieve” Him in Ephesians 4:30.  This would seem to indicate that there is danger in grieving the Spirit who seals us and the reference to sealing may be for the primary purpose of reminding the Ephesians that to grieve the Spirit is to grieve the one who unites us to Christ.  This makes the warning far more emphatic and cautions the believer to watch how he lives lest the sins which grieve Him lead to unbelief through which the seal is broken and the Spirit is finally “insulted.” The sealing of the Holy Spirit, therefore, applies only as long as we do not “grieve” (Eph. 4:30), and finally “insult” (Heb. 10:29) the “Spirit of Grace” through continued disobedience, culminating in outright apostasy.

There is no Biblical reason to see the sealing of the Holy Spirit as unconditional or irrevocable, while there are plenty of reasons to see it as conditioned on continued faith. Indeed, warnings against apostasy alone imply the conditionality of the seal.

Romans 8:28, 29

And we know that God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.  For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the first born among many brethren; and these whom He predestined He also called; and these whom He called He also justified, and these whom He justified He also glorified.

The claim is that this passage presents an unbreakable chain from predestination to glorification.  The problem is that the passage nowhere claims that such a journey is a guarantee from start to finish.  The passage is speaking of those who have already been glorified and describes the process by which they reached that goal.  Who are these whom God has glorified?  Verse 28 tells us that it is those who love God and have been called according to His purpose.  Those who love God (believers) are called and predestinated to become conformed to the image of Christ (the ultimate “purpose” of God for the believer).  The passage is not addressing unbelievers but believers.  It is not telling us that God has predestined certain unbelievers to become believers.  Rather, it is describing the final destiny of those who love God.

The Calvinist interpretation errs in two important areas.  First the Calvinist assumes that the “calling” of verse 29 is a “calling” unto salvation.  The way that “called” is used in verse 28 would suggest otherwise.  In verse 28 Paul seems to be using the word with regard to the purpose of God to be accomplished in believers (those who love Him).  Part of that calling is to endure hardships and persecution for the sake of the gospel.  Peter uses this same language, “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.  To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Pet. 2:20-21)  This is exactly Paul’s point.  Believers are called to follow in Christ’s steps (which includes suffering) whereby they will be conformed to His image.  The calling is of believers to endure suffering for the sake of Christ and be conformed to His image.  To this they were predestined, for God had determined from eternity that believers would fulfill this calling in Christ (Rom. 8:17-18).  This interpretation harmonizes perfectly with the contextual emphasis of verses 28-39 (see treatment of verses 38-39 above).

Second, the Calvinist interpretation assumes that predestination is the first step in this process but Paul makes sure to emphasize that those whom God predestined are those He “foreknew.”  Again, this supports the idea that believers alone are in view throughout this passage, for God can ‘previously and affectionately regard as His own’ no sinner unless He has foreknown him in Christ, and looked upon him as a believer in Christ” (James Arminius quoted by Robert Picirilli in Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 78).  Election and predestination are in Christ and only believers come to be in Christ (Eph. 1:4, 5, 11, 13).  Even if the calling of verse 29 was a calling to salvation it would not indicate that all who are called are also justified and glorified for Paul has only in mind believers who persevere (enduring hardships and persecution) to glorification (Rom. 8:17-18, cf. Philippians 1:29).  Nowhere does the passage suggest that all who believe will inevitably persevere to final salvation (glorification).  Just like so many Calvinist proof-texts for inevitable perseverance the absence of a stated condition does not necessitate the conclusion that the process being described here is unconditional.

John 6:37, 44, 65

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out…No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day…And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted by My Father.

We dealt briefly with the context of this passage above when discussing John 10:27-29.  Jesus is speaking to Jews whose hearts are not right with God.  They are not faithful Jews and do not know the Father.  Because they are not in right covenant relationship with the Father, they cannot recognize the perfect expression of the Father in the Son.  Since they are not willing to do the Father’s will they cannot properly discern the truth of Christ’s words (John 7:17).  Those who know the Father will recognize the truth of Christ’s words and be “drawn” to Him (6:44, 45).   They will be given to the Son and come to faith in Him as a result (6:37).  To them alone has the Father granted access to the Son (6:65).

The passage has to do with the Father giving the faithful Jews to their long awaited Messiah.  It has nothing to do with a pre-temporal unconditional election of certain sinners to come to faith in Christ.  This is a conclusion that many have read into this passage according to a prior commitment to a theological system without any contextual warrant.

Jesus assures anyone who would come to Christ in faith that they will not be rejected.  They will be accepted in the Beloved One of God (6:37).  The Father will not fail to give all the faithful Jews to Christ and Christ will not fail to receive them to Himself.  Christ will “raise them up at the last day.”  These Jews can be sure that their destiny is secure in Christ.  However, the promise is only for those who are presently and continually “eating”, “drinking”, “believing”, “coming”, “listening”, “following”, and “beholding.”   Only those who persevere in saving faith will be raised up at the last day (6:40).  There is no promise here for those who stop believing and no guarantee that those who begin to believe will inevitably endure in that faith.  The “all that” in verse 39 is the sum total of believers.  It is the corporate body of Christ and that body will certainly be “raised up at the last day” because that body is comprised of those who are presently and continually “believing” in the Son (vs. 40).

Romans 8:1

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

This promise applies only to those that are presently “in Christ Jesus”, and are no longer “controlled…by the sinful nature but by the Spirit.” Rom. 8:9.  As long as we remain “in Christ” we cannot be condemned, but if we fail to remain “in Christ”, by giving the sinful nature control (Rom. 8:12-14), we will certainly perish (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:7, 8; Jn 15:5, 6; James 4:4).

Philippians 1:6

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it in the day of Christ Jesus.

Does this verse then teach that one who begins in saving faith will inevitably continue in that faith until the “day of Christ Jesus?”  The advocates of unconditional security are trying to squeeze far more from this verse than was intended by Paul.  Paul was confident in the work of God being completed in the Philippians to whom he writes because he had every reason to believe that they would endure in the faith.  Paul explains why he has such confidence in them:  They have participated in the ministry of the gospel from the “first day until now.” (1:5) They have shared in grace with Paul in supporting his ministry and supporting him while in prison (1:7; 4:18, 19).  Paul is also confident that God will complete his work in them because he is praying for them and trusting God on their behalf (1:3, 9-11).

Since Paul has every reason to believe that they will continue in the faith based on their track record he can express his confidence that God will continue to work in them since God cannot fail to work in believers.  All believers who continue in the faith will see God’s work completed in them on the “day of Christ Jesus.”  Paul is not guaranteeing that they will make it to glory but only expressing his personal confidence in them based on his own experience of their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, Paul’s confidence is seen to be a cautious confidence in that he warns them to continue following his example of single minded commitment to the gospel of Christ lest they begin to focus instead on the things of this world and become enemies of the cross (3:17-19).  Paul still expresses concern that he may yet return to them and not find them standing firm in Christ, and for that reason encourages them to continually conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel (1:27).  In verses 12-13 we see that Paul has grounds for confidence in them since they have “always” obeyed, and yet he admonishes them to continue to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (2:12) If their destination was guaranteed there should be nothing for them to fear (cf. Rom. 11:19-22).  Yet they must continue to “work out” their salvation by yielding to the working of God within them (2:13).

Philippians 2:12-13 gets to the heart of the matter and provides the primary context by which we should understand Paul’s comments in 1:6.  God will complete His work in them but only as they continue to yield to that “working” within them.  If they continue to yield to the work of God within them God will certainly bring that work to completion (perfect it) on “the day of Christ Jesus.”  We cannot do this work in ourselves, God must do it.  We cannot even yield to the work of God in us on our own, but we can do “all things through Him” who strengthens us.  We are still called on to fearfully submit to God’s work and there is nothing in Paul’s words that would suggest that we cannot resist that work and fail to see it brought to perfection in us.  In fact, Philippians 2:13 suggests just the opposite.


In this series we have examined the primary passages that teach the possibility of apostasy and found that the Arminian understanding of perseverance best harmonizes with the teachings of those passages.  There are many other passages which could be called into service in support of the Arminian position but we have limited this study to those passages which speak most clearly on the subject.  We have also examined the primary passages that are commonly appealed to in support of unconditional security and found that they do not contradict the Arminian view of conditional perseverance.  It seems safe (and necessary) then to conclude  that the Arminian view of perseverance is the view that best harmonizes with the Biblical data and is therefore the Biblical view.

In our next and final post in this series we will argue that the Arminian view gives the strongest grounds for Biblical assurance as well despite contrary claims by those who hold to inevitable perseverance.

Go to Part 13

Go to Part 1

Perseverance of the Saints Part 11: Can Apostates Be Restored?

[revised on 7/17/08]

Is Restoration Really Impossible?

After studying the warning passages in Hebrews the question naturally arises: can an apostate ever be restored again to salvation?  Is the repudiation of saving faith irrevocable and the condition of the apostate permanent?

In this series we have attempted to let exegesis guide our theology.  I would like for the doctrine of eternal security to be true for many reasons just as I would prefer to believe that there is no place of eternal fire waiting for all those who reject Christ.  However, I believe that hell is a terrifying reality and that genuine believers can fall away from the faith to their own eternal ruin because I find that careful exegesis force these truths upon us.  In dealing with the question of whether or not apostates can be restored, we must look beyond what we would most like to believe and concern ourselves only with what the word of God teaches.

We have found in Hebrews 6:4 that it is impossible for the apostate to be renewed again to repentance.  The Bible is clear that only through repentance can one be saved (Acts 2:38; 11:18).  Hebrews 10:26 tells us that there is “no sacrifice for sins” remaining for the apostate.  “The apostate has sins but no available sacrifice for his sins.  Having rejected the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, there is no other sacrifice to which to turn.”  (F. Leroy Forlines, The Quest for Truth, pg. 281)

Some have focused on the part of the warning which states, “seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and exposed him to an open shame.”  Robert Picirilli notes that the “seeing” is provided by the translator as a transition showing cause and effect.  The literal meaning of the passage is “(they) re-crucifying to (or, for) themselves the Son of God and exposing (Him) to public shame.” (Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 222)  He later notes that some see in this passage the possibility of restoration from said apostasy.  He makes reference to Robert Shank’s suggestion that the passage should be understood as “It is impossible to renew them to repentance so long as they are crucifying…and publicly shaming Him.” (ibid. 223- emphasis mine).  Picirilli rightly points out that this view turns the warning into meaningless tautology:

Shank’s interpretation winds up saying that it is impossible to renew them to repentance so long as he persists in rejection- which is not much of a point since it is always impossible to bring anyone to repentance so long as he persists in rejection. (ibid. 224)

He then goes on to quote F.F. Bruce who calls this interpretation “a truism hardly worth putting into words.”  It makes far more sense to see the passage as speaking of the causal relationship between the act of apostasy and the result of that act (re-crucifying the Son of God and putting Him to open shame).

Apostasy and the Presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:30, 31

It is important to remember that the sin of apostasy described in Hebrews is an “eyes wide open” type of sin.  It is done with an attitude of arrogance and disbelief.  It is not a matter of doubting the truth of the gospel, but actively and deliberately repudiating that truth.  It is not an issue of struggling with sin and failing in that struggle, but fully and rebelliously surrendering to sin in a deliberate act of defiance towards God.  There is no way to accidentally slip into such an act and not realize it.  It is done deliberately and is an outright act of unbelief.

Forlines sees a connection between the sin of the apostate and the presumptuous sin that is described in Numbers 15:30, 31.  He writes:

I do not think there is any doubt that the writer of Hebrews meant to say that the ‘willful sin’ of Hebrews 10:26 was the same kind of sin as the presumptuous sin in Numbers 15:30, 31.  There was no sacrifice for the presumptuous sin.  There is an obvious connection between the words ‘There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins’ (verse 26) and the fact that there was no sacrifice for sins in the case of the presumptuous sins in Numbers 15:30, 31…Presumptuous sins were committed with a ‘high hand.’  They came from an attitude of arrogant, defiant, unbelief.  According to Numbers 15:30, 31, there was no sacrifice for presumptuous sins.  If, in fact, the sin of apostasy mentioned in Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-29 is to be equated with the presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:30, 31, that should settle forever the question of whether apostasy is without remedy. (The Quest for Truth, pg. 282)

Forlines is careful to distinguish between the presumptuous sin and “sins of ignorance”:

The Old Testament makes a clear distinction between sins of ignorance and presumptuous sins.  Sins of ignorance (also called “unintentional sins”) were basically sins of weakness.  The person who committed such a sin had better desires, but these desires were defeated.  The one committing such a sin was to offer a sacrifice (Num. 15:27-29)…Once we see the distinction between presumptuous sins and sins of ignorance in the Old Testament, it is clear that this distinction comes over in the New Testament.  It is evident that when Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34), He was considering the sins of those who crucified Him to be in the category of sins of ignorance.  In Acts 3:17, Peter said that the Jews had crucified Jesus through ignorance.  For that reason, they could be forgiven (Acts 3:19).  In describing himself before his conversion, Paul said, ‘Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.’  In explaining how it was that he could be forgiven, he said, ‘But I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief’ (1 Tim. 1:13).  It is clear that Paul was placing his sins of blasphemy and his persecution of the church in the category of sins of ignorance.  It was for that reason that they could be forgiven. (ibid. 282, 283)

And in the case of Peter he writes:

I believe that if Paul’s persecution of the church could be considered a sin of ignorance that surely Peter’s denial of Christ on the night of the betrayal of Christ should be considered a sin of ignorance (or weakness).  If that be true, the case of Peter would have no bearing on the question of whether there is or is not a remedy for apostasy. (ibid. 283)

We will return to the case of Peter shortly.  Forlines finds further evidence for the connection between presumptuous sins and apostasy in the description of the apostate teachers of 2 Peter 2:

Verse 10 of 2 Peter 2 sheds more light on the subject.  In this verse Peter describes these apostates teachers as tolmetes.  The KJV translates tolmetesas “presumptuous.”  The NASB renders it as “daring.”  The NIV translates it as “arrogant.”  Tolmetesoccurs only here in the New Testament.  Concerning its use here, J.A. Moyter explains, ‘The single occurrence of the noun (tolmetes) is clearly in the bad sense…, the arrogant man of 2 Peter 2:10 who brooks no restriction on self-will and recognizes no authority to which he will be answerable.’

It is clear that Peter is considering these false teachers to be guilty of the presumptuous sin of Numbers 15:30, 31.  The arrogant, defiance of these apostates gives a finality to their action.  Before they were saved they did not have this finality about their lost condition.  The presumptuous, daring, arrogant decision with which they committed apostasy means that it was done with finality.  This puts them in worse condition then they were before they were saved. (ibid. 284)

Practical Implications

I believe that Forlines has correctly identified apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10 with the unforgivable presumptuous sin of Num.15:30, 31 (though in the OT presumptuous sins might be any sin that is done in arrogant rebellion, whereas in Hebrews such a “sin” would pertain only to outright rejection of saving faith).  It would also be correct then to identify apostasy with the unpardonable sin described by Jesus in the Gospels. The important Biblical distinction between presumptuous sin and sins of ignorance will help us better understand what apostasy entails and what it does not entail:

I believe that we can rest assured that the person who comes to talk to us about his or her fears of having committed the unpardonable sin does not fit the description of the people described in 2 Peter 2:20, 21; Hebrews 6:4-6; and 10:26-29.  If there is concern to be restored to a right relationship with God, such a person has not committed apostasy. (ibid.)

It seems certain that the “sin unto death” described by John in 1 John 5:16-17 is the unforgivable sin of apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10.  This would suggest that one can, in certain situations, know that someone is an apostate without any hope of renewal since John instructs us not to pray for such types.  There is no need to pray for those who have sinned in such a way since there is no possibility for renewal.  Our prayers would therefore be a waste of time and would be better served towards those who have not yet committed apostasy.  This does not, however, mean that we can always tell when someone has committed irrevocable apostasy.  It only means that there are cases in which the apostasy could be obvious enough that we should not waste time praying for that person.  We need, however, to be careful not to make rash judgments concerning those who may seem to have committed apostasy.  Forlines gives us some good practical advice along these lines:

The people in the U.S. who have come to me with their fears have not said that, in their past, they had made a decision to denounce their faith in Christ.  The situation in Russia presented a different problem.  When I spoke on this subject there, some real concerns were expressed.  In a discussion period, someone said that he had known someone who under persecution had renounced his faith in Christ.  Later on the person had repented.

In order to evaluate a case like that we need to keep I mind the distinction between presumptuous sins and sins of ignorance.  It is not simply what a person does or says that determines the case.  Attitude is a decisive factor.  In explaining how he was able to get forgiveness for persecuting the church, Paul is certainly implying that if he had done what he had done “presumptuously,” there would have been no forgiveness.

We cannot imagine the suffering inflicted, in times past, upon some people in Russia [not to mention the early Christians] to get them to deny their faith.  Death was merciful in light of the severe torture to which some were subjected.  I think we should have to say that it was certainly possible for the lips to utter the words of a denial of faith that did not represent an arrogant, defiant, unbelief toward God.  If that be the case, the words of denial that the person uttered would not be equivalent to apostasy or shipwreck of faith.  It appears that there were some who spoke words of denial that did not in fact commit apostasy.  But I do not think that we can explain all cases that way…based on my experience in talking with people, I would caution preachers about jumping too quickly to the conclusion that the person who talks with them about having committed apostasy has, indeed done so.  I think it would be better to take it as a plea for help. (ibid. 284, 285)

Is There Another Type of Apostasy?

But is there perhaps a type of apostasy that can be remedied; an apostasy that does not constitute an outright repudiation of the faith from the heart?  There are several passages which speak plainly of the fact that those who live in sin will reap death and have no inheritance in the Kingdom of God (Rom. 8:12-13; Eph. 5:-7; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7-8).  These warnings are directed toward believers.  Is it possible that one can fall into a pattern of sin and rebellion without fully repudiating the Lord in their heart?

I think that the evidence is clear that believers are warned against living in sin with the consequence of such lifestyles being spiritual death and being cut off from God’s Kingdom.  Would such a lifestyle only be possible after one finally apostatizes from the faith?  The writer of Hebrews again and again warns his readers of the deceitfulness and terrible hardening affects of continued sin.  This hardening, if left unchecked, will ultimately lead to that dreadful act of apostasy from which there is no possibility of restoration.

The case of Peter may serve as an example.  We have determined that Peter did not commit apostasy as described in Hebrews, but it seems clear that Peter did commit some form of apostasy since Jesus speaks of when he shall be again “converted” or “turned back.” (Luke 22:31, 32).  There was a sense, then, in which Peter turned from the Lord.  Why else should he need to be converted again?

Perhaps there is an apostasy from which one can be restored.  But it may be that these passages are warning against a life characterized by sin because such a life will soon lead to apostasy.  So when Paul speaks of not inheriting the Kingdom of God, he is speaking of what will happen if sinful living persists to the point of apostasy.  One who sows to please the flesh will surely reap spiritual death and eternal destruction, but only if one does not repent. Therefore, the dreadful consequence looks ahead to what will inevitably transpire if sin is not dealt with.  Sin is extremely dangerous because if one persists in it and does not fight against it, apostasy and spiritual death lie just around the corner.

James reminds his Christian readers [brothers] that, “if one should wander from the truth and someone bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20)  What does James mean here?  Is he suggesting that one who wanders away from the truth can experience a spiritual death and yet be restored again?  Or is he merely saying that the wandering saint is being rescued from the spiritual death that surely awaits him if he persists in sin and continues to wander to the point of outright apostasy?  Either interpretation seems possible.

And what of 1 John 2:11, 15?  John plainly tells us that anyone who hates his brother is in darkness and does not possess eternal life.  Is it impossible then for a Christian to ever hate?  Such a conclusion seems very unlikely.  Don’t these passages then tell us that spiritual death results when a believer hates his brother? But again, John may only be speaking of persistence in hate which is characteristic of unbelief.   While a Christian may hate his brother, he will not persist in that hatred unto spiritual death.  Rather, he will yield to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, confess his sin and be cleansed from all unrighteousness.  Persistence in hatred would then indicate that one has become an unbeliever.

In Romans 11:23 we are told that the unbelieving Jews (branches) may yet be grafted in again if they do not persist in unbelief.  Many have concluded from this that apostasy can be remedied.  However, it may be that these Jews would fall into the same category as Paul before his conversion.  They had been broken off due to their rejection of the Christ but that rejection may be the result of ignorance which would therefore make restoration possible.  However, Paul does not hold out hope for those Gentile believers who have been grafted in by faith in Jesus Christ.  He tells them that they should not be arrogant, but afraid because if they fail to continue in God’s grace they too will be broken off.  Paul says nothing of the possibility of their being grafted in again.  Perhaps this is because for them being broken off could only result from outright apostasy from which there is no possibility of restoration.

What then of Peter’s second “conversion?” His turning back may simply be a description of his repentance.  If what we have concluded about the nature of apostasy is true, then this would further confirm that Peter’s denials did not constitute apostasy.  If he had committed apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10, it would have been impossible for him to “turn back.”

But what about those who have gradually stopped living according to their faith without outright repudiation of that faith?  Is it still possible to become an apostate of sorts without repudiating the faith in quite the same prideful way as described in Hebrews 6 and 10?  Some of the passages above could fit comfortably with such a concept and at least two more passages come to mind that might make room for such an apostasy:

Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!  Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you- unless indeed you failed the test? (1 Cor. 13:5)

Paul’s words seem to suggest that one could abandon saving faith without being fully aware of it.  For this reason, we need to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith.  It seems possible then that a believer can slowly slip away from the faith while clinging to the false hope that he or she is still saved.  In other words, a believer may begin to cling to the world and indulge the sinful nature more and more until his faith is no longer characterized by true trust and surrender to Christ as Lord and Savior.  For this reason, we are admonished to examine ourselves and be sure that we are living in faith.  If our lives do not reflect the walk of faith, then we have no grounds for presuming to be in saving relationship with Christ (Rom. 8:12-14).  We cannot assume that Christ’s grace continues for those who desire to live for themselves, even while claiming to believe on Christ (Titus 2:11-14).  To be in the faith means more than just head belief.  It is a faith that affects our lives and attitudes.  It is dangerous business to assume that the grace of God allows for us to live any way we want as long as we continue to give lip service to the Lord:

They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed. (Titus 1:16)

If we examine ourselves and find that our profession of faith is nothing more than mere profession, then we have “failed the test” and as a result, Christ is not in us.  If Christ is not in us then we are surely lost (Rom. 8:9).  Is there any hope of restoration from such an abandonment of saving faith?  Paul does not explicitly affirm the possibility of restoration, but his words seem to suggest the possibility.  There is reason to examine ourselves.   The reason would seem to be for the purpose of returning to the faith and re-committing ourselves fully to the Lord.

So perhaps this would constitute an apostasy that can yet be remedied.  This would then not be the same as the apostasy described in Hebrews 6 and 10 which seems to be characterized by an attitude of arrogance and deliberate unbelief.  In either case we need to guard ourselves against complacency in our walk with the Lord.  If we begin to take God’s grace for granted and make room for sin and rebellion in our lives, there is no guarantee that we will not continue down that path to our own destruction, and even to a point of making restoration impossible.  We should heed well the words of the inspired apostle:

Grace and knowledge be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence…Now for this reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.  For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For he who lacks these qualities is blind or shortsighted, having forgotten his purification form his former sins.  Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. (2 Peter 1:2-11-emphasis mine).

There are several things to note in this passage.  First, God gives us the power we need to persevere in saving faith.  It is not something we can do of our own strength.  Second, the walk of faith should not be stagnant.  It should be a walk of continual growth and maturity.  If we are not maturing in our faith then we are putting ourselves at risk of falling away from that faith.  Third, Peter makes it clear that those who do not persevere and mature in their faith were truly forgiven of their past sins though they have forgotten the significance of their initial cleansing.  Therefore, Peter is not just speaking of false professors who had never experienced saving faith.  Fourth, only by continuing in the maturity of faith does one make his calling and election sure, avoid stumbling [falling] and gain the certainty of entering the eternal kingdom of Christ.

It may be wise then to make a distinction between apostasy and irrevocable apostasy based on these passages.  There is certainly an apostasy that cannot be remedied if our exegesis of the Hebrews warning passages is correct.  However, it also seems that there may be a lesser apostasy.  This apostasy is not lesser because spiritual death does not result, but because there may still be hope of restoration through repentance and re-commitment to Christ in saving faith.

Conclusion:  The evidence seems clear that apostasy as described in Hebrews 6 and 10 is a deliberate act of rebellious unbelief.  It is done with all the heart in an attitude of arrogance and defiance.  Occasional doubts or struggles with sin do not constitute such apostasy.  Rather, it is the act of willfully walking away from Christ and completely rejecting the truth of the gospel once embraced.  This apostasy is without remedy since “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.”

There are passages that seem to suggest that there is a type of apostasy from which one may yet be restored.  However, some of these passages may also be understood as warnings against the sinful lifestyles that will inevitably result in apostasy if those sins are not dealt with through confession and repentance.  They may be emphasizing the dangers of sin by looking ahead to the most dreadful of consequences if that sin is persistently ignored and surrendered to.  Still, there are a few passages that may yet describe an apostasy from which one may be restored again to faith and salvation.  This apostasy could be described as no longer living according to the faith one professes (1 Cor. 13:5; Titus 1:16).  It would, for this reason, fall short of the outright rebellious abandonment of faith described in Hebrews 6 and 10.

Sin can lead to apostasy by hardening the heart to the point of unbelief.  That is why sin is such a dangerous thing and should never be trivialized in the life of the believer.  If believers persist in sinful living and refuse to repent, irrevocable apostasy may be just around the corner.  This “sinning” could be the unrepentant indulgence of the flesh, or the gradual tolerance of false teaching.  There is still hope of restoration and repentance prior to the decisive act of willful unbelief.  We can therefore be sure that if one desires to repent and be restored to right relationship with the Lord that irrevocable apostasy has not yet occurred.

While there will be cases of outright apostasy that we can observe and conclude with certainty that apostasy has occurred, there are other times where it will not be so easy to determine whether irrevocable apostasy has taken place.  We should hold out hope for the one who appears to have committed such apostasy as long as some doubt remains concerning the genuineness of the act.

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Related Post: Does Scripture Describe Two Types of Apostasy?

For a solid alternative view from an Arminian scholar, see Brian Abasciano, My Argument for Apostasy Not Being Irremediable in Hebrews 6

Perseverance of the Saints Part 10: Examining Wilderness Typology in Hebrews

Some Calvinists have argued that the frequent references to the wandering Israelites in the desert suggest that the writer of Hebrews is not addressing apostasy from true faith.  It is assumed that the wandering generation who failed to enter the Promised Land never had a saving faith relationship with the Lord.  Since the writer of Hebrews uses the wandering generation as an example or object lesson for the situation being addressed among his readers, it is argued that this indicates that he does not consider those he warns of apostasy to be truly regenerated believers.  In other words, if we have good reason to doubt that the wilderness generation of Israelites who failed to enter the Promised Land was saved, then we have reason to doubt that those the writer of Hebrews warns, while holding up those Israelites as an example, were really saved either.  I believe this approach fails for the following reasons:

Whose Hearts Were in Danger of Being Hardened?

The writer of Hebrews sees apostasy as the end result of a hardened heart.  This is especially emphasized in Hebrews chapter 3 which is also the primary chapter that makes frequent references to the wilderness generation of Israelites.  Who then is being warned not to harden their hearts and to heed the voice of God in chapter 3?  In the first verse of Hebrews 3 the inspired writer makes clear that his warning is directed to “holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling” who have confessed Christ.  We have already determined that the writer of Hebrews sees holiness in terms of the soul cleansing benefits of the atonement, and we have no reason to believe that he considers their confession of Christ to be anything less than genuine.  Therefore, we have very good reason for concluding that the writer of Hebrews sees the very ones that he has determined to warn, while using the illustration of the wilderness Israelites, as truly saved.  There is no indication that he shifts his attention away from these “holy brethren” to some potential converts, who have not yet embraced the gospel, in the admonitions that directly follow.  In verse 12 he ties the warning directly to these same “brethren”:

Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.  But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (verses 12, 13)

What sense would it make to say to unbelievers, “Take care…that there not be in any one of you an evil unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God?”  Why shouldn’t unbelievers have an evil and unbelieving heart?  Does it make sense to warn unbelievers against falling away from God?  This is not a call to conversion but a warning to those who are already converted.  We can plainly see this in the fact that the writer of Hebrews then calls on them to “encourage one another day after day…so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”  Are unbelievers to encourage each other?  Are they to encourage each other in unbelief or in a faith that they do not yet possess?  Verse 16 then returns to the example of the wilderness generation, “For who provoked Him when they heard?  Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses?”  It would be wise for us to consider carefully why the writer of Hebrews makes such a statement.  I believe it is an important clue for how we should understand the intended parallel between the wilderness generation and those being addressed in this letter which leads us to the second problem with the Calvinist appeal to this OT parallel:

The Parallel of Deliverance and Redemption

We need to notice two things that the writer of Hebrews wants us to focus on in verse 16 (above).  First, we see that these Israelites “came out of Egypt.”  How does this relate to his present audience?  It seems quite clear throughout the epistle that the writer of Hebrews sees his audience as those who, like the Israelites in the desert, have “come out of Egypt.”  They have experienced a very real deliverance.  The Israelites experienced deliverance from the bondage of Egypt and the intended audience of Hebrews have experienced deliverance from the bondage of sin (and perhaps Jewish ritual as well if we hold to the view that it is primarily Jews that are being addressed).  The other important feature of this passage is that these Israelites were “led by Moses.”  Just as the Israelites of the Exodus followed Moses out of the bondage of Egypt, so have these present believers escaped the bondage of sin and law by becoming followers of Jesus Christ, Who has been proclaimed Moses’ superior in every way (3:1-6).

The writer of Hebrews never questions the initial deliverance of his audience; rather, he plainly assumes it throughout his epistle.   His main concern is that they continue to follow and obey Christ so they will not fail to enter that eternal rest which belongs only to those who endure to the end in saving faith (3:6, 14).  The lesson that needs to be learned is that the Israelites initial deliverance did not guarantee them the rest of the promised land, and the initial deliverance of these believers does not guarantee them the eternal rest of the Messianic Kingdom.  If these believers cease to heed the voice of God and begin to give way to sin and disobedience then they are in danger of missing the goal of their faith.  This is as far as the parallel was intended to be understood.  We see further confirmation of this in Chapter 11 where the heroes of faith are held up as examples for these believers to emulate:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on earth.  For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own.  And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

These were commended for dying in the faith without yet fully receiving the promise and for not returning to the country that they left behind (which seems to mean only that they did not fall back into unbelief but held to the promises of God by faith).  By faith they continued towards the goal and refused to return in their hearts to that “country” from which they had been led.  We see again that the issue is not whether or not they had experienced initial faith but whether or not they continued in their faith journey towards the ultimate goal of their faith.  This was the case of the wandering generation of Israelites as well.  They had left Egypt in faith but later returned to Egypt in their hearts.  It was these same delivered Israelites who later provoked God’s anger in the wilderness through disobedience and unbelief and were therefore denied access into the Promised Land (3:17-19).  There is a greater promise for the believers that the writer of Hebrews is addressing to attain, but they too will fall short of receiving that promise if, after being delivered, they return again to Egypt (Judaism?) in their hearts.  Like the wandering Israelites they are in a state “between” initial deliverance and final rest (which in their case is the reception of an eternal rest rather than the temporal possession of a promised land).  For this reason they are being encouraged to continue in their faith and lay hold of the promise because they have not yet arrived and may, like the Israelites of old, tragically fall short of the promised rest that awaits them (4:1).  As believers in Jesus Christ they are in the process of entering that rest, but that process can fail to reach fruition if faith is not ultimately maintained (4:2-11).  Grant R. Osborne gives us a concise summary of how the wilderness typology is being used by the writer of Hebrews:

Wilderness typology was quite prevalent in the early church as illustrative of both judgment and reward.  Both 1 Cor. 10:1-13 and Jude 5 make it a warning against the dangers of sin.  The obvious inference in all three passages is that one dare not trust his original “deliverance” from sin and lapse into apathy, but must persevere in his walk with Christ.  Ps. 95:7b-11, used by the writer as the basis for his splendid midrash here, was sung by Jews as part of their Sabbath worship in the temple.  The readers probably understood it in this fashion, especially since verses 1-7a of the psalm consist of a call to worship.  The obvious inference is that one must listen to God- “Today if you hear His voice” (vv. 7, 15)- and that listening includes obedience. (Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock)

Exactly.  Apathy towards sin, immaturity, and disobedience are all closely connected and will eventually lead to outright unbelief and rejection (2:1-4; 3:17-19; 4:6, 11; 6:1-8; 10:26; 121-2, 15-17, 25).  Hebrews 5:11 states that his readers have “become dull of hearing” and verse 12 rebukes them for their lack of maturity which leads to the dreadful warning in Hebrews 6:4-8 concerning those who have “fallen away.”  Hence the repeated imperative: “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (3:7, 8, 13, 15; 4:7)  This is the same thing being expressed by the metaphor of the field (6:7, 8).  The land that is being described does not begin in a hardened state but begins in a softened and broken state which can absorb the rain and yield good fruit, and is therefore speaking of those who are already believers (vs. 7).  However, if the land becomes hardened (due to apathy towards sin and continual disobedience), then that field can no longer soak in sufficient rain for producing useful vegetation (vs. 8).  Instead it can only produce weeds and thistles.  The hardened land represents those believers who have hardened their hearts to God’s voice to the point of “falling away” from the living God.  The thorns and thistles are the evidence of apostasy and evokes the curse of God.  There is grave danger for the believer in becoming apathetic towards sin for it can lead to the most dreadful of all spiritual consequences.  This is one of the main themes of the entire epistle.

The Wandering Israelites had Experienced True Faith

We need to also point out that there is strong Biblical evidence that the Israelites who had been delivered from Egypt had indeed entered into covenant relationship with God through faith (even though the illustration would still pose no difficulty for the Arminian view if it could be shown that the entire generation had never experienced saving faith).  It would be quite the stretch to think that the Israelites putting blood on their doorposts in obedience to Moses’ command was anything less than an act of faith (Exodus 12:28, cf. Hebrews 11:28).  They trusted that God was about to deliver them and that He would provide for them since they did not make provisions for their exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:39).  Should we really believe that the Israelites observed the Passover in unbelief (especially since unbelief is correlated with disobedience in Hebrews 3:18 and 19)?  They were obedient and they trusted God and God redeemed them as a result (notice especially that in Hebrews 11:29 we are told that, “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land…”).

So we see that the Israelites began their journey in faith; but is there any reason to believe that they exercised faith again after their initial deliverance?  After God destroyed the Egyptians in the Red Sea we read:

When Israel saw the great power which the Lord had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

And in the song of Moses and Israel we read, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise Him; my father’s God and I will exalt Him.” (Ex. 15:2)

We also find that the people affirmed their commitment to the Lord and His covenant in Ex. 19:7-9; 24:3, 7-8.  What then do we make of Hebrews 3:10 and 11?

Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know my ways’; as I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’

It would seem that the Lord is speaking of a general pattern of rebellion that hardened the hearts of the Israelites to the point of outright unbelief. They refused to believe that God could give them the land of Canaan because there were giants in the land (Num. 13:26-14:10).  They were therefore denied access into that land.  This does not mean that these Israelites never exercised genuine faith in God.  Rather it illustrates the importance of resisting the deceitfulness of sin and continually heeding the voice of God.  If we continue to spurn his voice we will harden our hearts and make it harder for us to trust and obey God to the point of unbelief and apostasy.  That is what the writer of Hebrews is warning his readers about.  We need to be careful not to draw too much from the example of the wandering generation since even though they were denied access into the Promised Land and died in the wilderness (Num. 14:30-35); they were still forgiven by God for their sin (Num. 14:20).  Failure to enter the Promised Land did not necessarily constitute loss of salvation (since both Moses and Aaron were denied access), while failure to enter God’s eternal rest certainly does.

Conclusion:  The use of OT parallel between the wilderness generation of Israelites and the intended audience of the epistle to the Hebrews poses no threat to the Arminian interpretation.  In fact, the Arminian position is supported by the specific way that the writer of Hebrews uses the example of the wandering generation.  The intended audience of the epistle had been redeemed from sin just as the Israelites of the exodus had been redeemed from Egypt.  They, like the wilderness generation, are considered God’s chosen covenant people who have heard and responded to God’s voice but must continue to hear and respond to God’s voice in order to reach the ultimate goal of their faith: eternal rest in God’s Kingdom.

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Perseverance of the Saints Part 9: Hebrews 10:32-39

We finish our exegetical examination of the warning passage in Hebrews 10 with verses 32-39:

[32] But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, [33] partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. [34] For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have a better possession and a lasting one.  [35] Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. [36] For you have need of endurance, so that when you will have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. [37] ‘For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. [38] But My righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’  [39] But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (NASB)

Verse 32:  “But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings.”

Here we encounter the word “enlightened” again.  Grudem argued that the term was used only of hearing the gospel in Hebrews 6:4, and therefore had no reference to any saving experience.  Verse 32, however would strongly suggest otherwise.  Here the writer of Hebrews uses the same word to describe those who were truly saved and the fact that they were “enlightened” seems to have reference to conversion rather than just hearing the gospel message.  His audience is instructed to remember that after they had been “enlightened” they “endured a great conflict of sufferings.”  Verses 33 and 34 give us more information regarding what these “sufferings” entailed.  They suffered by being made a “public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations” and they accepted “joyfully” the seizure of property, “knowing that [they had] a better possession and a lasting one.”

These had suffered joyfully for the sake of the gospel and yet we are to believe that this enlightening had reference to only hearing the gospel?  Such a shallow concept of “enlightened” simply does not fit the description that immediately follows.  It makes no sense to say that as the result of merely “hearing the gospel” they endured a great suffering.  Many hear the gospel, reject it, and suffer nothing for it.  It is only those who embrace and appropriate the gospel by faith that are willing to suffer for it.

It should be clear, based on the context, that “enlightened” means far more than just “hearing the gospel” to the inspired writer of Hebrews.  It has reference to conversion itself which only reinforces the contention that the “enlightened” apostates of Hebrews 6:4 were truly saved prior to having “fallen away.”  We also find that these “enlightened” ones gladly suffered the seizure of their property because they knew that they had a “better possession and a lasting one.” (verse 34b)  That can only mean that they were looking forward to the heavenly reward of their faith and proves that they were indeed in the faith since faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1)  They had already passed one test of faith and were now being called on to pass yet another.  The reminder of their past success is for the purpose of strengthening their resolve that they might not “shrink back” from the faith they began with (see comments on verse 38 below).

Verses 35 and 36: “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.  For you have need of endurance, so that when you will have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.”

Notice that the inspired writer is not admonishing them to gain confidence (i.e. believe the gospel and be converted), but to keep the confidence that they already have.  They are being told to endure in their faith which plainly assumes that their present faith is genuine.  In fact, their faith has been proven so by the way they had responded to prior trials.  However, they cannot rest on what they had done in the past but must continue to press on in the face of present trials to gain the promised reward of final salvation.  They “have need of endurance.”  The inspired writer never questions whether or not his readers have genuine faith.  He only questions whether or not that faith will last.  This is the main concern of the entire epistle.  Verses 37-39 decisively drive this truth home:

‘For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay. But My righteous one will live by faith; and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.’  But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

Just as Hebrews 6:7-8 conclude as a further description of the apostates in verses 4-6 so do verses 10:37-38 conclude as a further description of the apostate spoken of in verses 26-31.  The point that is very important here is that the servant who “shrinks back” in verse 38b is not a different servant from the one who lives by faith in verse 38a.  It is the same servant, “and if he [that same servant] shrinks back [from the faith that made him righteous], my soul has no pleasure in him.”  Robert Shank quotes Franz Delitzsch:

The subject in both clauses is the same- the just man, the man who is justified by faith; and in the sense in which hupostellesthai is here used is that of not keeping faith, wavering in faith, forsaking the path of faith and the community of the faithful.  The just man, the man accepted before God, lives by faith; but if he loses his faith, and faithlessly draws back from the right path, his acceptance is forfeited.  That such apostasy is possible even for those who have been truly justified, i.e., for Christians who have more than a superficial experience of divine grace, is one of the main points of instruction in this epistle. [Life in The Son, 163]

It cannot be overstated that the servant is described in verse 38a as “righteous” by God Himself.  It will not do to say that the servant only appeared righteous, for the Lord Himself confirms the servant’s justification.  This righteousness is due to a life of faith.  However, if that same righteous servant were to shrink back from the faith that justified him, then the Lord would no longer take pleasure in him.  And why not? Because “without faith it is impossible to please Him”(Heb. 11:6).  What happens to those who shrink back?  Verse 39 tells us that they shrink back “to destruction.”

Adam Clarke is even more frank with his comments concerning the servant mentioned in this passage as well as the erroneous translation of the KJV:

But if any man draw back] kai ean uposteilhtai. But if he draw back; he, the man who is justified by faith; for it is of him, and none other,that the text speaks. The insertion of the words any man, if done to servethe purpose of a particular creed, is a wicked perversion of the words ofGod. They were evidently intended to turn away the relative from the antecedent, in order to save the doctrine of final and unconditional perseverance; which doctrine this text destroys.  (Commentary: Hebrews pg. 209, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

This is detrimental to Grudem’s exegesis.  If Heb. 10:37-38 speaks of the same servant, then we have even more reason to believe that Hebrews 6:7-8 has reference to the same land.  The servant of 10:37-38 shrinks back from the faith which had made him righteous, and the land which once bore fruitful vegetation in 6:7-8 later bears thorns and thistles upon “falling away” from the faith.  These are not descriptions of irrevocable reprobates who rejected the gospel message upon hearing it; these are descriptions of true believers who have turned away from the truth that they had once fully embraced.

It is significant that the writer of Hebrews altered the text from which he drew this warning.  The LXX reference in Habakkuk speaks of one who is puffed up in pride shrinking back contrasted with the righteous one who lives by faith, “See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright-[Septuagint: And if he shrinks back I will not be pleased with him.] but the righteous will live by faith.” (Simon J. Kistemaker, Hebrews, pg. 302)

Donald A. Hagner explains the significance of the altered reference:

The author also transposes the clause of Hab. 2:4 (which the LXX begins with the words, ‘but if any of them shrinks back’) so that it is the righteous one who must directly confront the possibility of turning back and experiencing the displeasure of the Lord.  The author thus accepts the messianic understanding of the passage (as in the LXX) but applies Heb. 2:4 to the Christian believer (despite the singular, my righteous one). (NIBC Hebrews, pg. 176, emphasis his)

If the writer of Hebrews was trying to express what Grudem believes he was trying to express (that the apostate never had justifying faith) then the Habakkuk text would have better served the author’s purpose left as it was originally penned.  Instead, the author of Hebrews deliberately changed [inverted] the reference to describe a single servant who shrinks from the faith which had previously justified him before God.  That the writer of Hebrews changed the reference in such a way further demonstrates that he understands and defines apostasy as the decisive repudiation of justifying faith once held.

In verse 39 the author expresses confidence that his intended audience has not presently abandoned the faith and is given as positive encouragement in order to complement the negative encouragement of the previous warnings.  The inspired author is not expressing infallible confidence that they will persevere since even in Calvinism no such infallible assurance can be given to another.  While he is supremely hopeful that these “justified servants” will not shrink back, he cannot be certain.  Such uncertainty is the basis for the dire warnings and urgent encouragements which preceded verse 39.


We have found in verses 32-39 further confirmation that our exegesis of Hebrews 10:26-31 was accurate.  One who is both justified by faith and sanctified by the blood of Christ can yet shrink back from the faith and face eternal punishment as an enemy of God.  We also gained further insight into the warnings expressed in Hebrews 6:4-8 by confirming that “enlightened” has reference to the experience of conversion and not just exposure to the gospel message.

We have also discovered that the metaphor of the land in Hebrews 6:7-8 parallels the description of the righteous servant who shrinks back from the faith in Hebrews 10:38.  This undermines Grudem’s main thesis which was built on the errant assumption that the metaphor in 6:7-8 had reference to two lands rather than one.  Just as it is the same justified servant who shrinks back from saving faith in Heb. 10:38; so it is the same productive land which ceases to bear fruitful vegetation and instead bears thorns and thistles upon “falling away” from the faith.  The servant (10:28 ) and the land (6:7-8 ) are both “destroyed” and “burned” as the result of  falling away from faith once held.

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Perseverance of the Saints Part 8: What Kind of Sanctification is Being Described in Hebrews 10:29?

We now examine another interpretation that looks to make this sanctification merely outward with no internal reality. It looks to compare the sanctification described in 10:29 with the outward ceremonial cleansing referred to under the old covenant in 9:9 and 9:13.

Peterson and Williams see it as “a covenantal sanctification in which persons are set apart as part of God’s covenant community, the church, but are not necessarily saved.” They conclude that “covenantal but not saving ‘sanctification’ appears in Heb. 9:13 and 1 Corinthians 7:14. In view of the contrast here between the Old and New Covenant, we interpret “sanctified” to mean set apart by virtue of the covenant as belonging to God.” (Why I Am Not An Arminian pg. 86)

Grudem follows this basic understanding by citing numerous passages, most of which occur outside of Hebrews, that do not necessarily have reference to inward sanctification. He then concludes:

These other examples do not of course prove that hagiazo in Hebrews 10:29 must refer to something other than the internal sanctification that accompanies salvation, but they mean that we should not assume that hagiazo means saving sanctification either. Moreover, the entire context in which 10:29 occurs, from 9:1 to 10:39, is concerned with parallels between the Old Testament Levitical sacrifices and the better new covenant sacrifice of Christ. Because a ceremonial focus pervades this context, a ceremonial sense of sanctify would be appropriate in 10:29. This is especially true in the immediate context of 10:19-31, for the author is speaking of the fact that the congregation in general has a ‘new and living way’ (10:20) available by the blood of Jesus, and therefore can ‘enter the sanctuary’ (10:19) and “draw near” (10:22) into God’s presence. (Still Sovereign, pp.177, 178).

So for Grudem, Peterson, and Williams it seems that “sanctified by the blood of the covenant” means little more than “given the right to go to church and assemble with believers as they worship.” This is not only extremely weak but impossible to sustain in light of the very context to which Grudem appeals. Before we examine this context we need to note that Peterson and Williams have probably gone too far and hurt their position by stating that “sanctified” means “set apart by virtue of the covenant as belonging to God.” Are they then asserting that an eternally and irrevocably condemned reprobate is “set apart by virtue of the covenant as belonging to God?” Such a thing does not seem friendly to their position at all and may betray the difficulty of describing this sanctification as anything less than that which accompanies salvation. Unfortunately, they did not bother to further explain how such a thing could be said of reprobates who have never belonged to God in any covenantal sense, so we can only speculate.

As we noted in my last post concerning who is sanctified in Hebrews 10:29, the context of the passages in question has to do with a comparison between a “sanctification” that is merely outward, performed by sinful priests, and a “sanctification” that is inward, performed by the holy Priest King, Jesus Christ. We noted that the main focus is the cleansing power of Christ’s blood in contrast to the blood of animals which can never remove sin or cleanse the conscience. The point is that Christ’s blood brings forgiveness and makes believers holy and acceptable in God’s sight, which makes Christ and His eternal priesthood far superior to that priestly ministry of the OT.

Grudem is correct in assuming that the context of the passage has to do with making worshippers fit to enter the presence of God, but he has not gone far enough. The only reason that these worshippers can “‘enter the sanctuary’ (10:19) and “draw near” (10:22) into God’s presence” is because these worshippers have been truly sanctified with the soul cleansing blood of Jesus Christ. They have been made fit and acceptable to enter God’s presence and boldly approach the throne of grace only because they have been truly purified through faith in the Son of God and have been forgiven and made holy on the merits of His blood. What Grudem seems to be suggesting is that some sort of “outward” cleansing has made these worshippers fit to enter God’s presence (which to Grudem means little more than going to church as noted above); but will the context bear this out?

The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing, which is a symbol for the present time. Accordingly both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make the worshipper perfect in conscience, since they relate to food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until a time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:8-10)

The inspired writer is concerned with demonstrating that the way to enter God’s presence under the Old Covenant is obsolete and has come to an end. It was inadequate to truly purify and was therefore a shadow of the fulfillment that was yet to come (“a time of reformation”).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. (9:11-12)

Only through Christ’s blood can one truly enter the holy place in the New Covenant which has surpassed and supplanted the Old Covenant. Only those redeemed by His blood have access with and through Him to the holy place and into God’s presence. It is no longer possible for someone to enter God’s presence through that which provides only an outward cleansing because the Old Covenant has been replaced with the New which demands that God’s worshippers enter His presence truly purified by the blood of His dear Son. The writer of Hebrews is not saying that there remains a “sanctification” that is merely outward by which sinners can go to church with believers or hang out undetected with true worshippers. He is stating in no uncertain terms that the only sanctification available by which one can enter God’s presence is that wrought by the blood of Christ which forgives and purifies sinners who put their faith in Him….

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (9:13, 14)

Grudem appeals to verse thirteen to support his theory that the sanctification described in 10:29 is merely outward. The problem with this suggestion is that the context works against it since the writer is again describing the replacing of the Old Covenant with the new due to the inadequacies of the Old Covenant. The inspired writer is in no way suggesting that one can still receive an outward cleansing through the blood of animals for the purpose of approaching God in worship. Rather, he is stating that the New Covenant is superior and the Old Covenant obsolete because Christ’s blood provides real inner cleansing of the soul (see Hebrews 8:6-13).

Hebrews 10:1-18 continues to emphasize the replacement of the Old Covenant with that of the New Covenant with particular attention being placed on the fact that Christ’s blood is superior because it provides a once for all atonement by which the sins of those who approach God are forgiven. Consider especially verses 11-14:

Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until his enemies be made a footstool for his feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (emphasis mine)

The context suggests that “perfected” has specific reference to forgiveness of sins (cf. 10:1). The blood of the New Covenant is superior because it provides forgiveness for those who are being sanctified as a result of that atonement. Those who are being sanctified in this passage are those who are benefiting from the forgiveness wrought by Christ’s sacrifice through faith in His blood (cf. Rom. 3:25). It is an inward and real sanctification. This leads us to the climax of this teaching and the practical implications of it in verses 19-25.

Let’s review and draw a few conclusions based on the context and the suggested interpretations of Grudem, Peterson, and Williams.

1) The context makes it plain that there are only two possible cleansings in view. The first cleansing [sanctification] is that of the Old Covenant which was merely outward and did not take away sins. This cleansing was by the blood of animals which foreshadowed the inauguration of the New Covenant. The second cleansing [sanctification] is that of the New Covenant. This cleansing is inward, brings forgiveness of sin, and makes worshippers holy so that they can draw near to God in confidence. There is no third cleansing in the context of these chapters! It is either an out ward sanctification wrought by the blood of animals, or it is an inward sanctification wrought by the blood of Christ. Therefore, if our Calvinist writers want to say that the sanctification described in 10:29 is merely outward then they must also affirm that it is wrought by the blood of animals under the Old Covenant.

2) The New Covenant in Christ’s blood has replaced and made obsolete the Old Covenant. There is only one way that someone can be “sanctified by the blood of the covenant”, and that must be the blood of the New Covenant since the Old Covenant no longer exists (Heb. 8:6-13; 9:8-10; 10:1-18). Therefore, the apostate described as sanctified by the blood of the covenant could only have been sanctified by the blood of the New Covenant since there is no longer any other sanctification or covenant available.

3) Hebrews 10:28 and 29 reinforces the fact that the apostate has been sanctified under the New Covenant since he deserves a more severe punishment than those who were under the Old Covenant.

4) The connection and uninterrupted flow of thought from 10:19 to 10:29 makes it clear that the blood which sanctified the apostate is the same as the blood of Jesus which gives believers confidence to enter the holy place:

Therefore, brethren, since we [believers] have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…if we [believers] go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…and [the believer who so apostatizes] has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant [that same blood of Jesus by which the believer had confidence to enter the holy place in verse 19] by which he was sanctified…

5) It would be nonsense to say that the apostate has trampled under foot the Son of God because he rejected and regarded as unclean the blood of bulls and goats which only gave him an outward sanctification. The outrage of the apostate’s actions is firmly connected to the fact that he regarded the blood of the covenant “by which he was sanctified” as unholy [common]. Therefore, the blood could only be Christ’s blood as there would be no outrage in regarding the blood of animals as unholy under the New Covenant, nor would such a thing constitute the trampling under foot of the Son of God.

Contrary to the assertions of Grudem, Peterson, and Williams, the context is plainly against their interpretation. It is the soul cleansing blood of Christ that has been under consideration as that which replaces the Old Covenant blood of animals in the two chapters leading up to this warning. Furthermore, verse 19 plainly indicates that Christ’s blood is that which is again in sharp focus leading up to the description of the apostate.

We applaud Peterson and Williams for finding the suggestion that the one sanctified in Hebrews 10:29 is Christ to be “contrived.” However, we find it just as contrived to suggest that the blood of the covenant that sanctified the apostate was anything less than the blood of Christ by which the apostate was inwardly sanctified prior to repudiating the faith. The only interpretation which is faithful to the context is that which admits that one who has been truly sanctified with Christ’s blood can yet abandon the faith to his or her eternal destruction.

In our next post we will examine Hebrews 10:32-39.

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Perseverance of the Saints Part 7: Who is Sanctified in Hebrews 10:29?

We will now examine one of the alternative interpretations offered by the proponents of unconditional security concerning the apostate of Hebrews 10:29 being “sanctified by the blood of the covenant”.  Calvinists are well aware that if the text is stating that the apostate had truly been sanctified by Christ’s blood, then their doctrine cannot stand.  It is for this reason that these alternative interpretations are offered despite the clear language of the warning.The first attempt is to assert that the one sanctified by the blood of the covenant is not the apostate at all, but Christ Himself.  Grudem does not hold to this view but believes it is worthy of careful consideration (Still Sovereign, pg. 178, footnote #91), while Calvinists Peterson and Williams find it unacceptable (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 86, footnote #24).

The argument is well presented in James White’s book, The Potter’s Freedom, and for this reason we will interact with his defense of this particular interpretation.  He writes:

The error that is often made in regards to this passage is to understand “by which he was sanctified” to refer to the person who goes on sinning willfully against the blood of Christ… But remembering yet again the argument of the writer we see that the writer is referring to Christ as the one who is sanctified, set apart, shown to be holy, by his own sacrifice, and that this is why it is such a terrible thing to know of the power and purpose of Christ’s blood and yet treat it as “common,” like any of the sacrifices of goats and bulls offered under the old system. (pp. 244, 245)

James White then quotes John Owen as support for his unusual interpretation, and then concludes,

The dire warning of this passage, then, comes from understanding that there is no more sacrifice for sins.  Christ has offered Himself once, and has, thereby, perfected those for whom he dies.  To treat that perfect sacrifice, then, as “common” by going back to the repetitive sacrifices of the old system is to spit in the very face of the Son of God.  What kind of punishment, indeed, is fitting in such a situation! (ibid. 245)

In examining White’s claim that the one “sanctified” by the “blood of the covenant” is “Christ, the Son of God”, and not the apostate, it is very important that we have a clear understanding of what “sanctified” means in this passage.  While the word generally means “set apart”, the context must determine how the word is being used.  Does sanctified simply mean “set apart” in this passage, or does it have reference to something more?  It is clear that Mr. White wants us to look no further than “set apart” as it will allow him to better apply this word to Christ, and not necessarily to the apostate being addressed in the passage.

Again, White writes, “But remembering again the argument of the writer [Christ’s superiority as a high Priest] we see that the writer is referring to Christ as the one who is sanctified, set apart, shown to be holy, by his own sacrifice.” He quotes Owen favorably, who offers John 17:19; Heb 2:10; 5:7, 9; 9:11, 12 as Scriptures supporting this novel interpretation.  We will therefore examine each text to see if they are applicable to the verse in question.  But first, we will look at some other passages in Hebrews, as well as related passages elsewhere in Scripture, in order to determine if something more than being “set apart” is meant by the word “sanctified” in Heb. 10:29.

Chapters 9 and 10 are, as James White has pointed out, addressing Christ’s superiority to the Levitical priests of the old covenant.  The writer is especially concerned with the soul cleansing power of Christ’s blood in contrast to the blood of animals used in the old economy.  While the blood of “goats and calves” could “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh”, the holy blood of Christ is able to “cleanse” our “conscience” (9:13, 14).  We are reminded that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4), but that “the blood of Christ has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (10:14), and that having been so cleansed by Christ’s blood we “have confidence to enter the holy place” (10:19), “having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:22).  The blood of Christ is the means by which we are forgiven and justified.

We can conclude from these passages that the blood of Christ sanctifies sinners by a real and powerful cleansing.  While the blood of animals merely represented cleansing, and could therefore “never take away sins” (10:11), the blood of Christ truly cleanses the sinner from the guilt and stain of sin, and thereby makes him holy.  This same concept is expressed in 1 John 1:7, “but if we walk in the light…we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (Emphasis mine), and in 1 Peter 1:1, 2 with regards to those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with his blood…”(Emphasis mine).  Here we also see that the Spirit of God is the Agent who applies the cleansing power of Christ’s blood to the sinner (see also 2 Thess. 2:13).

We should especially mention Hebrews 13:12, “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Emphasis mine).  The language here is important as it closely parallels the language of Heb. 10:29, “…who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (Emphasis mine).  We see that in Heb. 13:12, it is the “people” who are sanctified by Christ’s blood, and not Jesus Christ Himself!  It is also the most natural reading of Heb. 10:29 that it is the person who has regarded the blood as unclean who had, himself, been previously sanctified by that same blood.  It is hard to imagine that any honest reader would conclude that the apostate and the one sanctified are different persons, unless driven by a prior commitment to “Reformed” theology.   Nowhere in the book of Hebrews, or anywhere else in Scripture, do we read that Christ Himself was sanctified by His own blood, nor could there be any reason for the holy and blameless Son of God to need such a cleansing.  The blood of Christ was shed for the sanctification of sinners and not for Himself!

So what of John Owen’s Scripture references cited by Mr. White?  Do they teach that Jesus Christ was sanctified by his own blood?  We will first examine the passages cited from Hebrews, and then deal with the reference made to John 17:19.

Heb. 2:10 reads, “For it was fitting for Him [God the Father], for whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect forever the author of their salvation through sufferings.”  It is hard to see why Owen would refer us to this passage in support of his position.  While the passage tells us that Christ was perfected through “sufferings”, this is far from teaching that He was sanctified by His own blood.  If we read a little further we will see what these “sufferings” have reference to, “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (verse18).

While this passage does not lend any real support to James White’s interpretation, it does further verify that only sinners are sanctified by Christ’s blood.  The very next verse reads, “For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren.”  Clearly, Christ is the one “who sanctifies”, and the people are the ones who are “sanctified”, and are therefore made worthy to be called His “brethren”.  This passage says nothing of Christ sanctifying Himself by His own blood, but rather teaches the exact opposite of what White is contending for.

Heb. 5:7, 9 reads,   “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety….And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.”  Again, we must ask ourselves where it is said in these verses that Christ was cleansed [sanctified] by His own blood?  If we simply supply the verse between 7 and 9, which Owen strangely omits, we see again that Christ was perfected through His sufferings, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through the things which He suffered.”  These “sufferings” may have reference to His being tempted as in 2:18, or it may have reference to His agonizing in the garden- offering “prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears” (vs. 7), or it may have reference to His suffering and dying on the cross, or all of these, but there isn’t the slightest reference here to Christ being sanctified by His own blood!

Heb. 9:11, 12 reads, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the Holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”  Certainly, Owen and Mr. White want us to focus on the words, “but through His own blood, He entered the holy place, once for all…”

Again, we must ask ourselves whether this means that Christ had to be sanctified by His own blood.  The key to understanding this passage is context.  Verse 7 says, “…but into the second [the Holy of Holies] only the high priest enters, once a year, not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance.”  The point that the writer is trying to make is that the priests of the old covenant were, themselves, sinful and therefore had to offer blood both for the purpose of cleansing themselves as well as the people.  They went into the Holy of Holies with the blood of goats and calves in order to offer them to God for cleansing.  Christ, unlike the priests of the old covenant, has no need of personal cleansing.  He does not enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of goats and calves to be offered to God, but rather enters through His own blood “once for all”, for He will never need to repeat His atoning sacrifice.

Verse 14, as we have already seen, again verifies that this precious blood was offered for the sole purpose of cleansing sinners.  We also see in verse 14 that Christ offered Himself “without blemish”, and for this reason did not, like the priests of old, need personal cleansing.  He was “without blemish” before He offered Himself, and could therefore not possibly have been sanctified by His own blood.  Heb. 7:26, 27 unmistakably drives this truth home,

For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself (emphasis mine).

Christ offered up Himself as the sacrifice perfectly acceptable to God, and He shed His precious and holy blood for the purpose of cleansing sinners, and not Himself.  Christ consecrated (sanctified) Himself through His life of perfect submission and obedience to the Father’s will, including His self sacrifice at Calvary’s cross.

John 17:19 reads, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.”  Here it is clearly taught that Christ “sanctified” Himself.  This is, without a doubt, Owen’s strongest argument.  We cannot assume, however, that the same concept expressed in Heb. 10:29 is being conveyed in this passage.  After all, this passage appears in an entirely different context and should be carefully considered in light of this context.  We must heed Mr. White’s advice and be very mindful that we are not “pressing onto Scripture a meaning that is not a part of the original context” (ibid. 27, 28).

We have seen that the purpose of sanctification in the context of Heb. 10:29 is primarily for the cleansing of the soul from the guilt and stain of sin, and that the means of this sanctification is the blood of Christ.  This is not the case in John 17:19.  In this passage, the word hagiazo is primarily concerned with being “set apart” from the world, and consecrated for a certain mission, and has no reference to the cleansing and purifying power of Christ’s blood (see John 10:36).

Jesus is praying to the Father concerning His disciples.  They have been “set apart” by their obedience to the “word” Jesus has given them (vss. 6, 14).  They are “in the world”, but not “of the world”, just as Christ is “not of the world” (vs. 16).  For this reason “the world has hated them” (vs. 14).  In verse 17 Christ prays that the Father will “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.”  Christ then says, “As you have sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.  And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may be sanctified in truth.”

The means of sanctification for the disciples in this passage is “the word of truth” (see John 15:3), and not the blood of the covenant. They are “set apart” by their obedience to the word (vs. 6), and are consecrated for the purpose of bringing the word of truth to the world (vss. 21, 23).  In the same way Christ sanctifies Himself through His continued obedience to the Father’s will, culminating in His death on the cross (see Phil. 2:8).  The disciples are to follow His example of obedience in the face of suffering and death as they bring His message of truth to the world.  Christ’s obedience in holiness is what qualified Him to be the only acceptable and perfect sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 5:8, 9; 7:26).

It is for this reason that the interpretation James White wishes to press onto Heb. 10:29 is impossible.  Christ was a “faultless and pure lamb…. without blemish…holy, innocent, undefiled, and separated from sinners” (1 Pet. 1:19; Heb. 9:14; 7:26), and therefore had no need of being sanctified by His own blood.  To claim that Christ needed to be made holy by His own blood is like the erroneous Jewish teaching that the gold of the temple was more sacred than the temple (Matt. 23:16).  The temple made the gold sacred, and not the other way around.   Likewise, Christ’s blood is “holy” and makes “holy” (sanctifies) because it is His blood.  The holy and innocent Lamb makes His blood holy, and not the other way around.

We may find it disturbing to accept the possibility that one truly cleansed by Christ’s blood can yet apostatize and perish eternally, but we should be far more disturbed by any interpretation that seeks to make the holy and blameless Lamb of God in need of purification by His own blood.  Christ Himself made it perfectly clear that his blood was given to provide forgiveness for sinners (Luke 22:20; Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24, cf. Eph. 1:17), and could therefore never be given for the purpose of sanctifying Himself.

We conclude in agreement with Williams and Peterson who “reject as contrived John Owen’s idea, accepted by Roger Nicole and others, that en ho hegiasthe refers to Christ.” (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 86, footnote #24).  In my next post we will examine the alternative interpretation offered by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams as well as the nearly identical interpretation suggested by Wayne Grudem.

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