Perseverance of the Saints Part 6: Hebrews 10:26-30

We now examine what I consider to be the most significant warning against apostasy in the entire Bible: Hebrews 10:26-30, 35-39.  I will quote the entirety of the text I wish to examine below but this post will deal only with verses 26-30.  Verses 35-39 will be examined in a future post.

[26] For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, [27] but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. [28] Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. [29] How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know Him who said ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’  And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.” [31] It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God…[35] Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. [36] For you have need of endurance, so that 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.

We will examine this passage verse by verse with exegetical notes along the way.

Verse 26: “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins”

The willful sin described here is generally understood to be the sin of apostasy (the same as in Heb. 2:1; 3:12; 6:6 and 12:25).  It is the decisive act of repudiation of the faith.  This is the general consensus despite the present participle.  Calvinists Peterson and Williams write:

Because of the severity of the rest of this verse, we understand sinning “deliberately” as indicating a deliberate renunciation of one’s faith rather than speaking generally of intentional sin. [Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 85]

Donald A. Hagner agrees:

The words if we deliberately keep on sinning do not refer to ordinary sins, but to the most grievous and final sin, apostasy.  (NIV’s keep on sinning is an interpretive addition intended to reflect the present participle of the Greek; here, however, it may be that the KJV’s and the RSV’s straightforward “if we sin” is a more appropriate translation.) [NIBC: Hebrews, pg. 169]

The parallel with the other warning passages in Hebrews would support this interpretation.  The use of the present participle could also have reference to the continuing rebellion which hardens the heart to the point of outright apostasy, while it is the repudiation which results from this hardening that is specifically in view in the rest of the passage.

The second part of the passage tells us that this repudiation takes place “after receiving the knowledge of the truth”.  This is a significant phrase especially in light of the use of the Greek epignosis for “knowledge.” I will quote from my post on 2 Pet. 2:20 with regards to the significance of how this Greek word is used here:

It is significant that the Greek word for “knowledge” used in this passage is epignosis.  This Greek word is predominately used by NT writers with reference to a full and complete knowledge, in contrast to an investigative or superficial knowledge (gnosis).  Strong says of epignosis, “full discernment” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Greek word # 1922).  Kittel says, “The compound epignosis can take on almost a technical sense for conversion to Christianity” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 121 [one volume edition]).  Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says of gnosis, “primarily a seeking to know, an enquiry, investigation”, and of the stronger epignosis: “denotes exact or full knowledge, discernment, recognition, and is a strengthened form of No. 1 [gnosis], expressing a fuller or a full knowledge, a greater participation by the knower of the object known, thus more powerfully influencing him” [pg. 631]. The NASB renders epignosis as “real knowledge” in Phil. 1:9, and “true knowledge” in 2 Pet. 1:3, 8. In Col. 1:9 epignosis has reference to “all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” in Eph. 1:17 (also see Philemon 4-6).”

Especially consider the salvation language of 1 Tim. 2:3, 4, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge [epignosis] of the truth”, compared with Heb. 10:26, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge [epignosis] of the truth…”  While this is strong evidence in favor of viewing the apostate as one who had come to a complete and saving knowledge of the truth, the choice of epignosis by the writer of Hebrews does not, by itself, prove that such is the case.  Epignosis and gnosis are sometimes used interchangeably in Scripture but the stronger sense of epignosis should not be ignored.  Even if gnosis were used the context would still suggest saving knowledge.  Paul Ellingworth writes in his commentary on the Greek text that this “knowledge of the truth” is:

…the content of Christianity as the absolute truth (Bauer 2b); ‘the decisive knowledge of God which is implied in conversion to the Christian faith’ (R Bultmann in TDNT 1.707).  The language is not typical of the author, and suggests a formula.  The closest NT parallels are 1 Tim. 2:4; 2Tim. 2:25; 3:7; Titus 1:1, all anarthrous; cf. John 8:32; 1 Jn. 2:21; 2 Jn. 1…Kosmala’s view (137) that ‘the knowledge of truth’ in this verse ‘does not yet include faith in Jesus Christ’ has not won support and is alien to the context. (The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary on the Greek Text, pp 532, 533)

The last part of the verse creates big trouble for Calvinism with regards to the doctrine of limited atonement: “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”  By repudiating the faith there is no longer any sacrifice available for the apostate.  However, if Calvinism is correct then there never was any sacrifice made for the apostate to begin with.  The “apostate”, according to Calvinism, is really just a reprobate who came to the very edge of saving faith and then turned away.  The apostate never put faith in Christ and his turning away only revealed his true unregenerate and irrevocably reprobated nature.  Calvinism asserts that Christ did not die for reprobates and never made any provision for their sins.  How then can it be said that by the act of apostasy that there “no longer remains a sacrifice for sins?”  This difficulty only magnifies later in the passage as we shall see.

Some may object that the verse could be understood as simply stating that there is no other sacrifice available for the apostate to turn to and no other sacrifice that can be made since Christ died “once for all [time].”  The fact remains, however, that such a statement seems unnecessary in light of the warning itself as there would never have been any sacrifice provided for the apostate (reprobate) to turn to in the first place (according to Calvinism). It also seems clear from the context that the fact that no sacrifice remains is directly connected to the act of apostasy itself rather than to some secret decree which eternally barred the reprobate from any benefits of the atonement.  The fact that there is nowhere else to turn, then, is directly related to the act of rejection (apostasy) and not to any secret eternal decree.

Verse 27: “…but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.”

There remains no more sacrifice for sins for the apostate but there is something which remains, the promise of eternal fiery judgment.  This verse plainly teaches that the destiny of the apostate is Hell fire.  The destiny of the apostate is “the fury of fire which will consume the enemies,” for the apostate has made himself an enemy of God through his rejection of Christ’s sacrifice and will therefore suffer the fate of God’s enemies.

We need to pause briefly to consider an interpretation offered by some proponents of unconditional eternal security which looks to draw a parallel between this passage and 1 Corinthians 3:14-15:

If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward.  If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.

Based on their understanding of 1 Cor. 3:14-15 it is claimed that only a loss of rewards is in view in Hebrews 10:27.  However, the context of Heb. 10:27 does not allow for such an interpretation as it is describing the destiny of the apostate and not his or her rewards.  The apostate has become God’s enemy and will suffer the same eternal ruin as all God’s enemies.  The parallel with Heb. 6:8 is significant:

…but if [that land] yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.

It is important to note that the land is burned and not just the thorns and thistles.  The land plainly represents the final state of the apostate in Heb. 6:8 and parallels the final state and destiny of the apostate in Heb. 10:27.  It is forced exegesis at best to insist that rewards are in view in either of these passages.  We should further comment on the context of 1 Cor. 3:14-15.  Those who may “suffer loss” are those workers (Paul and Apollos specifically in the immediate context cf. 3:6-9) who have “built” on the foundation of Jesus Christ (verses 11-12).

This passage is speaking of the quality of the work done by those who were building on the foundation of Jesus Christ.  Only believers can be in view here, which is not the case in Hebrews 10:27.  1 Cor. 3:14-15 is not speaking of the fruit of faith and the Holy Spirit in someone’s personal life (e.g. John 15:1-6; Gal. 5:22-23), but the quality and effectiveness of ministerial work in building the body of Christ (verses 12-15).  These workers will remain saved because they built on the sure foundation, but they will have nothing to show for their labor because they did not build on that foundation wisely.  Their efforts, therefore, will prove to be in vain.

Verses 28 and 29:  “Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

These verses pose great difficulty for Calvinism and have endured some of the most unfortunate acts of exegetical torture by those who have desperately tried to keep their doctrines from suffering shipwreck on the plain implications of these verses.

Verses 28 and 29 indicate that the punishment in view goes beyond physical death as was noted above.  The writer is here demonstrating God’s justice in His wrathful and eternal punishment of the apostate that was so vividly described in verse 27.  This “more severe” punishment is well deserved because the apostate has “trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace.”

The greatest difficulty for Calvinism in these verses is the fact that the apostate is said to have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant.  We will discuss this further in a moment, but it is also important to note that the apostate has “trampled under foot the Son of God” and “insulted the Spirit of Grace.”

The nature and scope of the atonement comes into sharp focus in these passages in view of God’s just judgment of the apostate.  We need to remember that in Calvinism no provision has been made for the reprobate.  Jesus Christ did not shed His blood for the reprobate.  His sacrifice was not intended for those whom God had decreed to destroy even before the world was created.  Most Calvinists say that the Holy Spirit “passes over” these reprobates and denies them the necessary grace to believe and be saved.

If the Holy Spirit has no intentions of saving the reprobate and has deliberately withheld saving grace from them, then how can it possibly be said that these supposed “reprobates” (i.e. apostates) have “insulted” the Spirit of Grace?  In what sense could they possibly have trampled under foot the Son of God when the Son of God made no provision for them?  They have not truly rejected the blood of His sacrifice, for that blood was neither intended nor provided for them.  The reprobates have nothing to reject for God has not made anything available for them.  How then is God justified in judging them with regard to that “rejection?”

The passage answers this question for us in a way that creates even bigger problems for Calvinism’s cherished “P”.  The apostates are condemned because the blood of Christ was not only truly shed for them but had in fact “sanctified” them.  God’s gracious gift of salvation had not only been truly provided for the apostate but also applied to the apostate.  The decisive act of apostasy is, for that reason, such a grievous sin and outright insult to the Spirit of grace who Himself applied that sanctifying blood of the covenant (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1, 2; 2 Thess. 2:13).  This is why the apostate deserves such “severe” punishment (vs. 29).

Calvinists are well aware of the implications of these verses and have come up with some ingenious ways in which to alleviate the difficulty.  We will examine two of these proposed interpretations in our next two posts.  After that we will examine verses 31-39.

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Perseverance Of The Saints Part 5: Hebrews 6:4-9

Audience:

There is general agreement that this letter was written to Hebrew believers who were in the midst of some sort of testing which threatened their faith. “To the Hebrews” is a later addition to the epistle, but it is clear from the context of the letter that the writer assumed his audience to be very familiar with both Jewish history and rituals. The writer of Hebrews seems to have a few goals in mind which are closely related. He wants to expound on the supremacy of Christ and warn against defection from Him to some inferior and inadequate belief system. It would seem that His emphasis on Christ’s supremacy is partly, if not primarily for the purpose of demonstrating to his readers the foolishness and spiritually fatal nature of such a defection. He seems particularly concerned that his readers might be persuaded to return to Judaism. He is also concerned about the hardening affects of sin in the hearts of those who let it go unchecked. The nature of this sin is not always clear, though it is certain that the inspired writer sees the ultimate culmination of such sins and the spiritual hardness that results from them as the decisive and deliberate act of apostasy.

I am personally convinced that the writer of Hebrews is specifically addressing believers and warning them of the real danger of apostasy throughout the epistle. There are many passages that could be referenced to support this conclusion, but chapter three alone seems to be sufficient. The writer of Hebrews addresses his audience as “holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling” who have confessed Christ (verse 3). It is to these “holy brethren” that the writer directs his warnings against allowing their hearts to be hardened, the end result of which is the apostasy in view in the numerous warning passages throughout the epistle (3:8, 12, 13, 15, cf. 2:1-3; 4:1; 6:4-8; 10:26-39; 12:15-17, 25). Despite this, I believe that even if we take the position that the writer of Hebrews viewed some of his intended audience to be those who have yet to make a genuine profession of faith, the warning passages that we will be examining still give conclusive evidence that true believers can abandon the faith to their own eternal ruin.

While there are several such warning passages throughout the epistle, we will only be examining the warnings found in Hebrews 6:4-9 and 10:26-39. We will begin with a brief analysis of Heb. 6:4-9, acknowledge some objections to our conclusions, and then move into Hebrews 10:26-39 where I believe the main objections to our conclusions drawn from 6:4-9 will be sufficiently resolved. This post will focus on Hebrews 6:4-9 and the next post in the series will deal with Hebrews 10:26-39.

Hebrews 6:4-9:

[4] For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, [5] and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, [6] and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame. [7] For the ground that drinks the rain which often falls upon it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; [8] but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed and it ends up being burned. [9] But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. (NASB)

The Arminian position is that this passage describes truly saved individuals as they had been “enlightened” (see Heb. 10:32), and made “partakers of the Holy Spirit”. This “partaking” of the Holy Spirit means full participation, and cannot properly refer to mere influence, as some have claimed. Notice how this same Greek word is used in Heb. 3:1- “…holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling”, 3:14- “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”, and 12:8- “partakers” in God’s chastisement as true sons. No unbeliever can rightly be said to partake of the Holy Spirit in such a way. (Rom. 8:9; Jn. 14:15-17).

They also “tasted” the “heavenly gift”, “the good word of God”, and “the powers of the age to come.” The word “tasted”, like “partakers” denotes not a partial, but complete experience, as evidenced by the way the same word is used of Jesus in Heb. 2:9, “that…he might taste death for everyone”. F. Leroy Forlines elaborates on the use of “taste” by the author:

It is my position that the word taste is one of the strongest words that could have been used. In tasting, there is always a consciousness of the presence of that which is tasted. There is always an acquaintance with the distinctive characteristics of that which is tasted. This is evidenced by 1 Pet. 2:3. By tasting, the believer learned that one of the distinctive characteristics of the Lord is that He is gracious. There is also the matter of contact in tasting. In other words, tasting may be called conscious acquaintance by contact.

He continues…

When we apply the previous observations to the subject under consideration, we learn that those mentioned here have had an experience in which they became consciously acquainted by contact with the heavenly gift. The heavenly gift either means Christ or salvation. In either case, it would mean that the person would be saved, because only a saved person has such an acquaintance with Christ or salvation. (The Quest for Truth, pg. 278)

We also note that the seemingly hypothetical “if they fall away” rendering of the NIV and KJV is inaccurate. All of these clauses are in the aorist tense in the Greek denoting completed action. There is no hypothetical “if” in the Greek text. The apostates spoken of have just as surely fallen away as they have been enlightened, made partakers of the Holy Spirit, etc. The aorist tense may also demonstrate that the inspired writer is speaking of actual instances of apostasy that have already occurred. It is likely that these instances of actual defection are what prompted the writer to compose his epistle of exhortation to these Jewish believers. This would shed more light on the encouragement and confidence expressed in verse 9:

But beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking this way.

Some have concluded, based on the confidence expressed in verse 9, that the writer of Hebrews is speaking only of hypothetical defection in verses 4-6 which could not, in fact, befall the believers he is addressing in verse 9. They see the warning of 6:4-6 as a warning against impossibility. In addition to the use of the aorist in verses 4-6, Robert Shank rightly observes:

Some appeal to verse 9…to contend that such apostasy cannot actually occur. But they fail to reckon with the transition from the third person (‘those, they, them’) in verses 4-6 to the second person (‘you’) in verse 9. The writer is ‘persuaded of better things of you,’ but not of ‘them.’ While he is persuaded that ‘you’ have not as yet apostatized, he declares that ‘they’ indeed have done so. Instead of assuming that the apostasy which engulfed ‘them’ cannot overtake ‘you’, the writer holds them up before ‘you’ as a tragic example for their solemn warning and proceeds earnestly to exhort his readers, ‘And we desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end; that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises’” (Life in the Son, pp. 177, 178)

Some have taken the approach that all of the descriptive terms of verses 4-6 could just as well refer to unbelievers who came to the brink of saving faith but then rejected it. Grudem takes this position in Still Sovereign. He labors to cast doubt on the common interpretation that these descriptive terms can only be properly used of true believers:

[My] interpretation…would argue that the [Arminian] view has been premature in reaching the conclusion that the terms must describe genuine saving faith and true regeneration. It would argue, instead, that a closer examination of the terms used will show them to be inconclusive regarding the question of whether they indicate genuine salvation. (Still Sovereign, ed. Shreiner and Ware, pg. 140)

Grudem argues that these terms might be used in a way other than what Arminian exegetes have long assumed. He appeals to the way that the terms are used elsewhere in the NT and in extra-Biblical Greek sources, as well as a comparison with other terms used to describe believers in the epistle. Strangely, he believes this to be his most significant argument, but the fact that other terms are used to describe true believers elsewhere in the epistle in no way demonstrates that the terms in verses 4-6 were not also intended to describe spiritual blessings that only regenerate believers could experience.

While I find his approach to be strained and problematic on many fronts, I am convinced that the context of the passage, as well as a careful comparison to the similar warning given in Heb. 10:26-39, renders Grudem’s extensive argumentation moot. The lynch pin of his argument, in my opinion, is not the terms used in verses 4-6, but his understanding of the metaphor of the field used in verses 7-8. Grudem is convinced that the descriptions of the fruitful and barren field make his case that the descriptive terms used in verses 4-6 are not describing true believers [see also Peterson and Williams, Why I Am Not An Arminian, pp 84-85]. He states:

…these terms tell us that the people had experienced many of the preliminary stages that often precede the beginning of the Christian life, but they do not tell us that the people had experienced any of the decisive beginning stages of the Christian life…However, an examination of the metaphor of the field in verses7-8, which the author uses to explain verses 4-6, showed that the people in 4-6 were like a field that received frequent rain but only bore thorns and thistles. This indicated that, in the authors mind, the people in 4-6 had received many blessings but had never borne good fruit because they had been like bad ground the entire time: There had never been true spiritual life in them. (Still Sovereign, pg. 172)

We will re-visit this claim in a future post when dealing with Hebrews 10:26-39. Grudem also appeals to the confidence expressed by the writer of Hebrews in verses 9-12, which we briefly dealt with above. For now we will take a closer look at verse 6 to see if the further description of these apostates comports with Grudem’s claim that they are unbelievers who “had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community.” (ibid., 172)

Verse 6: “…and then having fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame.”

The important elements to focus on in this verse are the facts that these apostates cannot be renewed again to repentance, and that by their actions they have re-crucified the Son of God to themselves. The first thing that must be acknowledged is that these apostates had repented. If this were not the case then it would not be proper to say that they could not be renewed again to repentance. So what kind of repentance is in view here? If this repentance was only superficial, then what would it matter that these apostates could not be renewed to it again? Is the writer of Hebrews trying only to say that these apostates could never again be renewed to a repentance that was not genuine in the first place? The most natural way to understand this is that the writer is describing the impossibility of being renewed again to genuine, and therefore saving repentance. This is a startling and grave warning, but the weight of it can only be felt if the repentance being described is saving.

Repentance, here, is the experience of spiritual reorientation. This is the way that the author uses the word just a few verses prior to this dreadful warning:

…let us press on towards maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith towards God.” (Heb. 6:1)

This “repentance” has reference to a turning away from “dead works” towards God in faith. You can’t have one without the other. One cannot place saving faith in Christ while still clinging to “dead works” (which could refer either to sinful acts or attempts to earn the favor of God through obsolete Jewish rituals), and one cannot truly repent of these dead works without also turning to God in faith. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. It could be described as one motion of turning towards God viewed from two different perspectives. Forlines’ observations are excellent:

While repentance includes a ‘from’ and a ‘to,’ the stress of repentance is on the to instead of the from. Repentance is a forward moving word. This is not to diminish the importance of the from. It is to place primary focus on the to. The ‘to’ of repentance is identical with faith. In Acts 20:21 Paul speaks of repentance toward God.’ In 2 Timothy 2:25, he speaks of ‘repentance to the acknowledging of the truth.’ Faith and repentance are involved in each other. To exercise faith implies a change from unbelief, whatever the from of unbelief may be. Repentance terminates in faith. If we tell a person to repent, or if we tell him to believe, we are telling him to do the same thing. Repent stresses that change is involved. Faith stresses the end to which change is directed. (The Quest for Truth, pp. 254, 255)

Grudem, however, looks to drive a wedge between repentance from “dead works” and “faith towards God”, but can only do this by appealing to passages outside of Hebrews which have nothing to do with the text in question. Four of the passages he mentions actually serve better to establish the vital connection between faith and repentance described by Forlines above [Mark 1:15; Acts 19:4; 20:21; 26:20]. To hold these up as examples of repentance taking place without reference to saving faith is to beg the question. The only other passage Grudem can come up with to keep his sinking ship afloat is Luke 17:3-4. Here he argues that repentance is being used only of sorrow for sins which falls short of genuine repentance “unto salvation” (Still Sovereign, pg. 149). The most glaring problem with Grudem’s appeal to the Luke passage is that it is plainly addressing inner personal relationships and has nothing to do with repentance toward God; so of course it is not addressing repentance unto salvation. That is not, however, the case in the Hebrews passages.

With this in mind, we have no reason to think of these apostates as anything other than defectors from genuine saving faith and repentance. In fact, in a very real sense these apostates have now “repented” of their former commitment to Christ. This is not a case of backsliding or a general lack of commitment, but a total repudiation of the faith once held. Grudem agrees with the seriousness of this act when he says:

“This is a public repudiation and mockery of Christ characteristic only of hardhearted unbelievers” (ibid. 151)

This reality leads us into the second important clause in verse 6, “…since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put him to open shame.” It is important to note the “again” (i.e., afresh, re-crucified, etc.) in this phrase as it parallels the “again” of repentance in the first part of the verse. Just as surely as they had repudiated their “dead works” in turning to God in saving faith; they have now repudiated the Lord in whose blood they had once trusted (cf. Heb. 10:29). They have done a 180 which required such a state of hardness that the affects are permanent. They cannot be renewed again to repentance having now fully “insulted” (Heb. 10:29) that blessed Spirit of Grace in whom they had come to partake of through faith in that blood they now disdain (Heb. 6:4, cf. 10:26, 29). The context would suggest that the “dead works” spoken of in 6:1 include those ceremonial “works” which foreshadowed Christ. The apostates had previously abandoned these ceremonial practices in order to cling to the perfect work of Christ in faith. Now they have abandoned Christ’s perfect work and returned, in unbelief, to these now meaningless shadows that prefigured Him.

He later comes to the arbitrary conclusion that this repentance was not “repentance unto life”. Grudem seems to envision that these apostates had somehow made a “decision to forsake their sin” without actually following through. But there is no contextual warrant for this assertion. In fact, as we have seen, the context argues strongly against such an interpretation since verse one spoke of true repentance from dead works and faith toward God. There is no contextual reason to believe that the writer of Hebrews has some other view of repentance in verse 6. Certainly, if the author was suddenly describing something other than true repentance we would expect him to have given some indicator of this to his readers. We would especially expect such a qualifier since the descriptive terms being used in verses 4-6 would most likely be understood by his intended audience as describing true believers, and even more so since these terms directly follow an address to genuine, albeit immature, believers in verses 1 and 2. To claim that the metaphor of the fields would remove any ambiguity is to engage in an unreliable hermeneutic. The proper method should be to interpret the metaphor of the field in light of the clear language of verses 4-6 and not the other way around, as Grudem has done. We noted a similar error in the Calvinistic interpretation of 2 Peter 2:20-22 here.

In closing we again quote F. Leroy Forlines’ important insights into the significance of these apostates being said to have re-crucified Christ to themselves:

In 6:6 it is said ‘they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh.’ Let us note that this is a crucifixion in relationship, that is, to themselves. An example of crucifixion in relationship is found in Galatians 6:14 where Paul says, ‘By whom the world is crucified to me, and I unto the world.’ So far as reality was concerned, both Paul and the world were living and active; but so far as relationship was concerned, they were dead to each other. They had no relationship existing between them. The relationship of Christ to the unsaved is that of a dead Christ; but to the saved, He is a living Christ. A person could not crucify to himself the Son of God afresh unless he were in a living relationship to Him; therefore, such could be committed only by a saved person. (The Quest for Truth, pg. 279)

Conclusion:

We have so far shown that the descriptive terms used in 6:4-5 can only properly be used of true believers. Any doubts or objections to this have been sufficiently answered with a careful examination of verse 6. Only true believers can be said to have repented from dead works, and only those who have fallen away from genuine faith can be said to re-crucify the Son of God to themselves. We have mentioned that the metaphor of the field and the confidence expressed in verse 9 do not negate the implications of verses 4-6 with regards to apostasy from genuine faith. We will deal more with Grudem’s objection regarding the metaphor of the field in our next post dealing with the warnings found in Hebrews 10:26-39.

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Perseverance Of The Saints Part 4: Again Entagled In Corruption

We will now examine 2 Pet. 2:20-22:

[20] “For if after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. [21] For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy command delivered to them. [22] It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.'” (NASB)

Peter may be further describing the apostasy of the false teachers who are the subjects of verses 1-17. The language of these verses strongly suggests that these false teachers had been true believers before their full submission to their sinful nature and defection from the faith. The Lord had “bought them” (2:1, cf. 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:22, 23). They denied His Lordship by submitting to their sinful nature (vss. 1-22). They have “left the straight way” and “gone astray” (vs. 15). Jude describes these same false teachers who “turn the grace of God into licentiousness” as “twice dead” (vs. 12) suggesting that they had once experienced spiritual life.

Peter may also be describing the awful state of those who have been led astray by these false teachers. In verses 18 and 19 we find that these false teachers were deceiving those who had just barely escaped “the ones who live in error”. In either case, the important point is that Peter is describing apostates, and that Peter understands these apostates to have been truly saved before becoming “again entangled” in the corruption from which they had previously escaped. Peter makes it clear that this “escape” came by way of “the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. There is every reason to believe that when Peter refers to these apostates as ones who had come to this “knowledge” of “Christ” that he means that this knowledge resulted in salvation. To say otherwise would suggest that there are means other than the shed blood of Jesus Christ by which a sinner may escape the corruption in the world. Such a concept is alien to the entire NT and is certainly alien to the inspired Apostle.

It is further significant that the Greek word for “knowledge” used in this passage is epignosis. This Greek word is predominately used by NT writers with reference to a full and complete knowledge, in contrast to an investigative or superficial knowledge (gnosis). Strong says of epignosis, “full discernment” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, #1922). Kittel says, “The compound epignosis can take on almost a technical sense for conversion to Christianity” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 121). Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words says of gnosis, “primarily a seeking to know, an enquiry, investigation”, and of epignosis- “denotes exact or full knowledge, discernment, recognition, and is a strengthened form of No. 1 [gnosis], expressing a fuller or a full knowledge, a greater participation by the knower of the object known, thus more powerfully influencing him” (pg. 631). The NASB renders epignosis as “real knowledge” in Phil. 1:9, and “true knowledge” in 2 Pet. 1:3, 8. In Col. 1:9 epignosis has reference to “all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” in Eph. 1:17 (also see Philemon 4-6). Especially consider the salvation language of 1 Tim. 2:3, 4, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge [epignosis] of the truth”.

We would especially expect Peter to use the weaker form of the word in 2:20 given the fact that Peter uses the stronger sense in 1:3, of which there is no doubt that true believers are being described. That Peter used the same word with the same object (“knowledge of Him”, “knowledge of… Jesus Christ”) to describe these apostates suggests that he was not describing false converts in 2:20 (see below regarding parallel language). Epignosis and gnosis are sometimes used interchangeably in Scripture but the stronger sense of epignosis should not be ignored, especially since Peter seems to use epignosis with specific reference to saving knowledge throughout this epistle. Peter’s choice of epignosis in 2:20, therefore, gives us further reason to identify these apostates as having been truly saved prior to their defection.

Peter’s deliberate use of parallel language in 2:20-22 with that used in 1:1-4 is even more striking. In 1:1-4 Peter describes his readers as those having a “faith…the same kind as ours” who have received the gift of “life” and “godliness” through the “knowledge of Him who has called us by His own glory and excellence”. He tells them that it is by these gifts of life, godliness, and knowledge that they have “become partakers of the divine nature” and have “escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust”. The parallels with those described in 2:20-22 are remarkable:

“Through our knowledge of him…participate in the divine nature” and “escaped the corruption in the world…” (1:3, 4)

“…escaped the corruption in the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…” (2:20)

There is every reason to think that Peter is describing believers in both 1:1-4 and in 2:20. It is extremely strained exegesis to insist that those who “participate in the divine nature” and “escaped the corruption in the world” are of a different sort then those who “escaped the corruption in the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”.

Some will say that those described in 2:20-22 only “appeared” to have escaped from the corruption in the world. There is no contextual warrant for this assumption. If these apostates had only “appeared” to escape the corruption in the world, then what sense does it make to say that they have become “again entangled” in these corruptions?

John Goodwin wrote of those who would be so bold as to claim that these “apostates” were:

…all this while most damnable hypocrites and dissemblers. Now that the Holy Ghost should say, that unbelievers, persons inwardly full of wickedness and filthiness, most vile hypocrites and dissemblers, have ‘escaped the pollutions of the world,’ especially ‘through the knowledge’ (or rather acknowledgment), en epignosei ‘of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,’ is to me, and I think to all other impartially considering men, the first-born of incredibilities. Can a man be said to escape his enemies when he still remains under their power, and is in greater danger of suffering mischiefs from them than ever before? Or is not he, who being enlightened, retains the truth in unrighteousness, remains inwardly full of malice and wickedness, only garbing himself with a hypocritical outside, or mere profession of holiness, as much or more under the power and command of sin, as likely to perish everlastingly for sin, as ever he was, or could be before his illumination? (Redemption Redeemed, ed., John Wagner, pg. 115)

Some look to avoid the implications of this passage by laying great stress on the nature of the animals described in the proverb given in verse 22, “It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘A dog returns to its own vomit,” and, “A sow, after washing, returns to wallowing in the mire.'” They say that the ones described in verses 20-21 must be only hypocrites and false converts because Peter would never describe them as “dogs” and “pigs” had they at one time been Christ’s “sheep”. Since Peter describes them as dogs and pigs, we should rest assured that their natures had never been changed by true conversion and regeneration.

Robert Shank rightly notes that:

Many have contended that the men of whom Peter wrote never were truly saved. They appeal to the metaphors in verse 22. God’s children, say they, cannot be referred to as dogs or sows. But they who assume that Peter’s reference to apostates as ‘dogs’ or ‘sows’ proves that they never were actually under grace do not likewise assume that Jeremiah’s reference to the children of Israel in Judah as “a wild ass” proves that they never were ‘the sheep of his pasture.’ The shameful epithet was applied by Jeremiah (2:4) only after the people had forsaken the Lord (2:13; 17:13) and turned aside in iniquity and idolatry. Likewise, it is only after they ‘have forsaken the right way and are gone astray’ that Peter likens apostates to dogs and sows. He could well have referred to them as “wild asses.’ But there were familiar proverbs about dogs and sows which so aptly illustrated their case. Let us accept the record at face value. To ignore the obvious meaning of Peter’s statements by resorting to arbitrary assumptions concerning his use of metaphors is, to say the least, unwise. (Life In The Son, pp. 175, 176)

The early Methodist theologian John Fletcher made the following observations concerning the contention that the Lord’s “sheep” can never cease to be anything other than “sheep”:

Multitudes, who live in open sin, build their hopes of heaven upon a similar mistake; I mean, upon the unscriptural idea which they fix to the Scriptural word sheep. “Once I heard the Shepherd’s voice,” says one of these Laodicean souls; “I followed him, and therefore I was one of his sheep; and now, though I follow the voice of a stranger, who leads me into all manner of sins, into adultery and murder, I am undoubtedly a sheep still: for it was never heard that a sheep became a goat.” Such persons do not observe, that our Lord calls “sheep” those who hear his voice, and “goats” those who follow that of the tempter. Nor do they consider that if Saul, a grievous wolf, “breathing slaughter” against Christ’s sheep, and “making havoc” of his little flock, could in a short time be changed both into a sheep and a shepherd; David, a harmless sheep, could, in as short a time, commence a goat with Bathsheba, and prove a wolf in sheep’s clothing to her husband.

He then offers the following “ridiculous soliloquy” to “…show the absurdity and danger of resting weighty doctrines upon so sandy a foundation as the particular sense which some good men give to a few Scriptural expressions”:

Those very Jews whom the Baptist and our Lord called ‘a brood of vipers and serpents,’ were soon after compared to ‘chickens,’ which Christ wanted ‘to gather as a hen does her brood.’ What a wonderful change was here! The vipers became chickens! Now, as it was never heard that chickens became vipers, I conclude that those Jews, even when they came about our Lord like ‘fat bulls of Bashan,’ like ‘ramping and roaring lions,’ were true chickens still. And indeed, why should not they have been as true chickens as David was a true sheep when he murdered Uriah? I abhor the doctrine which maintains that a man may be a chick or a sheep today, and a viper or a goat to-morrow.

But I am a little embarrassed. If none go to hell but goats, and none to heaven but sheep, where shall the chickens go? Where ‘the wolves in Sheep’s clothing?’ And in what limbus of heaven or hell shall we put that ‘fox Herod,’ the dogs who ‘return to their vomit,’ and the swine, before whom we must ‘not cast our pearls?’ Are they all species of goats, or some particular kind of sheep? “My difficulties increase! The Church is called a dove, and Ephraim a silly dove. Shall the silly dove be admitted among the sheep? Her case seems rather doubtful. The hair of the spouse in the Canticles is likewise said to be like ‘a flock of goats,’ and Christ’s shepherd are represented as ‘feeding kids, or young goats, beside their tents.’ I wonder if those young goats became young sheep, or if they were all doomed to continue reprobates! But what puzzles me most is, that the Babylonians are in the same verse compared to ‘lambs, rams, and goats.’ Were they mongrel elect, or mongrel reprobates, or some of Elisha Coles’ spiritual monsters? (Works of Fletcher Vol. 1, pp. 197-199, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD)

Robert Picirilli concludes his treatment of 2 Pet. 2:22 with the following observation:

Those who attempt to mitigate Peter’s teaching by suggesting that the real nature of the sow or the dog had not been changed, and that this implies that these apostate false teachers were never regenerated, are pressing the illustrations beyond what they are intended to convey. Indeed, the proverb must be interpreted by the clearer words that precede them and not the other way around. The previous paragraphs express precisely what the proverbs were intended to convey (Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 232)

Picirilli is quite right that we need to look to the clear language of the passages that precede this descriptive proverb in order to properly understand Peter’s intended meaning. It is desperate exegesis to make assumptions based on the nature of the animals described in the proverb and then try to read them back into the plain teaching of verses 20 and 21. The claim that these “dogs” and “pigs” could only refer to those who had never truly been sheep ignores the context of the entire chapter. It foolishly trivializes the fact that Peter describes these apostates as having truly “escaped” the corruption in the world through “the knowledge [epignosis] of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” before becoming “again entangled” in this corruption. It further ignores the exegetical relevance of the parallel description in 2 Pet. 1:1-4 which uses nearly identical language to describe those of “like faith” who are “partakers of the divine nature”. The use of the proverb was to further illustrate the apostates’ return to corruption. That is quite the opposite of demonstrating that they had never escaped corruption. Just as a dog returns to that from which it had been purged, and a washed pig returns to the mire, so have these apostates, after having escaped from corruption, returned again to those defilements.

Still others might acknowledge that these apostates were once truly regenerated while insisting that they shall only lose heavenly rewards and not salvation. How then could Peter say of them that “it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy command delivered to them”? How could it possibly be better to have never known the way of righteousness, and perish forever, than to have known the way of righteousness only to lose some heavenly rewards? Do the advocates of this position truly believe that those who enter the joys of Heaven with considerably less rewards are worse off than those who will eternally suffer in Hell?

Despite the efforts of some to rescue their theology from the plain teaching of 2 Pet. 2:20-22, these passages serve as a stark reminder that those who have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ may yet return to a lifestyle of sin ,abandon their faith, and perish in that hopeless state.

[Updated 5/9/08]

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Perseverance Of The Saints Part 3: The Ancient Olive Tree

This passage is very similar in meaning and application as the passage previously discussed from Christ’s discourse in John 15. It may well be that Paul was familiar with Christ’s teaching on the Vine and the branches, and had His discourse in mind while writing about the olive tree in Rom. 11:15-24:

[15] For if their rejection [the Jews] be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? [16] And if the first piece of dough be holy, the lump is also; and if the root be holy, the branches are too. [17] But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive were grafted among them and became partakers with them of the rich root of the olive tree, [18] do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. [19] You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; [21] for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. [22] Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. [23] And they also, if they do not continue in there unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again. [24] For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more shall these who are natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree. [NASB]

This passage of Scripture is problematic for Calvinism on multiple levels. Paul is discussing the present state of Israel throughout chapters 9-11. Calvinists find Rom. 9:6-24 to be a primary text for their doctrines of unconditional particular election and irrevocable reprobation. It is not difficult to come to such an understanding of the text when the rest of the context of Romans 9-11 is ignored. This has been the usual practice of many Calvinist exegetes. James White completely ignores Romans 9:30-33 and 11:15-32 in his exegesis of Romans 9 in The Potter’s Freedom. This is strange behavior, especially when we consider that Rom. 9:30-33 represents Paul’s conclusion to his preliminary argument in Rom. 9:1-29. Likewise, Piper (The Justification Of God) and Schreiner (Still Sovereign) neglect to give Rom. 11:15-32 any exegetical treatment in their respective works on Rom. 9 and election (Schreiner does briefly discuss 11:23, 26, but only for the sake of demonstrating that election is unto salvation in Rom. 9-11).

Paul has not changed subjects in Romans 11:15-24. He is still discussing the reprobated Jews described earlier in Rom. 9:6-24. What he says concerning these Jews is troubling to the Calvinist interpretation of unconditional election and irrevocable reprobation. Paul speaks in terms of an ancient olive tree. This tree represents the true Israel of God. It is the election of God’s people in Christ. The tree cannot represent national Israel due to the fact that many of the branches [Jews] were “broken off”. Paul is speaking of the spiritual descendants of Abraham; those who have received the promise by faith. (Rom. 4:13-25).

The unbelieving Jews have been “broken off” from the true Israel and are estranged from the promise of God’s salvation in Christ. Paul, however, holds out hope for these broken off Jews. He plainly states that they can yet be grafted in again if they do not persist in their unbelief. This truth clashes with the Calvinist belief that these unbelieving Jews have been reprobated due to an eternal and irrevocable decree. If Paul had really been teaching such a concept of reprobation in Romans 9, then he could not hold out hope for these Jews in Romans 11:23 and 11:30-32.

The further difficulty this passage poses to Calvinism is Paul’s plain declaration that those who now stand by faith may yet be broken off through unbelief:

[19] You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” [20] Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; [21] for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. [22] Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.

Calvinists have traditionally tried to resolve the difficulty in one of two ways. The first way is to say that the branches do not represent individuals, but nations. The broken off branches represent the nation of Israel, and the engrafted branches represent the Gentiles as a people group. The problem with this interpretation is that Paul is speaking of individual branches that have been broken off and grafted in to the true Israel of God. The branches clearly represent individual Jews, for the entire nation has not been rejected. There are believing Jews [the remnant] who have remained in the olive tree. The grafted in branches represent individual Gentiles as only believing Gentiles have come to enjoy the favor and election of God. It is only believing Gentiles that can be called spiritual descendants of Abraham, and it is beyond argument that not all Gentiles have embraced Christ.

Joseph R. Dongell provides an excellent summary:

Paul distinguishes the irrevocable call of the nation of Israel as a whole from the fate of individual Israelites. While the final destination of the people of God is absolutely certain, the future of any given individual is determined by his or her continued faith and trust in God. Gentiles who believe are grafted into the ancient tree, whereas Jews who fall into unbelief are broken off. Since faith is the sole condition for remaining engrafted, Paul issues both warning and hope. On the one hand, those Gentiles who have recently been grafted into the ancient tree through faith must humbly guard against falling into unbelief, since they too would then be severed from the tree. On the other hand, the natural branches lying on the ground can “be grafted into their own olive tree” if “they do not persist in unbelief” (Rom. 11:23-24). In other words, the destiny of God’s people as a whole is unchanged throughout the ages, though each individual branch participates in this salvation only if he or she remains engrafted by faith (cf. Jn.15:5-6). As Paul Achtemeier explains, Paul teaches destiny without teaching individual determinism. [Walls and Dongell, Why I Am Not A Calvinist, page 87]

It would seem that the interpretation of the text that would rule out the individuality of the branches is very difficult to sustain.

The second Calvinist explanation is the usual explanation that the broken off branches could only represent false converts and hypocrites who never had saving faith to begin with. This interpretation is impossible to sustain due to the fact that Paul speaks of these branches as presently standing by faith. If it is a faith that makes them “stand” then it must be genuine. It is because of their present faith that they can be said to be in the elect olive tree. Paul further confirms this when he threatens these Gentiles, who have been grafted in by faith, that they can yet be broken off from this tree if they do not “continue in His kindness”. They remain among the elect body so long as they continue in faith. If they should not continue, then God will treat them the same as the unbelieving Jews who were broken off before them. They too will be cut off “for there is no partiality with God”. If the branches that Paul threatens represented false converts, then they would have never been in the tree in the first place. How then could they be broken off?

Perhaps we should add a third interpretation. Perhaps some will say that Paul is merely presenting a hypothetical construct and threatening these branches with impossibilities. What possible effect could such a threat carry for those who could not possibly fall prey to the consequences of it? If the branches stand by faith, and those who begin in faith will inevitably continue in faith [according to Calvinism], then why warn them to continue with the threat of being cut off? If God causes believers to continue in saving faith, then to warn believers to continue is nonsensical. If God infallibly preserves the believer, and faith is a gift that we cannot help but to continue in; then to warn someone to continue in the faith would be as useless as warning someone who is hooked to a respirator to “keep breathing”.

Some will say that the warnings are God’s means by which He ensures the perseverance of His saints. Where then is the doctrine of eternal security? Can we truly be convinced that we are eternally secure, and also take the warnings of falling away seriously? If we are eternally secure then there is no danger of being cut off from the true Israel of God. If the danger is real, then there is no unconditional security. If we went to our mailbox and found a note on the door that read, “Do not open this mailbox, else a 600 pound tiger will emerge and devour you”, would we take such a warning seriously? Would such an impossible consequence truly worry us and prevent us from getting our mail?

It would seem then, that Calvinism fails to offer a valid solution to the clear teaching of Rom. 11:15-24 that those who stand by faith may yet be broken off to their own eternal ruin. Let us heed Paul’s emphatic warning: “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.”

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Perseverance Of The Saints Part 2: The Vine And The Branches

Before we examine John 15, I want to give a general outline of how I envision this series unfolding. We will begin by examining what I consider to be the five passages of Scripture which I believe to most clearly teach that true believers can commit apostasy (Jn. 15:1-6; Rom. 11:18-23; Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-39; 2 Pet. 2:20-22). We will then look at the passages that are most prominently used by the advocates of inevitable perseverance to see if they truly teach that doctrine. Lastly, we will look to discover which understanding of perseverance best conforms to what the Bible teaches regarding assurance of salvation.

[All quotes are from the NASB unless otherwise stated]

John 15:1-6 reads as follows:

[1] I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. [2] Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes so that it may bear more fruit. [3] You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. [4] Abide in Me and I in you. As a branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. [5] I Am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. [6] If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.

Jesus is speaking directly to His disciples who are already “in Him”. They are “clean” (pruned). Their present status is not in question. They are branches attached to the true vine (verse 5). It is very important to understand that Jesus is speaking to saved individuals. They have life because they are attached to the source of life. Jesus is not talking about how one comes to be in Him (get saved). He is speaking of the importance of abiding in Him. Young’s Literal Translation renders “abide” as “remain”. It can also be understood as “continue”. The branches in the true vine must remain in Him in order to continue to enjoy the life that flows from Him. No one can have life outside of Christ. The believer remains in Christ through faith and will continue to produce the fruits of faith and life for as long a he or she remains in Christ. When a branch ceases to remain (through faith), as indicated by fruitlessness, it is cut off. Here is a vivid and concise picture of the nature of apostasy. The apostate is not someone who was never in the vine, but someone who did not remain in the vine. Only true believers can be said to have genuinely been in the vine. No unbeliever can be said to be “in Christ”.

This passage undercuts the Calvinist definition of apostasy. Jesus is not speaking of those who had never been in Him. He is not speaking about the visible church. He is speaking about those who are in the true vine, which is Christ Himself: “I am the true vine”. The branches in the true vine can only be true believers. False professors can never be said to be in the true vine.

The Calvinist is correct to say that the branch which is cut off represents an unbeliever. The relevant question is not whether or not the branch that is cut off is an unbeliever, but whether or not the unbeliever had previously been a believer in the “true vine”. It is impossible to conclude otherwise when we allow Christ to define His own terms.

The Calvinist objection cannot be sustained for the following reasons:

1) Jesus defines Himself as the true vine and the branches as being “in Me”. Robert Shank well points out the absurdity of insisting that Jesus is only speaking of Himself as the visible church:

Unable to deny that ‘branches’ defect and are cast forth, the proponents of unconditional security find themselves under the necessity of ‘defining’ the branches. Bishop Ryle therefore contends that “…it cannot be shown that a ‘branch in Me’ must mean a believer in Me. It means nothing more than ‘a professing member of My Church, a man joined to the company of My people, but not joined to me.’” Such a contention is necessary, of course, if one is to defend the doctrine of unconditional security. But some of us find it difficult to conceive of Jesus as saying to His Apostles, ‘I am the vine, and all who are professing members of my Church and joined to the company of my people though not necessarily joined to Me, are the branches in Me.’ (Life In The Son, pg.45)

He then quotes another such “definition” of the branches:

Similarly, Hengstenberg quotes Lampe as saying, ‘In a certain sense, even hypocrites may be said to be in Christ, partly because, in the external fellowship of the Church, they partake of the sacrament of union with Christ, and therefore boast themselves of being in Christ; partly because they are esteemed by others to be such as belong to the mystical body, or at least are tolerated in the external communion of the disciples.’ But again, it is difficult to conceive of Jesus as saying, ‘I am the vine, and all who partake of the sacrament in the external fellowship of the Church and who therefore boast themselves of being in Me and are esteemed by others to be such as belong to the mystical body, or at least are tolerated in the external communion of the disciples, are the branches.’ (ibid. 45 emphasis his)

He finishes by quoting John Calvin:

Similarly, in an attempt to reconcile the passage with his theology, Calvin declares that ‘…many are supposed to be in the vine, according to the opinion of men, who actually have no root in the vine.’ True; but irrelevant. For Jesus was not speaking about the opinions of men, but about solemn realities- about things as they are, not as men may imagine them to be. We protest that any definition of the branches that cannot easily be inserted into the Saviour’s discourse without a sense of glaring incongruity is obviously inadmissible. And again, it is unthinkable that Christ should say, ‘I am the vine, and all who are supposed to be in the vine according to the opinion of men, some of whom do not actually have root in the vine, are the branches.’ (ibid. 45, 46)

I am in full agreement with Shank’s conclusion:

Such arbitrary definitions of the branches, ridiculous as they are, are nevertheless unavoidable for all who deny that Jesus taught that men who are true believers can ultimately abandon the faith and fail to abide in Him, thus to be cast forth and withered and, in the end, burned. (ibid. 46)

2) Jesus is speaking of those who cease to “remain” in Him, and not those who were never in Him in the first place. It is absurd to think that a branch can be cut off from or cast away from a vine that it was never in.

3) Jesus is directly addressing His disciples who were truly saved.

4) The branch that is “cast forth” from the vine is said to “wither” or “dry up” before being cast into the fire. It is meaningless to speak of an already dead and withered branch (such as would be the case of a hypocrite or false convert) drying up or withering. Such things are only spoken of branches that once possessed life. The fact that the branch withers is a clear indication that it once possessed life. The only way that the branch could have once lived was through being attached to the vine (Jesus Christ- the only source of spiritual life).

Conclusion: It would seem then that if we allow the text to speak for itself, we must submit to the reality of apostasy. We must also conclude that the apostasy spoken of in this passage has reference to true believers abandoning the faith and being removed from the vine. The Calvinist conception of apostasy (leaving something that you were never truly a part of) is incompatible with the plain language of Jesus’ discourse. Robert Shank has well said, “Let us accept at face value our Saviour’s grave and loving warning that it is indeed possible for us to forfeit eternal life by failing to abide in Him ‘who is our life.’” (ibid. 46)

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Perseverance Of The Saints Part 1: Definitions

My next several posts will be dealing with the topic of perseverance. Perseverance of the saints is represented in Calvinism by the P in TULIP. Most Calvinists rest their understanding of perseverance on the certainty of unconditional eternal election. Those who have been elected from all eternity to salvation cannot fail to persevere to the end and reach the destiny of eternal life that God decreed for them. Some Calvinists also rest this doctrine on the nature of the atonement. This foundation is problematic and I intend to explore it in future posts.

A distinction is necessary with regards to the different ways in which perseverance is understood among various doctrinal viewpoints. I believe that these viewpoints fall into three main categories as follows:

Perseverance in Arminianism: Arminians believe that it is necessary for the redeemed to persevere in saving faith in order to attain to eternal life in the age to come (final salvation). We maintain that true believers who have experienced genuine regeneration can yet fall away from the faith and perish everlastingly. We take Jesus’ words in Matt. 10:22 both literally and seriously: “The one who endures till the end shall be saved”. We maintain that it is the believer’s responsibility to continue in saving faith, while acknowledging dependence on God’s grace and power to do so.

Perseverance in Calvinism: Calvinists, like Arminians, believe that it is necessary for the redeemed to persevere in saving faith in order to attain to eternal life in the age to come (final salvation). They believe that one who is truly saved cannot fail to persevere in saving faith. God is solely responsible in preserving His elect and ensuring that they reach their final destination. They do not deny that some appear to fall away, but maintain that the truly regenerate will never finally fall away from faith and salvation. They would say that apostasy only proves that one’s profession of faith was not genuine and that the “apostate” had never truly been regenerated in the first place. The “apostate’s” defection simply reveals that his or her initial conversion was spurious. The Calvinist, then, would understand Matt.10:22 as meaning: “Those who are [truly] saved will [of necessity] endure to the end”. For this reason I prefer to call the Calvinist understanding of perseverance: “inevitable perseverance”.

Perseverance among “moderate” Calvinists: I am here referring to those who essentially discount the need for perseverance of any kind with regards to final salvation. This position is held by a wide spectrum of evangelical Christians today. It is hard to say what they should be called. While many call themselves moderate Calvinists, many others would likely object to that label. It is generally held by those who would consider themselves Arminian in every other significant area of soteriology. We could call them 1 point Calvinists (holding only to P) or 4 point Arminians. This view is especially prominent among Southern Baptists and is heavily promoted by well known teachers such as Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, and Tony Evans. This understanding of perseverance teaches that once a person puts saving faith in Jesus Christ, nothing can change that person’s eternal destiny. It maintains that a true believer can return to a life of wickedness, die in a state of unrepentance, and still be saved in the end. This view even maintains that a true believer can later repudiate the faith, die in unbelief, and still be guaranteed entrance into God’s eternal Kingdom (with considerably less or no heavenly rewards). This view of perseverance coined the phrase “Carnal Christian” which is defined as Christians whose lifestyles cannot in any way be distinguished from the wicked lifestyles of the unregenerate.

In my next several posts I will be examining important Scriptures to determine which of the above definitions of perseverance best fits the Biblical record.

Go to Part 2