The first knock-down drag-out theological scrap I ever had was in high school and it was over the doctrine of Eternal Security. I was not keen to have the scrap because the person I was contending with was a spectacularly pretty girl to whom I was greatly attracted, but I knew that truth trumped hormones. Not by much, mind you, but enough for me to defend what I thought was the truth and argue fiercely and long.
High school was a long time ago, and I don’t remember all the back and forth of the debate, but I do remember her saying that the very term “eternal life” argued for the doctrine of Eternal Security: if one had eternal life and then lost it, then it couldn’t very well have been eternal, could it? Too bad I didn’t know Greek back then, or I would’ve replied that the term aionios (eternal) refers primarily to the quality of the life in Christ, and only secondarily to its endless duration. If the main idea had been endlessness, the Greek term aidios would have been more appropriate. But Greek would have to wait until college.
The doctrine of Eternal Security sometimes is known by the tag “once saved, always saved”. The main idea is that salvation by its very nature changes a person so much that apostasy becomes an existential impossibility. But, one does ask, what then about the cases of people who had been saved (i.e. who “said the Sinner’s Prayer” and “asked Jesus into their heart”) and then subsequently fell away and stopped believing in Christ or acting like a Christian? Replies come in two forms, one wrong and the other crazy. The former argues that such a person could not have been a “real” Christian in the first place and that there was something fundamentally flawed about their supposed experience of salvation. The latter insists that the apostate and unrepentant sinner will still be saved on the Last Day even if he had committed and persisted in grievous sins such as murder or adultery. He would, however, “lose his reward”. The former reply is a brilliant example of circular reasoning, and so it can never be crudely proven wrong. It does however mean that no real existential and subjective assurance is possible, for presumably the lapsed apostate at one time felt as sure that he had been eternally and securely saved as anyone else. The latter reply is not only wrong, but dangerous and demonic, for gives to those in danger of damnation a false sense of security.
Where do Evangelicals get this idea of Eternal Security? Not from the Bible, but from Calvin, and in its earlier version it went by the term “the Perseverance of the Saints”. It formed part of the larger and more comprehensive Reformed doctrines of Man, the Fall, and the nature of grace and salvation. Students of Mr. Calvin will recognize it as part of the famous TULIP acronym, which stands for the doctrines of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. The idea is that man is so fallen and incapable of even beginning to begin to begin to repent that God has to do it all. Before time began, God chose (or elected) certain individuals to be saved, and certain other individuals to be damned, the former to the praise of His grace, and the latter to the praise of His justice. Those elected to be saved were irresistibly drawn by the Spirit to repent and exercise faith in Christ, whose death on the Cross not only paid the price for salvation but also accomplished it (thus Christ died only for the elect). Having been irresistibly drawn to faith in Christ, they were irresistibly kept in that faith, and so could not fall away. The technical term for this understanding of divine grace is “monergism”, and the idea is that God’s energy alone is the only effecting energy involved (hence the “mono”). Man’s free will contributes precisely nothing; he repents and believes because God wills it and does it all. To be fair, the Reformed to not conceive of man as an automaton, repenting and believing automatically like a machine with no decision required from himself. A good TULIP preacher will still tell his audience to repent and believe. But he will say that if the sinner repents and believes it is only because he had been previously elected and was now being irresistibly drawn.
Many Evangelicals who do not buy the full Reformed package and who would balk at the notion that Christ died only for the elect still cling to the doctrine of Eternal Security, not realizing it is part of a larger and coherent system of thought. But the doctrine only makes sense if one accepts this total Reformed package. I do not, of course, but I can still see how each one of the elements in the TULIP system implies all of the others. Saying one cannot fall away because God irresistibly drew one to Christ in the first place to fulfill an unconditional election may be wrong, but at least it makes consistent sense as part of a system. Saying that one cannot fall away because the experience of salvation changes one internally makes no sense, mostly because experience teaches us that it is not so.
Of course, the Scriptures teach us that as well. The New Testament is stuffed to overflowing with warnings not to apostasize, which it wouldn’t unless apostasy was really possible. I do not warn my grandchildren about the dangers of walking on the ceiling, because walking on the ceiling is not possible for them, despite their Spider-man pyjamas. We only warn about dangers that are real—like apostasy. Judas Iscariot is one example that comes to mind: he certainly fell away to the point of damnation (see John 17:12, Mark 14:21), and he certainly was once saved (Matthew 19:27-28, Acts 1:17). If one of the Twelve could fall away, then anyone can. One could write a book warning of the possibility of apostasy. And come to think of it, someone did—we know the book as The Epistle to the Hebrews.
I suspect that the doctrine of Eternal Security is the Evangelical’s unbiblical and clumsy attempt to meet a real pastoral need—that of assuring the trembling penitent soul that all will be well. I often think that some forms of Evangelicalism have a view of God in which God’s love cannot really be trusted. It is felt that He is angry and eager to damn, keen to insist on justice and to keep out of heaven as many people as He possibly can. This is not said in so many words, of course, but it still functions emotionally as their view of God. Given this, one fears to lose salvation if one commits a sin, or takes a sideways step, or is lazy in devotions or church-going or Bible-reading.
One hears of people being haunted by the fear that perhaps they have lost their salvation, that on Monday morning they were saved, but by Saturday evening they were not sure, because they had a bad week. But one cannot lose one’s salvation like one loses one’s car keys. Salvation does not gradually evaporate like morning dew. One can drift away over time, of course, but this drift involves making decisions. One decides to forego prayer and to stay away from church; one decides to drift. I suspect that the notion of Eternal Security was meant to function as a cure for the classic disease of scruples. If one does not trust God’s love and imagines that a deficit of devout feeling involves a loss of salvation, then Eternal Security serves to reassure that trembling soul that it needn’t fear such a loss of feeling. It overshoots itself, of course. It is possible to lose one’s salvation, but it takes more than simply having a bad week or feeling less enthusiastic about spiritual things than one did when first converted.
The trembling soul should not be given the false medicine of Eternal Security, but the true medicine of the Eucharist. Salvation is not just a single experience; it is also an ongoing journey. On that journey one continually returns to God for renewal, forgiveness, and cleansing. Penitent reception of the Eucharist assures us that we will be saved if we continue along the faithful Eucharistic path. It is as the Eucharistic prayer itself says: those who partake receive purification of soul, the remission of sins, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the fulfilment of the Kingdom of Heaven and boldness towards God. Standing every week at the Chalice, we are eternally secure.
There is so much I could say in response to this post. Your description of Eternal Security in the Reformed Tradition, and the line of thinking of those who sit under such doctrine is exactly what I experienced, minus the horrid details.
After twelve years under this teaching, and considering that we do not fight against flesh and blood, I believe that the devil saw another opportunity to destroy in its followers the image of God. It is no surprise that I failed to discover a means to heal because, after all, I was “saved”…yet time after time, with guilt heaped upon guilt, continuing in the same sins. In total ignorance I was not serving God, but serving a masquerade of light. No human being can come out of this unscathed. It is a hellish existence to be in a church where “secret sins” are swept under the rug and justified through this false doctrine, going so far as to twist Scripture (it was said of Hebrews it is “very hard to understand”. Sure, because it is contrary to their doctrine). Where repentance is scarcely discussed, you are left with ‘whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones’. This has been my experience. By the grace of God, in great humility I was lifted from those tombs. And I am convinced it is one of the most demonic doctrines to ever come down the pike.
Perhaps one can understand why some converts to Orthodoxy who’ve have similar experiences do not need any further convincing of the truths of Orthodoxy. We did not embrace the Faith only to compromise bits of it here and there. There is a purity to the Faith, in its Tradition handed down, that is meant to stand (and has stood) throughout the ages. Even now, there is no need to conform to the demands of secularism, the cherished individual freedoms, that only serve the ‘self’.
Satan knows he can not destroy God’s image, as he would actually have to destroy God Himself. So instead he chips away at it. Here in modern times, he asks the woman, “did not God say you are equal to the man?” Only to find ourselves in confusion over our own sexuality, which in turn affects the family, workplace and especially the Church. Satan never forgot Eve. But neither did our Lord Jesus Christ. No greater an image do we have than in the icon of the Resurrection where He, our Victor, is lifting Adam and Eve out of the pits of Hades. It is through the of salvation of mankind that in the end all things in heaven and earth will restored. To get sidetracked by secular demands such as ‘equality’ and its aftermath is literally a grave mistake and will lead some people way off course.
Thank you so much Father Lawrence. You have been a great help and a light for me. One who in awe “stands every week at the Chalice, eternally secure”.
How do I interpret, “…nor have you destroyed me in my sins,” in one of the morning prayers? On one hand, I see many statements in the daily prayers that show God standing ready to forgive and heal, and on the other, I get the sense that it could all go south rather suddenly, like the Balrog’s fiery whip catching your ankle at the last moment.
I think the focus is not on God’s willingness to destroy, but our deserving to be destroyed. The prayer expresses our wonder at God’s patience and forbearing, that He has allowed us to see another day with all its gifts though we deserve nothing of the kind.
Great article. It should be pointed out though that many Evangelicals do not believe in eternal security. Any denomination associated with Methodism, the Holiness Movement, or old school Pentecostalism rejects this idea.
Quite so. I seem to remember Wesley and Whitefield falling out over this. But maybe I am mis-remembering?
Not just this issue., but yes. Whitefield was a five pointer.
In The Salvation Army We believe the same thing you wrote in this article. We do not believe what Calvin says, and we do not go to the extreme of scaring people to the point of obsession with losing their salvation.
As long as there is communion with God, as long as there is a sensitive heart, a contrite and humbled heart. The person can come close to God and walk toward final victory.
A very thorough book on soteriology is needed for today’s Orthodox Christians, and for inquirers of various Protestant backgrounds. The few “Orthodox” books on the subject are very brief, and not very true to Orthodoxy. Frankly, they smack of universalism. I am hoping that you, Fr Lawrence, will someday take on such a project. So many Orthodox need “evangelized”, and so many Evangelical inquirers need the fullness of Orthodox truth. Thank you for your blog.
I get the impression that the once saved always saved doctrine comes largely from the belief of works not having anything to do with our salvation. Being saved is an event which does not need to be followed up by any sort of works or effort on our part. Few were more serious about this than Karl Barth, and I have heard he was an unrepentant adulterer.
I have found that those who believe in eternal security rarely, if ever, change their position when debating this matter and at best we end up agreeing to disagree. However when I propose this scenario to them and ask how they would answer they tend to avoid answering because it demonstrates in a practical manner that their position is an untenable one. If they do answer, they respond by saying what someone else might do – not what they might do. Thus it is important to ask what the person – himself/herself – would personally do. The scenario is:
If Jesus does not return before the great tribulation and you find yourself in the position of having to decide whether or not to take the mark of the beast, would YOU take the mark?
As far as I know, they have 3 possible options:
1. Yes, take the mark because I’m eternally secure. This response indicates that the person is at least consistent in their belief. However I’ve found no one responding in this manner because they know that this affirmative response directly contradicts the plain warning given in Rev 14:9-11.
2. No, don’t take the mark because if I do it would demonstrate that I was never a believer to begin with. This option puts to rest the notion that those who continue to sin or no longer believe were never believers in the first place. The person knows that he/she is a genuine believer yet at the same time has to acknowledge the consequences of his/her losing salvation upon taking the mark. It puts them in a quandary because they would never consider themselves to be unbelievers who fall away from the faith. It demonstrates in a practical manner that they as regenerate believers can indeed lose their secure position if they take the mark. They can no longer use the excuse that persons who fall away from the faith never really believed.
3. No, don’t take the mark because if I do I’m condemned to the lake of fire. If this option is taken, a person who adheres to eternal security acknowledges that the warning of taking the mark applies to him/her personally and the doctrine of eternal security is no longer a valid belief.
A person who believes in the pre-trib rapture might protest and claim that this is not valid and is only a hypothetical example since the church is raptured before the great tribulation. However Rev 14:12 notes that the saints are still present at the time when the mark is presented. Whether this is the entire church or only tribulation saints is another matter for discussion. The main point is that v.12 commands the saints to persevere and be patient by keeping God’s commandments and their faith. Taking the mark would demonstrate that the saint has not kept the commandments and his/her faith.
Realizing their dilemma, most try to avoid answering the question by stating that they would never take the mark to which I reply how can be one be so sure of what one would or would not do in the future. At best, one can hope that he/she would not worship the beast and take his mark. I also remind them that Peter confidently proclaimed that he would never deny Jesus but we all know what happened to Peter.
Paul Literally addresses all of this in Romans. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works, and no, this does not give us license to sin, because we should desire to aim for holiness. We will never be completely sinless, even if we stop the most obvious horrible sins (murder, sexual immorality). If someone can lose their salvation and go to hell for being an unrepentant killer, then why wouldn’t someone lose their salvation for say, stealing a few bucks? Or cursing? What’s the standard of measurement for what sins would cause one to lose their salvation? What about someone who falls away, and then draws back to God later? Saved, not saved, saved again?
To answer your first question: because there is a difference between murder and petty theft. The issue is not individual sins, but whether or not a person is repentant of all the sins they have committed or not. The Lord’s first word to us was “repent”. If we refuse to repent, we are lost. A willingness to repent is the issue and “the standard of measurement”. This is why we are saved by our works, as James literally addresses in his own epistle.
Hello, i was reading through the comments and saw this and was immediately puzzled at the apparent contradiction between James and Paul, where Paul states we are “saved by grace through faith, not of works” and elsewhere it seems Paul says more of the same. Is there a distinction between the works Paul warns not to add to faith and the works James says justifies us and proves our faith? I’ve been thinking for some time that Paul’s primary concern was specifically works of the Law (both Pharisaical laws that were man made and and Mosaic Law that are the Covenant which is passing away, e.g. we no longer keep the seventh day Sabbath, dietary laws, railings on the roof, Temple sacrifices, feasts, etc.)
Paul and James were fighting on two different fronts. Paul’s point was that works of the Law–i.e. things that constituted Judaism, such as circumcision, food laws, purity laws, etc–could not heal and transform the heart. We are saved by our faithfulness and love for God (what he calls “faith working through love”). James’ point was that a mere cerebral acknowledgement of Jewish monotheism was not enough; it needed to be manifest in a person’s life. The works which Paul said could not save were the badges that made one a Jew. The works which James said one needed to be saved were those which characterized a life of righteousness. Both Paul and James acknowledged that works of righteousness were necessary in the life of a Christian.
Thanks for your response!
I noticed also in your article that you mention Hebrews. Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-29 specifically come to mind. They puzzle me in light of other passages that discuss reproach, repentance, confession and forgiveness.
I can imagine that there are intentional sins (i think about before hand and do them) and unintentional sins (i wasn’t really thinking about what i’m doing and when i stop myself to think i realize what i’m doing is wrong). But does this mean that the blood and grace of Christ does not apply to premeditated sin? If i knowingly allow myself to lose my temper and say something i know i shouldn’t say, will our Father in Heaven not forgive that? Can i, after premeditated sin, never truly repent?
Or are these verses speaking of sin on a whole other level? Is this apostasy? And is it truly impossible for an apostate, one who has fallen away, to ever repent? And what if there were one who claims to have been an apostate who does whole heartedly seek repentance?
That’s a lot unloaded on you there, thank you for your patience.
Those verses are speaking of apostasy, the temptation besetting those to whom the Epistle was written. Any sin that can be truly repented of can be forgiven. That is what “grace” means.
Some of us evangelicals fully agree with this article and long have including pastors.