Assessing Perseverance, Apostasy, and Justification

If one believes that present and final salvation is predicated upon perseverance in the faith, noting that apostasy and loss or forfeiture of salvation is possible, how, then, are we to understand justification and redemption? Some pastors, notably those of the "once saved always saved" position, teach their people that forgiveness of sins covers all future sins. Inherent in such a position is the conclusion that apostasy for true believers is an impossibility.

What constitutes the nature of a "true" believer, then, is perseverance in the faith; and all believers will persevere because God will, through the Holy Spirit, cause one to persevere in the faith. Hence if one rejects one's initial faith in Christ, then he or she was "never saved to begin with," in this system. Many Arminians and Wesleyans disagree that God will, through the Holy Spirit, cause one to persevere in the faith. Hence if one continues to reject one's initial faith in Christ, then he or she has abandoned the faith, and ceases to be "in Christ" and, therefore, justified. 

Justification by Faith

The Reformed position on justification is that a person can be made right with God by His grace through one's faith in Jesus Christ. This person was "made wrong," or was unrighteous, with God by his or her own sin and willful rebellion. This is the state of all human beings apart from union with Christ by grace through faith in Him. So, a person perpetually stands justified before God through faith in Christ. "Faith is not correctly denominated the Formal Cause of justification,"1 as Arminius so aptly and accurately teaches. God is the one who justifies us, not grace, not faith. God is the one who regenerates us, through faith in Christ, not grace, not our faith in Christ. 

Instead, faith in Christ is the instrumental cause or act by which "we apprehend Christ proposed to us by God for a propitiation [cleansing, atonement] and for righteousness, according to the command and promise of the Gospel, in which it is said, 'He who believes shall be justified and saved, and he who believeth not shall be damned.'"2 By this act, God "imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, and imputes faith to us for righteousness; that is, He remits our sins to us who are believers, on account of Christ apprehended by faith, and ... accounts us righteous in Him"; which acts have "joined with it adoption into sons, and the conferring of a right to the inheritance of life eternal."3

The goal of justification is "the salvation of the justified person," which is for "the good of the man himself who is justified," and remains a "glorious demonstration of divine justice and grace."4 The effects of which include "tranquillity of conscience ... rejoicing under afflications in hope of the glory of God and in God Himself, and an assured expectation of life eternal."5 But, since we are justified by faith in Christ, should one reject that faith, then how shall the individual remain justified before God? Arminius answers: 
But we have yet to consider justification -- both about the beginning of conversion, when all preceding sins are forgiven -- and through the whole life, because God has promised remission of sins to believers, those who have entered into covenant with Him, as often as they repent and flee by true faith to Christ their Propitiator and Expiator.

But the end and completion of justification will be ... near the end of life, when God will grant, to those who end their days in the faith of Christ, to find His mercy absolving them from all the sins which had been perpetrated through the whole of their lives. The declaration and manifestation of justification will be in the future general judgment.6 (emphases added)
Though proponents of "once saved always saved" insist that our future sins have already been forgiven, such a teaching cannot be explicitly found in Scripture. If all our future sins have already been forgiven, then there would remain absolutely no reason to "confess our sins," so that God, "who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9) As we are justified by grace through faith in Christ, we remain justified by grace through faith in Christ, and we will be justified by grace through faith in Christ. Should one reject faith in Christ, and remain in such a state 'til death, that one will not be justified and, hence, glorified and saved.



Regeneration by Faith

A staple in Reformed Arminian circles is the notion that faith precedes (comes before) regeneration (conversion, being born again). Since we are justified by grace through faith in Christ, we are, most certainly, regenerated by grace through faith in Christ. Being forgiven of one's sins, by grace through faith in Christ, God then regenerates the believer (cf. Col. 2:13). If we are saved by grace through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8), then our regeneration immediately follows our faith in Christ -- not that our faith regenerates us, as mentioned above, but that God regenerates us when we respond to His grace through faith in Christ. (John 1:12, 13; 1 John 5:1) Arminius writes: 
Besides, even true and living faith in Christ precedes regeneration strictly taken, and consisting of the mortification or death of the old man, and the vivification of the new man; as Calvin has, in the same passage of his Institutes, openly declared, and in a manner which agrees with the Scriptures and the nature of faith.

For Christ becomes ours by faith, and we are ingrafted into Christ, are made members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones, and, being thus planted with Him, we co-alesce or are united together, that we may draw from Him the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit, by which power the old man is mortified and we rise again into a new life.7
Regeneration, then, awakens that spiritual aspect of our nature that was rendered dead by sin -- dead and/or separated in our relation to God (cf. Isa. 59:2; Luke 15:32). Our fallen nature remains, and contributes to our desires to disobey God. St Paul states the matter thusly: "What your corrupt nature wants is contrary to what your spiritual nature wants, and what your spiritual nature wants is contrary to what your corrupt nature wants. They are opposed to each other. As a result, you don't always do what you intend to do." (Gal. 5:17 GW) The war of the two natures will continue until the Day when we are finally released from all that relates to sin. (1 John 3:2) 

We are commanded to to keep working out -- not for -- our salvation, and to do so with fear and trembling, remembering that God is working within us an apt attitude to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12, 13). We are not taught, however, that God works such within us irresistibly. Meaning, because of our sin nature that is still warring against our new, spiritual nature, we do not always will and work for His good pleasure; though God is granting the ability, we are to utilize that grace and respond appropriately. 

Also, we are to respond to this progressively-sanctifying grace of God with fear and trembling. If we were to accept the theory of "once saved always saved," I see very little reason in working out my salvation with fear and trembling. What cause is there for me to fear and tremble when God is either keeping me believing in Christ -- a notion I have heard from many Calvinists and have yet to find in Scripture -- or that God works irresistibly within me to will and to work for His good pleasure? 

The only cause for fear and trembling is the potential of not working out my salvation and the possibility of forfeiting that salvation by eventual rejection of faith in Christ. We are given various warning passages throughout the New Testament (cf. John 15:1-5, 9; Acts 13:43; 14:22; Rom. 11:22; Col. 1:23; 2:6; 1 Thess. 3:8; 1 Tim. 2:15; 4:16; 2 Tim. 3:14; Heb. 2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 8:9; 10:19-39; 12:1-29; 1 John 2:24), and they are certainly not included in order to grant us unwarranted assurance or to validate any semblance of presumption.

Conclusion

All the promises of God in and through Christ are granted to us on conditional terms -- conditioned upon His grace through our faith and union in and with Jesus Christ our Lord. Redemption and the forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation, regeneration, adoption, the imputation of righteousness, justification, sanctification and salvation are all predicated upon the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. As long as one maintains faith in Christ, our Savior, by the grace and inner work of God, in and through the Holy Spirit, then that one will receive all of the spiritual benefits of God -- benefits found solely in Christ Jesus, His Son, our Lord and Savior. (Eph. 1:3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XLVIII. On Justification," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:407-08.

2 Ibid., 407. 

3 Ibid. 

4 Ibid. 

5 Ibid. 

6 Ibid. 

7 Ibid., 2:498.