A Brief Defense of Apostasy

The necessity of the doctrine of perseverance is a given in the system of Calvinism. If God has unconditionally elected to save a person, ensuring that salvation by having Christ die for that person, and He regenerates the individual and "keeps such a one believing" in Christ by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, then that person will inevitably be saved -- he or she will never fall away from the faith or forfeit salvation -- indeed such would be impossible. 

But in Arminianism, God has not unconditionally elected to save anyone (1 Cor. 1:21); Christ died to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29); and the enabling grace of God can be resisted (Acts 7:51; 2 Cor. 6:1). So, inherent within Arminianism as a system is a want for necessitarian perseverance. Since we are not operating within the same hermeneutic as Calvinism, Arminianism can be misunderstood, and we are informed by our opponents as to the "unbiblical" tenor of our doctrine.

Introduction

In Arminianism, God does not "give" faith to one person and not to another person, nor does He keep anyone from rejecting either His grace or even his or her own faith once formerly held. In a general sense, God grants people a measure of freedom in rejecting that which would salvifically benefit one's eternal state. Though God is the one who saves, and thus He maintains the "final say" over who is and who is not to be saved (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21), a person is given the enabling grace of God, and is not predetermined to make one choice or another. The doctrine of perseverance is an issue solely of hermeneutics. Perseverance by necessity (Calvinism) and conditional perseverance (Arminianism) are consistent positions within their respective systems. 

Some Arminians argue for a necessary-perseverance position, holding that regeneration and the ministry of the Holy Spirit guarantees that a person will be saved, and one can in no sense ever reject his or her faith and finally be lost. While in 1610 the Remonstrants were ambivalent on the issue, permitting some empathy with this latter position, by 1618, upon further scrutiny of the scriptures, they decided that a person could possibly forfeit faith by rejecting Christ, and the overall consensus of Arminians and Wesleyan-Arminians have defended this tenet ever since. 

This post will only defend the position that a person can forfeit salvation by rejecting his or her former faith in Christ. This post will by no means be exhaustive, neither will it address numerous passages from the Old Testament; nor will it address all of the relevant passages from the New Testament regarding the issue, or be concerned with the doctrine of assurance, which is a separate-yet-related issue. 

Also, this post will not exhaustively address the contrary position of necessary perseverance; it will promote a more positive argument for our position rather than present arguments against the contrary position. One must assume that if someone holds tenaciously to one position, he or she has viable reasons for rejecting other positions. If you hold to the contrary position, I will not be surprised if you are not convinced of my position, just as I am not convinced of yours. 

As no doctrine is derived out of thin air, neither is the doctrine of conditional perseverance -- that one will persevere to the end upon certain conditions -- constructed by mere logic or philosophical meandering. The Arminian reads several passages from the New Testament, noting certain conditions to final salvation, as well as warnings against and examples of apostasy; the conclusion of which informs us that a possibility remains that a present believer may fall away from his or her position in Christ by rejecting faith in the same. We believe that the contrary position fails to adequately answer the primary question: Why warn a believer against falling away if a believer cannot fall away.  

Jesus and Perseverance

That salvation is offered to all people should be obvious from any cursory reading of Jesus' words in the Gospel (cf. Matt. 11:28; 22:9; Mark 8:34-38; Luke 8:4-8, 9-10, 11-15; John 1:4, 7, 9, 12; 3:14-15, 16, 17, 18; 8:12). That all people will not receive Christ's salvation should also be obvious (cf. Matt. 7:21-23). But what about some people who began in the faith, placing faith in Jesus, but later turned from or abused that faith? Does Jesus mention these types of people, or these types of scenarios? Yes, in fact, He does (though, for brevity's sake, I will offer only one example). 

I want to focus on Jesus' admonition to His disciples to abide in Him, which, by inference, would also apply to anyone who places faith in Him, since we cannot produce fruit unless we abide in Him (John 15:4), and apart from Him we can accomplish nothing of eternal value. (John 15:5) Jesus begins: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit." (John 15:1, 2, emphasis added) Note the action: God "removes," airó, or takes up and carries (such a branch) away. Who is the branch? The branch is the one believing, and the one who is in Christ. (John 15:5) Certainly, unregenerate persons are not in Him (cf. Eph. 1:3, 4). From where is this branch taken up? The branch is taken up and carried away from being in Jesus Christ. How does one get to be in Christ? Only by grace through faith in Him is union with Christ possible. 

Therefore, by not abiding in Christ, such a one can forfeit his or her place in Christ, thus also forfeiting one's salvation. To the Arminian, this is the only way the passage makes sense. Why else warn His followers who are in Him to abide in Him? Why warn those followers to abide in Him if they are already going to abide in Him by the predeterminative work of God? Why bring attention to the action of the Father removing a person who does not abide in Him or produce spiritual fruit, if such is not even a possible scenario? 

By way of illustration, God complained against Israel, "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?" (Isaiah 5:4) Not only do we think that such passages betray any notion of determinism, but we also believe that they contradict the concept of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and necessary perseverance. Within the context of the latter theories, God would be asking a question the consequences for which He was directly responsible, since all that happens is brought about by His eternal decree, according to the Calvinistic Westminster Confession of Faith (cf. WCF III:1, 2).

We are not permitted to borrow from the apostle John's later letter in context with Jesus' admonition to abide in Christ -- "They went out from us, but they did not belong to us" (1 John 2:19) -- since John admits that the false teachers, to whom he was referring, did not belong to the body, though they were present among the body; yet Jesus explicitly stated that His Father will take away any branch -- and a branch is a believer who is in Christ -- who is in Him but does not produce fruit. In other words, to suggest that those whom the Father roots out of Christ "never really belonged to Him in the first place" is to weaken Jesus' main purpose of admonishing us to abide in Him -- if we do not, the consequences are terrifying.


Paul and Perseverance 

We see in the writings of Paul a perspective of conditional perseverance, most notably evident in such passages as the following (all emphases added):
  • Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Rom. 11:22);
  • And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him -- provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard (Col. 1:21, 22, 23);
  • For now we live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord (1 Thess. 3:8);
  • Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty (1 Tim. 2:15);
  • Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:16);
  • But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it (2 Tim. 3:14).
If the apostle Paul assumed a necessary perseverance doctrine, then 1) his admonitions to abide in Christ, and to continue in the faith, appear entirely gratuitous; and 2) the consequences for not abiding in Christ, or continuing in the faith, do not actually exist -- have no direct correlation to reality -- but are instead given by Paul for an entirely superfluous purpose unknown to us. If one suggests that Paul assumed the believing recipients of his letters would by necessity persevere in the faith, then we are at a loss as to determining why he would warn us against the dangers of not abiding in Christ, not continuing in the faith.  

We believe, therefore, that whatever promises of final salvation that are granted to the believer, they are interpreted through the conditional lens of abiding in both Christ and the faith of Him. God predetermined, for example, to adopt believers as his children through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5). In and through Christ, God also predetermined and elected to view us as holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4; cf. 1 Cor. 1:8; Phil. 1:10; 2:15; Col. 1:22; 1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23); in Christ we have obtained an inheritance (Eph. 1:11: or have become the inheritance of Christ); and in Christ, when we had "heard the word of truth, the gospel of [our] salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit," which is the "pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory." (Eph. 1:13, 14) All of these promises belong conditionally to the one believing in Christ (present active indicative) -- the one who believes and keeps on believing. 

In other words, just as Israel's blessings from God were conditional, so too are the salvific blessings of God to the Church conditioned upon one's union with and continued faith in Jesus Christ. To the one who does not continue in the faith -- who does not abide in Him -- such a one is rooted up out of Christ and discarded (John 15:1, 2), as explicitly taught by Christ, as well as by Paul himself at Romans 11 (cf. Rom. 11:17-24).

Hebrews and Perseverance

I did not include the book of Hebrews among Paul's letters because I do not believe he wrote it (cf. 2 Thess. 3:17). This author had much to communicate with regard to a present and active faith and abiding in Christ for final salvation as well as the tragic consequences of not abiding in the faith of Christ. Writing to believers in and followers of Christ, he begins by noting that "we," he included himself, "must," dei (absolutely necessary) "pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it." (Heb. 2:1) Drift away from it? This nautical word, pararuōmen, refers to the manner in which a boat not properly tied to its post can slip away into the tide. Hence, spiritually, it refers to a "lapse" into "spiritual defeat, describing how we slowly move away from our moorings in Christ." (link

The author continues: "For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Heb. 2:2-3) Again, he includes himself by use of "we," noting the consequences of neglecting, amelēsantes, being careless -- "without concern, unaffected, viewing something as being without significance, i.e. without perceived value" (link) -- with regard to salvation. 

We, believers, therefore are warned further against developing "an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God." (Heb. 3:12, emphasis added) If this is not possible, for the regenerate believer to develop an unbelieving heart, then why does the author write thus? Why, again, warn us to "exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." (Heb. 3:13, emphases added) He then qualifies the statement, putting the conditional capstone on his teaching: "For we have become partners with Christ, if in fact we hold our initial confidence firm until the end." (Heb. 3:14, NET, emphasis added) Why, also, use the word "develop" (Heb. 3:12), since all the unregenerate are already in an unbelieving state: such do not have to develop an unbelieving heart.

So, the author understands the conditionality of both the promise of God regarding final salvation and the realization of the same, as he continues: "Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. . . . Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience. . . ." (Heb. 4:1, 11) Our helper is Christ Himself, through whom we may approach the throne of grace, so that "we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." (Heb. 4:16) We are each other's helper, as well, as we are commanded to be. We must encourage one another to keep faith in Christ alone for final salvation, day by day, because the possibility of falling from such is a reality.  

The audience of the author noted that this particular church had become "dull in understanding" (Heb. 5:11), underscoring their want of spiritual maturity, which concerned him greatly (Heb. 5:12-14). He encourages them to move on toward perfection (Heb. 6:1). 

Much has been written on the passages of Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-27, so I will not repeat all of the information. But I would like to highlight the author's admonition that believers keep holding fast to the their confession of hope without wavering (Heb. 10:23), considering how we might provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24); concluding that the individual who abandons the faith of Christ, in lieu of trying to obey the law -- or reliance upon good works and merit -- deserves eternal punishment for spurning the Son of God, profaning "the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified," and outraging the Spirit of grace." (Heb. 10:29, emphasis added) These people had been sanctified -- set apart by God in Christ; yet by turning from the grace of God, as it is in Christ, they were to receive the terrible vengeance of God. (Heb. 10:30) 

Conclusion

This brief address of the subject of conditional perseverance offers scriptural support for why many Arminians believe in the possibility of a person beginning in the faith of Christ, being regenerate and in union with Him, and then, by neglecting to work out his or her salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), through the agency of God granting both the will and the work to such activity (Phil. 2:13), he or she eventually falls away. Though no one falls away from Christ because of a sin committed, we must, through the warnings granted in Scripture, concede that falling into sin, or a sinful pattern, can instrumentally cause someone to neglect his or her salvation, and eventually lead someone to rejecting Christ. We believe that once salvation is forfeited, being saved again is an impossibility (Heb. 10:26). (Others may disagree, to be fair.) 

Most importantly, the warnings in Scripture are real and meaningful, and are scattered throughout the New Testament for our benefit and admonition toward spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation. Scot McKnight's "The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions" (PDF) is an indispensable journal article when considering this subject; as is Steve Witzki's "The Inadequate Historical Precedent for 'Once Saved, Always Saved'," and "Early Christian Writers on Apostasy and Perseverance"; Robert Shank's Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance; and also I. Howard Marshall's Kept by the Power of God: A Study of Perseverance and Falling Away. The warnings are of paramount significance, and the consequences for apostasy remain as genuine as the threat of hell itself to anyone who rejects Christ. 

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.