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Archive for February, 2009

Repentance

Lent is a season of repentance. It’s a time to focus on drawing close to God. What it is not is a season to be morose or to beat oneself up about past sins already confessed and forgiven. As with many things in the Christian life, there is a balance to be found here between taking our sins as seriously as God does and not indulging in a form of self-flaggelation to try and make sure God knows just how sorry we are.

This song by Margaret Becker I think really captures God’s perspective on this. It’s titled “Just Come In” and is from her 1988 album Immigrant’s Daughter:

What do I see
You draggin up here
Is that for your atoning?
I know you’re sorry
I’ve seen your tears
You don’t have to show Me
What makes you think you must
Make that go away
I forgot
When I forgave
I wish you would

Just come in
Just leave that right there
Love does not care
Just come in
Lay your heart right here
You should never fear

You think you’ve crossed
Some sacred line
And now I will ignore you
If you look up
You will find
My heart is still toward you
Look at the sky
The east to the west
That’s where I threw this
When you first confessed
Let it go now

Just come in
Just leave that right there
Love does not care
Just come in
Lay your heart right here
You should never fear

I will forgive you
No matter what you’ve done
No matter how many times
You turn and run
I love you
I wish you’d come

Just come in
Just leave that right there
Love does not care
Just come in
Lay your heart right here
You should never fear

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As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up Methodist and then in my early teens became a member of the Assemblies of God. These two groups make up the first 24 years of my life as far as churches go. And both groups are firmly in the Arminian camp with regard to soteriology (the study of salvation and how it occurs). They believe that man has a free will and that while God does indeed reach out to us first, the moment that salvation first occurs comes when a person chooses to respond to God’s “wooing”, repent of his or her sins and accepts Christ as Lord and Savior and that it is not a result of unconditional election/choosing by God.

After college I moved to a new city and began attending an independent Charismatic church with a twist: they were Reformed/Calvinist with regard to salvation. They taught the doctrine of sovereign election and predestination in that salvation is all of God from beginning to end. Man’s will is so corrupted that he is unable to choose God. God therefore not only initiates in salvation, but because of man’s inability to choose Him, He chose before the foundation of the world those whom He would act upon and change their hearts so they would follow Him and respond to His call. Others, though His general call to salvation was given to them, were not chosen and would thus be left to die in their sins. The Calvinist would claim that unless God acts on some, no amount of mere wooing will cause a man dead in his sins to respond to God’s call. Since God is not a universalist (meaning He chooses everyone and no one ends up in Hell), He either acts on some to demonstrate His undeserved grace and purposes in the world or everyone dies in their sins and goes to Hell.

This was my first encounter where Calvinism was fully explained to me. I later attended a Presbyterian church and then a non-denominational one, both of which taught the doctrine of sovereign election and predestination, and in an even better fashion than the Charismatic church that first introduced me to it. I devoured books like The Bondage of the Will by Luther, The Sovereignty of God by Arthur Pink, Chosen By God by R.C. Sproul and others. For the next 10 years or so, I was an ardent Calvinist so far as the subject of man’s salvation was concerned.

Since beginning this study of Church history, I’ve come to realize there is actually a third path that Catholics, Orthodox and others take on this subject that is neither Arminian nor Calvinist. There are even some nuances between Calvinists and Lutherans on the issues.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that I can no longer honestly affirm the soteriology of Calvinism, at least not the way it is typically explained.  But that’s a discussion for another time that requires some deep thinking on Occam, Aquinas, Scholasticism and nominalist notions that I’m ill-equipped to discuss at the moment. My focus is the issue of eternal security, or more colloquially, “once saved, always saved.”

Growing up Arminian, this notion never made a bit of sense to me. But once I became a Calvinist, it made perfect sense. Why? Because if a person’s salvation is utterly dependent upon God choosing them, giving them the faith to believe and effectually calling them to Himself and is not a result of his own free will choice, then his it logically follows that his salvation is ultimately accomplished by God as well. In other words, his salvation never in any way depended upon his own efforts. It was all of God. Therefore, “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it in Christ Jesus.” In this picture, God is the author, sustainer and finisher of salvation in all whom He has chosen. No one He chooses can fall away because it’s not ultimately up to them and their efforts.

But in an Arminian context, it becomes completely illogical. As soon as you insert the idea that God does not sovereignly choose some to salvation and that He merely calls/woos/persuades people, but the person makes a free will choice, you have to leave open the possibility that at some point down the road, a person can use their free will to “unchoose.” They can later reject God and His offer of grace and salvation and turn away from Him.  

Other non-Baptist Arminians affirm this in various ways. Without detailing all the nuances of difference, it generally works out something like this: A person could come to Christ, be “born again” and obtain salvation. And while they don’t generally believe that any one sin in and of itself would cause someone to instantly lose salvation, they would affirm that a pattern of unrepentant sin, over time, would have a corrosive effect on the person’s heart and eventually they would by their own actions and a change of their heart and will, have turned away from the faith. They will have “lost salvation” and if they died in that state, would be condemned to hell. And of course they would also affirm that it could be more explicit such as a person deciding at some point that they simply no longer believe in God at all, or even if God is real, they no longer wish to obey or serve Him. Such a person has made an explicit rejection of God and will have forfeited salvation as well. Even Catholics, though not considered Arminian, affirm that a person can “lose salvation” by their actions after the initial moment of repentance and justification. 

For all of the Baptist huffing and puffing about free will against the Calvinists, they completely deny human free will once a person has made a sincere repentance and has committed their life to Christ. I find it odd that they think that a person who has not been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, in their darkened state has the free will ability to choose God, but that once a person has done so, they no longer have a free will! They simply CANNOT decide to walk away from Him. And when you point out examples of those who came to Christ, lived for years as faithful believers, but then at some point walked away from the faith and rejected God or have lived for years in unrepentant sin then died, they say that the person simply never was truly a believer. Mind boggling.

So to me, there are two groups being logically consistent with the beliefs they claim to hold. The Calvinists and the non-Baptist “free-willers.” The Calvinist can logically affirm “once saved, always saved” because salvation is effected by God alone and He is not wishy washy. He chose those whom He would save before the foundations of the world and all those whom He has chosen will persevere to the end, being upheld and sustained by Him. Methodists, Catholics and other free-will affirmers can logically affirm that because man must cooperate with the offer of grace to obtain salvation, if the same man later chooses to cease cooperating or to explicitly turn his back on God and reject that grace, he will have forfeited salvation. But this crazy idea that human beings can only choose God, but are not allowed or are unable to “unchoose” Him simply doesn’t add up.

Thoughts?

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Ash Wednesday

May the Lord bless all of you as we move into this penitential season of Lent. I pray that He will grant you His grace as you enter this focused time of prayer and fasting, helping you grow in holiness and in the fruits of the Spirit.

I’ll leave you today with this collect from the Book of Common Prayer and hopefully have a new blog post up in the next couple of days.

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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