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Archive for the ‘Salvation’ Category

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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There is a fascinating interview going on over at the Internet Monk’s site right now with Josh Strodtbeck, a Lutheran blogger, on God’s Sovereignty…particularly compared to the Calvinist view. He’s unpacking all kinds of stuff from election, to assurance of salvation and other issues from a Lutheran perspective. You really need to check this out.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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One of the Big Issues that I’m grappling with as I evaluate the Catholic and Reformed views on salvation is the issue of assurance of salvation. The confidence in the mercy of God to handle human weakness and frailty as we grow in Christ during this life here on earth is a big deal and has been for many saints who’ve gone before from St. Augustine to Martin Luther to John Wesley.I’m struggling with the Catholic view on one being able to lose their salvation or “state of grace” as they tend to describe it. In a nutshell, there are two kinds of sins: venial and mortal. Protestants are generally unfamiliar with this idea, instead believing that “sin is sin” and while some may have more serious earthly consequences, all sin is equal in terms of eternal ramifications. But Catholics cite 1 John 5: 16, 17 as the Scriptural reason for the distinction they make:

16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

In Catholic translations of the Bible, they actually use the phrase “mortal sin” to describe “sin leading to death.” This isn’t a big deal as the word “mortal” is used this way all the time (i.e. “mortal wound” for instance means “a wound that results in death.) Furthermore, to truly be a mortal sin, the action committed has to be a grave or serious matter (in other words, murder as opposed to breaking the speed limit or telling someone they’re new haircut is nice when you really think it’s not), the person committing it has to know that the Church considers that matter to be grave or serious and finally, the action has to be done with full consent. In other words, you didn’t do it rashly without thinking, or by accident, or under duress.

So while it isn’t easy to commit a mortal sin, Christians certainly do it. It doesn’t have to be the blatantly obvious things like murder. There’s lusting in one’s heart which is adultery according to Jesus. And obviously, unless someone had a gun to their head, they did it of their own volition. Now here’s the issue for me: in the Catholic view of things, mortal sins are named such because they actually remove the Christian from a state of grace. In Protestant language, the person in that moment loses their salvation. And should they die before going to confession and receiving absolution for that sin, they will be condemned to hell for all eternity.

Now to be sure, Catholics aren’t the only Christian group that believes one can lose salvation once obtained. Almost all Pentecostal denominations, Methodists and a host of other denominations believe that a Christian can choose to reject the faith and turn their back on God, resulting in them losing their salvation and going to hell when they die. But if you ask them how a Christian would lose salvation, you would rarely if ever get an answer that intimated that one could bounce back and forth, in and out of “being saved” with the commission of a single sin except in the most extreme circumstances. Most would describe it more as a process where the believer sins and doesn’t repent and over time, his or her heart is hardened by their sinful actions and lack of remorse and repentance to where they essentially leave the faith. On rare occasions, they may be so bold as to directly state “I renounce my faith”, but saying the words would not be a prerequisite…their heart is what is the determining factor.

If losing one’s salvation is this easy, how does one who believes this way not live in constant fear? What if our earthly fathers did this? There would be several million more teenagers out there living on the streets if they kicked their rebellious teen out the the family and out of the house everytime they willfully disobeyed their parents on matters the father considers serious. But of course, our earthly fathers (which are meant to be a representation to us of our Heavenly Father) don’t do that. We may be disciplined and it may be severe. But it would take a consistent and deliberate and unremorseful pattern of rank disobedience and defiance for most parents to even consider “the nuclear option” and kick them out or disown them. And it would probably involve things like drugs or heavy drinking, endangering the family in some way, bringing lovers over to have sex in the house and so on.

So how is it that our Heavenly Father would condemn someone to hell, whose life pattern was one of striving to grow in Christ and live a faithful life, for committing one serious sin then dying before repenting of it? And for Catholics, the list doesn’t have to be the biggies like murder, adultery or homosexual sex for instance. It could be deliberately missing Sunday Mass or some other Holy Day of Obligation (like Ash Wednesday) without a good reason such as being too sick to attend. It could be using a condom when having sex with one’s wife. It could be lusting after an immodestly dressed woman (or man). Heaven forbid that someone could have otherwise been a faithful Christian but make a poor choice in a moment of weakness then die in a car accident before the conviction of the Holy Spirit set in and they repented or made it to confession.

Now some would say that God doesn’t “kick us out,” rather, we walk out on our own. I have a hard time believing this is what’s happening. Again going back to the example above…when you disobeyed your parents on some serious matter, were you honestly leaving your family and disowning them? I’m not trying to minimize the wrongness of what you were doing, but did your parents, even when they were mad and decided to implement some seriously tough love in the form of discipline, ever take it as a decision to turn your back on the family and remove yourself from it entirely? Or did they take it as an occasion of momentary, episodic rebellion or disobedience that required correction, not abject condemnation?

Coming from more of a Lutheran or Calvinist view of salvation, I do believe in eternal security, but even if I simply held the view of more Arminian Protestants, there is still some assurance that God doesn’t kick you to the curb right away. Sin breaks fellowship with God and there are certainly possible consequences to that…missing out on provision or blessings, living with guilt and the accompanying spiritual turmoil, God handing out some kind of direct discipline and chastisement or even a desensitizing to sin that makes it easier to give in the next time and take you further down that path toward rejecting Him altogether. But I wouldn’t live in mortal fear that I had immediately lost my salvation. I would trust that God would be convicting me of sin and working to restore full fellowship with me, not that I would cease to be one of His children any longer.

How do Catholics deal with this?

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