Friday, April 6, 2012

Toothless Warnings - Perseverance and Apostasy

If you don't clean your room, I am going to sell you to the Indians.  That was a threat I used to use with my kids when they were little.  Yes, I know I am depraved.  I understand.  It doesn't work anymore, because I have older kids that know its not true.  If I use that threat, one of the older kids will whisper in the younger kid's ear, "He is just kidding.  He wouldn't sell you to the Indians."  So, my warning loses its bite.  It loses its persuasive push, because the consequence has been shown to be illusory, not real.  

As I preach, I constantly come across warning passages in the Bible.  I call them the "if" passages.  IF you continue in the faith, then you will be saved.  A clear one comes in Colossians 1:22-23, "But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation  -  IF you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel."  Notice the "if."  These passages crop up all the time, all over the Bible, not just a few times in Hebrews.

They are warnings meant to stimulate us to do the right thing which is to persevere and to hold onto Jesus no matter what happens.  They are warnings with some bite to them.  IF you don't persevere in the faith and you abandon Jesus, you had better watch out.  The consequences are real and intended to motivate people to "persevere" or to "overcome" as John puts it. 

So, what's the problem then?  Just issue the warning with its consequence and leave it at that!  It's not that easy.  Theologically, I believe that the Bible teaches that a true believer cannot lose their salvation.  So, for years, whenever I would come across an "if" passage, I would immediately give a 3 minute discussion on "once saved always saved".  I was defending my theological conviction (which I still hold firmly), but at the same time I was taking the bite out of the warning.  I was reading Shreiner's commentary on Jude the other day, and was heartened when I saw him do the same thing.  He was looking at an "if" passage and immediately set forth a defense of an eternal security type of teaching.  I know I am not the only one who struggles with this, because it is a tension inherent in the New Testament itself.

Paul can emphatically say that "He who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus," and then he can issue an "if" passages like the Colossians one above.  So, here is how I see it at this point, and here is how I tend to frame it today.  D. A. Carson put it like this, "Perseverance is the test of reality."  In other words, theologically and logically speaking, those who persevere in the faith are by definition true believers.  Those who do not persevere in the faith and apostatize never were true believers in the first place.  This logical construct helps me make sense out of the Scriptural data.  It also helps me to maintain my belief that true believers cannot lose their salvation, while at the same time keeping the bite to the warning.  A Christian is one who perseveres in the faith.  True believers cannot lose their salvation, but church members and those who have made outward professions of faith and appear to be saved can be lost.

John says in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us (perseverance), but they went out from us so that it might be made clear that they were never part of us to begin with.”

Jesus says something similar, "He who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:22).  The author of Hebrews says, “We share in Christ, IF we hold our first confidence firm until the end (Hebrews 3:14).  Salvation is tied to us persevering in the faith.  Those with the Spirit will persevere and not depart from the faith.  Those who do leave prove that their commitment never existed in the first place.

So, all of these "if" passages are really warnings calling us to persevere, to stand strong in the truth of the gospel.  They are a call to commitment.  I understand that this is a logical systematic construct, but it is one that helps me in the pulpit keep the bite in the warnings of Scripture and at the same time not deny what in my mind is a clear teaching of Scripture.  What do you think?

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