Growing up in Southern Baptist churches, the phrase, "once saved, always saved" was ingrained in my heart and mind from an early age. In high school I often engaged in debates about that doctrine, and I learned to defend it well. In my early 20's my understanding was tweaked and deepened, and I stopped saying "once saved, always saved." Instead, I would refer to the idea that all truly saved people will ultimately go to heaven as "eternal security." As I read and studied more, I came to the conclusion that "perseverance of the saints" was the best way to describe what I understood Scripture to be teaching. Regardless of the words we use to describe it, this doctrine can be dangerous.
Whenever we read Scripture, we carry our theology with us--it's unavoidable. Rather than trying to read the Bible without any theological bias, it's better to recognize the bias we bring to the text and constantly shape our theology to make it more and more biblical. That's the only way we can read the Bible with a theological bias that is biblical!
Guardrails and Harnesses
Too often, our theological bias operates like a guardrail on the edge of a canyon. A guardrail prevents us from getting to close to the edge of the canyon and ensures we will enjoy the view at a safe distance. That's great for a canyon, but when it comes to Scripture, we don't need to enjoy it at a safe distance. We need to dive in and explore! Our theology should protect us, but it's there to protect us from bad theology not from Scripture. Good theology should not function like a guardrail; it should function like a harness and rope allowing us to safely explore the depths of specific books and passages while keeping us anchored to a belief system that takes into account the entirety of the biblical witness.
Perseverance of the Saints and Hebrews 6
Hebrews has recently become my favorite book of the Bible. I've read it dozens of times over the past year or so, and I'm always amazed by it's beauty, depth, and theological uniqueness. The anonymous and unknown author of Hebrews wrote, as a part of God-breathed Scripture, two passages that are commonly referred to as warning passages. The first of those is found in Hebrews 6:4-8.
"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned."
Does That Mean What I Think It Means?
When I read this passage, my theological bias wants to act more like a guardrail than a rope and harness. Immediately, I start thinking of reasons why this passage doesn't mean what it could mean and perhaps what, at first reading, it seems to mean. I'm tempted to keep reading and act as if those words aren't a big challenge to the Baptist Faith and Message, which reads, in part,
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end.
Before you get the idea that my theological rope and harness have failed and that maybe I should have stayed behind that guardrail I dislike so much, I'm not abandoning my Baptist, better yet, biblical theology that leads me to the conviction that all true followers of Christ will endure to the end and be saved. The saints will persevere, and those who fall away simply prove what 1 John 2:19 says of them,
"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us."
Therein Lies the Problem
I'm sure some of you were relieved to read that 1) I have not abandoned the doctrine best referred to as the perseverance of the saints, and 2) that I've somehow managed to reconcile Hebrews 6:4-8 with that conviction. That's it--the relief--that's the problem I'm trying to alert us to. It seems that whenever we come to a passage that runs counter to our own thoughts and hearts, we quickly look for relief.
Have You Cut Off a Hand Lately?
How many times have you heard a pastor read Jesus' instructions to cut off your right hand if it causes you to sin and gouge out your right eye if it causes you to sin only to very quickly say something like this, "Now, Jesus does not mean for us to actually cut off our hands and gouge out our eyes." Every. Single. Time. And of course Jesus didn't mean that! (See, I just did it) But have you ever noticed that Jesus, the master teacher, didn't see the need to clarify His statements? It's almost as if the preacher is saying, "Let me tell you what Jesus, bless His heart, was trying to say." Jesus said what He meant to say, and He doesn't need us to blunt the edge of His words. Pastors, if people start showing up to our services missing hands and eyes, then we might need to clarify Jesus' words. The problem we face, however, is not that we are so extreme in our resistance to sin that we are likely to start cutting off hands and gouging out eyes--our problem is that we are so lax in our fight against sin that we can't go more than a few minutes without checking social media to see who has liked our posts.
Concern Not Relief
Let's turn our attention back to Hebrews 6. In reading and studying the warning passages in Hebrews, I'm convinced the author wasn't going for relief. His goal was exactly the opposite. He intended to press the original readers, and us by extension, to the point where we would be so concerned that sweat would bead across our brow.
I'm not going to give a lengthy exegesis of Hebrews 6:4-8 here, but if you need a little relief (see what I did there!), check out this article from John Piper on the passage in which he concludes the author of Hebrews was referring to those who thought they were Christians but really weren't. What a relief! But wait, what if that is me? What if it's you? Would we know? Those the author of Hebrews was writing about really and genuinely believed they were Christians, but, despite thinking at one time they were really Christ followers, the author describes them as land that was to be burned in the end. Well, you might think, maybe that's just a metaphor for spiritual unfruitfulness. Maybe the author is not talking about judgment. Consider the other warning passage from Hebrews 10. Verses 26-27 skip the metaphor and go straight for the reality.
"For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries."
Is there any sweat on your brow? Sometimes there is sweat on mine when I read these passages. How will I know that I have truly been saved? The author of Hebrews answers that question this way,
"For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end." Hebrews 3:14
Faith that Leads to Perseverance
Salvation is by faith from first to last, and from Matthew to Revelation, the New Testament teaches that saving faith is also enduring faith. The book of Hebrews is no exception. The author tells us plainly that salvation comes from sharing in Christ, that sharing in Christ comes by faith (see 4:2-3, 6:12ff, 10:39), and that true, saving faith is faith that endures. We will know we share in Christ as we endure to the end.
So, we are saved when we have saving faith, and we know we have saving faith when we endure in faithfulness to Christ. Furthermore, our endurance is not something we create. It is product of our union with Christ. Notice the carefully chosen wording: we hold our original confidence because we have come to share in Him. The author is not saying that we will come to share in Christ by holding to our original confidence. Great doors swing on small hinges and important theology often rests on small words.
How, Then, Will We Persevere?
Why does the author of Hebrews want to raise such concern? It is so we will examine our lives and press on--endure--in our faith. That's why he says,
"For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised." Hebrews 10:36
In other words, true followers of Christ will endure, but we will endure, by God's sustaining power, partly because of warnings like those in Hebrews 6 and 10.
The (Less) Obvious Danger
Every theology, even the greatest ones, lend themselves to dangerous misapplication. We know--those of us who hold to "once saved, always saved," it's more careful twin "if saved, always saved," it's more mature brother "eternal security," or even the distinguished head of it's family, "perseverance of the saints,"--we know the obvious danger of our theology is that people can be lulled into a false sense of security based on a false profession of faith. That's no reason to abandon the doctrine, but it is a danger of which we must be aware.
The less obvious danger of this vital and solidly biblical doctrine is that it might be used by our flesh to blunt the impact of the very passages that God would use to accomplish His work of salvation in our lives.
The Rock Won't Move
So go ahead, strap on a harness, jump over the guardrail, and explore! Let the full weight of these warnings impact you, challenge you, and wreck you. Don't worry, the author of Hebrews is a trustworthy guide. Just when I think he has me down for the count, he lifts me back and sets my feet firm upon the Rock. Notice what immediately follows the most severe statements in chapters 6 and 10,
"Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation." Hebrews 6:9
"But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls." Hebrews 10:39
May the Lord sustain us as we endure through the power of our union with Christ!