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I'd like your views on "once saved, always saved." (2009)

Part I.  Background.
My Initial View.
Scripture.
Orthodoxy.
Heresy.
Theology.
Doctrine.
Summary.
Part II.  The Doctrine of Eternal Security.
Classical Calvinism.
Moderate Calvinism.
Reformed Arminianism.
Wesleyan Arminianism.
My Revised View.
Part III.  Appendix.


Part I.  Background

My favorite thing about this Bible study is that the readers force me to get my mind out of its rocking chair, so my initial reaction to this question was, “Whew!  I’d like to know my views on this, too!”  In order to respond, I had to do some research, and by the time I got finished, this turned out to be the longest Bible Study Supplement in history.  Therefore I’m giving you a lot of background information this week, along with the view that I held going in (to the extent that I held a view).  Next week I’ll discuss “once saved, always saved” specifically, and present the view that I now hold.  Along the way, you’ll see that other Christians hold other views, and I’ll try to represent them as best I can.

My Initial View.  But first, here’s the direct answer to the question about my views:  My views changed somewhat as I studied this knotty issue and prepared this supplement.  I’ll tell you where I came out after we get there, but here’s where I started: The technical terms for “once saved, always saved” are “perseverance of the saints” or “eternal security.”  The opposite of eternal security is “backsliding past your justification” or “apostasy,” both of which mean “once saved, but no longer.”  A believer can (in this view) backslide past justification, or apostasize, either by “falling away” or by “turning away.”  Before we can think about eternal security, we need to understand the difference between scripture, orthodoxy, heresy, theology, and doctrine.  If you know about all this stuff, just skip it and go on to Part II.

Scripture.  Scripture is the written record of God’s revelation of himself to us.  We don’t have any of the original manuscripts.  The oldest copies we have of pieces of the New Testament date from very early in the second century A.D.  The oldest copies we have of pieces of the Old Testament date from about the second century B.C.  Few of the NT copies agree with each other 100%, and the early copies of the OT don’t have any vowels, so scholars who are called “textual critics” spend their lives trying to figure out exactly what the original manuscripts said.  (If I were going to be a Biblical scholar, I would be a Greek Old Testament textual critic.)

Scripture doesn’t tell us everything about everything (e.g., there’s nothing on electrical wiring).  It does, however, tell us everything we need to know about God’s plan of salvation.  The good news is that there is not a single known instance of a conflict between texts that is important to salvation.  So, scripture is the written word of God, and it reveals God’s plan of salvation to us.

Orthodoxy.  Orthodox belief is what the Church - that is, the whole of Christendom; not a particular group of Christians - has decided are true and correct beliefs about God.  Usually, but not always, orthodox belief is directly supported by scripture, e.g., “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.” The ideas in that sentence come straight out of scripture. 

Sometimes an idea is indirectly or partially supported by scripture, and consequently the Church had to discuss, debate, consider, and vote on what constitutes orthodox belief, e.g., “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” That part about “being of one substance with the Father” is not found explicitly anywhere in scripture; however, the Church decided it is True, and all orthodox Christians and all orthodox Christian denominations accept it.  Orthodoxy is that set of beliefs that have been declared by the whole Church to be true and correct.

Heresy.  That brings us to heresy.  You may have noticed that my examples of orthodox belief come from the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.  This is because the Church typically has laid down the law about what constitutes orthodox belief primarily as a reaction to the dissemination of ideas that didn’t sound right. 

Sometimes an idea, once we got used to it, turned out to be right, or at least not demonstrably wrong.  Other times, an idea was formally rejected and replaced with the correct or True idea, and the True idea was presented in a creed, i.e., a statement of orthodox belief that is accepted by the whole Church.  For example, the Apostles’ Creed is in large part a response to the idea that Jesus was not fully human, which arose as early as the late first century.  No, the Church declared.  He “was born,” he “suffered,” he “was crucified, dead, and buried.” In short, he was fully human, and the idea that he merely appeared to suffer and die on the cross is outside the realm of orthodox belief, i.e., it is heretical.  Heresy is thus a belief about God that the whole Church has declared to be incorrect and untrue.

Note that someone whose belief is orthodox is not necessarily saved, and someone whose belief is heretical is not necessarily damned, because salvation depends on whom you believe, not what you believe (e.g., John 9:35; 2 Timothy 1:12).  All Christians are encouraged to accept orthodox belief, however.  Furthermore, a specific belief - perhaps most specific beliefs - may be neither orthodox nor heretical, because the Church has not made a declaration one way or the other.  This has never stopped subgroups of the Church from declaring that other subgroups are heretical.  In my opinion, however, burning a fellow-Christian (or anybody else) at the stake for heresy is prima facie evidence that the burner is both unorthodox and a terrible theologian (e.g., I John 4:19-21).

Theology.  “Theology” means “study of God,” and it encompasses (depending on who’s defining it) the study and formulation of ideas about the nature of God, humanity and our relationship to God, the means of salvation, the Trinity, the Church, the relationship of the universe to God, etc., etc.  Theology is a pretty loose term, to be perfectly honest.  You could write just about anything and label it “theology.” That doesn’t mean it would be good theology.  I have read good theology in works of fiction and heard bad theology in sermons. 

Theologians are people who formally develop and publish theologies for a living, but everybody - every single Christian, Jew, Muslim, pagan, atheist, and agnostic - has a theology, because theology is what you think about God (note: not your belief in God; that is faith).  Some theologians read Hebrew and Greek as easily as they read their native language, and some try to stick very closely to what the Bible says in developing their theology.  Others don’t read either language as well as I do (and I read Greek at about 3rd- or 4th-grade level and Hebrew very poorly indeed), and they have to work from translations.  Some admit that they made up their theology first and then looked for scripture to support it.  Still others just make up their theology from scratch and make no bones about it.  So, theology is the (often formal) statement of an individual’s thoughts about the nature of God and the relationship of everything to God.

Doctrine.  Doctrine is the set of teachings of a particular group of Christians.  Most often doctrine is written, and most often the particular group in question is a denomination.  I will call the individual statements within a doctrine “points of doctrine.”  Some points of doctrine, e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity, are accepted by all orthodox Christians.  Other points of doctrine, e.g., the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, are expected by the church authorities to be accepted by all members of a particular denomination, in this case, the Roman Catholic Church.  Although there is no requirement that a denominational doctrine be completely distinct from all others, complete overlap of doctrine between two denominations is rare.  For example, even though the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodists were so closely allied in spirit that they merged in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church, we ended up with two written statements on sanctification in The Discipline

Doctrine or points of doctrine may arise directly from scripture, from orthodox belief, or from theology.  (Or they can be made up from scratch, although this is more common for points of doctrine than for doctrine.  For example, I saw one point of doctrine saying that a certain denomination accepts only the King James Version of the Bible.) It is not uncommon for a theologian to produce a particular theology that gives rise to a doctrine or point of doctrine that in turn gives rise to a denomination.  Note that while you almost certainly have a personal theology, whether you know it or not, you can’t have a personal doctrine.  You can accept or reject the points of your denomination’s doctrine, but unless you are the Pope, you can’t change any of them.  So, doctrine is a particular set of teachings, and a point of doctrine is a particular teaching on a single topic, accepted by some definable group of Christians.

Now, it used to be that most people were born, baptized, instructed, married, molded, and buried in the same church building that several generations of their ancestors had been.  They could tell you exactly what their church doctrine was, because they had never heard anything else, and there was no opportunity for confusion!  Even today, a few denominations require a statement, even a written statement, that a prospective member knows and agrees with the doctrine. 

But used to be’s don’t count any more.  It is now common for people to choose a church on the basis of its location, programs, and dress code.  This is not necessarily a bad way to choose a church - any method of choosing a church that gets you to worship regularly is a good method.  It does mean, however, that in any given congregation, half the members have no clue about the denominational doctrine.  In addition, it is now possible for someone to write and sell millions of copies of a book that incorporates a particular doctrine.  Since many readers have no clear idea about their own denomination’s doctrine before they read the book in Sunday School, they are left even more hazy after reading it.  The book could, by coincidence, reflect their denominational doctrine - but the point is that most people don’t know.

Summary.  So when you are engaged in discussion with other Christians, you should try to be clear on whether you are discussing Never argue!  Wise and holy persons, all of whom are bound for Heaven, may differ on points 1, 3, and 4.  If you think another person is wrong, state your position and then listen.  It is possible that you will learn something.  Unwise persons may hold a heretical idea, point 2; in that case you are allowed to charitably explain the orthodox doctrine, while remembering that God can save even heretics.

Next we will look specifically at the question of “once saved, always saved,” or eternal security.


Copyright 2008, 2011 by Regina L. Hunter.  All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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