Confessing “Jesus is Lord” is no magic charm

March 13, 2014

I’ve been leading a small group discussion on the Letter of James on Wednesday nights. Last night, we talked about God’s judgment (while looking at James 2:8-13) and the frightening prospect of backsliding and even losing one’s salvation. Is it possible? By all means! Wesley would say.

But I’ll be honest: My heart resists this Methodist doctrine.

In my defense, I grew up Southern Baptist, which generally emphasizes eternal security (“Once saved, always saved.”). And I see the logic of it: if we’re saved by faith and not works, then how can we do anything that would disqualify us from salvation?

But if scripture is our primary authority and not tradition—even the tradition of Protestant Reformers like Luther and Calvin, who believed in eternal security—how can we not say that backsliding is real?

I read the following this morning, and it felt like a punch in the gut. Dr. Robert Gagnon, New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is discussing Paul’s view of sin in Romans and the necessity of sanctification after justification. If we are being led by the Spirit, we Christians simply can’t continue in our sins as we did before. If we do, Paul says, we risk eternal death.

The confession “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9) is no magical charm. If one lives as a slave to sin, it is sin and not Christ or God that is Lord of one’s life and it is sin that will pay one back with death. In other words, the “free gift” does not remain with those who do not experience liberation from sin’s power (6:15-23). Those who lead lives under sin’s primary control will die and be excluded from the life of God’s kingdom, whether they are believers or not. Only those who are fundamentally led by the Spirit will live (8:5-14). Although salvation does not come by personal merit, unrighteous conduct can disqualify one from salvation. [Here, in a footnote, Gagnon cites Rom 11:22: “God’s kindness to you, if you continue in that kindness; otherwise, you will be cut off.”] One must recapitulate the Christ event in one’s own life by undergoing the transformative experience of dying to one’s self and rising to a new life for God, through the indwelling power of Christ’s Spirit.[†]


The only question I might raise is, does “unrighteous conduct” alone disqualify us, or the lack of faith in Christ that such conduct (perhaps) betrays?

In my sermon last Sunday, which I’ll get around to posting eventually (I realize I’m two sermons behind!), I offered a strong message of grace and reassurance to Christians whose consciences convict them about their past sin: “Am I still saved?” they wonder.

I hope I’m not contradicting that message here!

But if their consciences convict them, such that they can still repent, then they likely are still saved. My urgent warning would be for those Christians who have numbed their consciences about their sin, have become complacent about their salvation, and are unaware that there’s a problem. God help me, I have been that person at times in my life!

Regardless, as James himself writes, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

Thank God that our Lord is “gracious… and merciful and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” who  “relents from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). He is our only hope!

But let us not live as if we presume upon God’s grace and mercy!

Robert A.J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 282.

6 Responses to “Confessing “Jesus is Lord” is no magic charm”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I believe the validity/invalidity of “once saved, always saved” is one of the thorniest issues in the Christian faith. Sometimes we are told that we received the Spirit (who indwells all true believers, Paul says) as an “earnest” or “seal” or “guarantee” of the good things to come. Paul also says he is confident that “He who began a good work in you will see it through.” We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, or take us out of the Father’s hand.

    As contrasted with that, Paul says that we should not be deceived, that those who engage in a certain list of sins (I would read, engage continually) will not inherit the kingdom of God. Hebrews gives warnings that at least seem to suggest that true Christians can “fall from grace.” Jesus said that the “servant” who was given a talent and did not use it will have that taken away and he be cast out into outer darkness. And there are multiple other passages which give such warnings (see Ezekiel 33, for another example).

    So, what is the resolution? I don’t feel qualified to answer. However, I do think there are several considerations. First, to become a disciple in the first place, you have to be willing to “deny yourself, and follow [Christ].” A “my life for your life” exchange, as I put it. Obviously no such transaction has occurred if a person continues living as before. So, we can certainly wonder in at least some situations whether salvation has occurred (regardless of “belief” in the doctrines–“Even the devils believe, and they tremble. So, don’t you know that faith without works is dead?”).

    Second, we have the fact that none of us “deserves” to “become” saved (as you acknowledge), so how can we have to “deserve” to “remain” saved? Salvation is by grace through faith, “and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

    Finally, I note a “tension” in how God feels toward those who are “chosen” depending on their behavior. Over and over in the Old Testament, God says he will in essence abandon the children of Israel because they have abandoned him. Yet, he keeps coming back and saving them when they cry out (book of Judges), and ultimately restores the nation of Israel after their Babylonian captivity. In Jeremiah, it seems God is willing to “divorce” Israel; whereas in Hosea, he has Hosea take back his prostituted bride as a picture. So I think God “feels like” casting us away, and certainly the relationship becomes very strained and we suffer punishments as a result, but I guess the bottom line for me is, once there ever truly was that “my life for your life” exchange, ultimately God will “take us back” in the end. (Query on this point–will we see Solomon in Heaven? I would think so.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Ultimately, we have to hold these different messages in tension. I don’t see any way around it. I do agree with a theologian friend who is often anxiously asked about the unpardonable sin: “Have I committed it?” He says that if you’re worried about it, you can be confident you haven’t. Again, my urgent warning is to those Christians who have grown complacent about their sin.

      • brentwhite Says:

        By the way, the editorial stance of the ESV Study Bible, which is my primary Bible these days, is in favor of eternal security.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I mentioned this issue to my Dad, a staunch Southern Baptist retired preacher/missionary, and he wanted me to add a reference to 1John 2:19, which says “they went out from us, which showed they were not of us.” (For whatever additional impact that might have on the consideration of the issue.)

  2. Stuart Says:

    I think this is one of the foundational issues that the church unfortunately still struggles with. While Scripture does say that some were not of us, that does not automatically preclude the possibility that a genuine believer can so stray from the faith as to lose his/her salvation. We have reduced the gospel message to belief only and in doing so have created a synecdoche – omitting the need for repentance and ongoing obedience. Heb 5:9 states: “And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who OBEY him.” Obedience and not just belief is required for salvation. Conversely, no obedience = no salvation. The Apostle Paul drives home the same point when he warns the BRETHREN (not the unsaved) in Rom 8:12-13 that IF they live according to the flesh, they will die, but IF they put to death the misdeeds of the body, they will live. This is a conditional statement putting the onus on the believer to live a sanctified life. It is not an unconditional statement guaranteeing that a believer is eternally secure.

  3. stu001 Says:

    Given that this subject pertains to the very nature of the gospel message itself, one would think that Jesus would have addressed this important topic with his disciples. We also know that use of the parable was Jesus’ primary teaching method to convey spiritual truth to his disciples and to those who have ears to hear. With this in mind let’s examine the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Most often the teaching/preaching of this passage focuses on God’s love, grace and forgiveness which is certainly true. However, I don’t believe that that it this main point Jesus was conveying. Notice that Jesus in telling this story repeats himself in only two places – in v. 24 & in v. 32 where he summarizes the parable. We also know that whenever something is repeated twice within a few verses, it is important to heed and is likely even the main point of the scriptures being examined. With that in mind, the Father describes his prodigal son as being dead and alive AGAIN in v.24 & 32.The burning question is how can someone be made alive AGAIN? I can only conclude that the son was alive when he abided in his Father’s household; he became (spiritually dead) when he left his father’s house and pursued a life of willful sin. But when he came to his senses and returned to his Father seeking repentance and forgiveness, he was made ALIVE AGAIN. He was lost but was found when he repented and returned to his Father. I believe this passage shows that a believer can lose his/her salvation and remain lost unless repentance occurs. But, he/she can be made spiritually alive again upon returning to the Father.

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