Posts Tagged ‘eternal security’

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.

Can God “retract our pardon”? Wesley thought so

October 21, 2011

Statue at Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia

In last Sunday’s sermon, while discussing the very difficult Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, I put up a slide that drew a couple of questions from the congregation. The slide said that as Methodists we believe that it’s possible to lose our salvation, but that God always stands ready to forgive us and reconcile us back to himself.

A couple further comments: I realize it’s a bit optimistic to talk about “what Methodists believe,” because we often don’t know, in general, what we believe. We’re not a “confessional” church. The Wesleyan movement never defined itself in opposition to other Christian bodies. Wesley was himself a happy Anglican, for the most part. His problem with church was not orthodoxy but orthopraxy—how we live out our faith. He took for granted that we Methodists would stand squarely within the realm of orthodox Christianity as expressed by the Church of England.

Because of this legacy, we Methodists are known to be more laid-back, theologically, than many other parts of the universal Church. But this is not to say that theology isn’t important, or that we don’t have distinctive Wesleyan theological emphases.

One of these emphases is that we can fall from grace, even after we experience justification (forgiveness for sins) and rebirth (an inward spiritual change that enables us to live the Christian life). Salvation is a process that isn’t complete until the other side of death and resurrection, when we arrive safely in God’s kingdom. This is the point at which we are fully and finally saved. We may properly speak of “being saved” as a past event—because of what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection in the past—but, theologically, our salvation always points to a future event.

With this in mind, we Wesleyan Christians believe that through faith we “get on the bus,” which is surely headed to salvation, but we may choose through sin and unbelief to get off at any time. We are that free, Wesley believed.

We Methodists, in other words, don’t believe in a doctrine that’s often called “eternal security”—once saved, always saved. I wish we could believe in it, but not at the expense of being faithful to our best understanding of scripture. When we consider Jesus’ words in this parable, and especially Matthew 18:35, not to mention many other passages of scripture, the burden of proof, I would argue, lies with those Christians who believe in it.

Obviously, Wesley’s view was controversial among evangelical Protestants of his day. He sounds a polemical note in his commentary on v. 35:

And shall we still say, but when we are once freely and fully forgiven, our pardon can never be retracted? Verily, verily, I say unto you, So likewise will my heavenly Father do to you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

As I told a friend who struggled with the issue of eternal security versus falling from grace: It shouldn’t make much difference. It’s a good idea, even if we believe in the doctrine, to live as if we don’t! Right?