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Prof examines eternal security vs. falling away from the faith

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Scriptural warnings against falling away from the faith can best be reconciled with biblical promises of the believer’s eternal security through a “means of salvation” view, according to Thomas Schreiner.
Schreiner, professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered the Sizemore Lectureship series at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Mo.
The means of salvation view, as described by Schreiner, maintains that while true believers will never apostatize, they must realize the Bible clearly warns that those who fall away will lose their eternal salvation.
“The warnings in Scripture are intended to arouse us from lethargy and propel us onward in the path of faith,” Schreiner said. “They provoke a healthy fear.
“It is precisely by taking the warnings seriously that we avoid eternal destruction,” Schreiner, a former professor at Bethel Theological Seminary in Minnesota, went on to explain. “Warnings need not diminish assurance, but they are the pathway to our assurance. What I’m arguing, in other words, is that adhering to the warnings is the means by which salvation is obtained on the final day.”
During the first two days of the Oct. 4-6 lectures, Schreiner outlined five major theories which attempt to reconcile the assurances and warnings in the New Testament. He described these as the loss of salvation, loss of rewards, tests of genuineness, hypothetical and irreconcilable tension views.
In the loss of salvation view, which he identified as Wesleyan or Arminian, Schreiner said the warnings passages in Scripture are properly viewed to refer to genuine believers, and hence are taken with great seriousness. This view grants the validity of assurance passages but only on the condition that the believer perseveres. While Schreiner said he appreciates this aspect of Arminianism, he said it does not adequately deal with the texts of assurance to the believer.
“The loss of salvation view is inadequate,” he said. “Those who are saved will persevere. I have respect for those who hold this view, and we should respect them. But I think people lose a significant amount of assurance with this view.”
Schreiner likewise faulted the loss of rewards view. Those who maintain this view, he explained, share with the Arminianists the understanding that the warning passages of Scripture refer to the true believer. However, the loss of rewards view maintains that it is not the eternal salvation of believers but, rather, their heavenly rewards and a fruitful earthly life which are at stake. To interpret these passages otherwise, proponents of this view maintain, would imply that salvation is by works, not by grace, and therefore would be a false gospel.
Schreiner commended this view for maintaining that assurance is vital to faith. However, this view makes a serious mistake when it separates good works from faith, he said. He noted how the two are inseparable in such passages as Acts 2:38, where Peter commands both repentance and belief in order to gain eternal life. Likewise, Schreiner said, proponents of this view often come to texts such as James 2, Romans 4 or Hebrews 6 with a prefabricated theory that precludes the possible loss of salvation. The result, he said, is faulty exegesis.
“I find it impossible in my mind to believe that the punishments described here relate only to rewards,” Schreiner said, citing Hebrews 10 and recounting from the passage, “The people trample underfoot the Son of God in disgust. That’s a believer who’s going to be rewarded? I find it impossible that the future destination is eternal life for someone who considers the blood of Jesus to be as defiled as an unclean garment.
“The loss of rewards view is attractive because it gives great security to the believer, but it destroys the inseparable connection between faith and works,” Schreiner continued. “And it gives a false assurance to those who may be heading to eternal destruction. That’s an awesome charge, but I believe it’s true. I am much happier with the Arminian view than this view. I think this view is much more dangerous.”
Of the five views he outlined, Schreiner described the tests of genuineness view as being closest to his own. This view agrees with the loss of rewards view in maintaining that all who are truly saved will persevere to eternity by the grace of God. It also agrees with the loss of salvation view in that perseverance and good works are necessary for salvation. However, in the tests of genuineness view, such works are the evidence of saving faith — they are needed for salvation, but all true believers will do them. In this way, the warning passages of Scripture are seen to be retrospective tests of genuine faith, which enable believers to determine whether theirs is a saving faith.
“Perseverance is the means by which we discern if a profession of faith is authentic,” Schreiner said. “There’s a kind of faith that’s not a saving faith, and we see that by whether they persevere and continue with Jesus. We need this retrospective perspective, looking back to say some who have made professions of faith are not genuinely part of the people of God.”
The fault of the tests of genuineness view, Schreiner said, is that all warning passages are seen to be applied retrospectively. Paul’s warnings in Colossians 1, however, are prospective, not retrospective, he said.
“Paul does not summon us to look back to see if we are genuinely Christians,” Schreiner noted. “He calls us to remain faithful to Christ in the future, and threatens us with eternal destruction if we apostatize.”
The fourth view evaluated by Schreiner, the hypothetical view, maintains it is impossible for a believer to apostatize. Therefore, the warning passages are hypothetical, intellectual arguments to correct wrong ideas, he said, giving little credence to this outlook, calling it “completely unpersuasive and unhelpful.”
Finally, Schreiner described the irreconcilable tension view as maintaining it is impossible to settle the tension between the assurances and warnings. Instead, the seeming contradiction must be viewed as a mystery. Both messages are to stand together, rather than be reconciled by a manmade system.
Schreiner, however, described such a view as unreasonable. “They cannot both be true,” he said. “They’re mutually exclusive. One side of the tension or the other is eventually going to rule.”
In support of his means of salvation view, Schreiner pointed readers to the account of Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27. In the midst of the life-threatening storm, Paul announced he had received a word from God that every single person on the ship would live.
“Now, if I received a promise like that, my temptation, after informing everyone of it, would be to go below into the hold of the ship and take a nap,” Schreiner commented. “Paul, on the other hand, did not think that such a promise ruled out the need for admonitions and warnings. This is clear as we read on in the narrative. A few verses later, the sailors feigned that they were merely lowering the lifeboats. What they actually wanted to do was escape the ship. Paul responded this way: He said to the centurion, ‘If the sailors leave the ship, you can’t be saved’ — that is, you won’t live.
“Why would Paul even bother to admonish the centurion about the scheme of the sailors? He’d already received a promise from an angel that every person on the boat would escape with their lives. Paul did not reason the way many of us do today: God has promised that the lives of all will be saved; therefore the warnings are superfluous. No. The urgent warning was the very means by which the promise was secure. The promise did not come to pass apart from the warning, but through the warning.
“The same approach should be applied to the promises and threats in the Scriptures regarding our salvation,” Schreiner said. “It is by means of taking the warnings seriously that the promise of our salvation is secure. The means and the ends work together.”
Schreiner also suggested that the warnings of Scripture are like initial saving faith as understood by Calvinists. Faith, it is held, is the means of salvation, but it is certain in the elect. Just as election doesn’t bypass human means, but rather employs them, Schreiner argued, so also God’s persevering grace employs human agents.
“Perseverance is sure because of God’s grace,” Schreiner said. “The warnings are the means by which the grace is possible.”
Schreiner concluded his remarks by noting the inconsistency of believing in the eternal security of the believer, but denying unconditional election.
“If I were not convinced of unconditional election, given all my study and reflection on this, I would surely be an Arminian,” Schreiner said. “The warning passages are so strong that I can understand why many think that believers can lose their salvation. What is interesting to me, and tremendously puzzling, is that there are so many believers who reject unconditional election, and yet hold on to eternal security. Such a position, I would suggest, is the most inconsistent of all. I think it is maintained not by virtue of detailed exegesis, but as a theological a priori. May I be pardoned for thinking that such a view comes more from the heart than the head.
“Some people want to believe so badly in eternal security, that they leap over the warning passages and sustain their belief in eternal security. Personally, I think such people should be Arminian. I find the Arminian view that believers can and do lose their salvation much more biblically coherent than such a position. In other words, I just can’t grasp how anybody can reject unconditional election and then believe in eternal security, given the strength of these warning passages. It just passes all understanding for me.
“Of course, I’m convinced that both these positions are wrong. I’m convinced that the Scriptures do teach unconditional election, and that God’s electing and sustaining grace is such that his sheep will never perish. And they never perish because they listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice, by which we are guided safely into our heavenly harbor.”

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  • Clinton Wolf