This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

by
Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday



Saturday, May 27, 2006

Which is More Secure, Election or Justification?

The previous entry reminds me of my oral examination for my Th.M. thesis. The Race Set Before Us had its early gestation when I wrote my Th.M. thesis, "The Perseverance of the Saints from the Life and Epistles of Paul."

During the oral exam, one of my readers asked, "How does your view of biblical warnings relate to Dr. Homer Kent, Jr.'s view that he presents in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews?" Dr. Kent had been one of my professors in a few courses. I explained the differences as well as I could at the time, probably not nearly as well as I should have done and not nearly as fully as I did here.

One of my readers posed another question that I have heard many times since from others. He asked, "How does your view differ from Robert Shank's view [Life in the Son] or from I. Howard Marshall's view [Kept by the Power of God]?" Both Shank, an Arminian, and Marshall, a Wesleyan, were prominent names in the discussion those days, so I had engaged both rather extensively in my master's thesis.

In the course of responding to the question as to how my view differs from that of Shank and of Marshall, my reader pressed me by asking, "But, it seems to me that you have mired yourself in contradiction. On the one hand, you insist that you believe in the final perseverance of all who are truly God's chosen people. Yet, on the other hand, you also insist that if believers do not obey the warnings and they fail to persevere to the end that they will perish eternally. How do you extricate yourself from this contradiction? Is it possible?" As you can tell from the way he framed the question, the professor who served as one of my readers did not raise a purely academic question. He posed a question that as far as he was concerned exposed my whole thesis as biblically and theologically unwarranted. Needless to say, I realized what was at stake. After all, in those days, at evangelical theological seminaries, it was not particularly wise to have any significant theological disagreement with one's major professors, especially with one of the readers of a master's thesis.

I responded by posing a rhetorical question with the intention of answering it. I asked, "Which is more secure God's electing us or God's justifying us?" The professor who was asking the questions responded before I could explain. He said, "Justification is more secure." He continued, "Once God justifies a believer, his verdict is irrevocable! We are secure in Christ." The unexpected interruption posed a dilemma. Not only did I have to answer my own rhetorical question, I also had to offer a correction to my professor. The situation was tense. I had to choose my words very carefully. I knew that what I intended to say in response to my own rhetorical question would come off as correcting my professor. I did not like the situation at all. I recognized that I was in a bind. I also knew that I had to proceed, but to proceed might jeopardize a year of work on an extensive thesis, which my wife, pregnant with our first son, had lovingly and cheerfully typed twice from a hand-written copy, the second time after the thesis had been stolen out of the office of one of my two readers. I had much to lose. I had to respond, but to respond well, I needed much wisdom, wisdom greater than I knew that I possessed.

I gathered my thoughts and began to respond, explaining to the two professors, "When we preach the gospel, we indiscriminately call upon all who hear to believe and we warn all that if they do not repent and believe in Jesus Christ, they will perish." I explained, "We do not quarrel with the truthfulness of such a warning, even though we have no concern that we warn the non-elect and the elect alike, indiscriminately. Why, then, should we object that warning believers that if they do not heed the gospel's warnings against apostasy that they will perish in eternal destruction?" Knowing how strongly convinced both of professorial readers believed in God's unconditional choosing whom he would save, I added a response to my professor's unexpected verbalized objection to my rhetorical question. "Indeed, God's justifying verdict is irrevocable. But is God's election of whom he will save any less irrevocable?" I offered. I continued, "Surely, that the New Testament teaches us indiscriminately to warn all who yet need to believe in Jesus Christ, whether non-elect or elect, that if they do not obey the gospel they will perish forever does not render God's electing grace tenuous. Does it? In the same way, the that the New Testament teaches us to warn all who believe in the Lord Jesus that if they fail to persevere in grace to the end they will perish does not render God's preserving grace tenuous. Does it? Are not warnings of the essence of the gospel's call? Are not warnings essential as the means through which God saves us by his grace?"

It was not extraordinary insight that prompted me to realize that the two professorial readers were not in agreement with my Th.M. thesis concerning the relationship of God's warnings and God's assurances. Nevertheless, they both recognized that their young Th.M. student was not behaving subversively. He denied neither the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, which they both taught, nor the doctrines of election and justification. Yet, both expressed puzzlement, even frustration.

As the oral examination came to a close, there was tension in the air. This was hardly the way that I had anticipated to close out work on a Th.M. Yet, it seemed to fit following the extra work that came to both my wife and me when the only copy of the first draft of the thesis had been stolen and never returned to us. It became evident that the two professors were rather stymied as they began to speak to one another, attempting to sort out their bewilderment. Their deliberation in my presence showed that they did not agree with me but that they also did not understand my thesis. It was as though they had no categories by which to assess my exegetical, biblical, and theological work. They recognized that I was neither an Arminian nor a Wesleyan. Yet, I did not fit their concept of a Calvinist. They expressed as much. Eventually they asked me to leave the room while they deliberated alone. In the end, they both signed my thesis and I graduated.

I do not know whether either of my two professors eventually came to understand my position or came to agree with me. I did gain their respect after that intensive Th.M. thesis examination, and I greatly appreciated this. Their disagreement did not prevent them from graduating me. They also never lost my respect. I learned so much from both of them.

One of my readers died much too prematurely several years ago. I occasionally see my other reader at professional conferences, though he has been retired from teaching for a few years. Whenever we have an opportunity to meet together, our meeting is always warm and cordial.

8 comments:

Nick Nowalk said...

Justification is more secure than election? Strange.

A. B. Caneday said...

Nick,

I've heard the same response from many others through the years. The best that I can figure is that folks are claiming that justification is experienced where as election is not experienced. Experience cannot be denied, you know.

David McKay said...

Hello Ardel.
Your Race Set Before Us blog is very helpful. The most recent 2 articles are particularly valuable.

We've been preaching through 1 John in our church. I think John's letter shows that perseverance is essential extremely clearly.

I try to articulate that salvation is by grace AND that perseverance is essential, but I feel that some forget the grace, and are understanding me to be emphasising "works" to the detriment of grace.

How do we preach perseverance without it being understood as salvation partially by grace and partially by my own good works?

A. B. Caneday said...

David,

As I teach and preach perseverance, I remind my hearers that perseverance is the persistence of belief. Thus, if we believe that belief itself is a gift from God's grace, then we must believe that perseverance in belief entails the continuation of God's gift of grace to us.

I like to illustrate the matter with our breathing (cf. chapter 3 of The Race Set Before Us). Breathing is to physical life what believing is to eternal life.

I pose the following statement and questions. If we do not continue to breathe, we will die. Does this statement imply that living depends upon our ability to breathe? Does the statement mean that we sustain our own lives by our independent breathing? Can we boast that we keep ourselves alive by breathing? Is not the breath of life a gift from God? Does not God sustain our breathing? Yet, is not breathing necessary for life?

In the same way, if we discontinue believing in Jesus Christ, will we not perish? Does this statement imply that our eternal life depends upon our ability to believe? Does the statement mean that we sustain our own eternal life by our independent believing? Can we boast that we retain eternal life by believing? Can we boast that we keep ourselves in Christ by believing? Is not believing a gift from God? Surely this is what Paul says in Philippians 1:29. Does not God sustain our believing? Yet, is not believing necessary for eternal life?

As breathing is a necessary cause but not the efficient cause for the sustaining of physical life, so is believing a necessary cause but not the efficient cause for the sustaining of eternal life.

Would this help your hearers to grasp the necessity of persevering in belief without attributing to belief more than the gospel does?

Joe Rigney said...

David,

In regard to preaching grace alone and the necessity of perseverance, one text that has been very helpful to me is 1 Peter 1:3-5.

According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

We are guarded for our coming salvation by the power of God. He initiated it ("caused us to be born again") and he sustains it. Our salvation is absolutely secure because God is guarding us.

Yet God does not guard us independently from our faith. We are guarded through faith. If faith fails, then we won't receive salvation on the last day. Therefore, we must continue to believe. Nevertheless, the sovereign grace of God undergirds and sustains our faith at every point along the way. Hope that helps.


Ardel,

Thanks for your helpful post. I have a follow up question. I understand the parallel you draw between indiscriminate gospel preaching to elect and non-elect and the use of warnings. However, there seems to be a crucial difference between the two scenarios. The initial call of the gospel is directed to both believers and non-believers, elect and non-elect. We preach to Adamic humanity, saying, "Any who refuse to believe in Jesus will perish." Two types of people hear this statement and respond accordingly. It would be strange to say "Members of the elect who fail to believe will perish." Or to phrase it in a conditional form "if a member of the elect fails to believe, he will perish." The category of people in the protasis simply doesn't exist.

Similarly, the warning passages on your reading posit a group of people who simply do not exist, nor can they exist. Hebrews 6 is a perfect example with its string of participles. There simply will never be a person who has "once been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, etc" and "falls away," if the first string of participles refers to regenerate believers. Thus, this group of people can only be theoretical, whereas on the traditional Calvinist view, the first set of participles refers to false believers.

In order for the analogy to work, it would be better to see the warnings addressed to professing believers, without any statement about whether one is truly regenerate or not. This would make the situation with the warnings parallel to the situation with the initial call of the gospel. On this reading, the warning could read something like "All members of the visible people of God who fail to persevere will perish eternally."

I hope the question I'm raising makes sense. Let me just say that I tend to agree with you and Dr. Schreiner on this issue. I simply raise this question because others have brought them to me. Thanks for your help.

Joe

A. B. Caneday said...

Joe,

Thanks for your follow-up question. I will try to return with a response tomorrow, if possible. I have demands from my summer schedule that call me.

David McKay said...

Thanks Joe and Ardel for your helpful responses.

I have just completed a read-through of the bible, reading the NT from September ot December, and the OT from February to the end of May.

I scratch my head and wonder after reading the bible through how the teaching I grew up with could be thought to be biblical. [Arminian, "once-saved-always-saved antinomianism" is a fair description of what many folk were teaching.]

If anyone demurred, and argued for holy living, they were accused of preaching a "works" salvation.

A. B. Caneday said...

So very true, David. I fear that we all learned all too well how to lay an anti-Catholic interpretive grid over the text of the Bible as we read it lest we succumb to anything close to a doctrine of works righteousness. Any interpretive grid is dangerous, especially any reactionary grid.