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



Monday, June 05, 2006

Promise and Warning in Acts 27:20-32 As Illustrative of Biblical Warnings

I have not forgotten about Tim's two questions (1 Corinthians 3:1-17 and "non-soteriological rewards") or about Nick's question (relationship between justification and final judgment). Find them here. Tim's and Nick's questions inquire about things that are not addressed in The Race Set Before Us. Alex's questions address matters that we do comment upon in the book. Though Alex's questions are more recent, they are also directly correlated with my recent blog entries. So, I will respond to his questions, as best I can. I begin with his first four question which I understand to be bound together.


  1. I cannot see how Acts 27:31 is parallel to the biblical warnings in Hebrews. The crucial difference, in my mind, is the angelic assurance of Acts 27:23-24. Paul received divine assurance that none of the men on the ship would be lost. Did the author to the Hebrews receive similar assurance with regard to the recipients of his letter? I cannot think so. So though I agree that the warning in Acts 27:31 can function in tandem with the assurance that Paul received, I fail to see how this example illuminates Hebrews. Can you help me?


  2. One might point to verses such as Hebrews 10:39 as evidence for the author's view of his hearers: "But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls." Are we to understand this verse as making a definitive pronouncement about the spiritual state of the Hebrews? It seems to me that we must ask about the FUNCTION of these verses of assurance, like we do with the warnings. I would suggest that it is possible to read Hebrews 10:39 not as a definitive pronouncement, but rather as an encouragement to persevere. Its function, then, would be similar to a preacher who said to his congregation, "Here at First Baptist Church we are of those who have a concern for the lost and evangelize at every opportunity." Said in the context of a sermon we should understand this not necessarily as a description of what each individual member is like, but as an encouragement to be the kind of people who are actively preaching the gospel. Does this make sense? Is this a viable option?

  3. <
  4. How are we to understand Hebrews 6:9-12? "Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things--things that belong to salvation. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." My reading of Hebrews 6:9 is that it is a strong concessive statement. EVEN THOUGH we have just warned you, NEVERTHELESS we feel sure that the consequences described won't happen to you. The question is, what does the author mean by "feel sure" and how is this statement functioning? Does it mean that the author absolutely knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that his hearers would be saved?


  5. In Hebrews 6:10-11 the author seems to point to past evidence of God's grace at work in their lives and then immediately to encourage them to persevere in their good works IN ORDER TO "have the full assurance of hope until the end." Again, in my reading, this suggests that the author has PRESENT assurance of their spiritual state, but his FUTURE assurance of their spiritual state and ultimate destination DEPENDS on their continued obedience. I'm afraid that this puts me in the camp of those who believe that we can have genuine assurance TODAY, but that FUTURE assurance depends on persistence of belief. (I am in agreement with you Dr. Caneday?) So, in other words, if someone asked me if I would be with Christ if I died TODAY, I would say "By his mercy, absolutely yes. I have assurance of salvation." But if someone asked me if I die twenty years from now, will I be with Christ, I would say, "I cannot finally know, but I have every hope that God will complete in me what he has started."


Alex's first question refers to pages 209-212 of The Race Set Before Us. There Tom and I illustrate how biblical warnings against failure to persevere in Christ function. For the sake of clarity, here is Acts 27:20-32.

When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.

Since they had been without food for a long time, Paul stood up among them and said, "Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.' So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island."

When the fourteenth night had come, as we were being driven across the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors suspected that they were nearing land. So they took a sounding and found twenty fathoms. A little farther on they took a sounding again and found fifteen fathoms. And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come. And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship's boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, "Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved." Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship's boat and let it go.

Tom and I appeal to this passage from Acts 27 in the conclusion to chapter 4 to show how this passage illustrates the relationship between God's promise of salvation and God's warnings against failure to persevere in trusting him.

Alex, I wonder if you have not attempted to push the illustration from Acts 27 farther than Tom and I have. You say, "Paul received divine assurance that none of the men on the ship would be lost. Did the author to the Hebrews receive similar assurance with regard to the recipients of his letter? I cannot think so. You are right about this, that the author of Hebrews did not receive any special revelation that everyone in the church to which he wrote his sermon would persevere in faithfulness to Christ and would finally be saved. Tom and I do not use Acts 27 in this way. The point of correspondence between the promise/threat or assurance/warning of Acts 27:20-32 is not that the New Testament writers who issue warnings to their readers also knew that their readers would remain steadfast in faith and would finally be saved. Tom and I do not believe that any of the New Testament writers received such insight about the members of the churches to which they wrote. Instead, the point of correspondence between promise/threat or assurance/warning of Acts 27:20-32 illustrates how all the New Testament writers understood the function of promise and threat or of assurance and warning. The point is that God's warnings do not subvert God's promises. God's ministers proclaim warnings to the same people to whom they proclaim assurances.

This is the point that we make on pages 203-204 when we quote Hebrews 10:19-25.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

We observe, on page 204, "Without any hint of contradiction the preacher thoroughly integrates the call for bold confidence with the intense warning that follows. The preacher's admonition to steadfast confidence before God and warning lest we perish by willful persistence in sin work together as God's means to preserve us loyal to Christ unto the end. Therfore, the preacher commingles calls for confidence and perseverance again by saying, 'Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised" (Heb 10:35-36 NRSV).

This brings me to your second question, your comments on Hebrews 10:39. Hebrews 10:36-39 reads,

For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, "Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith,and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him."

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

You asked about Hebrews 10:39, "Are we to understand this verse as making a definitive pronouncement about the spiritual state of the Hebrews?" No. We should not understand verse 39 as a definitive pronouncement concerning the sure perseverance and final salvation of all to whom the preacher first wrote. We need not adopt such a reading of Hebrews 10:39 in order to recognize that the relationship between the strong admonition to assurance (Hebrews 10:19-25) and intense warning (Hebrews 10:26-30) corresponds to assurance and warning in Acts 27:20-32. The preacher need not have the insight that the apostle Paul received concerning those on board the ship in order for us to recognize the instructive significance of Acts 27 for our hearing of Hebrews 10:19-39. The significant correspondence is not in what the preacher knew about his hearers on the one hand and the apostle Paul knew about those aboard the ship on the other hand. The crucial parallel is in what they preached to their respective hearers. God's promises of deliverance are not contrary to God's warnings to be cautious lest we perish. What the two preached had to be believed. How did the hearers on the ship receive the message of God's assured promise of salvation? How did the hearers who received the preacher's sermon receive the message of God's assured promise of salvation? Was it not through proclamation of God's messenger? Did not both sets of hearers have to appropriate the promise through belief? Likewise, the people in both situations received the warnings through God's messengers. The people had to act on both the promises and the warnings in each situation. The crucial point, then, is that the warning does not suspend the promise nor does the promise nullify the warning. Instead, promise and warning function harmoniously together, for promise provides the ground upon which the warning is legitimately given. The warning serves the promise.

As for Hebrews 10:39, then, it is hardly a definitive pronouncement concerning the assured spiritual state of the preacher's first hearers. It is, however, an expression of the preacher's confidence about himself. Is it not? The "we" of 10:39 includes the preacher just as much as the "we" of 10:26 includes the preacher. By example, then, we must say that Hebrews 10:39 is an acclamation of great confidence by the preacher concerning himself, confidence that does not nullify the intense warning of Hebrews 10:26ff for himself and confidence that is not muted by the intense warning of Hebrews 10:26ff.

I trust that the above does much to answer your third question which is about Hebrews 6:9-12. As in Hebrews 10:19-39 the preacher feels absolutely no contradiction between strong assurance and intense warning in such a manner that he includes himself within both, so in Hebrews 6:4-12 the preacher feels no sense of contraction between instense warning (6:4-8) and confidence (6:9-12). Surely the preacher had no absolute knowledge or confidence concerning those he knew and whom he addressed in Hebrews 6:4-12. Undoubtedly the preacher would have readily admitted that he did not compose the words of 6:9-12 as if he had no shadow of doubt about any of those he knew who were his first hearers of his sermon. The exposition that Tom and I offer in The Race Set Before Us does not rely upon the knowledge that the preacher had concerning his hearers. The exposition that Tom and I offer relies upon the preacher's knowledge of God and the means God employs to bring to fulfillment his work of saving whom he wills. In other words, the preacher's knowledge is that God uses warnings as a significant means by which he preserves those to whom he gives assurances of his promised salvation.

Finally, I come to your fourth question. I wonder if you are over-reading Hebrews 6:10-11 so as to prompt your question. I repeat your question.

In Hebrews 6:10-11 the author seems to point to past evidence of God's grace at work in their lives and then immediately to encourage them to persevere in their good works IN ORDER TO "have the full assurance of hope until the end." Again, in my reading, this suggests that the author has PRESENT assurance of their spiritual state, but his FUTURE assurance of their spiritual state and ultimate destination DEPENDS on their continued obedience. I'm afraid that this puts me in the camp of those who believe that we can have genuine assurance TODAY, but that FUTURE assurance depends on persistence of belief. (I am in agreement with you Dr. Caneday?) So, in other words, if someone asked me if I would be with Christ if I died TODAY, I would say "By his mercy, absolutely yes. I have assurance of salvation." But if someone asked me if I die twenty years from now, will I be with Christ, I would say, "I cannot finally know, but I have every hope that God will complete in me what he has started."

No individual Christian can have for another Christian the kind of assurance an individual believer can have for oneself. Thus, it seems to me that your question should not be about the preacher's assurance concerning the spiritual state of his first hearers. The latter portion of your question reframes the question about individual assurance of salvation for one's own self.

I will offer more concerning assurance of salvation in later postings. Your question really concerns chapter 7 of The Race Set Before Us. In chapter 7 we contend that assurance is integral to belief. We chose to use this expression instead of assurance is of the essence of faith to offer something a little more fresh, though we mean the same thing. Consequently, as I view the matter of assurance, it seems to me that your statements about your own assurance do not adquately lay hold of the assurance that the gospel holds out to us. Why should your response to the question be different concerning "today" or "twenty years from now"? Biblically speaking, assurance of salvation for me is assurance that I will be saved in the Last Day. This is what Paul expresses in Romans 8:38-39--"For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Assurance of salvation has no expiration date. Assurance of salvation is not like manna. It is not good for today but spoiled by the passage of time and needing to be replaced. Assurance of salvation is essentially assurance today that I will be justified before the judgment bar of God on the Last Day. (This, likely, will remind Nick of the question he asked and to which I still owe a response.)

8 comments:

Nick Nowalk said...

Thanks, Dr. Caneday, this is helpful--though I'm guessing Alex will still have a few questions:) I'm definitely looking forward to your insights on future judgment/justification, and the interplay of faith and works. Though both are so clearly all over the NT, I still have a tough time understanding their relationship to one another.

Alex Kirk said...

Dr. Caneday,

Thanks for your response.

We are agreed, then, that “the author of Hebrews did not receive any special revelation that everyone in the church to which he wrote his sermon would persevere in faithfulness to Christ and would finally be saved.” This distinguishes Acts 27:20-32 from the warnings in Hebrews. But whereas you seem to see no significance in this difference, I think that there is significance in this difference in this regard:

When Paul warned the men on the ship, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved,” he never thought that the projected consequences of his warning could ever be realized. Therefore I agree with you that Paul was warning of conceivable consequences and not “probable” consequences (as you say in TRSBU). But I would contend that they were conceivable consequences ONLY because Paul KNEW that the men would be spared (Acts 27:24). Now when the author to the Hebrews is warning his audience, we are agreed that he did not have the same assurance that Paul did in Acts 27 that all of his hearers would finally be saved. Therefore, I fail to see how we can say that in Hebrews likewise we are only dealing with “conceivable” consequences and not probable ones (and as an aside, I think I would prefer the term “potential consequences” rather than “probable consequences” because it does not imply the likelihood that the consequences will be realized but merely asserts the possibility).

As the author to the Hebrews composed his warnings, he probably assumed that God would use his warnings as a means of keeping genuine believers in perseverance of faith. But wouldn’t it also enter his mind that there COULD be Demas-like “believers” among his audience for whom the warning would not have a persevering effect? It is at this point that I think we need to make a crucial distinction. I agree, with you, that the warnings in Hebrews are not directed to unbelievers, but believers. I think we must be more precise however. I would suggest that the warnings are directed to the Christian community, those who PROFESS faith. This does not necessitate that every one to whom the warning is addressed is, in fact, a genuine believer. For those who continue in faithfulness, I agree with you that the warnings will serve the promises. The consequences will be, for them, conceivable. BUT for those who do NOT continue in faithfulness, the consequences of the warning will be realized.

If my argument has been legitimate up to this point, it will be seen that the warnings in Hebrews DO warn of potential (and not merely conceivable) consequences. This has ramifications for how one answers the question I posed in my second comment, “Who are the referents of the description given in Hebrews 6:4-6?” Is the group described in these verses a conceivable group or an actual group? If the original hearers of Hebrews failed to persevere in faith, would not the author of the epistle retrospectively categorize the apostatizing in this group?

Let me state this in another way. You contend that “the preacher’s knowledge is that God uses warnings as a significant means by which he preserves those to whom he gives assurances of his promised salvation.” I am in complete agreement with this. But wouldn’t the preacher’s knowledge also include the fact that God uses warnings as a significant means by which he justly judges those who disregard his warnings and fail to persevere in faith?

Please allow me to comment on a few other things in your entry. First, I cannot understand how Hebrews 10:39 is “hardly a definitive pronouncement concerning the assured spiritual state of the preacher’s first hearers,” and yet be a definitive pronouncement of his own spiritual state. Doesn’t he put himself in the same category as his hearers? How then can his assurance about himself be qualitatively different than his assurance about his hearers? You maintain that “No individual Christian can have for another Christian the kind of assurance an individual believer can have for oneself.” Could you explain this to me?

Second, I confess that I haven’t read the seventh chapter of your book in a little while now and should go back and reread it. My initial reaction to your statement, “assurance is integral to belief,” though, is to wonder about all the William Cowper types. Since they lack assurance does this mean that they lack belief? I’m assuming you address this in your chapter, so I’ll have to dig around for it when I have the time.

Third, I agree with your claim that “assurance of salvation…is assurance that I will be saved in the Last Day.” I think our difference, though, is that I believe that the believer can only enjoy this assurance of final salvation in the present moment. This is not a bad thing in my view, for we live in the present moment, and as long as we persevere in faith, we will enjoy the assurance of our final salvation.

Fourth, and finally, I am eager to hear you address the issue of self-deception, which I raise in Question 8 of my first post. Should the Christian ever reckon with the fact that they could be deceived about the genuineness of their faith? Isn’t it possible for someone to have a false assessment of their own spiritual fruit? I appreciate your discussion of the three-legged stool of our assurance, but I wonder if the second leg—the fruit of the Spirit in our lives—must be something that is confirmed to us not only by our own self-perception, but by the community of faith. Assurance, it seems to me, is a community project. Again, maybe you mention this in your chapter. As I said before, I need to reread it.

Dr. Caneday, I realize that for every question you address I am raising multiple additional questions. I hope this is not frustrating. I really do think this dialogue is helpful and I’m looking forward to our continued joint reflection. Thanks for lending your wisdom, experience, and exegetical skill to this conversation.

In Christ,

Alex

Nick Nowalk said...

Alex, many good thoughts! I'll leave to Dr. Caneday for the most part, but I do have one question for your concerning something you have mentioned a few times now: you have argued that a believer can only have assurance of salvation in the present moment, now, and not 20 days or years from now that they will be following Christ and still in a "state of grace." Yet you also agree that assurance biblically cannot be limited to a warm inner feeling that right now I am in good standing with God, but must also include the conviction that I will be saved on the last day and stand in the judgment. My question is, how are these two things not contradictory--at the very least, in our own minds and hearts, psychologically? How can I, when I am in prayer, trust God and be assured of my eschatological redemption for all eternity, and yet not feel the same way about 20 years from now (let alone 20 million years from now). And I'm not saying that there isn't tension here, and that it isn't conceivable, from one perspective, that I could fall away in the future. I could, and that's a biblical teaching (I Cor. 9, even Paul). But I don't feel like that reality should be used to cancel out the reality of assurance regarding our own perseverance in this life. I don't think passages like Hebrews 10, Philippians 1:6, etc. can only be viewed from the angle of the writers having general, but not specific confidence that, hopefully, God will actually finish what He has started--but He might not, and you can't really know! It seems to me that so many passages like these in the NT are promissory in form. So any thoughts you have, either in showing where I am wrong, or where I have miscontrued the thrust of your objection, would be great. But I really want to take "we are writing these things so that you may know that you have eternal life" as relevant not only for now, not only for the parousia, but also for 20 years from now! Blessings brother.

Nick

Alex Kirk said...

Nick,

You raise great questions. I think you have put your finger on issues that I am still wondering about.

Would it be possible to have PRESENT assurance of my future perseverance but not FUTURE assurance of my future perseverance? That is, could I say that “now, as I am presently believing, I can have assurance that in twenty years the Lord will still be sustaining me” and yet say “I cannot have, in this present moment, the present assurance of my faith that properly belongs to my future experience twenty years from now”? Am I talking nonsense? I guess I want to say that assurance is a reality we enjoy in the present. It is not something that we can project into the future. But I must admit, I’m confusing myself even as I write this reply.

What I want to hold in tension is the strong, present assurance I have of God’s work in my life and the confidence that he has given me that his objective work applies to me AND the sober realization that I could be deluded about the genuineness of my faith, the falsity of my faith becoming evident if I fail to persevere. If assurance of faith is based in part upon spiritual fruit, how can I have future assurance related to spiritual fruit that has not been borne in me yet? I do want to say that I can derive spiritual comfort from a verse like Ephesians 2:10, but that there is a certain aspect of my future assurance that I will only be able to enjoy when that future moment becomes present and I see the way in which God has grown me in grace.

Yet how does 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 inform this discussion?

Well, now that I think about it, I think I do want to distinguish between the assurance that a genuine believer experiences and the assurance that an impressive fraud experiences. Although both might describe their assurance in identical terms, and both give witness to the testimony of the Holy Spirit, one is simply wrong and the other right. I guess that I want to say that the genuine believer’s assurance is vindicated by the perseverance of their faith.

So suppose you (Person C) ask Person A (who is a genuine believer) and Person B (who is an impressive fraud) if they will persevere in faith. They both might respond in the same way, citing the three legs of the stool mentioned by TRSBU. How does Person C distinguish between Person A and Person B? They can’t in the present moment. Rather, they must see if Person A and Person B persevere in faith. How does Person A know that they are not Person B? They simply know, and are strengthened in this conviction as they persevere. How does Person B NOT know that they are Person B and not Person A? Well, they are simply deluded, and they will discover this either on the Last Day or as they fail to persevere in this life. I’m not sure that this kind of hypothetical reflection is all that helpful. Hopefully you sense the tension I am wrestling with.

Keep pushing me brother,

Alex

A. B. Caneday said...

Alex,

I must not have expressed my thoughts as clearly as the thoughts were formed in my mind. I will make a fresh attempt, now, in response to your latest set of questions. Yet, as I reflect upon your latest set of questions, I think that I am beginning to understand the source of the differences between what you are saying and what I am saying. I will try to sort out what I understand that you are saying.

It still seems to me that you are over-interpreting Acts 27:20-32. I also think that you are over-interpreting Tom and me. I will try to make my point sharper and clearer.

It is important that we ponder Acts 27:20-32 more closely. I do not share your interpretation of the passage. Your explanation of the passage goes in a direction quite different from what Tom and I take in The Race Set Before Us. You state, "When Paul warned the men on the ship, 'Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved,' he never thought that the projected consequences of his warning could ever be realized." I may be wrong, but it seems to me that your statement indicates that you have occupied your thoughts with the very question that I believe gives you a bum steer, that misguides you also concerning the warnings of Hebrews. I mean that you seem occupied with the preemptive question. This, it seems to me, shortcircuits your thoughts concerning Acts 27 and what Tom and I have said concerning Acts 27. Am I incorrect to think that your approach essentially detaches the apostle Paul from the urgent situation? Surely, Paul's warning was quite self-interested. Was it not? Paul was onboard the ship. Was he not? Was not his life in peril as much as the lives of the other 275 souls?

I will try to explain what I mean. You say, "Therefore I agree with you that Paul was warning of conceivable consequences and not “probable” consequences (as you say in TRSBU). But I would contend that they were conceivable consequences ONLY because Paul KNEW that the men would be spared (Acts 27:24). Now when the author to the Hebrews is warning his audience, we are agreed that he did not have the same assurance that Paul did in Acts 27 that all of his hearers would finally be saved." It seems to me that you have pushed our expression, conceivable consequences, beyond our intention and meaning. We do not mean that conceivable consequences refers merely to a mind-action, to a theoretical thought process. I do not believe that the apostle Paul reasoned to himself in the following way while on the ship: Hmmm! The Lord's angel assured me that no life aboard this ship will be lost. What are those sailors doing lowering those lifeboats into the sea? Well, it looks like the sailors have plans to abandon the ship. Hmmmm! Since the Lord's angel assured me in the vision that no life will be lost, I know that no life will be lost whether the the sailors remain onboard or abandon the ship. Certainty is certainty! Well, I know that the end is already determined, because I believe the Lord's angel, but the soldiers and the centurion may not believe what I told them. So, for their benefit I will warn them, 'If these men do not remain in the ship, you will not be saved.' Of course, I understand that the consequences I project with this warning cannot be realized because I believe that the end is fixed and certain." As I already said, I do not believe that this is the way Paul reasoned. I also believe that this is not the way we should reason. This is not what Tom and I mean when we say that the Bible warns against conceivable consequences, not probable consequences. We most assuredly do not regard conceivable consequences over against real consequences. We insist that the warnings are very real, very serious, and very consequential.

What do Tom and I mean, then, when we say the Bible warns against conceivable consequences, not probable consequences? We are making a grammatical and logical statement as much as we are making a theological statement. Grammatically speaking, Greek first and third class conditional statements do not, in themselves, imply either uncertainty or certainty of the thing supposed. We demonstrate this in chapter 4 of The Race Set Before Us. Our only objection to using words like possibility or possible to describe suppostions is that the words are too ambiguous so that many people take them to mean something more than they mean grammatically speaking (see p. 207 of TRSBU). We do not mean that the Bible's warnings engage us in a mind-game. The apostle Paul was not engaged in a mind-game while one the ship, knowing that the end was determined but accommodated the soldiers and the centurion when he issued his warning. Far from this, we need to keep in mind the two features of the text in Acts 27:22-26 that Tom and I point out on page 210 of The Race Set Before Us. We say, "Two essential features stand out in Paul's encouraging words: (1) 'there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship,' and (2) 'we will have to run aground on some island.' He specifies both the end (saving of all lives on board) and the means to the prophesied end (running abround on an island)."

It is crucial that we keep in mind these two features: the end (saving of all lives on board) and the means (running abround on an island that would require the sailors' skills). The end will be attained only by use of means as told to Paul by the Lord's angel. As for Paul, the same is true of salvation in the doctrinal sense. The end (saving of all for whom Christ Jesus received God's wrath) will be attained only by use of means (the proclamation of the gospel with its urgent warning against unbelief). God's securing of the elect by inflicting his wrath upon Christ Jesus as our substitute does not reduce the apostle Paul to engage in a kind of mind-game as though to proclaim the gospel with its call for repentance and belief were consequential only at the conceivable level but not at a real level. As I said above, Tom and I believe that the gospel's warnings are very real, very serious, and very consequential.

I agree with you concerning many gospel warnings, that many of them do not as specifically identify their recipients as Hebrews 6:4-6 does. So, yes, in general, the New Testament warnings address a mixed church, people who profess belief in Christ. One of the fundamental features that makes Hebrews 6:4-6 so controversial and so difficult is the fact that the passage addresses individuals who are specifically said to "have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age. . . ." In other words, Hebrews 6:4-6 is specifically addressing individuals who are spoken of with descriptions aptly suitable for believers alone, not for unbelievers.

Tom and I agree that the gospel's warnings do not fall upon ears of believers only. Indeed, the church is a mixed body, consisting of believers and of unbelievers. The wheat and the tares grow together. So, yes, the warnings fall upon the ears of hypocrites in the church, too. But the gospel's warnings are fundamentally framed for believers, as Paul warns and admonishes, "Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:12-13). Let's be careful lest we reduce Paul's vocative (adelphoi) to mean "those who profess to be brothers in Christ."

Yes, the New Testament writers were quite well aware that there were Demas-like "believers" within the churches to which they wrote their letters. Tom and I agree with the theology of those (such as John Owen, Wayne Grudem, Roger Nicole, John Piper) who say that people who profess faith in Christ but who fail to persevere never were genuine believers. I believe that we make this clear in The Race Set Before Us. Both Tom and I formerly explained the biblical warnings as they continue to do. now we differ with them in one crucial element of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, namely concerning how they explain the gospel's warnings as "tests of the genuineness of belief." We continue to affirm that there are biblical passages that are truly "tests of the genuineness of belief." Again, I believe that we make this clear in the book, also.

You raised a few other questions at the close of your first large question. You said, I cannot understand how Hebrews 10:39 is “hardly a definitive pronouncement concerning the assured spiritual state of the preacher’s first hearers,” and yet be a definitive pronouncement of his own spiritual state. Doesn’t he put himself in the same category as his hearers? How then can his assurance about himself be qualitatively different than his assurance about his hearers? You maintain that “No individual Christian can have for another Christian the kind of assurance an individual believer can have for oneself.” Could you explain this to me? I can have assurance that in the Last Day I will be saved, but I cannot have the same assurance that you will be saved in the Last Day. Assurance of salvation is individual; it is personal; it is internally ours by the testimony of the Spirit. This is why I said what I said here: "No individual Christian can have for another Christian the kind of assurance an individual believer can have for oneself. Thus, it seems to me that your question should not be about the preacher's assurance concerning the spiritual state of his first hearers. The latter portion of your question reframes the question about individual assurance of salvation for one's own self."

In your second question you said, My initial reaction to your statement, “assurance is integral to belief,” though, is to wonder about all the William Cowper types. Since they lack assurance does this mean that they lack belief? When Tom and I say that "assurance is integral to belief" we do not mean that every believer has an equal portion of assurance. Assurance that is "integral to belief" does not exceed "the measure of faith" God has given to each of us (Romans 12:3). Assurance that is integral to belief is also commensurate with the measure of belief that God has given us. Hence, for some believers, assurance wanes almost to a flicker at times, as with William Cowper. For other believers, assurance flames large, and that rather consistently.

Thirdly, you wondered about assurance. You said, I agree with your claim that “assurance of salvation…is assurance that I will be saved in the Last Day.” I think our difference, though, is that I believe that the believer can only enjoy this assurance of final salvation in the present moment. This is not a bad thing in my view, for we live in the present moment, and as long as we persevere in faith, we will enjoy the assurance of our final salvation. We are creatures who are bounded by time. Thus, you are correct in this regard that "we live in the present moment" so that "the believer can only enjoy this assurance of final salvation in the present moment." This admission, however, is not an admission that I agree with how you expressed your thoughts concerning assurance of salvation when you said: So, in other words, if someone asked me if I would be with Christ if I died TODAY, I would say "By his mercy, absolutely yes. I have assurance of salvation." But if someone asked me if I die twenty years from now, will I be with Christ, I would say, "I cannot finally know, but I have every hope that God will complete in me what he has started." Indeed, assurance of salvation, which is confidence that I will be and presently am justified before the judgment seat of God, can be enjoyed only in the present moment, given the fact that it is always the present time in which we live. Yet, the apostle Paul's expression of confidence in Romans 8:38-39 does not warrant the restricted assurance that so many Reformed Christians have borrowed from Arminians and from Wesleyans. The restricted assurance is this: Today I am confident that I am saved, but when I lie down to sleep tonight, I cannot be sure that I will be a Christian tomorrow. So, if I were to die today, I am confident that I would be saved in the Last Day. However, I cannot be sure whether the same will be true of me tomorrow." Paul's words in Romans 8:38-39 offer not the slightest basis for such a notion of assurance. Such a notion of assurance is more like William Cowper experienced thant what Paul experienced.

Finally, you ask whether Christians should ever reckon with the possibility "that they could be deceived about the genuineness of their faith." Yes, it is possible for individuals to have a false assessment of themselves. I think we address this issue in chapter 5 of The Race Set Before Us. You state further, I appreciate your discussion of the three-legged stool of our assurance, but I wonder if the second leg—the fruit of the Spirit in our lives—must be something that is confirmed to us not only by our own self-perception, but by the community of faith. Assurance, it seems to me, is a community project. Assurance of salvation is surely aided by dwelling among fellow believers. This is surely why the preacher did not incidentally attach the following admonition to a series of admonitions to lay hold of bold confidence before the Lord--"Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25). Yet, the third "leg of the stool" of assurance of salvation is not wholly dependent upon dwelling among fellow believers. The primary assuring testimony that derives from the fruit of the Spirit is, of course, the Spirit's own testimony (Romans 8:16). After all, the fruit of the Spirit is birthed by the Spirit.

Nick Nowalk said...

Alex, I agree that--as far as I see it now--there just simply is tension in the already but not yet perspective which the NT writers have on assurance (as well as other themes). It does indeed seem hard to reconcile systematically all the passages that are full of confident assurances, powerful promises, and arguments that believers will never be separated from the love of God. And yet all the ones where people fully are convinced that they belong to Christ, who don't; of passages where believers (like Paul) clearly seem to entertain the possibility that if they do not persevere they will perish, etc. One thought I increasingly have is that we need to define as precisely as we can what the existential experience of Christian assurance is--and is not. For starters, it seems very easy to fall into a kind of thinking that equates assurance with mathematical certainty--and perhaps the biblical writers are not communicating such thoughts at all. Let's keep wrestling.

Mathaetaes said...

It seems odd to me to make a distinction between assurance for today and assurance in the future. My struggle as I have already stated is: If God is sovereign over all things and wills all things for his Glory, and if some fall away (and this falls within that glory); How do we know we have not fallen or will not fall away. I can assume I will be saved to the last day, but how can I know that without a shadow of doubt? Again, to say I have assurance today is making a rather large assumption about our standing with God, right? How is that any different than the assumption that I will be saved through to the end? Maybe I am wrongly defining assurance, but it seems that when most talk of assurance, they are talking about their standing and worth based on what they have done. I know my own heart and that I cannot stand on my works. I can only trust and fall into the arms of my savior and pray that HE will save me through to the end. I suppose there is quite a bit of study ahead of me in these areas. This is alll very interesting to see where people are landing on this subject. Thank you all.

A. B. Caneday said...

Mathaetaes,

It seems to me that we need a more robust teaching of Scripture's warrants for bold assurance of salvation. Several factors have injured the teaching of this doctrine. Resuscitation of the Puritans' teaching on assurance is one factor. Another major factor is the spirit of this age, namely, the mistaken notion that unsettledness and lack of confidence is regarded as humility and settled assurance and confidence are viewed as suspect, if not arrogant.

There is also considerable confusion concerning what assurance of salvation entails. You may be right when you say, "it seems that when most talk of assurance, they are talking about their standing and worth based on what they have done." If you are correct in your observation, then, indeed, we ought always to object to such notions. Such a concept of assurance badly confounds the ground on which we stand justified before God and the foundational elements that give ground for confidence that we stand justified before God. The two are necessarily distinguishable, though inseparable. Here is the essential distinction. My only hope of standing rightly before God is what Christ Jesus has done on my behalf. Apart from being in Christ, I am utterly condemned. The warranted basis upon which I can be assured that I am standing rightly before God entails three elements: (1) God's assured promise in the gospel; (2) the transformation that takes place in all God's childres as I become increasingly like the heavenly Father, being made over into the image and likeness of God; (3) the witness of the Spirit with my spirit that God's promise belongs to me and that I am actually being restored into God's image and likeness.