Monday, January 7, 2013

Once Saved Always Saved - John 8:51

        Perseverance of the saints is a phrase that describes a doctrine of the church.  I say the church as in all believers of every age.  When we say “which church” we mean the “brands” we’ve developed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, etc.  When a Presbyterian refers to the perseverance of the saints, she is saying something quite different in meaning than what a Methodist might say. 
A phrase that is not found in Scripture is “once saved, always saved”; it is a term that refers to one pivotal issue in the doctrine of perseverance of the saints.  That issue is the question:  can a Christian cease to be a Christian, or, as it might be otherwise stated, can a person who has been saved ever be lost?[1]
This morning I do not intend to “pick this bone clean” on this doctrine.  There is enough in print for you to study deeply and come to your own conclusion.  It is a comprehensive and complicated issue; yet it is not unintelligible.  But there is too much for a sermon or even a series of sermons (unless it takes us clean through Advent…..2015!).
Today’s Message
What we hope to accomplish today is threefold:
1.     Describe the basic differences between United Methodist Doctrine and that of Calvinist teaching, which includes Presbyterians and many free forms of Protestant believers – Baptists and more.  I will suggest some resources that you may use for further study, including remarks quoted from John Wesley’s sermon on “The Perseverance of the Saints”[2] and some comments from the United Methodist Church’s General Board Of Discipleship website.[3]
2.     Share a few observations of where I (personally) stand in this issue, and why I choose to do so.
3.     Point us beyond the endless debate over can you or can’t you to a better way.
Two Positions
The first position – that a Christian can never cease being a Christian – even by his own choice, is the Calvinist child of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).  The classic Calvinist quotes “T.U.L.I.P., an acronym for:
Total Depravity:
Humankind has been utterly ruined by the Fall to the point that there is no good and no possibility for redemption anywhere in us. We merit and can merit nothing but wrath and destruction. This means that only a Sovereign God acting in Sovereignty can deliver us from an eternal destiny in Hell. There is absolutely nothing we can do ourselves to contribute to or take away from God’s activity to save us.
Unconditional Election:
As such, God’s decision to save us can be and is based on no conditions we can or could ever generate. God has chosen, based on God’s own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before we were ever born.

Limited Atonement:
God created the means to deliver us from the merited consequences of our total depravity through the death of Jesus, his Son, on the cross. On the cross, Jesus suffered the consequences of God’s just wrath and judgment on behalf of all whom God had elected for salvation, but only for these. [emphasis mine]

Irresistible Grace: Just as there is nothing humanity can to do change our depraved state, there is also nothing those who have been elect can do to resist the gracious initiative and power of God to bring them to salvation through what God had accomplished for them in the atonement.

Perseverance of the Saints: The result of all the above is that those whom God has elected to salvation and acted to save in the atonement and in the ongoing and irresistible work of the Spirit cannot but actually “persevere unto the end,” that is, those who are elect cannot help but be faithful and thus experience the promised salvation.[4]
Of course that last issue – that God will keep the saved elect person faithful – is close to what Methodists hold, except that the typical interpretation among Calvinists is that the outcome is set in stone, no matter how you behave – even if you declare your rejection of God and Christ….saved is saved!
The other (opposite) position is from the United Methodist Church website:
Do United Methodists believe "once saved, always saved" or can we "lose our salvation"?
Answer:  …our Church teaches we can end up “losing” the salvation God has begun in us, and the consequence of this in the age to come is our eternal destruction in Hell. God freely grants us new birth and initiates us into the body of Christ in baptism. The profession of our faith and growth in holiness are necessary for God’s saving grace to continue its work in us, and both of these are things we must do for our love to be genuine and not compelled. We thus remain free to resist God’s grace, [my emphasis added] to revert to spiritual torpor, and possibly experience spiritual death and Hell as its consequence.[5]
United Methodist theology follows John Wesley’s doctrinal interpretation which is based upon Jacob Arminius’ teaching.  In the 17th century, Arminius’ growing influence was the main reason the Synod of Dort was called.  That meeting reaffirmed John Calvin’s teachings and declared Arminius a heretic.[6]  (He was already dead so they couldn’t burn him at the stake or something worse.)
Generally either Calvinism or Arminian teaching is held today by most of Christendom.  But they are both generally modified and watered-down.  For instance, once saved/always saved is generally watered-down to an insurance policy against punishment for sin.  As long as you can point to a time when you said some prayer of contrition and repentance, you’re good…..from then on – no harm, no foul; you can live the way you want to, and you will still go to heaven.
In Arminian (Wesleyan) circles, the modified understanding of salvation’s requirement of growing in the faith towards perfection has people so buried under a pile of good works that they’re keeping themselves saved instead of trusting in Christ.
Satan’s specialty is deception; whatever true doctrine is taught will one day be watered-down, modified and retro-fitted to suit what we want.  This is actually a kind of proof of being able to lose your salvation – as one of my “Pastor’s Partners” wrote to me this week, why would Satan bother tempting Christians if there was no chance of getting them to fall?  Those are the two positions – Arminianism and Calvinism, and now….
Two Observations on the Two Positions

Observation #1.  God is NOT playing parlor games with our salvation

God is not playing “Now you have it – Now you don’t” with our eternal state.  A consistent argument Calvinists make against Wesleyan Arminianism goes something like….if you sin and forget to repent, even after living a great Christian life, you’ll go to hell for that one sin.  “Oh, I forgot to tithe last week” or “Oh man, I forgot to confess that cussword I said when I hit my finger with the hammer”…and, just my luck, I forget to confess it before the truck hits me and takes me out.  Oops…sorry….off to hell with you!
That was not Arminius’, nor Wesley’s doctrine, and it is not the doctrine of the United Methodist Church.  A UMC scholar, Scott J. Jones, has written extensively on what our doctrine is, and how it is applied.  In his book entitled “United Methodist Doctrine” (imagine that) he wrote:  Believers should be aware that they can lose their salvation and backslide into unbelief.[7] 
There’s the rub –unbelief  is where the line is crossed.  Methodists sin!  Methodists sin often!  So do all other believers.  But it’s in the rebellion of unbelief, when we are willfully refusing to repent, that we find the salvation we once enjoyed in jeopardy.
For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,  but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.  Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.”  How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?    Hebrews 10:26 - 29 (NRSV) 
The key phrase is “willfully persist”.  God is not waiting like an assassin with a machete to hack you to pieces if you mess-up.  But neither is He willing to accept our unwillingness to honor the sacrifice of his son, Jesus.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God!
One of my Pastor's Partners sent me a personal testimony of her Great Uncle who grew up in church, got married and they had a daughter.  Sometime later the child died; the uncle grieved so much he despaired and got angry.  Grief is a natural part of that experience; Wesley would call it the “heaviness of life”.  But instead of allowing his faith to carry him through the heaviness of grief, the uncle turned towards the “Wilderness State” – that which is seen in the rebellion of the children of Israel in their desert wanderings.  It led to outright rejection of faith and God. Hear my friend’s description:
From that moment Uncle Curtis was angry with God.  He never darkened the doors of a church again, totally renouncing his former faith.  He was more eager to denounce God than a Christian was to give a good witness for the opposite side.
Maybe you could make a case that his original conversion was not genuine.  I’m sure he felt it was at the time.  My take on it was that he had faith until trouble came, and then he went the opposite way.  Although his final end was not up to me, I felt sure he was headed for Hell.  Unless he had a deathbed reconversion, I’m convinced he is not with God at this moment.
My friends, God is not playing parlor games with our salvation; in fact He’s not playing games at all.  Sin and rejection of God lead to eternal separation from him; it leads to hell.

Observation #2.  You CAN sin-away the grace that saved you.

Scripture (in many places) teaches us that “turning-away” from God puts us in the category of “unrighteous” or guilty sinners.
But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live?  None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die.      Ezekiel 18:24 (NRSV)
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.   Hebrews 6:4 - 6 (NRSV)
One of my Pastor’s Partners also shed some great light on this.  If a person robs a bank, gets caught and goes to jail, and then is released, pardoned, he is free.  He is no longer a wanted person.  However, should he refuse to live a law-abiding life, struts back down to the bank to make a withdrawal at the end of a .44 caliber handgun, that previous pardon won’t do him a bit of good!  It makes a difference how you live after you’ve been saved!
God’s prevenient grace calls us to him starting from the day we’re born.  And we were given the gift of free will to choose him or reject him.  Once we’ve chosen to give our allegiance to Christ God does not remove our free will; we can still choose to walk away.
There are far less people who do this than just those who fail to go to church, read their Bible, give their tithes and pray...  But those who harden their hearts/necks risk crossing that line.  Even most people who have stayed out of church for many years, held back tithes and never witnessed to even a dog would be quick to tell you they still believe in Christ, and that they should get back in church, but their actions convince me more than their words.  We choose with our life (not our lips), whom we will follow.
Wesley preached a special “Call to Backsliders” – those who had forsaken the way of meeting for worship, progressing in holiness.  Listen to what he said about treating your salvation from holy God so lightly:
Presumption is one grand snare of the devil, in which many of the children of men are taken.  They so presume upon the mercy of God as utterly to forget his justice.  Although he has expressly declared, Without holiness no man shall see the Lord, yet they flatter themselves, that in the end God will be better than his word.  They imagine they may live and die in their sins, and nevertheless escape the damnation of hell.[8]
Grace is NOT irresistible as the Calvinist T.U.L.I.P. suggests…we can sin it away…and the Father is not ready to force it down our throats.  If you recall, Jesus gave the parable of the prodigal, whom the Father allowed to go away from him.  The father did not chase after the son, did not force him to stay at home against his will.  That parable was about the heavenly father and those of us who would turn our backs on every good and holy thing he’s done for us, starting with life itself, and the gift of eternal life on the cross!
Now…enough of the debate over whether you can lose your salvation or not.  Let’s talk about…
A Better Way
There's an old sermon illustration about the count that lived on a high mountain in Eastern Europe.  He wanted to hire a new driver to take his children by horse-drawn carriage down the winding mountain road each day to school.  He interviewed three drivers with the same question - "How close to the edge of that road can you come and still keep my children safe?"
The first driver's answer:  "Sire I am skilled - I can come within a foot of the cliff, and your children will be absolutely safe."
The second driver:  "Sire, I am highly skilled - I can dance within two inches of the cliff and your children will come home safe and sound every day."
The third driver:  "Sire, your children are too precious to take chances with their lives; I would stay as far from that cliff as is humanly possible."
Which driver did he hire?
The analogy ends with this - It's not a point to be embraced about whether salvation's line can be crossed back-over, and become enemies with God again....we just have no business being near the line at all.
·              Our business is going on to perfection, striving in holiness and good works. 
·              Our business is yielding every day to the Holy Spirit of God, putting ourselves, our days, our tasks at His disposal, under His control.
·              Our business is to grow up into the love which the Father has created us for.
·              Our business is in building up the body of Christ until we all come into the fullness of His Spirit.
We may have the doctrine right or wrong – God will eventually sort it all out and point us in the right direction.  But there is a better way to stay away from that dangerous line, and here it is, gift-wrapped by the Spirit of God, handed down to us by the pen of St. Paul.  Stand with me and recite how we may keep the faith:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 
If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant  or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.  For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.     1 Corinthians 13:1 - 13 (NRSV)
And may it be with us that the greatest is indeed love…not doctrine!

[1] D. James Kennedy, Truths That Transform, (Old Tappan, NJ, Flemming H. Revell, 1974), 113 (emphasis added)
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid. (Author Taylor Burton-Edwards)
[7] Jones, Scott J., United Methodist Doctrine; The Extreme Center, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), 209.
[8] John Wesley, A Call to Backsliders,

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