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Friday, August 18, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Eternal Insecurity

In which two or more of our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Todd Strandberg would prefer that we remain insecure about eternity. Let’s allow him to make his case:

“The all-pervasive eternal security teaching has to rank as one of the devil’s favorite tools for deceiving man into neglecting or turning away from God’s plan of salvation.

Alarm bells should have sounded immediately the first time it was made known that eternal security allows its adherents to sin as they please.

I’m amazed that a doctrine so contrary to the Word of God could have so many people relying upon it as their means of salvation. Jesus said, ‘he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved’ (Matthew 24:13). For someone to think they can just claim Jesus as their Savior and go on living a life of iniquity is ridiculous. Jesus told us in Matthew 7:23 that when Judgment Day comes, he’ll be saying to many, ‘... I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity’.”

The Misuse of Old Testament Proof Texts for Christians

Tom: I’ll throw one issue on the table right off: I have not read every word that Mr. Strandberg has written on the subject, but a quick scan over the verses he uses to make his case suggests that we ought to dismiss most of them because they’re not addressed to Christian believers at all. You can’t take a verse addressed to Israel under the Law in Ezekiel, Exodus or 1 Chronicles and apply it to Christians. The Old Testament has nothing explicit to say to us on the subject of our eternal security in Christ, so we have to dismiss more than half his proof texts as completely unrelated or concerned with principles too general to give us a definitive answer.

When you come to the New Testament he goes to the teaching of the Lord in Matthew where once again he is speaking to believing and unbelieving Jews under the Old Testament economy, and later to Hebrews where you also have to be careful because … hey, it’s addressed to Hebrews.

Immanuel Can: I like your point, but won’t people think, “Okay, Tom’s saying that some of these passages don’t apply to us directly — but don’t they still show us the same principle in a roundabout way? Why would God say it was okay for a Christian to be smug about being saved, live like a hellion, and then go to heaven afterward?”

Isn’t that a good question? Maybe if you could give an example or two, you could clear up what you mean when you say these things don’t apply. You’re not advocating loose living, surely?

More Than a Mouthful

Tom: Okay, I bit off a little bit more than I was prepared to chew in one mouthful there, agreed. No, I’m absolutely not advocating loose living, just careful attention to the word of God rather than grabbing verses scattershot and applying them willy-nilly.

Generally speaking you’re right, there are principles in the Old Testament that those who love Christ will choose to apply to their Christian walk because they recognize that they tell us about who he is: what he likes and what he doesn’t like. A statement like “Those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed” is a universal truism, valid since creation and all through Jewish history to the Church Age, but this is not the sort of scriptural principle our friend is attempting to use as support for his thesis.

IC: Fair enough.

Tom: One instance where Mr. Strandberg totally misuses scripture is Matthew 24:13, “He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved”, which occurs in an explicitly Jewish context. The Lord then goes on to say “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains”. Most Christians are not in Judea. This passage has nothing whatsoever to do with the doctrine of eternal security: the Lord is not saying that the Christian who endures until the end of his Christian life working hard at behaving like a Christian should behave will be saved; he’s saying that the Jew in the Tribulation who maintains his allegiance to Christ will be saved.

It couldn’t have less to do with eternal security. It’s not on point at all.

How Exactly Is Salvation Secured?

IC: That example works. Okay, my turn … I have quite a few issues with what he says, but three in particular. Firstly, I’m surprised to see he has arrived at the conclusion that the fear of hell is a good, Christian incentive to righteous living: I would think it’s not.

Secondly, given his trust in fear-motivated works as the securer of salvation, how clear is his mind on what salvation really is?

Thirdly, given that the regeneration of the Christian so that he or she lives according to the character and will of God is a work of the Spirit of God, but he calls it “one of the Devil’s favourite tools”, is he just being colourful? Still, I read about people who talk like that … where was it? … oh yes … Mark 3:29 … Not a company I’d particularly wish to be in, were I him.

Tom: Well, I see how you would naturally associate regeneration with the concept of “the all-pervasive eternal security teaching”, but I don’t think Mr. Strandberg does, and perhaps some of our readers also may not immediate grasp the connection. Care to elaborate?

IC: It seems to me he’s trying to say that receiving salvation is a work of Christ — so far as I can tell, anyway. Yet he also believes that securing that salvation needs the work of man, and work done under fear of condemnation. But if Christ only purchases our first permission and then keeping our salvation depends on us, in what sense is Christ the one who is our “Saviour”? Then he’s like a lifeguard who swam out to a drowning person just to tell him, “You should swim to shore”. Paul nails this error down clearly in Galatians, when he ask the very obvious question, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Answer: Duh.

Eternal Security and “Loose Living”

Tom: Maybe we should stop here and state the obvious, because it may only be obvious to us: Those who believe in the doctrine of eternal security do not generally advocate loose living. I say “generally”, but I really mean “ever”. Strandberg accuses us of advocating it though I’ve never encountered it, notwithstanding his stories about people who smoke and swear at him.

We do, however, understand causes and consequences: Salvation is the cause, works are the natural consequence of that salvation, nothing more. But for Mr. Strandberg, works are the cause and salvation is the (much hoped-for) effect. We obey and serve Christ because we are genuinely saved, not in order to merit salvation.

As someone has well said, “It’s faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is never alone”.

Internal Insecurity

IC: Well put. That’s memorable.

You also say in his view salvation can only be “much hoped-for.” I think that’s an important observation too. For if my works, not the merit of Christ, are what justifies my salvation, what can I expect but lingering, gnawing, perpetual uncertainty — what the scriptures would condemn as a “spirit of fear”? Instead of freedom, gratitude, joy and a focus on Christ, I have bondage, doubt, anxiety and self-absorption because I’m worried that nothing else will make it possible for me to be saved at all.

To be pithy, the alternative to eternal security is internal insecurity.

Eternal Security and the Judgement Seat of Christ

Tom: Exactly. Strandberg also demonstrates some serious confusion on the subject of judgement, which is strange because he has written an article on the Judgement Seat of Christ in which he seems to grasp the concept.

He says this about it, quite correctly I think:
“The Judgment Seat of Christ, is reserved for the judgment of Christians only. Born again believers in Christ Jesus. If a person is unsaved and dies in sin, he will be judged at the great white throne judgment, following Christ’s millennial reign on earth.”
So, having distinguished the judgment of believers from that of unbelievers, he then grabs Matthew 7:23, which has nothing at all to do with the judgement of believers, to use as evidence that those who are genuinely saved can subsequently be lost. But the very words of the verse he quotes, “I never knew you” clearly indicate the person in question was never saved at all. The Lord doesn’t say “I knew you at one time, but later you failed to make the grade”.

It’s a total non-sequitur.

Living in Anxiety

IC: True. For me, what he’s experiencing here is the anxiety an ordinary person often feels when first confronted with a deep spiritual truth. It’s like when you share the gospel with someone, and he says, “What? You callin’ me a sinner? I can’t save myself? And I’ve got to die and be reborn? What are you talking about?” Deep incredulity often follows the dawning realization of just how different from worldly wisdom spiritual truth is. I grant him that if we were not genuinely born again, reconstituted as sons of God, joined into an eternal relation with Christ himself and indwelt with his Holy Spirit to teach, convict and cleanse us, then the logical way for us to become better people would be just to try very, very hard. It wouldn’t work, mind you, based on the whole record of human history — but it would look like the reasonable option. And one would naturally wonder if freedom from judgment wouldn’t immediately encourage us to all become freely wicked — after all, that’s what an unregenerate person would surely do.

Tom: Except he’s been banging on this issue since the early eighties according to his bio. Based on the number of interactions he’s had with Christians who believed in eternal security in that period, I’d wonder how none of their points have made any inroads with him. Perhaps it’s because the Christians he cites on the subject seem to be complete caricatures. So you start to wonder whether he’s meeting a particularly weird species of believer, or whether there’s some issue of perception on his part, or if there’s a little misrepresentation going on. No way to know.

IC: Yes, on his website he claims to have met a person who supposedly was at least a nominal Christian who professes to believe in eternal security, but who (according to Strandberg) smoked, swore and lived carelessly. I must say that I have met many, many people who believe in eternal security — many of them living exemplary lives — but none that behave in the way he describes. It does sound like a caricature.

But to be charitable, let’s suppose that he did have one such encounter; how seriously ought we to take that? Indeed, how seriously ought we ever to take one-off personal anecdotes? And I wonder what implication does he wish us to draw: that believers in ES are guaranteed to smoke, swear and live carelessly? That only the consistent ones will? But I believe Strandberg’s point would have be that the man was not a real Christian at all — so then how relevant is the whole anecdote?

Changing Our Minds

Tom: I agree. Let’s ignore horror stories about ES defenders because they don’t address the essential issue, which is: True or Not?

Now Todd Strandberg says:
“I have known people who were saved miraculously, yet they fell away. If their salvation wasn’t legitimate, then I’d have to doubt honesty of every of all confessions.”
So tell me, Immanuel Can, can you change your mind about being a Christian?

IC: Well, first let me point out that Mr. Strandberg fails Logic 101 here. Even if he “knew” all these things, how does his perception call “all” confessions into doubt? False analogy: What about his own “confession”, say? But I also find extravagance in his claims to “knowing”. He “knows they were saved”? Miraculously? And he “knows” they “fell away”? I would have thought that God would be the expert, and the people in question would know something about it; but Strandberg — I have to wonder how he would know these things with such confidence. I wouldn’t want to invest much in his knowledge here.

Tom: This is the thing, I don’t believe you can know about another person’s salvation in that way. And some people do the opposite of what he’s doing here whenever their unsaved relatives die: they come up with all the reasons the person might have been saved and we just never knew it. Whether the conjecture makes us comfortable when we’re feeling guilty or makes us feel superior to those who are misbehaving, it’s never particularly useful.

Who Are You Counting On?

IC: But let us leave that. To answer your question, it would depend on who was securing you, correct? If you were counting on yourself for salvation, you might well change your mind — but then, you clearly never understood the gospel, so it wasn’t really a “change of mind” at all.

Salvation is found in the One who never fails, secured by his merit and work, not by your own. And here’s the key: so long as God continues to value his Son, all those who genuinely place their faith in him are secure. That’s what it means to be “in him”.

Tom: And this is what’s missing in any works-based salvation scheme is any kind of explanation as to why Christ died. The apostle Paul says “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” There is no purpose to his son’s death if our good behaviour is enough to please God.

IC: Perhaps now we can see the real force of Paul’s question to the Galatians. Is the salvation which is in Christ his work from first to last, or only at the first? If it’s his work, then how sure can we be that he will get it done? If the work is NOT being done, that is, if we see a person who is not producing the fruit of salvation (a life of good deeds) then the natural conclusion is obvious — this person has never had a work of Christ begun in his life.

In Conclusion

Tom: I really wonder if the enemy Mr. Strandberg has lined himself up against here actually exists. Yes, it’s conceivable that someone may interpret the scripture the way he fears, as a license to do anything at all because you’ve got your ticket to Paradise. But a truly regenerate heart looks to please the Lord. Everyone I know who understands and enjoys the doctrine of eternal security balances it with the apostle Paul’s rhetorical question “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”, to which the answer is very obviously “By no means!”

I’ve yet to meet a professing Christian who is brazen enough to defend his “right to sin” on the basis of the teaching about eternal security. If you are, I’m not about to question whether you’ve become lost or whether Christ has failed to accomplish his work in your life, I’m going to wonder whether you were ever saved.

IC: Which is precisely what I would also do.


  1. Hmm, I would modify it to the doctrine of potential eternal security because that's what we as free agents actually require. How else do you then explain the thief on the cross who did not live a life of good deeds and yet Christ saved him in an instant? Thus, Christ's work in him began at the moment on the cross, or was it done anyhow throughout his life but ignored until exactly then, to make a historical point to illustrate Christ's character?

    There is no one who, by the natural order of things, can avoid acting to complete tasks in life in order to go on living at all. Acting on behalf of your or society's interest therefore, by definition, is synonymous with working (making an effort, an exertion) and all our life therefore consists of works. It is perfectly clear that Christ's salvation of an individual operates within this natural flow of human behavior so that morally positive behavior, or works, are an absolute necessity for your salvation. In other words, there is a moral continuum (like, e.g., a Gaussian or Normal distribution centered at moral neutrality) that all people fall under with degrees of amoral to the left or moral to the right of center. For each human being, by living our life, it is always a life of works (and of decisions concerning the work's moral index) that automatically and naturally place us under that curve and contribute to our chances of salvation, provided we want to be saved (which also has a moral index). There is no automatic salvation and neither is there a non contributory salvation since that is not in the natural oder of things (by which we contribute continually). Even the thief had to contribute his morally positive works, his moment of good will, to assure his salvation.

    1. The question, Qman, is not, of course, whether good works are good or not. And it's certainly not whether good works are a thing a Christian should, and indeed must do as a consequence of being a Christian. The question is, are those good works the basis of salvation, or the product of it?

      That good works are not the basis of salvation is clearly stated in Ephesians 2:8-9, and in Titus 3:5, among other passages like Galatians 3:1-3, with a full theological explanation being given in Romans. The key is this: we are not saved because we've succeeded in impressing God with our goodness, or by earning the right to be saved. Were that so, salvation would come from the Law, and grace would not be necessary. Moreover, we would have reason to boast (Romans 3:27). But as it is, salvation comes by faith in the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ, not any goodness of our own.

      The thief on the cross is a great example. When he was saved, he had manifestly lived a completely wicked life up to that point. He admitted freely, "We deserve what we are getting." (Luke 23:41) Not only that, but he was utterly incapable of any work, at that point. Nothing could more graphically illustrate this than the fact that both his hands and his feet were securely nailed to a piece of wood, and his death was imminent. All he could ask was, "Remember me when you come in your kingdom." That is, all he could do was trust that the one who was dying with him was sufficient to save Him. And the Lord Himself promised him, not because of his past deeds, but because of his sincere faith, that he would be with Him in Paradise that very day.

      The way of salvation has always been by faith in Jesus Christ. Works are the product of a life renewed by the power of His Spirit who indwells us when we are saved. All the works done beforehand are of no value to God, since they only contribute to our sense of pride and self-sufficiency, and bring no honour to Him. But works done because of our gratitude for His goodness are honouring to God.

      Really, therefore, there is no continuum, but rather a radical discontinuity. Discontinued is our old life, our worthless self-promoting works, and our hope of salvation without Christ. The new reality is a salvation achieved for us by Christ, a new set of works empowered by His Spirit, and a new life made possible by His resurrection.

      That's the way the Word of God explains things. Human morality is not part of, or even related to divine morality. Even if we humans imagine they are of a piece, they are not.

    2. I like that explanation a lot, IC. To me, the entire Old Testament history of Israel is the evidence that "works" don't work. Once God had clearly demonstrated that for a couple of thousand years, he sent his Son to do what we couldn't.

      Then we get that wonderful explanation all through Hebrews 11 of how every "work" or "righteous act" that actually pleased God during the Old Testament way of doing things actually was a direct consequence of faith in the first place.

      Faith was always the way to God. It just took the coming of Christ to make that explicit.

  2. I get your point about faith and it's importance and sufficiency to the (generic) Protestant point of view. Of course, faith is tremendously important to all Christian denominations (I would assume). However, I am not sure my point got across. Let me try to restate slightly differently.

    What you, as Protestants, call works, and if they belong to the moral index side of the distribution, then you are saying they would have no impact on God's decision to save because they do not enter into his equation. You therefore withdraw the reason for people of all denominations to accord significance to their striving for doing moral good in most circumstances of their life.

    I disagree with that because I belief in this life and the next life forming a continuum. Thus, clearly, this life demands of us all to put our best foot forward, which can only happen by action (active and intellectual). I made the point that action or works are therefore unavoidable and continually ongoing and that it is clear that they shape us in an earthly sense and are required by our peers (society) to do that mostly in a positive way (good works). That shaping of the person and character is a natural, desired and even required process that of course contributes for each to their standing on earth and must therefore as well in the hereafter. Christ clearly agreed and even proposed that by, e.g., suggesting that a hierarchy exists among us even in heaven warning that the first here may be last there, and the self-important may sit at the far end of the table. These facts, the continuum of a hierarchy and levels of authority and quality (there is no democracy in heaven) all of which are shaped and/or contributed to by our activity (works) here on earth contradict your assertion that they do not contribute to or influence God's perception of us and our chances at salvation. As a matter of fact, the apostle Peter states that all men acting rightly are acceptable to God (even if they are not Christian). Therefore, I belief you are simply creating a catch 22 by suggesting that our personal efforts to live the moral Christian life make no difference to God. My guess is that he knows that my name is not Mother Teresa but that, like the thief, I might have a chance based on his mercy. I totally disagree though that that is a given and that God does not require us to do good works to obtain that mercy, especially if I did not attempt any good works at all. Truly, if that was the case, he would be remiss as a parent.

    1. Your second paragraph is correct in most things, Q, save one: that is, no Protestant or Catholic has power to declare human works void for salvation. God alone would have that, and Protestant and Catholic decisions to the contrary would we incorrect if they do not agree with what God said, would they not?

      But you also point out an interesting fact: Heaven, or we might say, the New Earth as well, is not a matter of equality. There are ranks and hierarchies in the Kingdom of God, according to Scripture. And as you point out, these ranks and hierarchies are based on things that are also apparent here on Earth, including the works that we do. So far so good.

      But why are there different levels? Is it, as you assume, because works actually do contribute to salvation, or because they determine level of reward? I think you'll find in Scripture that it is the level of eternal reward that is related to human works...never the matter or salvation. The two are distinct, you see.

      This is also true in real life. I may be a good son to my (earthly) father, or I may be a bad one: accordingly, he may invest in my a little confidence or great confidence, a little inheritance or a great one. But whatever he decides, one thing does not change: I'm his son. I can't stop being that, because I was born into it. My actions cannot change that.

      In a similar way, those who are born of God (John 1:13) are constituted as sons of God (John 1:12). That is a permanent, familial relationship that once established cannot change (John 6:37). However, if I do not do the works of my father afterward, I am showing that I was never really a son in the first place, since I have none of His nature. So works are important evidences of my standing and are determinative of my reward, but they do not create my status as son. The new birth does that first, and good works simply follow.

      This supports your observation that works matter to God: but it shows they matter for reward after salvation, not for salvation itself. One cannot be saved and then lost...but assuming one has been saved, one can end up with more or less eternal reward, and a higher or lower place in the Kingdom, based on works.

      I like your thought about the thief. We all need to be saved by God's mercy. Mother Teresa too. After all, even Mary needed to be saved by God's mercy, as she said: "...my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour..." (That's from her prayer of joy following the annunciation.) We can't save ourselves by our works: we all need the mercy of the Saviour. So if you're relying on that, and not your works to get you to God, then you couldn't possibly be more secure.

      But then you don't "have a chance": you have a *certainty,* for He never fails.

  3. IC, I like your perceptive explanation. So far so good then. Except, interestingly (to me at least), there is another angle (a not yet explored perspective) that goes as follows. The Catholic Church, as you know, believes in the reality of purgatory (and I think some Protestant denominations do as well) but there seems to be a problem here with the good thief on the cross. Christ told him "today you will be in paradise with me." Should we assign to God then the intent here of working within (modified) human constraints of time and therefore, e.g., a) there is no purgatory, b) he was willing to make an exception and the thief was sent to the front of the line not having to go through purgatory, or c) God (and purgatory in general/or in this particular case) is not constraint by our time scale and the purgatorial experience can be/was completed within a human day? The Catholic interpretation of purgatory is of course as a place and process of making us catch up with our missed out character development so that we will fit in with heaven. To me the latter makes sense because of the natural continuity that must exist when transitioning from this life to the next. After all, we are who we are and who we have permitted ourselves to become (within the constraints of our own culpability). It is also understood that some people have enough culpability to reject God outright and choose to go to hell.

    The reason I am bringing up this thread in this manner is to arrive at the conclusion that near instantaneous character change into a state of readiness for heaven is unlikely and that a place/process like purgatory must exist. In addition, this presupposes the endeavor to accomplish good works without which our development is stunted. Thus both are needed, faith AND, as the Catholic church teaches, the exercise of good works. (Of course we are now also digressing into a new topic and maybe it was dealt with here already, although perhaps not from this perspective.)

    To summarize, I would therefore call it a theory of potential eternal security as long as your faith is not a hollow claim and you accede to the fact that good works are also needed for being saved. Why want to be in the position of the thief on the cross where your only apparent "good works" is to acknowledge your failure and implore Christ's mercy (although that's pure speculation and we do not know what other good works Christ may have credited him with). Thus, good works are indeed needed for your salvation because if you never even contemplated one, you evidently have made your choice of where you really belong. Clearly, even a parent raising a child under free will cannot save his child under such circumstances.

    1. Ah, I see, Q. The doctrine of Purgatory is interesting you.

      Whenever I am unsure of what God says about something, do you know what I do? I get a concordance or Bible search engine, like this one. (biblegateway.com) I choose a good translation, one I know is the product of careful and accurate translators, and I look up all the verses in the Old and New Testaments that speak of the issue in question. Having seen everything the Bible says on that topic, I feel better able to think and speak more confidently about it. With a search engine, it takes hardly any time at all.

      My recommendation is that you might want to do that with the word "Purgatory." Then we can talk further, once we both have all the common facts in hand.

  4. Thanks for the info, IC. Btw, what happened with the PN environment, you are no longer there and I have been following those discussions with interest (better than Netflix). I have always thought that one day you would get tired of fighting windmills.

    1. Oh, I'm around -- and not at all tired, actually, but maybe you haven't known. I admit that I haven't looked in the last week, and when I last looked nothing was cooking.