Tag Archives: soteriology

Holding Firm to the End: The Epistle to the Hebrews and Eternal Security

It is popular within evangelicalism today to think of salvation in terms of a “once saved, always saved” framework. Though a Calvinist variant of this belief posits that God keeps His elect by causing them to persevere to the end, its free will counterpart argues for a faith that, once initiated, does not require perseverance in order to secure final salvation. It is this latter view that is beyond the pale of acceptable Christian doctrine and which the author of Hebrews refutes thoroughly and repeatedly.

There are several lines of argument which the author uses to substantiate the need to persevere, but the strongest and most prominent is the comparison between the Israelites in the wilderness and those in the New Covenant. Whereas Moses was a servant in “God’s house,” Christ is over God’s house (Hebrews 3:1-5). But even though Christ is much greater than Moses, He cannot guarantee our perseverance any more than Moses could guarantee the perseverance of the Israelites in the wilderness:
But Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Hebrews 3:6, ESV).

The author of Hebrews goes on to parallel our faith as Christians with the faith of those Israelites, citing God’s words in Psalm 95 as a present exhortation for us:
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Heb. 3:7-11, ESV).

By way of context, it ought to be stated that prior to their rebellion, “the people believed” (Exodus 4:31, ESV. See also Exodus 14:30-31). This is the key component to the parallel that the author is making—their faith begun did not guarantee that they would finish in it, and it is finishing in faith that allows one to take hold of God’s promises. Our author does not go on to say, “but there are better promises for you,” but, “take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God… For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (emphasis mine. Heb. 3:12, 14, ESV).

If there were any doubt remaining that the author was concerned with the salvation of genuine Christians, such doubts ought to be dispelled by the fate he described for those who had, “been enlightened . . . tasted the heavenly gift . . . shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Heb. 6:4-5, ESV) but had “fallen away” (v. 6): they are like a worthless crop bearing thorns and thistles, set aside “to be burned” (Heb. 6:8, ESV).

If even this is not explicit enough to change the mind of someone holding to a doctrine of eternal security, the author of Hebrews circles back around to it again in chapter 10:
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27 ESV).

Notice the parallel rhythms of 6:4-8 and 10:26-31: a person was enlightened (6:4), receiving the knowledge of the truth (10:26); they then fell away (6:6), went on sinning deliberately (10:26); in their present state it is impossible to restore them to repentance (6:6) since there no longer remains a sacrifice for their sins (10:26); and the judgment which awaits them is to be burned (6:8), a fury of fire (10:27).1

After describing the fate of the apostate in 10:26-27, the author appeals to Habakkuk chapter 2, wherein God declares, “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” (Heb. 10:37-38, ESV). This citation not only puts an exclamation point on the fate of the unrepentant apostate spoken of earlier, but also brings up the issue of what living by faith really means.

Thankfully, our writer does not leave the answer to this question up to our imaginations but provides concrete examples of what saving faith looks like throughout the next chapter. He begins by explaining that faith is confidence about things we do not yet see. Though we do not yet see Christ reigning over the world and creation restored, we trust that this will be the case and live our lives according to this trust in what God has said He will do.

Next, he goes on to look at individual examples of faith from the Old Testament scriptures and from Israel’s history. For instance, Noah’s trust in God led him to follow God’s command to build the ark even though he could not yet see with his eyes the need for it. Similarly, Abraham trusted in God’s promise to give his descendants the land of Canaan even though he died not having seen such a promise fulfilled. Such an attitude our author commends, saying, “if they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” (Heb. 11:15-16, ESV). Since God has put eternity into the hearts of men and women (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we feel drawn to God even as we feel pulled back into the false security of faithless living. Noah and Abraham resisted that temptation and were therefore commended for their faith, as was Moses, of whom we are told:
“[He chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:25-26, ESV).

If faith in God is made difficult by our limited vision, how much more so when there is an obstruction before our eyes? Though God delivered from oppression and violence many of the pre-Christ saints, this was not the case for all:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb. 11:35-38, ESV).

And yet despite this obstruction to their ability to see the telos of God’s purposes, they trusted in Him nonetheless. If this is true of them, why should it not be true of us who have obtained the fulfillment of promises they longed to see?:
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).

Indeed, Christ was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. And though many of these promises have not been realized in their fullness, we have more evidence upon which to base our faith than they had. Such a benefit ought to stir up an even greater faith—and a desire to live by it—in what God is going to accomplish for us. And if they could persevere until the end, what excuse can we give for not doing so? For not only do we have resources they did not (the down payment on God’s promises in Christ’s first advent, more of God’s plan revealed to us than was revealed to those who came before, additional power from the Holy Spirit, etc.), we also have their example to follow. The author concludes:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3, ESV).

The cloud of witnesses—those saints who came before us and persevered to the end—testify to us that we can and should persevere. Furthermore, we have not only an example but a great advocate in our Lord Jesus Christ. Though He suffered, he endured because of “the joy that was set before Him.” Faith is not therefore a commitment to suffer because suffering is inherently praiseworthy or noble, but a commitment to follow Christ regardless of the consequences because the reward of such a commitment is participation in Christ’s resurrection and coming kingdom. Our faith, which the author of Hebrews defines as “believ[ing] that [God] exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6, ESV) with the result that we draw near to Him, gives us the strength to endure—for without confidence that God exists and that our present struggles are worth enduring, we would give up the race. Finally, anything which holds us back from finishing the race (what our author refers to as weights) should be cast aside. It is not good for us.

To conclude, the belief that one cannot forfeit salvation even though she abandon Christ is simply not biblical. Not only do we not have any such promises, but such a mindset contradicts the goal of the gospel—our union with Christ and the restoration of all things. If we fail to be interested in these goals, we have no place in the coming kingdom of God. Salvation is not about going to a nice place when you die, but about participation in Christ. Our entry and continued place in Christ’s body is on the basis of faith, and this faith lives (runs the race) on the basis of its confidence in the reward of reaching the finish line.

1 To see these parallels laid out more explicitly, see Nathan E. Brown’s Hebrews – An Exegetical Analysis, p. 103. (Link)

The Gospel According to Batman V Superman

Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.

Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).

The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.

If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).

This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.

Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.

Contrasting Roman Catholic and Protestant Views of Justification

While there is important agreement on the issue of justification (how one is saved) between Catholics and Protestants– such as the shared value that it depends upon grace and is on the basis of what Christ has done– there are major disagreements that are of incredible importance to the definition of the gospel itself. To begin, I will elaborate a basic Protestant view with supporting Scriptures, and then I will contrast this view with the Roman Catholic understanding. Any feedback is appreciated! All Bible quotations are from the ESV.

The Protestant View

1. Justification is a gift of God that does not depend upon works. Grace is the ground of our justification, and faith is the means by which we are saved.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith… For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
(Romans 3:21-25, 28)

“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
(Galatians 2:16)

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ The law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'”
(Galatians 3:10-12)

“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
(Galatians 3:21-22)

2. Justification means being declared righteous by God and having a right relationship with Him. Good works do not increase our justification. Being in a right relationship with God also entails that we have been delivered from the penalty for our sins.

“[Abraham’s] faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
(Romans 4:22-24)

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(Romans 5:1)

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.'”
(Romans 4:4-8)

“Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
(Galatians 3:2-3)

“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.”
(Romans 8:33)

3. If someone believes that they contribute to their justification by doing works, they are doing damage to the gospel.

“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
(Galatians 2:21)

“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
(Galatians 5:2-4)

4. Good works flow from being regenerated by the Spirit and are an evidence of genuine faith.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
(Galatians 5:22-24)

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? …faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
(James 2:14, 17-18)

“God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.”
Romans 3:30-31

The Roman Catholic View

1. Justification is by the grace of God.

“…In that new birth that is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace by which they are made just.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter III)

“…we confess that we need the grace of God.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter IV)

“If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works… without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, Canon I)

2. By having faith in God AND the sacrament of baptism, one is justified.

“The meritorious cause [of justification] is… Jesus Christ… the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which no man was ever justified finally.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter VII)

“If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation… [but that] men obtain from God through faith alone the grace of justification… let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, Canon 4)

3. If one loses one’s justification by committing a “mortal sin,” another sacrament– penance– is required to regain justification.

“The grace of justification once received is lost not only by infidelity, whereby also faith itself is lost, but also by every other mortal sin, though in this case faith is not lost.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XV)

“Those who through sin have forfeited the received grace of justification, can again be justified when, moved by God, they exert themselves to obtain through the sacrament of penance the recovery, by the merits of Christ, of the grace lost.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XIV)

4. Temporal punishments awaiting sin may remain after justification if venial sins are committed.

“If anyone says that… it is a fiction that there remains often a temporal punishment to be discharged after the eternal punishment has by virtue of the keys been removed, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Fourteenth Session, Canons concerning penance, Canon 15)

“[The sacrament of penance includes] satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers and other devout exercises of the spiritual life, not indeed for the eternal punishment, which is, together with guilt, remitted either by the sacrament or by the desire for the sacrament, but for the temporal punishment which, as the sacred writings teach, is not always wholly remitted.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XIV)

5. These temporal punishments can be lessened or removed by indulgences (including attending Mass) or through purgatory.

“If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world of in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter XVI, Canon 30)

“We are able through Jesus Christ to make satisfaction to God the Father not only by punishments voluntarily undertaken by ourselves to atone for sins, or by those imposed by the judgment of the priest according to the measure of our offense, but also, and this is the greatest proof of love, by the temporal afflictions imposed by God and borne patiently by us.”
(Council of Trent, Fourteenth Session, Penance, Chapter IX)

“[The sacrifice of mass] is rightly offered not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions and other necessities of the faithful who are living, but also for those departed in Christ but not yet fully purified.”
(Council of Trent, Twenty-second Session, Chapter II)

“If anyone says that the sacrifice of the mass is… not a propitiatory one [and] ought not to be offered for the living and the dead, for sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other necessities, let him be anathema.”
(Council of Trent, Twenty-Second Session, Chapter IX, Canon 3)

“Souls [detained in purgatory] are aided by the suffrages of the faithful and chiefly by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar.”
(Council of Trent, Twenty-Fifth Session)

A Summary of the Issue

One major difficulty with comparing Protestant and Roman Catholic views on justification is that we don’t always define words in the same way. Roman Catholics do define justification as being received by faith. Works (other than the sacrament of baptism) are not necessary for INITIAL justification. However, because Catholics believe we may retain temporal punishments for sins after justification, they end up with practically the same problem that all legalists do– they are not at peace with God and must do works (albeit by grace) to actually be at peace. Even if this were not the case, the requirement of the sacrament of baptism in essence takes the place of circumcision in the circumcision controversy that Paul dealt with in Galatians.

“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”
(Galatians 3:24-26)

Some Catholics will say that in Galatians, Paul is simply telling the Galatians not to follow ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant law, like circumcision. But Paul is clear that what he is contrasting is salvation by works (in this case, of the Old Covenant law) and salvation by faith. Not salvation by faith and baptism, or faith and the sacraments, or faith and good works, but salvation that comes only by faith. Of course, if this faith is a genuine faith, it will issue out in good works. As James says, if a man has a faith with no works, can that faith (a dead faith that is faith in name only) save him? Absolutely not.

It is important that we don’t misrepresent Roman Catholics as teaching a bootstrapping salvation that they do by themselves (even the Judaizers Paul chastised in Galatians would be aghast at this view of salvation). It is also important that Protestants be charitable when it comes to the state of salvation and sincerity of Roman Catholics. However, it does us no good to gloss over differences in the interest of an ecumenism that is based on false unity. Let there be unity where it is genuine and disunity where we must be honest that unity does not exist.

When Rob Bell pits biblical exegesis against a fuzzy, post-modern, peanut butter love, Love Wins

Rob Bell’s book wins on pathos and good intentions, but not on solid argumentation or exegesis. He has a heart for the lost and the suffering, which is admirable, but he has to turn the Bible into theological silly putty to make his case.

Bell’s first major error in Love Wins is giving precedence to certain biblical themes both to the exclusion of others and over clear and specific biblical teaching. For instance, Bell makes much of scriptural themes like restoration, but ignores themes of final punishment. By claiming as the central themes only the ones he likes, he can read them into texts where they don’t belong, such as the passage which recounts Jesus’ claim that Sodom and Gomorrah will fare better on the day of judgement than cities which rejected the direct revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Instead of reading this passage in its obvious sense– that there are degrees of punishment on the final day and those who reject direct revelation of Jesus will suffer most– he understands Jesus to be saying that there is a great deal of hope for Sodom and Gomorrah’s salvation– that their punishment was corrective instead of destructive. Even though he doesn’t get anywhere close to proving his case, he seems to fall back on the emotionally-motivated claim that God saving everyone is a “better story” than damning some and saving others.

Speaking of stories, his overuse of this word  is one example where Bell is obnoxiously post-modern and emergent. He uses the word story/stories in his short book 138 times. For a book of around 200 pages, large font, and constantly skipped lines/single words on their own line, that’s an impressive display of post-modernism.

Another major error is that he paints the alternative to his view as a belief in a strong exclusivism (the view that only those who consciously respond affirmatively to the gospel message can be saved) along with eternal conscious punishment, which has the effect that when he attacks one, he is in effect attacking the other, making his job easier. Of course, one might hold  to eternal torment without exclusivism or even annihilationism, both views he doesn’t engage with.

Bell explains that God will eventually win everyone over, but doesn’t explain how it is that everyone will be saved of their own free will (if free will is truly free, it seems that at least some would reject eternally if they lived that long) . For emotional effect, Bell criticizes the eternal conscious hell camp with having a God that would turn his back on people in hell who are repenting and turning to God. Of course, this assumes that sinners turn to God completely on their own instead of by His grace. Bell here appears to be a Pelagian, or else doesn’t know enough about soteriology to make such distinctions (a terrifying prospect for a pastor). In any case, this is another example where he is misrepresenting eternal conscious hell proponents, which makes his book far harder to take seriously.

One strange and interesting point that Rob Bell makes comes from making the afterlife analogous to the parable of the prodigal son. He claims that hell is not being cast out of “the party,” (despite Jesus’ far more relevant parable about the marriage supper being like a party that people are cast out of) but being at the party but not enjoying it. “Hell is being at the party,” Bell claims. The message to take from that is never to go to one of Rob Bell’s parties.