Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Theological Journey Pt. 7: Saved to the Uttermost

We've finally come to the close of this series. The final topic to be covered is, of course, another issue many Christians have strong feelings about. I am no exception. As we dive into it, we must remember what has been covered so far. We have talked about the nature of God's ultimate sovereignty over his entire creation, specifically in placing his covenant love on a particular people. We talked about scripture's teaching on the Christian's election, predestination, calling, justification, sanctification, and glorification.

It is the final two in this list that we only briefly touched on. I would now like to zero in on them and expand on what I believe scripture has to say about the nature of God's saving work and how he brings his children to glory. Because of the weight of this final topic, this final post will likely be the longest.

The question that so many Christians ask is whether or not someone can place their faith in Christ in a truly saving way, and yet fail to maintain that faith until the day of their death. Can the salvation that God grants to his people be cast aside and the Christian be lost? How are we to come to this conclusion after seeing the eternal plan of God described in scripture? After seeing the sovereignty of God in bringing people to repentance, are we to believe he lays down this power and allows the Christian to suddenly have the ability to sabotage their destiny?

Some defend the idea of a Christian falling away to destruction by pointing out the necessity of perseverance. For example,

"And you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Mark 13:13).

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7).

"Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).

These kinds of passages are very common throughout the New Testament.

Another way in which this idea is defended is by pointing to what are often called "warning passages." The most well known of these can be found in the book of Hebrews. We will spend some time looking closely at these.

"For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who 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, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt" (Hebrews 6:4-6).

"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. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?" (10:26-29)

For many, these passages could not be clearer in their description of Christians who have hopelessly fallen away. However, there are a few very big problems with interpreting these passages in this way.
First, these passages describe not only the eventually damning consequence of this kind of apostasy, but they speak of the absolute impossibility of restoration (6:6). How are we to understand this in light of Paul's words when he speaks of Christians caught in sin saying, "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness" (Galatians 6:1). It seems that in Paul's thinking, restoration should always follow the sin of a believer.

This is one clue that the author of Hebrews is speaking of something far more profound and terrible than sinning in the midst of the Christian walk. There is something about this kind of fall that forces us to look at it differently.

What we must realize is that the book of Hebrews was written to a specific people for a specific purpose. The chapters leading up to these warning passages show that the book was written to Hebrews who had finally heard the gospel and were confronted with whether they should remain in the church, or return to the sacrificial system. Was Christ truly a replacement? Was he superior in all the ways the author of Hebrews insisted he was? It is likely the case that this book was written to a mixed church. A church made up of those who had truly come to share in Christ as well as some who had distanced themselves from the old sacrificial system due to the truth they had heard, but had not fully embraced Christ.

Therefore, the "sin" the author refers to is the rejection of the gospel itself. It is an embrace of the system of animal sacrifice that God has brought his people out of and has replaced with its ultimate fulfillment, that fulfillment being Christ. That is why it is impossible to restore such a person who goes on "sinning" willingly in this way. Christ, the only means of restoration, is the one they have rejected with their sin. That is why the author says, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" (10:26). The unforgivable sin is to reject the only sacrifice with the power to forgive.

Two questions remain. First, isn't the author saying that this has happened to Christians (6:4-5)? Second, Doesn't he write that they who commit this sin have been sanctified (10:29)? Can such language be applied to anyone other than Christians?

Looking at the rest of the New Testament, as well as the book of Hebrews, I must answer with a resounding yes!

Consider for a moment one of Christ's descriptions of those who will be rejected by him in the last day,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matthew 7:21-23).

Look at the characteristics of these people Christ tells us about. They prophecy, they cast out demons, they do many mighty works. They do all these things in the name of Christ. This tells us a great deal. It could easily be said that these people have, in the words of the author of Hebrews, "tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit" (6:4). Apparently they have tasted of the "powers of the age to come" (6:5).

Not only could these descriptions be given to them, but they did all these things in the name of Christ. Therefore, we could say that they, in the words of the author of Hebrews, received a "knowledge of the truth" (10:26), or have been "enlightened" (6:4). We could assume that, in light of this knowledge of Christ, they have confessed him as the replacement to the old sacrificial system. Yet in spite of this knowledge, in spite of this spiritual power, in spite of this confession of Christ, in spite of this measure of repentance, Christ tells them "I never knew you" (Matt. 7:23).

He doesn't say, "I saved you, but you eventually sinned your way out of my gift." He didn't say, "You had a really great start, but I guess your saving faith just wasn't saving enough." He declares their "Christian" life to be false from the very start. In the minds of the New Testament authors, there can be a faith, a measure of works, a measure of spiritual power, and even a certain kind of repentance that, at it's core, is false. It is a faith that embraces something other than Christ. Therefore, when it is exposed, there is no restoring the person who holds it. The root of their problem is a rejection of Christ, the only true restorer.

The second question is not as difficult to answer. Doesn't the author say that the people who have fallen away were "sanctified" by the blood of Christ (Hebrews 10:29)? Isn't this term only applicable to Christians? In actual fact, the pronoun "he" when the author writes "...trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified" the grammar of the original Greek could just as easily be talking about "the Son of God" as it could talking about the one trampling Christ's blood underfoot. We often forget that, during the last supper, Jesus prayed for his disciples saying "And for their sake I consecrate [or sanctify] myself that they also may be sanctified in truth" (John 17:19).

Once we see these warning passages in this light, the rest of the book of Hebrews begins to make sense. It now makes sense that the author would, in a much earlier chapter, ground these passages by saying, "For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end" (Hebrews 3:14). He does not say that we will come to share in Christ if we hold onto our confidence. He makes this perseverance an evidence of our truly sharing in Christ. Would this not make the failure to persevere the evidence of a false faith in Christ?
We can now make sense of the story of Peter when Christ predicted his three denials. In Luke's account, Jesus says,

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31).

We often look to this story to glory in Christ's ability to predict our sin. However, we neglect the fact that Christ is able to predict restoration as well. How was he able to do this? He was able because he had prayed for Peter. The father answers the prayers of his son. The author of Hebrews exults over this truth by writing, "he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). God not only draws us to him and gives us a believing heart, as we covered in previous posts, but when we draw near to him, he intercedes in a way that saves us to the uttermost.

What does it mean to be saved to the uttermost? Some argue that Christ will save to the uttermost, but we must be willing to let him. However, doesn't this assume that God would never allow his saving work to touch our sinful wills? Wasn't it made abundantly clear throughout the Old Testament that, when left to their sinful will, the people of God would reject their Lord again and again? Was this not the reason for the new covenant that God described by saying, "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (Ezekial 36:26-27).

If our sinful will, which flows from our sinful heart, is the foundation of our problem, then why would we say that God will save us from everything but our will? It seems that in saying we can lose our salvation, we are actually saying that Christ will save his people from everything but their sin. We insist on such things even after reading words like, "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). If it would be so simple for us to disconnect ourselves from our savior, then there is no difference between the old covenant and the new. We are just as enslaved to our sins as any other people that has come before us.

The gospel promises us far more than that. For example, Jude concludes his short letter, where he exhorts the church to persevere by saying, "Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy..." (Jude 24).

It is not that we are to ignore the many passages that require us to persevere. It is not that we are to run from the holiness that God requires, but we are to see them as promises to the people of God that describe the mighty work that he himself is bringing about. This is what it means to be under grace rather than law. God gave the church the exhortations and writings of the Apostles because it was through their teaching that grace was and is given to the church. In the words of John Piper, "Eternal security is a community project." We are to exhort and warn one another of the great need for holiness, but we must realize that these words we speak are God's means of bringing about the sanctifying work that he promised to unfailingly complete.

Sanctification is progressive, and we are not to be discouraged and fear the judgment of God when we see remaining sin in our lives. By his grace, we press on and know that he is working in his own way. Just as he has a purpose for delaying the judgment of the devil himself, the eradication of our personal sin is subject to the timing of God. That is why, in the words of Martin Luther, all of the Christian life is one of repentance. We are to hate our sin, we are to fight for holiness, and we are to give God glory for every step of progress we make.

We must keep this in mind because even though good works and holiness are a necessary fruit and evidence of our salvation, the ground of our justification will always be the cross of Christ and the righteous life he lived on our behalf. Our good works will never become the basis on which we are judged by our father.

The question should never be, "can a Christian lose their salvation?" The question must always be, "Can Jesus Christ lose a Christian?" Of course, the answer is no. The grace of salvation goes as deep as our sin requires it to. It goes down to our very will. He causes us to be a people that cling to our savior to the very end.
We have been saved from the penalty of sin.

We are being saved from the power of sin.

We will one day be saved, without fail, from the very presence of sin.

Glory to God.

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