Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Letter to a Baptist Pastor

I have been remiss in my attention to this blog for a while. Work, family, and my boys seemingly constant involvement in sports have kept me busy and not allowed me to devote the time I had wished to writing. For that, I apologize.

I usually spend my hour-long train ride to work each day listening to the various podcasts I subscribe to. My commute is a blessing in this regard, for it affords me the time that I simply don't have at home. "Craig Time" as my wife calls it. One of the podcasts to which I have subscribed for a while is from Fairfax Baptist Temple in Fairfax, Virginia; and consists of the sermons of their Pastor, Dr. Troy Calvert. In the time I have been listening to his podcast, I have found Pastor Calvert to be a good and sincere leader of his flock and as with other Protestant ministers I've listened to, I find that a great deal of what he teaches is in utter agreement with Catholic teaching. However, the sermon I listened to on Friday, December 23rd was decidedly NOT compatible with it. I felt the need to write Pastor Calvert on the subject of that sermon, eternal assurance of salvation.

UPDATE: Pastor Calvert has, true to his word, responded to my letter and I am currently working on a response. I will post them both when my response is complete.

Pastor Calvert,

I subscribe to FBT's Podcast on iTunes and have for a while. I was listening to your December 6th sermon entitled “Kept in His Ever Secure Hand” last Friday morning on the way to work and I felt compelled to write you.
To be upfront and honest with you, I am a Catholic and a convert at that. Regarding my salvation, I believe, as the Bible says, that I am already saved (Romans 8:24, Ephesians 2:5–8), but I’m also being saved (1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15, Philippians 2:12), and I have the hope that I will be saved (Romans 5:9–10, 1 Corinthians 3:12–15). Like the Apostle Paul, I am working out my salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), with hopeful confidence in the promises of Christ (Romans 5:2, 2 Timothy 2:11–13).
I believe that the Bible teaches that salvation goes beyond the standard question that I hear often posed in your sermons: "Are you saved?" On your website in Section J of your Declaration of Faith, you define your beliefs on Salvation as:
'We believe that salvation is of the Lord (Philippians 1:6) on the merit of the shed blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24, 26). Salvation is a free gift (Ephesians 2:8, 9; Romans 6:23) which excludes any possible merit on the basis of works (Ephesians 2:8, 9; II Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). We believe that the two essential doctrines that must be present in every lost person that wants to be saved are repentance (Acts 2:38) and faith (Acts 16:31; Romans 10:9, 10). We also believe that once a person has been saved that there is no chance of his ever going to hell and that he is eternally secure in Christ (John 3:16, 36; I John 5:11-13).'
I have found that scripture teaches that one’s final salvation depends on the state of the soul at death. As Jesus himself tells us, "He who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13; cf. 25:31–46). One who dies in the state of friendship with God (the state of grace) will go to Heaven. The one who dies in a state of enmity and rebellion against God (the state of mortal sin) will go to Hell; for they have chosen it and God will respect that choice.
Certainly, Christ died on the cross once for all and has entered into the holy place in Heaven to appear before God on our behalf. Christ has abundantly provided for our salvation, but that does not mean that there is no process by which this is applied to us as individuals. Obviously, there is, or we would have been saved and justified from all eternity, with no need to repent or have faith or anything else. We would have been born "saved," with no need to be born again. Since we were not, since it is necessary for those who hear the gospel to repent and embrace it, there is a time at which we come to be reconciled to God. And if so, then we, like Adam and Eve, can become un-reconciled with God and, like the prodigal son, need to come back and be reconciled again with God, after having left his family. In a "Once Saved, Always Saved" theology, the parable of the Prodigal Son makes no sense.
Some contend that the sinner did nothing to merit God’s grace and likewise he can do nothing to demerit grace. Unless I am misunderstanding, this is not your contention. You seem to hold that once a claim of "acceptance of Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior" is made you are saved (if you truly made said acceptance in your heart), but that if you subsequently fall back into habitual serious sin, you were NEVER saved. Am I correct in this conclusion?

Regarding the issue of whether Christians can have an assurance that they are "eternally secure" in their salvation, consider this warning the Apostle Paul gave: "See then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off" (Romans 11:22; see also Hebrews 10:26–29, 2 Peter 2:20–21).
Related to the issue of whether one can lose one’s salvation is the question of whether one can know with complete certainty that one is in a state of salvation. Even if one could not lose one’s salvation, one still might not be sure whether one ever had salvation. Similarly, even if one could be sure that one is now in a state of salvation, one might be able to fall from grace in the future. The "knowability" of salvation is a different question than the "loseability" of salvation. You called upon 1 John 5:13 as proof of eternal security: ‘These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.’" Places where Scripture speaks of our ability to know that we are abiding in grace are important and must be taken seriously. But they do not promise that we will be protected from self-deception on this matter. You have to admit that there is such a thing as a false assurance. Didn't Jesus declare: ‘Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord" shall enter the kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 7:21)?"
In my discussions with some Fundamentalist Christians they have tended to portray Catholics as if they must every moment be in terror of losing their salvation since Catholics recognize that it is possible to lose salvation through mortal sin. They then hold out the idea that, rather than living every moment in terror, they can have a calm, assured knowledge that they will, in fact, be saved, and that nothing will ever be able to change this fact. But this portrayal is in error. Catholics do not live lives of mortal terror concerning salvation. It is true we believe that salvation can be lost through mortal sin (1 John 5:16-17 "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal."), but such sins are by nature grave ones, and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to slip into committing on the spur of the moment, without deliberate thought and consent. Neither does the Catholic Church teach that one cannot have an assurance of salvation. This is true both of present and future salvation.
One can be confident of one’s present salvation. This is one of the chief reasons why God gave us the sacraments—to provide visible assurances that he is invisibly providing us with his grace. And one can be confident that one has not thrown away that grace by simply examining one’s life and seeing whether one has committed mortal sin. Indeed, the tests that John sets forth in his first epistle to help us know whether we are abiding in grace are, in essence, tests of whether we are dwelling in grave sin. For example, "By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother" (1 John 3:10), "If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20), "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).
Likewise, by looking at the course of one’s life in grace and the resolution of one’s heart to keep following God, one can also have an assurance of future salvation. It is this Paul speaks of when he writes to the Philippians and says, "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). This is not a promise for all Christians, or even necessarily all in the church at Philippi, but it is a confidence that the Philippian Christians in general would make it. The basis of this is their spiritual performance to date, and Paul feels a need to explain to them that there is a basis for his confidence in them. Thus he says, immediately, "It is right for me to feel thus about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel" (1:7). The fact that the Philippians performed spiritually by assisting Paul in his imprisonment and ministry showed that their hearts were with God and that it could be expected that they, at least in general, would persevere and remain with God.
There are many saintly men and women who have long lived the Christian life and whose characters are marked with profound spiritual joy and peace. Such individuals can look forward with confidence to their reception in Heaven.
Such an individual was Paul, writing at the end of his life, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day" (2 Timothy 4:7-8). But earlier in life, even Paul did not claim an infallible assurance, either of his present justification or of his remaining in grace in the future. Concerning his present state, he wrote, "I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby justified [Greek., dedikaiomai]. It is the Lord who judges me" (1 Corinthians 4:4). Concerning his remaining life, Paul was frank in admitting that even he could fall away: "I pummel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27). Of course, for a spiritual giant such as Paul, it would be quite unexpected and out of character for him to fall from God’s grace. Nevertheless, he points out that, however much confidence in his own salvation he may be warranted in feeling, even he cannot be infallibly sure either of his own present state or of his future course.
The same is true of us. We can, if our lives display a pattern of perseverance and spiritual fruit, have not only a confidence in our present state of grace but also of our future perseverance with God. Yet we cannot have an infallible certitude of our own salvation, as many Protestants will admit. There is the possibility of self-deception (cf. Matthew 7:22-23). As Jeremiah expressed it, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). There is also the possibility of falling from grace through mortal sin, and even of falling away from the faith entirely, for as Jesus told us, there are those who "believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away" (Luke 8:13). It is in the light of these warnings and admonitions that we must understand Scripture’s positive statements concerning our ability to know and have confidence in our salvation. Assurance we may have; infallible certitude we may not.
For example, Philippians 2:12 says, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." This is not the language of self-confident eternal assurance. Our salvation is something that remains to be worked out with the grace of God.
In the Love of Christ,

Craig Pryor

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