by Steve Horn, pastor
FBC, Lafayette, La.
Dr. Horn has served in various denominational roles,
including president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
One afternoon a few years ago, a couple who lived down the street from the church came to see me. The woman pulled out a copy of Charles Stanley’s Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? and asked, “Do you believe what’s in this book?” I confessed that I had not read it but was reasonably sure that I believed what was in it. The couple went on to tell me that they had bought the book simply because of the title. The woman had read the whole thing in one evening, and her husband had read enough of it the next morning to get the essential idea. Seeing on the book jacket that Stanley was a Baptist, they decided to go to the nearest Baptist church to get more details. Coming from a religious tradition that had taught them that it was impossible, even perhaps sinful and certainly arrogant, to claim assurance of salvation, this couple was eager to know the peace and joy that accompanies eternal security.
The doctrine of the eternal security of the believer is of great significance for Southern Baptists and is central to the way we do the work of evangelism and discipleship. One might suppose that all Southern Baptists agree on this matter and that, therefore, this is not one of the contested doctrines in the current Calvinist debate. Indeed, the idea of eternal security is stated unequivocally in Article 5 of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM).
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
The language of Article 12 of the Abstract of Principles is quite similar. The issues of greatest concern in both of these documents are the genuineness of conversion, the impossibility of apostasy, and the inevitability of some continued sin in the life of the genuine believer. Any Southern Baptist confession seeking to aver salvation by faith through grace alone must also have this kind of strong statement concerning eternal security. Millard Erickson gets to the crux of this issue. On one hand, a theology that does not affirm eternal security leads to anxiety about one’s spiritual condition. On the other, a view of eternal security that does not point to genuine conversion leads to “indifference to the moral and spiritual demand of the gospel.”
Calvinists and Traditionalists agree about the reality of eternal security, but this does not mean that there are no serious issues to unravel in the discussion. First, what is the basis of assurance? Second, can one affirm perseverance without necessarily committing himself to all of the other “doctrines of grace”? Third, how does each perspective deal with the difficult passages which seem to hold to some form of apostasy? Fourth, can the wrong view of assurance lead to “false conversions”?
What is the Basis of Assurance?
Even though the differences between the Abstract, which is more Calvinistic, and the BFM appear to be slight, they illustrate a challenging dynamic even within this supposedly uncontested doctrine. The BFM begins with the declaration, “All true believers endure to the end,” which inserts the language of the New Hampshire Confession’s article on perseverance before the first sentence of the Abstract. The BFM, therefore, begins the discussion of perseverance with an emphasis on belief, which is muted in the Abstract. The clear implication is that the BFM seeks to make clear that believing is the basis for security. Additionally, the BFM makes specific that it is “believers” who are the subject of God’s preserving power. The direction of Southern Baptist soteriology as it moved into the twentieth century was toward an emphasis on the centrality of belief as the basis for assurance, buttressed by the reality of sanctification.
While most Southern Baptists tend to use “perseverance of the saints” and “eternal security” interchangeably, nuances in the terminology also reveal the differences in the bases of assurance. The Calvinist view of “perseverance of the saints” places the emphasis of assurance on the evidence of the believer’s activity rather than the believer’s faith in the provision of Christ. The danger, of course, is that such thinking can slide inadvertently into a works-oriented basis for security. Consider this example from the popular and prolific John Piper: “It’s true that Paul believed in the eternal security of the elect (‘Those whom [God] justified he also glorified’ [Rom 8:30]). But the only people who are eternally secure are those who ‘make their calling and election sure’ by fighting the good fight of faith and laying hold on eternal life. Such reasoning complicates the issue of eternal security and potentially leads to more doubt than assurance by making the works of obedience the basis of eternal security rather than promises of Christ that belong to the believer by faith. There is, to be sure, a tension in Scripture due to its exhortative nature.
Ken Keathley, however, manages the tension between faith and works in this way: “Good works and the evidences of God’s grace do not provide assurance. They provide warrant to assurance but not assurance itself.” Therefore, to avoid confusion about what is meant about our view of assurance, it may be better to speak of “security of the believer,” rather than “perseverance of the saints.” Security of the believer emphasizes a present state-of-being based on faith that persists into the future rather than the continual manifestation of certain actions in the future. Eternal security is the companion of salvation by grace. One of the reasons that Baptists have overwhelmingly believed in a doctrine of eternal security is the strong belief in salvation by grace. Belief in the work of Christ for salvation results in the assurance of salvation. As Keathley notes, “Assurance of salvation must be based on Jesus Christ and His work for us—nothing more and nothing less.
Can Someone Affirm Eternal Security
Without Affirming All Five Points of the TULIP?
Eternal security revolves around two significant questions. First, can one know with certainty that he is saved? Second, can the one who knows with certainty today that he is saved trust that he will never fall away permanently? Southern Baptists of all stripes want to answer with a resounding “yes” to both questions. Either individuals have the promise of eternal security or they do not. The discussion is often framed as if there are only two options—the Calvinist position that says “yes” and the Arminian position that says “no.”
If Calvinism is the only option for a strong view of eternal security, then the real possibilities for dialogue among Southern Baptists will be at impasse. In this arrangement, it is supposed that the non-Calvinist cannot affirm assurance of salvation because agnosticism on the issue of assurance is fundamental to Arminianism. Though he certainly cannot speak for every Calvinist, the language of Erwin Lutzer is the sort of tone that creates potential for heated and unhelpful debate. Lutzer says, “Whether or not you believe in eternal security depends on where you stand on the free-will controversy...The free will that accepts Christ is the same free will that can reject him.”
Tom Ascol follows Lutzer at this point. In a blog post criticizing the Tradtional Statement, Ascol writes:…*
Charles Stanley, Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990). Stanley tells the story of how he came to reject the erroneous view of apostasy that he had learned in a Pentecostal Holiness church.
See as an example the Roman Catholic View as presented in Kenneth D. Keathley, “Perseverance and Assurance of the Saints,” in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, ed. Da- vid L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 168.
For example, the 2013 document Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension: A Statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee does not include any reference to the understanding of eternal security in the list of tensions.
Noticeably absent from both is the language of the Westminster Confession, XVII, 2, which states, “This perseverance of the saints depends not upon their own free will, but upon the immutability of the decree of election ...”
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 997.
John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 46.
Keathley, “Perseverance and Assurance of the Saints,” 186.
Keathley has succinctly presented the issues at hand. See “Perseverance and Assurance” in Whosoever Will and “The Word of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Aca- demic, 2007), 760–1.
Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 985–7. This criticism notwithstanding, Erickson does a superb job of succinctly describing the two opposing views, supplying the important Scriptural texts that support each view and drawing the conclusion that the majority of Southern Baptists will affirm the certainty of eternal security.
Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines that Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines that Separate Christians (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 225.
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SBCToday reprinted with permission the above excerpt.