Southern Baptists have historically held to the doctrine of eternal security, which in essence states that once a person is saved, they are always saved. Salvation should be understood as the redemption offered freely to all people who repent of their sins against God, and who accept Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, as Lord and Savior, who by His own blood obtained redemption for those who place their trust in Him. The doctrine of Eternal Security is not a universally held doctrine, and there are many other denominations that do not hold it such as Methodists and Pentecostals. The goal of this paper is to explore the exegetical, theological, philosophical foundations of this doctrine in order to determine if it is built on solid rock, or shifting sands.
The Problem of Apostasy
I. Howard Marshall wrote an article titled, “The Problem of Apostasy in New Testament Theology,” in which he discusses apostasy, or falling away from faith in Christ, from an exegetical point of view that seeks to see what the Scripture actually has to say. Marshall, a self-described Methodist, objects to the doctrine of eternal security on the grounds that there are indeed examples within the New Testament that show people who at, one point or the other, believed in Christ, but changed their mind and fell away. Marshall rejects the Calvinist interpretations of these passages because “we find that perseverance depends on a divine determinism that overrules what I myself apparently do in freedom”, but he also includes that he believes “in the influence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to transform our stubborn, sinful wills”.
Examining the New Testament
While examining some of the pertinent New Testament texts, it should be noted that the action of “following”, or “believing in” Christ is not what saves a person, but is actually a result of one’s salvation. The majority of the examples of apostasy in the New Testament were cases where people who superficially followed, or believed in Christ, but did not place their trust in Him. A prime example of this is Satan and his demons. James wrote in, James 2:19 “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” From this passage it is clear that possessing proper knowledge of Christ, or holding true beliefs about Christ is good and necessary, but it is not what saves a person from their sins and justifies them before God.
All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and no one is good but God. A person’s transgressions, or sins, against God is what separates an unsaved person from God. Because of this, God, willingly and freely sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to be a perfect, sinless sacrifice that would remove the effects of sin, that is, guilt and condemnation, from the world. Augustine argued in times past, that if the whole world was condemned for the sin of a man who took a piece of fruit off a tree, it could also be said that the whole world would be saved by another man being put back onto a tree. Furthermore, it must be noted that God Himself is the author of justification which can be seen by what the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:33, “It is God that justifies”. The Southern Baptist theologian, James P. Boyce, understood justification as a judicial act of God, because God “is the lawgiver and the judge, so must he also be the justifier”. This is seen in Galatians 4:4-5, when Paul wrote, “God sent His Son, born of a woman, under the Law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons”.
Many from the Calvinist persuasion base their doctrine of eternal security in light of the doctrine of election, which is attested in Ephesians 1:4, where Paul was inspired to write, “He [God] choose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him”. Marshall points to a philosophical problem with using the doctrine of election as a justification for the doctrine of eternal security because “this view presents God as a prisoner of his own predestining purpose”. The doctrine of election has been understood as God electing, or choosing, who will be saved and who will not before the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:5, Paul was inspired to write that God “predestined us for adoption as His sons through Jesus Christ”. With that said, Steve Lemke of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has offered some key insights towards the idea that humans do have meaningful and significant freedom of choice, while maintaining a high view of God’s sovereignty.
Lemke offers a critique of casual determinism, or the idea that all of one’s actions are a result of antecedent events prior to one committing an action. Lemke operates from a “soft libertarian” position, which assumes that a person has the ability to do otherwise in any given decision. Lemke does not hold to a “hard libertarian” position which would be to suggest that a person has the ability to determine events, or actions entirely on their own without external influence. G. W. Leibniz explained the relationship between a person’s free-will, and the effects of external influences acting upon a person by saying that these influences “incline the will without necessitating it”. The idea of having a free will to choose, while simultaneously being acted upon by external influences, are in line with the work of the Holy Spirit as described by Christ in John 16:5-15. Christ declared that the Holy Spirit would “convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgement….He will guide you to all truth for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears, He will speak”.
Marshall made the statement: “Certainly I cannot look at my faith at this moment and say, ‘Yes, so far my faith has lasted, withstood temptation and brought forth fruit, and therefore I can be confident of my future salvation,’ for I do not know what tomorrow will bring”. The lack of assurance within this statement is unfortunate because it seems that Marshall is seeking to ground his faith in life experience or a mood that he feels at the present moment to give him assurance that he is still saved. The Scripture never teaches to find assurance within oneself, but instead to measure oneself against the plumb-line of Scripture. The Apostle Peter was inspired to write that one should “be even more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble”. To be sure of one’s salvation, one could start by asking questions like, “Do I have real conviction for my sins?”, “Do I love the Law of God?”, “Do I find joy in self-sacrificial service to God?”.
An Exegetical Consideration
The book of Hebrews contains several warnings against falling away from the faith and much can be learned from analyzing them. Hebrews 10:26-31 specifically warns against people who “sin willfully after we have received knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sin”. In essence, this passage is speaking of those who have knowledge of the truth of Christ, yet continue in sin. The Jewish-Christians that would have first read this text would have understood the Old Testament teaching in Numbers 15:22-31, that differentiated between unintentional sin and apostasy. The sin mentioned in this passage should be understood as willful, or high-handed sin, not inadvertent sin. The author also indicates later of the present tense nature of this sin, which would mean, “to persist in sin”. Understanding this passage in light of 1 John 2:19 should lead the reader to understand that those who have knowledge of Christ, possibly are a member of a Baptist church somewhere, but persist in sin, were never really saved from the start.
For the fullness of this passage to be seen, it should be noted that the letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians that were facing immense pressure to reject Christ and go back to their previously held Jewish traditions and customs. This is seen with the author’s strong polemics against Christians still making sacrifices at the temple for their sins despite the fact the perfect sacrifice had already been made by Christ. The author of this epistle saw the coming apostasy, or watering down of the Christian traditions in order to make themselves more like their unregenerate Jewish brothers.
Justification: A Judicial Act of God
To fully understand the security of a regenerate believer’s salvation, one must understand first that “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and not of yourselves; it is a gift from God, not of works”. Secondly, one must see the distinction between the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, and the work of God the Father in justification. The change in nature, which causes the change towards Christian character, is biblically understood to be regeneration, which is essentially different from justification in function, and in cause. An examination of Romans 8:33-34, will show that justification is presented as the opposite of condemnation, not of sinfulness. Condemnation is never spoken of as the infusion of a corrupted nature, and justification is not the infusion of a holy nature. Instead, justification is understood as the judicial act of God in which He declares a regenerate believer in Christ as righteous. By His grace, God is debiting righteousness to the sinner’s account. Throughout Scripture, the Justified in Christ are declared free from sin but are still represented as struggling with sin not only from external temptations but from within.
Kept by His Righteousness
Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides commentary on Article V of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 writing, “Eternal security is grounded within our union with Christ. God’s acceptance of us ‘in Christ”. Furthermore, a person who has been redeemed by Christ has been crucified, and resurrected with Christ. Jude was inspired to write one of the greatest doxologies found in the New Testament saying, “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His Glory with exceeding joy, to God our savior who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now, and forever”. If a Christian could lose himself, he would have already done it, but by the grace and power of God, the Christian is kept from stumbling so that Christ may take joy in presenting his sheep before the Himself in heaven. If a person is unable to work themselves into salvation, it seems only right that they cannot likewise work themselves out of it. If a person places their true, genuine faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, they are granted eternal life. If they then can lose their salvation, it would appear that eternal life is not eternal after all.
With that being said, Akin stresses the importance of the understanding that one’s salvation is secure is not a license to commit sin. The apostle Paul emphatically declared in Romans 6:1-2, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? Certainly not!” Paul also reminded the church in Corinth that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, all things have become new”. After a person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and justified by God the Father, he becomes a new person who no longer desires after the things of the flesh in the way that he did before. The apostle John wrote his first epistle in order to exhort fellow believers to not sin, but also to remind them that if they do sin, they have an advocate before the Father- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. The apostle John goes one’s step further to say that, “if anyone says ‘I know Him’, but does not keep His commandments, he is a liar, and the truth is not in Him”.
The apostle John made clear that if a person apostatizes, then they were never really saved. The apostle John wrote in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” The sheep will be separated from the goats, and the wheat from the tares. The only conceivable way that a truly regenerate and justified person could lose their salvation is if they had the power to take the “old man” that was crucified with Christ, and raise him from the dead. This would be impossible because the regenerate person never had the power or the ability to save himself in the first place. All those who persevere to the end are most certainly saved.
Kelly, Land, Mohler, The Baptist Faith, and Message. (Nashville, TN: Lifeway Publishers), 2007, 65
I. Howard Marshall, “The Problem of Apostasy in New Testament Theology”. Perspectives in religious Studies, 68
Romans 3:23, Mark 10:18
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology. 3d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker), 2013, 763
David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic), 2016, 18
James P. Boyce, Abstract of Theology. 395
Steve Lemke. “Agent Causation, or How to Be a Soft Libertarian,” a paper presented at the Southwest Regional
Evangelical Theological Society, available online at https://www.nobts.edu/faculty/itor/LemkeSW-files/libertarian%20agent%20causation.pdf
G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy, 390.
Robert B. Selph, Southern Baptists and the Doctrine of Election. (Harrisburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications) 1991,
2 Peter 1:10
Edgar V. Mcknight, Hebrews James. (Macon, GA: Smyth& Hewly’s Publishing) 2016, 243
Randall C. Gleason, “The Eschatology of the Warning in Hebrews 10:26-31”. Tyndale Bulletin, 53.1, 99
McKnight et al., Hebrew-James. 247
James P. Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology. 396
Danny L. Akin, “God’s Purpose of Grace”, found within, Douglas K. Blount, and Wooddell ed., Baptist Faith and Message: Critical Issues within Americas Largest Protestant Denomination. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield), 2007, 50
Jude 24-25 NKJV
2 Corinthians 5:17
1 John 2:1-3