Interchange: ‘Can Christians fall away?’

In Briefings #299 and #300 we published a two-part series on the doctrine of assurance (‘Safe in the shadow of the LORD’). The first article in the series, ‘Can Christians fall away?’ written by Andrew Heard, attracted more feedback than we could publish in the print version of The Briefing. Much of the feedback was helpful to the discussion so we’ve included all of it below, in no particular order other than the date on which it was received.

Click on the link to jump to the feedback from:

David McKay (1)

Graham Glazebrook (published in Briefing #301)

Daniel Garratt

Sandy Grant (published in Briefing #301)

Harold Hinton

Andrew Heard (published in Briefing #301)

Paul Nankivell

Kevin Rogers

David Rogers-Smith

David McKay (2)

Ted Ansell

Peter Quinn

19 August 2003

Andrew Heard’s
article ‘Can Christians Fall Away?’ was very well written, and was a worthy attempt to balance diverse strands of Scriptural teaching. I wonder about his suggestion that Christ could have sinned, though.

David McKay
Bathurst, NSW

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20 August 2003

I’m afraid I found this article a little ambiguous. Andrew wisely reminds us of some of the Bible passages which contain the great promises of God’s commitment to keep his people, and then ‘pulls the rug out from under them’ by stating that the ‘warning passages’ he also refers to render it possible for a genuine Christian to fall away. This clearly reduces the power of those promises of God previously quoted, by qualifying them. His suggestion seems to be that these passages are to be read as equal but opposite, and that we have to reconcile them by holding them in some kind of mysterious tension.

It seems to me that the passages which assert God’s promises to keep his people are so clear and powerful that surely they must stand alone and mean what they say without any qualification. The warning passages on the other hand cannot all claim the same clarity. For example, it is arguable whether those referred to in Hebrews 6:4-6 were actually born again Christians. Are born again Christians described in similar terms anywhere else in the New Testament? If Andrew is correct then we have to qualify what Jesus clearly and powerfully states in John 10:27-29:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (ESV)

Twice Jesus says, “no one will snatch them …”. Surely this categorical statement made by Jesus himself demands to be treated as singularly authoritative without any qualification at all.

With this in mind may I suggest that the warning passages do not mean that “… it is truly possible for a genuinely converted, regenerate Christian to fall away”, as Andrew states, but rather, their presence in the New Testament is further confirmation of the fact, which is clearly taught elsewhere, that there are people who belong to the visible church and who give every appearance of being converted regenerate Christians, but in fact are not. And it is they, and only they who will fall away! Thus the warning passages are there not to undermine the final assurance of genuine Christians by suggesting that they may fall and be ultimately lost, but to test the ongoing profession of those who claim to be Christians, real or otherwise.

… Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom 6:1-2, ESV, emphasis mine)

Graham Glazebrook
Griffith, NSW

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20 August 2003

Thank you for your recent article on whether Christians can fall away. I would like to comment briefly on the article. I feel that the author has diluted God’s sovereignty in his conclusion that we have to respond to the Word (albeit through the empowering of the Holy Spirit), as it, in a very small way, seems to make our salvation dependent on us. I think that the conclusion also dilutes the absolute security we have in Christ. No matter what we do, the Bible tells us (and as the author pointed out), we are safe in his hands. Even if we let go, he will hang on—because our salvation depends on his grace, not on our performance. Christianity is not performance-based.

But that then begs the question: how do we settle the issue? I think it is helpful to think about this issue in the same way as predestination (as indeed, the two are tied together). I propose that the passages that speak of our assurance are utterly true—from God’s point of view. He knows the ones that he has chosen, and they will never fall away, despite anything they may or may not do. God will hold those he has chosen, no matter what they may or may not do. He does keep us against our will, as our very will is in direct opposition to him!

But what then about the passages which warn us about falling away? As the author very helpfully pointed out, these are meaningless if we cannot actually fall away! What then can they mean? I believe it is an issue of whose point of view we are looking from. Whereas God knows those whom he has chosen and has saved—we don’t! So, from our point of view, the only way we can know whether we are saved or not is by “working out our faith with fear and trembling”. We can only know by our fruit if we are saved or not.

Therefore: if I want to know whether I can fall away the answer is: “Never—if I am truly saved.” How do I know if I am truly saved? Well, by doing what the author exhorts us to do—to faithfully put the Word of the Gospel into practice every day, and keep doing that until we die!

And if we don’t? Well, then we are on slippery ground, and have no assurance for our faith. If we wilfully disobey the Word, and make a mockery of the Cross by the way that we live, the evidence that we are saved is very slim indeed. Yes, we may possibly still be saved—we do not know God’s plans or purposes—but from our point of view, we must make our salvation sure by obeying the Word, living with Jesus as King over every area of our lives.

So, if we are hungry for the Word, and struggling to obey Christ (however successful we may or may not be), we can have absolute assurance that we are held by him, and that one day we will see him face to face. The warning passages help us by ensuring that we stay on that path, and so we don’t lose the blessed assurance of the future hope that we have, because our present-day life bears witness to that fact.

Daniel Garratt
Tooting, London, UK

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26 August 2003

Thanks to Andrew Heard for his recent article, ‘Can Christians Fall Away?’ I agree that the ‘once a Christian/always a Christian’ slogan is simplistic, misleading and can encourage false assurance. I also agree with his key point that the warning passages of Scripture are the means by which the Spirit achieves his end of keeping believers safe.

However I was concerned by his statement that “these warnings must therefore mean it is truly possible for a genuinely regenerate Christian to fall away”. We must be clear that in talking about a ‘Christian’ and the ‘regenerate’, we are not necessarily talking about two identical categories.

‘Christian’ is not a term the New Testament develops much (only Acts 11:26, 26:28 and 1 Pet 4:16). But in common use, it is applied to those who profess faith in Christ and belong to the visible church. In this sense, Christians as professing believers can fall away. The parable of the sower (Mark 4) warns of the danger of shallow faith. Jesus’ warning in Matthew 7:21-23 to those who claim to know him but fail to do what he says indicates that such faith was never saving faith in the first place, as he says he never knew them.

However the term ‘regenerate’ is applied to those to whom God has given the new birth spoken of, for example in John 1:12-13, 3:3-8, Titus 3:4-7 and 1 Peter 1:3-5. John the Apostle is strong in insisting that those who are born again will be kept safe by God and cannot fall away. For example, note these strong statements:

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:9)

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. (1 John 5:4a)

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God [i.e. Jesus] protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. (1 John 5:18)

Conversely, John says that those who “went out from us … were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19).

In relation to the famous warning of Hebrews 6:4-6, Wayne Grudem has mounted a strong case (The Grace of God: The Bondage of the Will, chapter 6, volume 1) that all terms used of people there (including ‘enlightened’) can be used not just of genuinely saved believers, but also of people who had heard the gospel but were not yet true believers, although they had enjoyed some of the blessings of the Spirit’s work in the church. That is, those being warned are in a position analogous to the soils in the parable, well before the harvest time, while the seeds are in early stages of growth and it is not obvious what the soil has been like.

Because of insufficient care in defining terms, Andrew may have inadvertently undermined the assurance that rightly belongs to the truly regenerate (i.e. those who have a living faith in Christ). Yes, professing believers (even convincing looking ones) can fall away. But God will ensure that his elect persevere, by the power of the same Holy Spirit who regenerated them, using, as Andrew rightly demonstrated, the warnings of Scripture as a primary means for this.

Sandy Grant
Kurrajong, NSW

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27 August 2003

I refer to the article in the August edition of The Briefing titled ‘Can Christians Fall Away?’ The writer says, “These warnings must therefore mean it is truly possible for a genuinely converted, regenerate person to fall away”. Later in the article we read, “We have two different statements: one assuring Christians that God will keep them to the end, and one warning Christians of the dangers of falling away”. This latter comment is based on Hebrews 6:4-6.

The truth of the matter is that it is impossible for a Christian to fall away; consequently, it is wrong to interpret this passage as a warning to Christians. There are warnings that Christians can fall into sin, but there are no warnings against falling away. The concept of such a warning to Christians is meaningless, because it would be a warning about something which could not happen. The passage is addressed to those who have a knowledge of saving faith, but who fail to avail of it. There are those who say on the one hand that Christians can have assurance, and on the other hand that they can fall away. It is (so they say) to be regarded as a ‘tension’ between two truths. Andrew Heard says this: he uses the word ‘tension’ in what is a false premise, as follows: “Could Jesus have sinned? Surely the fact that he suffered when he was tempted is evidence that he must have been able to sin.” This is not true.

Berkhof rightly states: “We ascribe to Christ not only natural, but also moral, integrity or moral perfection, that is sinlessness. This means not only that Christ could avoid sinning (potuit non peccare), and did actually avoid it, but also that it was impossible for Him to sin (non potuit peccare) because of the essential bond between the human and the divine natures.”1 See also T.C. Hammond: “We must … insist that our Lord was subject to real temptation, and yet it was not in the power of the temptation to seduce his perfect nature. The older theologians describe our Lord’s resistance to temptation by posse non peccare (‘power not to sin’), and NOT non posse peccare (‘no power to sin’).”2

Having, I trust, invalidated the concept of a ‘tension’ in respect of whether or not a Christian can fall away, the question arises: “Is it true or is it not?” To believe it is true would be contrary to Article 17, viz. “… and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity”. There are no ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’ here!

Highly respected evangelical commentators on Hebrews 6:4-6 state the position quite clearly:

The persons here referred to are not mere nominal professors—they have nothing to fall away from but an empty name; neither are they backsliding Christians. They are men who have really had their minds and affections to a very considerable degree exercised about, and interested in Christianity, but who, never having been ‘renewed in the spirit of the mind’, when exposed to temptation of a particular kind, make complete ‘shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience’.3

They may have tasted of the powers of the world to come; they may have been under strong impressions concerning heaven, and dread of going to hell. These lengths hypocrites may go, and, after all, turn apostates. Now hence observe, (i) These great things are spoken here of those who may fall away; yet it is not here said of them that they were truly converted, or that they were justified; there is more in true saving grace than in all that is here said of apostates. (ii) This therefore is no proof of the final apostasy of true saints. These indeed may fall frequently and foully, but yet they will not (fall) totally nor finally from God; the purpose and the power of god, the purchase and the prayer of Christ, the promise of the gospel, the everlasting covenant that God has made with them, ordered in all things and sure, the indwelling of the spirit, and the immortal seed of the word, these are their security. But the tree that has not these roots will not stand.4

The elect are also beyond the danger of falling away; for the Father who gave them to be preserved by Christ his Son is greater than all, and Christ promises to watch over them all so that none may perish.5

From Spurgeon’s sermon on the same passage:

1. First, then, we answer the question, who are the people here spoken of? If you read Dr Gill, Dr Owen, and almost all the Calvinistic writers, they all of them assert that these persons are not Christians. They say that enough is said here to represent a man who is a Christian externally, but not enough to give the portrait of a true believer.

If you would like to have a copy of any of these quotations in their entirety, I shall be pleased to supply them.

I hope that you will agree that the article under consideration could well do harm to sensitive hearts who have a simple faith in what Christ has done for them, and think that they are safe. For them to read this article may undermine their confidence in their Saviour.

I hope that you will see fit to publish a ‘de-Briefing’.

Rev. Harold Hinton
Fairfield, NSW

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3 September 2003

Thanks for the comments and an opportunity to reply.

I think the responses may have missed a subtlety in my article. I did not say regenerate, born again Christians will fall away, only that they can.

I am thoroughly convinced that the power of God will hold true Christians to the end. As has been pointed out, the promises of Christ on this allow no qualification (and I don’t wish to make any).

However, my concern is to hold both the assurance passages and the warning passages with equal fervour. I think too many allow their systematic theology to so dominate that clear warnings are watered down to mean far less than they obviously mean. (Hebrews 6 ends up meaning nothing more than that half-baked Christians can fall away from being half-baked, and if they do they will never be brought back to being half-baked. One wonders why he is so concerned about the half-baked. And how does this warning to the half-baked help genuine Christians? Except perhaps that if God takes so seriously the half-baked losing their half-bakedness what would he do to the genuine believer?)

It may help if I state my point in one sentence. I believe born again Christians can fall away, but I am convinced God won’t let them, by making them take heed to the warnings. Although this statement appears contradictory, I think it not only does best justice to the full revelation given us in the New Testament, but also reflects the experience of Christ during his earthly life. The fact that Christ suffered when he was tempted surely meant that he could have fallen into sin. But God’s promises concerning his victory must have meant he wasn’t going to. It may be difficult to hold together but I cannot see how we can avoid this tension.

Just as Jesus lived knowing each temptation was make or break, born again Christians must live knowing that they cannot take their genuine repentance and faith for granted.

If this understanding is right, then there is no need to resort to the intricacies of exegesis that Wayne Grudem, and others, must resort to in order to avoid a plain reading of Scripture. The writer of Hebrews is speaking to those he believed to be born again Christians and warning them of the real possibility of falling away. Significantly, in 2:1, he includes himself in the warning. He is aware in his own life of the danger of genuine Christians drifting. It is my conviction that even if the author knew that all of his audience were born again Christians he would still issue exactly the same warnings because this is the means by which God keeps his people.

Now, I hasten to say again, I don’t believe this means genuine Christians will fall away. They won’t. My point is rather that they won’t fall away because genuine Christians will recognise the warnings as real warnings to genuine Christians and take heed of them.

Andrew Heard
Central Coast, NSW

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4 September 2003

Just a delayed response to Mr Heard’s ‘Can Christians Fall Away’ article (#299).

Firstly, the warning in 1 Corinthians 15 includes verse 2, “unless you believed in vain.”

Secondly, in Hebrews 6:9 (amongst the warnings of falling away), the writer hopes of better things—things pertaining to salvation.

If we consider that, coupled with a reminder of the parable of the sower and the oft-forgotten doctrine of self-examination, we see that the question is not ‘can Christians fall away?’ but ‘are we Christian at all?’

Paul Nankivell
Blackwood, SA

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7 September 2003

Congratulations on the quality of some of your articles. I also thought that ‘Can Christians fall away?’ was a pretty good treatment of the subject. It gave full weight to both types of biblical passages regarding preservation and falling away, rather than favouring one argument and explaining the others away.

Kevin Rogers
Modbury, SA

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9 October 2003

In his article
‘Can Christians fall away?’ (The Briefing, Issue #299, August 2003), Andrew Heard argues for the possibility of Christians falling away. I must admit to being somewhat surprised by the articulation of this view in a feature article in The Briefing. I wish to offer the following comments on his argument:

  1. I was struck by how Andrew inadvertently argued against his own thesis. This may be seen in the very form of the question he poses in the article’s opening paragraph: ‘Is it possible for Christians—that is, genuinely converted, regenerate, Spirit-baptized Christians—to fall away?’ Such a question begs another question: ‘How is it possible for someone who possesses the life of the age to come and the Spirit of that age, to forfeit that life and Spirit?’ In correcting an arrogant self-perception among some in the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul argues that just as they were once controlled and constrained by the demonic (1 Cor 12:2; cf. 10:20), so every Christian is controlled and constrained by the Spirit of God (1 Cor 12:3). This is evidenced by the inability of Christians to curse Jesus, and the confession that Jesus is Lord. Andrew subsequently refers to that same constraining ministry of the Spirit as the way that God keeps his people (pp. 7-8). It must then be asked, ‘where is the tension that Andrew states is bound up with the question of the Christian’s security?’ This leads to my second comment.
  2. Andrew, and not the New Testament, has created the tension. He refers to certain New Testament passages that ‘warn of the dangers of falling away’ (p. 6); but the notion of the possibility of Christians falling away has not been arrived at inductively but deductively. It is certainly not stated in any of the passages cited. It is a deduction based on the logic that if such a possibility didn’t exist, the warnings are idle threats. However, this reasoning is hypothetical, involving hypothetical questions not addressed by the passages or the books that contain them. For example, the books of Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, Colossians, and 2 Timothy (cited by Andrew), are all occasioned by Christians who are threatened by heresy (Col; 2 Tim), an erosion of confidence in the sufficiency of Christ’s person and work (Heb), and by a secular perception of the gospel (1 Cor). In such circumstances Christians need teaching on the need to persevere in faith in Christ crucified and risen, and they need warning of the consequences of failing to persevere. It is here that the force of such teaching lies, in the truths plainly stated, not in whether or not a Christian ever would experience those dire consequences. Andrew is right. God does not make idle threats. More importantly, God does not lie. These are real warnings to real Christians. If they absolutely withdraw from Christ they are absolutely lost. But why must that imply that a real Christian ever will? A sign erected on the edge of a sheer cliff warns people that if they walk beyond it they will fall to their death. Right-minded people simply don’t do it. Is the warning a true statement? Yes. Is it possible for right-minded people to ignore it to their death? Not if right-minded people don’t ignore it. Does the second truth cancel out the first? No. It doesn’t even enter their minds at that point. They step back and live! Similarly, the dire warnings in the book of Hebrews would have arrested the backsliding of the book’s original recipients. Why? Because that is what such warnings achieve for real Christians. They are an indispensable means God uses to keep his own. Moreover, if the force of the warnings lies in the possibility of Christians not heeding them, the writer significantly diminishes that force when he affirms his confidence in them persevering (Heb 6:9; 10:39), the certainty of their glorification/perfection (eg. Heb 2:10; 7:25; 10:14), and stresses the ability of Jesus their faithful High Priest to help them when tested (Heb 2:17-18; 4:14-16). Andrew’s is an unwarranted deduction that creates an unnecessary tension with not only the book of Hebrews, but the rest of the Bible’s consistent, confident affirmation of the eternal security of God’s people. I am arguing for the truth, ‘once a Christian, always a Christian’, but not simplistically. The New Testament warnings must be heeded—Christians must persevere; and they will be heeded—that is their function. Therefore we do not ‘assure people there is no need to take heed of the signs because there’s a fence out there on the edge that will ensure we can’t ever fall’ (p. 8). The signs function as the fence and therefore must and will be heeded!
  3. In support of his position, Andrew argues for an identical tension in Jesus’ life: he could have sinned and yet God’s purposes in Christ meant he wasn’t going to (p. 7). Jesus’ suffering in temptation is appealed to as evidence of his ability to sin. But where is the correspondence with the question of the Christian’s security? If our suffering in temptation is evidence of the possibility of our falling away, Andrew has not adduced this in support of his argument. Further, Jesus’ great suffering in temptation is evidence not of the possibility of sinning, but of the strength of the One tempted. Only the sinless can experience the full power of temptation (Heb 4:15). Ordinary humans yield to temptation prematurely. He wasn’t going to sin, because of God’s purposes; but also because of his person. Again, there is no tension.

If true, Andrew’s thesis would have further eroded the already diminished confidence of the original recipients of Hebrews; and I write because I fear that it will do the same for Christian readers of his article.

David Rogers-Smith
Croydon, NSW

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13 October 2003

I greatly appreciated Andrew Heard’s original article and his follow up on the subject of falling away and Christian assurance. I think that the point of view he developed is the only satisfactory one, because it makes sense both of the passages which warn us about falling away, and of those that say God will keep us safe.

The best book on the subject that I have come across is The Race Set Before Us by Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday. IVP has two excerpts from the book available online at which readers might like to download to get an idea of what this book has to offer.

Thank you for publishing Andrew’s helpful article.

David McKay
Bathurst, NSW

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16 November 2003

My congratulations to Andrew Heard on his valiant attempt to synthesise the scriptural doctrines of God’s sovereignty and the free will of man. His treatment of the tension in holding these two positions was admirable in the August edition, but he shot himself in the foot in his response to letters in the October edition. Affirming that the believer can be lost in theory but that he/she won’t be in practice dissolves any tension and guarantees final perseverance. The many warnings in Hebrews against apostasy, therefore, are stripped of their substance and relegated to the mere hypothetical.

Andrew’s dilemma stems from his attempt to synthesise two quite distinct, albeit logical, systems of Christian theology (Calvinist vs. Arminian). Neither system has the last word on doctrine. Each was developed to present the major doctrines of the church, but beginning on different premises—one building its structure from God as sovereign, the other from God as love. Both are scholarly works by equally competent and godly divines, and both are supported by a plethora of ‘proof texts’.

I believe Andrew would have helped readers far more if, instead of focusing on the academic issues, he had emphasised the relational. God loves all mankind and calls us to repent, savingly believe in Christ, and appropriate the salvation he offers. Those who voluntarily accept are ‘born again’ into a family structure of new relationships. Others choose voluntarily to defer or reject God’s initiatives. Paul uses the analogy of ‘marriage’ to describe the mystical union that exists between Christ and the believer (his church), because the same elements of unconditional love, mutual submission, and irrevocable commitment apply to both. Both are entered into voluntarily, and are maintained voluntarily. In my relationship to Christ, he is committed for the ‘long haul’, and frankly, so am I. But just as the temptation to explore illicit extramarital relationships faces many of us from time to time, so the temptation to deviate from our commitment to Christ occasionally presents itself. Just as some marriages fail, so do the spiritual journeys of some Christians due to presumption, carelessness, neglect, indifference, etc. Divorce and apostasy are the end of each relationship respectively. God can no more coerce backsliding believers against their wills than can a faithful, committed, and loving husband his wife who has preferred another man. In this context the book of Hebrews makes sense and relieves us of the impossible task of adapting it to ‘fit’ a particular system of Christian theology.

Thank you Andrew for your well considered contribution. Keep up your research and allow the perspectives of others who journey with you to test and sharpen your own.

Ted Ansell
Rockingham, WA

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I’d like to propose an alternative to Andrew Heard’s take, in Briefing #299, on whether Christians can fall away. My understanding of his argument is that we have, and yet do not have, security in Christ. Any one of us is entirely capable of losing our salvation, says Andrew. We simply say “No” to God, he withdraws his Holy Spirit, and we each go our separate ways. We know what God requires, from his word, but we deliberately turn our backs on it. Yet such is the Spirit’s work in us that we will never want to say “No”. We can only be lost if we want to be lost, but we’ll never want it.

Perhaps Andrew would like to expand his thoughts some more, but it seems he has not moved very far at all from the classic ‘once saved, always saved’ position. He just uses different words and sails a little closer to the wind. He says that this “desire in us to take heed to the warnings is actually the inner work of the Spirit”, which is surely effectual calling in another guise. Yes, “God doesn’t keep us safe against our will”, but since he changes our will anyway, this sentence doesn’t mean much and we are basically back where we started. As I say, some more explanation from him may clear up this issue, but as I read his article, he has made some progress in the tension but he hasn’t gotten us ‘over the hump’.

I propose an alternative explanation. The weakness in Andrew’s version is that he assumes that the Bible has a category of people, whom we can identify, labelled “genuinely converted, regenerate Christian[s]”,6 and to which it addresses the warning passages. The key phrase in that last sentence is “whom we can identify”. Of course genuinely converted, regenerate Christians exist; but the Bible, as I read it, implies strongly that you can never be sure of when you are actually looking at one, so it never seems to attempt to identify them. Instead, it usually talks to them as if they are regenerate; but recognizing that ultimately, only God knows the state of each person’s heart, it warns them to continually be giving themselves ‘check-ups’.

Any other view turns a passage like Romans 5:3-4 into nonsense, as I will demonstrate. It is this belief that regenerate people can be identified, at least by themselves, that prevents most Christians from being able to make sense of this passage. They accept it because it’s ‘in the Bible’, but they never stop and acknowledge that it doesn’t gel with the rest of their theology. The passage says,

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

No Christian I know, when they see bad times coming, rejoices. However, Paul is saying that Christians should—and since we experience so much misery, it would be a shame if we didn’t enjoy it!

The first thing to see is that Paul doesn’t limit this to certain types of suffering; he claims that suffering per se should bring joy. We may appreciate some suffering—when we cause it ourselves, at least we know we got what we deserve. We can appreciate it when we learn from it, or even when we suffer for our faith—if Satan bothers us, we must be bothering him. But what if a car crash takes your family or cancer strikes and removes you in a matter of days? Paul says we can even rejoice in that.

Why? Because it brings perseverance, verse 3 says. Here’s how it works: a brand-new Christian is feeling on top of the world; but his faith is so tender. His family laughs at him, tells him to go easy or says he’ll change his mind next week, and he is devastated. It felt real, but now he’s not so sure. His workmates berate him for going ‘churchy’. They drag up his dirty past and he thinks, “I am as bad as they say, so how could I be saved?” But let’s assume that he hangs in there, pain and all. He falls now and then, but he gets up again. The hard times don’t stop, but he gets used to them. In this way, he learns perseverance through suffering, just like verse 3 says.

But that’s not all: because he perseveres, then his character (who he is) develops, as verse 4 points out—perseverance produces character. Actually, it reads, “proven character”. When gold is heated to see if any impurities float to the top, it is being proved. Suffering proves us. Our perseverance provides an opportunity to sift out the real thing, if it is there, from the trash. It proves we’re born again; otherwise we’d give up. Any fool loves God when things go right but only true believers survive when things go wrong, because the Holy Spirit is helping them. So, perseverance proves our faith.

But there’s more: verse 4 adds that character produces hope. When the quality of our character proves that we are regenerated, then we know all that is in Christ is ours. And that’s Rom 5:3-5: suffering is great, because it proves our faith, so of course we rejoice in it. Another passage that carries the same thought is 1 Peter 5:6-7.

But are we convinced by this exegesis? Who among us can’t wait for problems, so they can check out their faith? Not very many of us, I’d suggest, because we usually don’t feel that we need reassuring. Aren’t we saved just by believing, after all? I know I was converted 25 years ago, the argument goes, so when I suffer and persevere, it only tells me what I already knew, so what’s the point? I never had to prove I was my earthly father’s son. He said I was his, so I accepted it as fact. I didn’t check up, just to make sure. If I can trust him, why I can’t trust God, when he says that if I believe, I am saved? That, I think, would be the normal Christian’s response to Paul’s argument, if they dared to say what they really thought. We don’t rejoice in our sufferings because we are already sure we are saved.

If this is our thinking, then there must be a flaw in our reasoning, since it denies the truth of Romans 5:3-4, and it is this: Why am I sure? Lots of people say they believe, but give up later on: why will I be any different? Do I know where I’ll be in 10 years’ time, spiritually? If I believe, I certainly am saved—but do I really believe? Most of us have probably asked ourselves this question, more than once, and usually console ourselves with the thought that God is faithful—if we turn ourselves over to him, he accepts us. But this is simply arguing in circles. Of course he will; but the experiences of those who fall away tells us it is easy to think we have made that critical step when we actually haven’t. We use this same defective line of reasoning when we want to reassure someone else who is doubting their salvation. We reduce it to logic. We ask if they prayed to be saved. If they say, “Yes” then we point them to something like Romans 10:13: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Then we say, “See? God promises that if you ask for salvation, you have it. You asked for it, so you have it. End of discussion. Just trust”. We appeal to logic—if A is true, and B is true, then C must be true.

The trouble is, the Bible doesn’t use this argument. It says that the only proof of our salvation is our lifestyle. You don’t have to be good to be saved; but you will be good if you are saved.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father.” (Matt 7:21)

“I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9:27)

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith
but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (Jam 2:14)

“This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God.” (1 John 3:10)

“See to it, brothers [note the term he uses here], that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if [note the condition] we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first.” (Heb 3:12-14)

This way of dealing with assurance of salvation is everywhere in Scripture: yes, only Jesus saves, and only by faith, but only your life shows if you have faith. No doubt we’ve heard of the famous tightrope walker named Blondin, who pushed a wheelbarrow across a rope over Niagara Falls. He then asked the crowd if they thought he could do it again. They all said, “Yes”. He invited someone to get in the wheelbarrow; nobody did. Why? Because when push came to shove, they didn’t really believe.

Faith means getting in the wheelbarrow. It means putting yourself last; it means giving all to Christ—money, time, talents, the lot. Say what you like about your faith: only getting in the wheelbarrow will prove it, and that means deeds, not words. When Christians fall away, we want to believe they are saved, so we stretch the rules a bit. We say that salvation is by grace, that nobody is perfect, that God loves them and he will pull them back sometime—after all, didn’t they say the right words? And so, despite their deeds, we say they’ll make it. I can’t find that in the Bible. I’d love to; I want those people saved. But we have to go by the Book: if they don’t act saved, they probably aren’t saved. And it’s the same for ourselves: we want to be sure we are saved, too, so we would sooner depend on words we said at our conversion, than on deeds we do now, because then the proof is indelible, once-for-all. But the Bible is quite clear: you can get very, very close to God, and still be outside; only our deeds reveal if the Holy Spirit is at work in us.

That opens up a can of worms. First, am I saying we have to be good to be saved? No. Ephesians 2.8-10:

It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.

I learnt this passage so I could be a counsellor at the last Billy Graham crusade—but why did they leave verse 10 out?? Perhaps they fell for the lie that assurance of salvation does not need the ongoing witness of good works. Works do not save us, but saved people work—no works, no salvation.

The second ‘worm’ in the ‘can’ is this: noone is perfect, so how bad can I be, and still be saved? Where is the cut-off point between the worst Christian and the best non-Christian? I don’t know, but does it matter? Does it help our walk with God? No: it’s an academic question. In fact, the issue is not how ‘good’ we are, but what we do when we are ‘bad’. A Christian gets up and goes back to God, one more time than they walked away. That’s the difference between perfection (doing it right), and perseverance (going on even when you don’t do it right); and Romans 5:3-5 talks about perseverance, not perfection.

Peter, who denied Jesus, is a good example of this difference between perfection and perseverance. He wasn’t perfect, but he persevered and so he was saved. What did Jesus want from him? In John 21:15-17, Jesus tests Peter, to see what he is really attached to. He said,

“Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he [Peter] said, “You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

Jesus didn’t bring up past failures or future expectations. He asked where Peter was now. He wanted perseverance, not perfection. The message for us is this: keep going, even when we don’t go so well. Keep confessing, asking to be forgiven, and starting again. We can only do that if the Spirit is in us, so if we do it, we must be saved.

‘Worm’ number three: does that mean I should go around in constant fear that however secure my salvation might appear to be, it probably isn’t? Not at all. As with testing in general, we don’t expect to find something wrong. We always expect things to be right. The testing is just a way of keeping an eye on things. Those who take their car for its annual registration check, or who indulge in a regular medical check-up for themselves, don’t get into a panic beforehand about the possible results unless something about their vehicle or their body gives them cause to fear. In fact, they go to the check-up assuming they’ll get a clean bill of health. Similarly, it is safe to assume that unless there are reasons to think otherwise, our salvation is the genuine article. Just to be sure, though, we ought to welcome suffering as a backup assessment.

It is when we understand that just having a conversion story doesn’t prove we are saved, that Romans 5:3-4 comes into its own. It answers this big question: How do I know I am saved? Again, it says, “We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” In other words, I just have to try to hang on to God. If I can do it, I am saved—how else could I hang on if he wasn’t helping me?

This is also the point at which suffering comes into its own. We make that initial commitment, and it’s all going splendidly, but then the Bible tells us not to be over-confident (1 Corinthians 10:12, etc.), and so we wonder, “Am I over-confident? How do I know where I stand?” So, God sends some hard times. We survive. Our faith may be a bit battered—we wonder why he did it, did we deserve it, did he make a slip-up? The awkward questions come. But our faith holds, and so now we know it is real. It has been proven. Then, we can rejoice that we suffered, because it was the only way to discover where we stood with God. It wasn’t fun, but it was worth it.

On the other hand, as long as we think that saying we’re a Christian proves we’re a Christian, we won’t rejoice in our suffering. We can’t. We will still think it’s a waste of time, and Romans 5:3-4 still won’t add up. But that is so dangerous. Christianity is not a game. Hell is much worse than going to jail in Monopoly—it’s much worse than missing three turns and then paying $50 to get out. Likewise, heaven is much more than just owning Park Lane and Mayfair, with hotels, where all we win is play money. Hell is so horrific, and heaven so fantastic, that we should be willing to go through anything to know which one is ours. 2 Corinthians 4:17: “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” The more there is at stake, in any situation, the more we’ll sacrifice to protect it. I will pay hundreds to insure my house, but nothing to keep the garbage safe. How much, then, ought I be willing to pay, by way of suffering, in order to ensure my eternal destiny?

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10-11)

We should treasure the chances we get to do a spiritual check-up.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice, and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12)

It is only our enduring under suffering that shows that we stand to inherit what they have inherited.

Assurance, then, does not come from the bare word of God, because he never spoke in such a fashion. Nor does it come from the work of the Spirit in us to make us desire the right and abhor the wrong. It comes from our daily interaction with the realities of life, with each victory assuring us that the Spirit is alive and well within us, the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14).

Peter Quinn
Tumut, NSW

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1 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1996, p. 318.

2 T.C. Hammond, In Understanding Be Men, IVP, 6th ed., 1983, p. 104.

3 John Brown, Epistle to the Hebrews, Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 2002, p. 290.

4 Matthew Henry, vol. 6, p. 913.

5 John Calvin, Hebrews.

6 Briefing #299, p. 6, column 2, paragraph 4.

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