Monthly Archives: June 2014

Defending the Trinity

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 261, declares:

The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith and of Christian life.

Belief in the Trinity is essential for salvation and should be at the top of the list when it comes to priorities in defending the faith. Yet, many Christians—many Catholics—find themselves in over their heads when the topic of the Trinity is broached by members of various quasi-Christian sects who deny it, e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Iglesia Ni Cristo, The Way International, etc.

Beginning with Sacred Scripture as a common reference point, we are going to examine three keys to explaining and defending the Trinity.

1. Jesus is God

Most often, the first problem people have with the Trinity centers on the divinity of Christ. I have found the best way to begin is to help them see what is actually very plain in Scripture: The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. This is the essence of what we mean by “the Trinity.” And the good news is no matter who you are talking to, if they name the name of Christ, they already believe the Father is God. You’re 33% of the way there from the start!

Among the many texts of Scripture—and there are many of them—we could use to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity, I have found key texts from St. John’s Gospel to be the most effective. The reason for this, according to fathers of the Church like St. Irenaeus in the second century, and Eusebius of Caesarea, in the fourth century, is St. John wrote his gospel with an emphasis on demonstrating the errors of the fathers of Gnosticism and the heresiarch Cerinthus in particular who—among his many errors—denied the divinity of Christ (St. Ienaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 1, ch. 26, para. 1-2; Bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 3, ch. 28). Thus, it is no surprise that right from the start, “the beloved disciple” uses the plainest of terms:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him, and without him was not made anything that was made (John 1:1-3).

Three points concerning this text:

1. “In the beginning was…” The Greek text here employs the imperfect form of the verb “to be.” The imperfect indicates a past on-going reality. Thus, in the beginning “the Word” had already been in existence in a “past” and on-going sense. What beginning? There’s only one. The beginning. So according to the text, the Word already existed in the beginning, meaning he had no beginning. Thus, he is God. And by the way, John 1:14 makes clear who “the Word” is, when it says, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…”

2. The Word—Jesus—is also referred to as the creator. Notice, all things that were created were created through him. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created…” Jesus is plainly said to be God, the Creator. This necessarily follows when we consider Isaiah 44:24 emphatically and unequivocally declares that it is God alone who is the creator:

I am the Lord, who made all things, who stretched out the heavens alone, who spread out the earth—Who was with me?

Isaiah 45:12 adds:

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel… I made the earth, and created man upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded their host.

3. The text plainly says, “… and the Word was God.”

In their New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) translate this as “… and the Word was a god.” Their claim is Jesus is a god, not the God because the definite article (“the”) is not used before god (Gr. “theos”) when referring to “the Word.”

There are three main problems with this line of reasoning.

1) The predicate nominative in Greek does not normally take the definite article. The definite article is used in these cases to distinguish the subject from the predicate; thus, the lack of the definite article would be grammatically expected in this verse in expressing “and the Word was God.”

2) The JW’s are inconsistent. They translate the word theos (God) as Jehovah or the God numerous times when it does not have the definite article when it refers to the Father (see Matthew 5:9, 6:24, Luke 1:35, 2:40, John 1:6, 12, 13, 18, Romans 1:7, 17, 18 and Titus 1:1, just to name a few from their “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”).

3) Jesus is referred to as theos with the definite article many times elsewhere in Scripture. For example:

Titus 2:13:

… awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Not only do we see the definite article before theos, but we see the definite article + the adjective great. Jesus is not only the God; he is the great God and our Savior. The Bible is very clear that only Yahweh is both the Great God and our Savior. (See Ps. 95:3; Is. 41:4; 43:3;11; 44:6;8; 45:21; Hos. 13:4, and Luke 1:47.)

John 20:28:

Thomas answered, and said to [Jesus]: My Lord and My God.

The Greek text reads, “… the Lord (with the definite article) of me and the God (with the definite article) of me.”

I recall talking with two Jehovah’s Witnesses about this text some time ago in my living room and they ended up disagreeing with each other as to its interpretation. One said, “Thomas said that, not John, or Jesus.” The implication being Thomas got a little excited about seeing the risen Lord and exaggerated just a smidgeon about Jesus. St. John merely recorded these words—he didn’t say he agreed with them.

This is more than a stretch when we consider Jesus then affirms Thomas’s faith in the very next verse. Would he really have done this if he knew Thomas had just committed blasphemy; i.e., if he knew Thomas had wrongly declared him to be the God of the universe, when, in fact, he was not?

The other JW in the conversation claimed Thomas referred to Jesus as Lord and then to the Father as God. But there is no evidence for this in the text. Thomas is directly addressing Jesus.

Revelation 22:6:

And the Lord, the God (Gr.—ho kurios ho theos – the Lord the God, uses the definite for both terms) of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what soon must take place.

Who is the Lord God who sent “his angel” in this verse? The New World Translation says it is Jehovah—almighty God. And that is true. But Rev. 22:16, just ten verses later, reveals to us more specifically to whom verse 6 actually refers:

I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.

Jesus is “the Lord God of the spirits of the prophets” according to Scripture. Thus, according to the JW New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Jesus is Jehovah!

John 5:17-18:

Before we cite the text, we need to know the context is one in which Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath and then told him to “take up [his] palet and walk.” The Jews were incensed because he had broken the Sabbath. But notice Jesus’ response:

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” This is why the Jews sought… to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.

It was not just that Jesus “called God his Father,” but it was the way in which he did so that was the deal-breaker. He said, in effect, “The Father works on the Sabbath, and so do I!” Translation: I am the Son who has the same nature as my Father and therefore the same divine power and prerogatives. “The Father works, you know, doing things like keeping the universe in existence… and so do I,” says Jesus.

And notice further, St. John does not say, “The Jews wrongly believed he called God his Father…” St. John affirms what Jesus Christ was actually doing when he “called God his Father.” He was referring to himself as being “equal with God.” Hear that, Cerinthus?

John 8:57-59:

The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. So they took up stones to throw at him…

In this text, Jesus refers to himself with the divine name that virtually every Jewish person in the first century would have been well acquainted with from Exodus 3:13-14:

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the sons of Israel and say to them, “The God of your father has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them? God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” … Say to the sons of Israel, “I am has sent me to you.”

This “I AM” formula, not copulative, sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. It is a grammatical anomaly that could hardly have been misunderstood. Thus, some of the Jews listening considered this blasphemy and picked up rocks to stone our Lord. Our Lord would use the divine name of himself in four places in St. John’s Gospel alone (see 8:24; 28; 58; 18:5-6).

John 10:30-38:

“I and the Father are one.” The Jews took up stones again to stone him… “even though you do not believe me, believe the works that you may know that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

Once again, Jesus reveals his divinity and the Jews want to kill him. But notice his response. He knows this is difficult for the Jews to believe so he says, in effect, “I know this is hard for you, but look at the miracles I have performed. My works prove the veracity of my message.”

2. The Holy Spirit is God

I Corinthians 2:10-11:

For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

St. Paul makes very clear in Romans 11:34 that no created intellect can “know the mind of the Lord.” Why? In order to “comprehend the thoughts of God,” which are infinite, one would have to possess infinite power. The fact that the Spirit of God is here revealed to uniquely comprehend “the thoughts of God” would necessarily mean that he is, in fact, God.

One must be careful here not to be too literalistic in interpreting this text. Some might say this would eliminate the eternal Son from being understood to “comprehend the thoughts of God” because the text says “no one… except the Spirit of God” comprehends the thoughts of God. That is not St. Paul’s point at all. With this sort of interpretive principle one would also have to say God would not know the thoughts of man because St. Paul said no “person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of man which is in him.” Well, God is three persons, so I guess the persons of the Trinity would not know the thoughts of man?

That would be absurd!

Of course God knows the thoughts of man—he knows everything. The point here is that no human person knows the thoughts of another human person. Analogously, no person apart from the Godhead can know the thoughts of God. Only God has the power to comprehend that which is infinite. That is the point.

I Cor. 6:19:

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?

According to the Summa Theologiae, Part I, Q. 27, Art. 1, St. Thomas Aquinas says it is the prerogative of God, and God alone, to have a temple; therefore, the Holy Spirit is revealed here to be God and our bodies are his temple.

Acts 5:1-4:

But a man named Anani’as with his wife Sapphi’ra sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Anani’as, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? … You have not lied to men but to God.”

According to St. Peter, lying to the Holy Spirit is equivalent to lying to God. You do the math here.

Hebrews 3:7-11:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

The Holy Spirit says the “fathers” of Israel put him to the test when they put God to the test in the wilderness. He says “I” was provoked. Who was provoked and put to the test in the wilderness? Who was it who “swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter my rest?’” Subsequent verses make clear, and the NWT concurs, by the way, that it was almighty God. Thus, the Holy Spirit is here revealed to be almighty God.

Hebrews 10:15-17:

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.”

The inspired author cites Jeremiah 31:33-34 as prophetically saying the Lord, almighty God, would establish “his” covenant with his people when the fullness of time had come. Yet, according to this same author, the author of the prophecy was the Holy Spirit. There is no way to get around it. The Holy Spirit is revealed to be almighty God.

3. Got the Trinity?

Recently, I had an extensive discussion with a Muslim about the Trinity. His problem with the Trinity was not so much with biblical texts, and obviously so, because he did not accept the Bible in the form it is in today as the word of God. Though I will say that he was remarkably interested in looking at what the New Testament had to say about the topic.

His main problem was conceptual. And I find this to be generally the case with folks who reject the Trinity. They either think Christians are claiming there are three Gods (which is what my Muslim friend actually believed to be so), or that we are teaching something that is a logical contraction, e.g., 3=1, and 1=3.

Neither is true, of course. But if we are going to help these people to understand, I find, a little background information is essential in order to establish a conceptual foundation for discussion.

Processions and Relations in God

In Catholic theology, we understand the persons of the Blessed Trinity subsisting within the inner life of God to be truly distinct relationally, but not as a matter of essence, or nature. Each of the three persons in the godhead possesses the same eternal and infinite divine nature; thus, they are the one, true God in essence or nature, not “three Gods.” Yet, they are truly distinct in their relations to each other.

In order to understand the concept of person in God, we have to understand its foundation in the processions and relations within the inner life of God. And the Council of Florence, AD 1338-1445, can help us in this regard.

The Council’s definitions concerning the Trinity are really as easy as one, two, three… four. It taught there is one nature in God, and that there are two processions, three persons, and four relations that constitute the Blessed Trinity. The Son “proceeds” from the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” These are the two processions in God. And these are foundational to the four relations that constitute the three persons in God. These are those four eternal relations in God:

1. The Father actively and eternally generates the Son, constituting the person of God, the Father.

2. The Son is passively generated of the Father, which constitutes the person of the Son.

3. The Father and the Son actively spirate the Holy Spirit in the one relation within the inner life of God that does not constitute a person. It does not do so because the Father and Son are already constituted as persons in relation to each other in the first two relations. This is why CCC 240 teaches, “[The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity] is Son only in relation to his Father.”

4. The Holy Spirit is passively spirated of the Father and the Son, constituting the person of the Holy Spirit.

We should take note of the distinction between the “generative” procession that consititutes the Son, and the “spirative” procession that constitutes the Holy Spirit. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, and Scripture reveals, the Son is uniquely ”begotten” of the Father (cf. John 3:16; 1:18). He is also said to proceed from the Father as “the Word” in John 1:1. This “generative” procession is one of “begetting,” but not in the same way a dog “begets” a dog, or a human being “begets” a human being. This is an intellectual “begetting,” and fittingly so, as a “word” proceeds from the knower while, at the same time remaining in the knower. Thus, this procession or begetting of the Son occurs within the inner life of God. There are not “two beings” involved; rather, two persons relationally distinct, while ever-remaining one in being.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but not in a generative sense; rather, in a spiration. “Spiration” comes from the Latin word for “spirit” or “breath.” Jesus “breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20:22). Scripture reveals the Holy Spirit as pertaining to “God’s love [that] has been poured into our hearts” in Romans 5:5, and as flowing out of and identified with the reciprocating love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father (John 15:26; Rev. 22:1-2). Thus, the Holy Spirit’s procession is not intellectual and generative, but has its origin in God’s will and in the ultimate act of the will, which is love.

As an infinite act of love between the Father and Son, this “act” is so perfect and infinite that “it” becomes (not in time, of course, but eternally) a “He” in the third person of the Blessed Trinity. This revelation of God’s love personified is the foundation from which Scripture could reveal to us that “God is love” (I John 4:8).

God is not revealed to “be” love in any other religion in the world other than Christianity because in order for there to be love, there must be a beloved. From all eternity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have poured themselves out into each other in an infinite act of love, which we, as Christians, are called to experience through faith and the sacraments by which we are lifted up into that very love of God itself (Romans 5:1-5).

It is the love of God that binds us, heals us, and makes us children of God (I John 4:7; Matt. 5:44-45). Thus, how fitting it is that the Holy Spirit is depicted in Revelation 22:1-2, as a river of life flowing out from the Father and the Son and bringing life to all by way of bringing life to the very “tree of life” that is the source of eternal life in the the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:19).

Back to the Relations in God

Scripture is a great help for us at this point. Biblically speaking, we see each of the persons in God revealed as relationally distinct and yet absolutely one in nature in manifold texts. For example, consider John 17:5, where our Lord prays on Holy Thursday:

… and now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.

Notice, before the creation, the Son was “with” the Father. Also, the Son addressing the Father and himself in an “I/thou” relationship is unmistakable. We have distinct persons here. “Father” and “Son” reveal a generative relationship as well. Yet, this relationship between two persons clearly has no beginning in time because it existed before the creation, from all eternity. Thus, the relational distinction is real, and personal, but as far as nature is concerned, Jesus’ words from John 10:30 come to mind: “I and the Father are one,” in that they each possess the same infinite nature.

The Holy Spirit is also seen to be relationally distinct from both the Father and the Son in Scripture inasmuch as both the Father and the Son are seen as “sending” “him.”

But when the Counselor comes (the Holy Spirit), whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness of me… (John 15:26).

… he will guide you into all truth (John 16:13).

Thus, the relational distinction is real, and personal, but the Holy Spirit, like the eternal Son, is revealed to be God inasmuch as he is revealed to be omniscient. “He will guide you into all truth.” And as we saw above, he is elsewhere revealed even more clearly to possess the same infinite and divine nature as does the Father and the Son.

The Anthropological Analogy

Analogy is the theologian’s best friend in explaining the mysteries of the Faith. And when it comes to the Trinity, there are many analogies to choose from. We will explore just two of them here that I have found helpful. In fact, it was these very two analogies that helped my Muslim friend to say the idea of the Trinity “made sense” to him, even though he wasn’t ready to leave his Muslim faith… at least, not yet.

From his famous and classic Confessions, Bk. 13, Ch. 11, St. Augustine writes:

I speak of these three: to be, to know, and to will. For I am, and I know, and I will: I am a knowing and a willing being, and I know that I am and that I will, and I will to be and to know. Therefore, in these three, let him who can do so perceive how inseparable a life there is, one life and one mind and one essence, and finally how inseparable a distinction there is, and yet there is a distinction. Surely a man stands face to face with himself. Let him take heed of himself, and look there, and tell me. But when he has discovered any of these and is ready to speak, let him not think that he has found that immutable being which is above all these, which is immutably, and knows immutably, and wills immutably.

In order to appreciate Augustine’s words, we must begin with three essential and foundational truths that undergird them. Without these, his words will fall on deaf ears.

1. We believe in one, true God, YAHWEH, who is absolute being, absolute perfection, and absolutely simple. Our belief in the Trinity does not mean God is three, or any other number of Gods.

2. Humankind is created “in [God’s] image and likeness” (cf. Gen. 1:26). From the context of Genesis 1, we know this “image and likeness” does not pertain to the body of man because God has no body. Indeed the divine nature cannot be bodily or material because there can be no potency in God as there is inherent in bodies, so this “image and likeness” must be referring to our higher faculties or operations of intellect and will.

3. It follows, then, that God is rational. He too is both intellectual and volitional.

These simple truths serve as the foundation for what I call St. Augustine’s anthropological analogy that can help us to understand better the great mystery of the Trinity:

In God we see the Father—the “being one” and first principal of life in the Godhead—the Son—the “knowing one”—the Word who proceeds from the Father—and the Holy Spirit—the “willing one”—the bond of love between the Father and Son who proceeds as love from the Father and Son. These “three” do not “equal” one if we are trying to say 3=1 mathematically. These three are distinct realities, relationally speaking, just as my own being, knowing, and willing are three distinct realities in me. Yet, in both God and man these three relationally distinct realities subsist in one being.

As St. Augustine points out, we can never know God or understand God completely through this or any analogy, but it can help us to understand how you can have relational distinctions within one being. And we can see this is reasonable.

The weakness inherent here—there are weaknesses in all analogies with reference to God—is that our knowing, being, and willing are not each infinite and co-extensive as the persons of God are. They subsist in one being in us, but they are not persons.

The Analogy of the Family

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us another analogy wherein we can see the reasonableness of the Trinity by helping us to see the possibility of distinct persons who possess the same nature. CCC 2205 provides:

The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

When we think of a family, we can see how a father, mother, and child can be distinct persons and yet possess the same nature (human), just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who each possess the same nature (divine).

The weakness, of course, is that in God each person possesses the one infinite and immutable divine nature, and is therefore, one being. Our analogous family consists of three beings. Again, no analogy is perfect.

But in the end, if we combine our two analogies, we can at least see both how there can be three relationally distinct realities subsisting within one being in the anthropological analogy, and how there can be three relationally distinct persons who share the same nature in the analogy of the family.

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The Trouble With Calvin – Pt. 5

The reformed “Westminster Confession,” ratified in 1647, gives us a pithy statement that sums up well what is meant by “the perseverance of the saints,” or “once saved, always saved,” the fifth and final of the five points of Calvinism’s TULIP (the “P” stands for “perseverance”):

God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure; and in that condition they have not usually the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance (Westminster Confession, Ch. XI, “Of Justification,” Paragraph V).

Here we have to do some mental gymnastics to understand Calvinism. The confession above states that true believers can never fall from the state of justification. Yet, it also says their sins need to be forgiven or else they can “fall under God’s fatherly displeasure.” But they would still go to heaven even if they die in this state of “God’s fatherly displeasure.” So, are the sins already forgiven… before they are forgiven again when they are confessed? Or, are they really “forgiven” when they are confessed? The answer is “yes…and, no.” James White, a Calvinist apologist writes:

This remission of all sins is not limited to past sins only, but to all sins, past, present, and future…The problem with accepting this fact is easy to see: how can we speak of sins being forgiven when they haven’t even been committed as yet? And why do we read that we as believers are to confess our sins? Yet, on the other hand, it seems far more difficult to understand how Christ’s death is insufficient to bring about full pardon of all sins, but has to be “re-applied” repeatedly (White, The God Who Justifies: A Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of Justification, p. 98-99).

I don’t find it hard in the least to understand how Christ’s sacrifice as to be “re-applied” to our lives “repeatedly.” This doesn’t mean it is “insufficient” to take away sins. Let’s take a look at this:

First of all, it is quite easy to understand the biblical teaching found in I John 2:2: “[Jesus Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also the sins of the whole world.” This means Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient to take away all sins. Catholics understand this and have taught it for 2,000 years. But what White and Calvinists in general do not understand is the blood must be applied to our lives repeatedly through faith and obedience to the word of God. I John 1:7-9 says:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

For the life of me, I cannot understand what part of this is so hard to understand. According to St. John, the fact that the blood of Christ must indeed be “re-applied” to our lives “again and again” does not mean it is “insufficient.” It simply means that the objectively all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ must be applied subjectively to each of the faithful through their willing cooperation.

Among the errors we could consider at this point, perhaps the central misstep is found in Mr. White’s assertion that all sins are forgiven, “past, present and future.” Not only does the Bible never teach this, but on the very next page of Mr. White’s book, he quotes the famous Calvinist theologian, Charles Hodge, who says:

So that it would perhaps be a more correct statement to say that in justification the believer receives the promise that God will not deal with him according to his transgressions, rather than to say that sins are forgiven before they are committed (The God Who Justifies, p. 100).

So which is it? Are all sins forgiven, or are they just “not dealt with?” And this is not to mention that either of these two scenarios still have to deal with I John 1:8-9: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Why do our sins have to be forgiven if they have already been forgiven?

The Calvinist must explain that the forgiveness is not really forgiveness in relation to eternity before God, but only in relation to temporal benefits. God, in one sense, has already forgiven them. But in another sense… Or, perhaps St. John uses the word “forgive,” but he really means, “will not deal with…”

Huh?

The confusion and desperate attempt to circumvent the plain words of Scripture all stem from the presupposition of “once saved, always saved.” Our recommendation is to do away with the human tradition of “the perseverance of the saints,” and then you can just believe I John 1:8-9 as it is written.

For the Catholic it’s simple. We believe that we must confess our sins in order to be forgiven of them as the Bible says. Period. And if we do not confess our sins (or desire to do so), then we will not be forgiven. Period.

CLEARING UP THE DIFFICULTY

There are two crucial texts that we must deal with briefly to understand this notion of “once saved, always saved:” Romans 4:8 and I John 5:13. These are not the only two, but they are perhaps the most important.

1. Romans 4:7-8 – “Blessed are those who iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”

In Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 3, chapter 11, John Calvin begins his section on “Justification by Faith.” One of the first texts he uses (in paragraph 4) is the above-cited section of Romans. Charles Hodge, quoted above, was referring to this text as well when he claimed that God “will not deal with [the justified] according to his [future] transgressions.” So, then, according to Hodge, the “forgiveness” of I John 1:9, is not really “forgiveness.” It is really meaning that God just doesn’t deal with the Christian’s sins? Really? Is this what St. John is saying? I can’t believe a thinking person could say this. But is this what St. Paul is saying in Romans 4? If, for example, a man who is justified commits adultery, he is as just after committing this sin as he was before? According to Calvin and true Calvinists, yes he is!

At the risk of sounding redundant, I must say here we have another human tradition that nullifies the word of God. Romans chapter 4 says nothing of what Calvin taught. If you look at the text that St. Paul quoted in Romans 4:7-8, you find that he quotes Psalm 32:1-2. David wrote this Psalm in the context of his confession of his sins of murder and adultery. The reason God would not reckon David’s sins against him was because David had confessed his sin and had been forgiven! Psalm 32:5 says:

I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.

This text does not even come close to saying that sins David’s sins were forgiven (or they are not reckoned as sin) before they were confessed! According to the inspired author, David “acknowledged [his] sin,” and “then [God forgave] the guilt of [his] sin.”

St. Paul makes very clear to Christians in Ephesians 5:3-7, that God will not simply “not deal with” their sins:

But immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them (emphasis added).

St. Paul here eliminates any possibility of getting around the fact that if believers commit these sins and do not repent, they will not go to heaven. The human tradition of Calvin (and Luther, I might add) attempt to thwart the plain words of sacred Scripture, but for those who love God and his word, these are empty words of deception. They are hollow and lifeless. St. Thomas Aquinas quite prophetically preempted Calvin’s “once saved, always saved” deception, when he said of the above text:

Notice that only in reference to carnal vices does he teach them to avoid being deceived. For from the beginning men have rationalized to find reasons why fornication and other venereal sins were not really sins so that they might indulge their cupidity without restraint. Hence he states vain words since words that claim these are not sins and do not exclude one from the kingdom of God and of Christ are irrational. “Beware lest any man cheat you by prophecy and vain deceit” (Col. 2:8).

According to John Calvin, and the Westminster Confession, these sins that St. Paul says will exclude someone from the kingdom of heaven will not do so if that someone is a Christian. That is why, again, according to the Westminster Confession, these sins will only bring about God’s “fatherly displeasure” in a temporal sense. The fornicator (by that I mean the Christian who falls and commits the sin of fornication) who is a Christian is just as “saved” as the saint in heaven.

Now, I know the Calvinist will say of the one who falls into an adulterous affair, “He was never saved to begin with.” But I find it interesting that so often the “other guy” who falls “was probably never saved to begin with,” but when the Calvinist you are talking to falls, he is just under “God’s fatherly displeasure.” Heaven? Oh, that’s been take care of.

This is a good segue to:

2. I John 5:13 – “These things I write to you, that you may know you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (emphasis added).

Rooted in this text and others, the Westminster Confession claims that believers can have:

An infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God (Westminster Confession, Chapter XVIII, ”Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” Para. 2).

The fact is: one cannot have infallible certainty without an infallible teacher. None of the authors of the Calvinist creeds—or Calvin himself—ever even claimed the charism of infallibility. A thinking person would then have a real problem with the Calvinist use of the term “infallible” in the first place. The truth of this supposed “certainty” would be closer to the “burning in the bosom” of a Mormon, then true “infallible” certainty. But what about I John 5:13 and the claim that we may know that we have eternal life?

The Greek word for knowledge (from the root – “oida”) in I John 5:13 does not necessarily mean an absolute certainty is being expressed. We use the verb “to know” similarly in English. For example, I may say I know I am going to get an A on my Greek exam tomorrow. Does that mean I have metaphysical certainty of this? No! I may in fact get a B or worse. Ever freeze up during an exam? What I mean and what the verb “to know” can be used to mean is that I have confident assurance that I will get an A on my test tomorrow because I have studied the material thoroughly and I know it very well.

The context of I John makes it abundantly clear that this is how oida is being used in I John 5:13. In the very next verses (14-15), St. John says:

And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us, and if he hears us we know (again, a derivative of oida) that what we have asked him for is ours.

Do we have absolute certainty that we will receive everything we ask of the Lord? No, we do not. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” I John 3:22 says, “And whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of him: because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” We cannot be absolutely certain that we have not “cherished iniquity” in our hearts or that we have not done a thing or two that has displeased the Lord. But most importantly, we must acknowledge that God is sovereign. In the end, we must trust God as his children. We must trust that he will grant what is best for us. Sometimes what we just know is best for us just isn’t. Or, as the unrighteous discover at the last judgment, according to Matthew 25:41-46, what they just knew was just for them actually was not. ”Lord, when…?” A humbling and sobering thought to be sure! We must remember that God is our judge, not us!

“IF”—JUST TWO LETTERS BUT ONE LARGE WORD!

St. Augustine wrote, some 1,600 years ago:

In that one [Adam], as the apostles says, all have sinned. Let, then, the damnable source be rebuked, that from the mortification of rebuke may spring the will of regeneration,—if, indeed, he who is rebuked is a child of promise,—in order that, by the noise of the rebuke sounding and lashing from without…God may by His hidden inspiration work in him from within to will also. If, however, being already regenerate and justified, he relapses of his own will into an evil life, assuredly he cannot say, “I have not received,” because of his own free choice to evil he has lost the grace of God that he had received (St. Augustine of Hippo, On Rebuke and Grace, Ch. 9).

The word “if” is the biggest little word in human discourse. St. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (emphasis added). Notice, St. John includes himself in that “we!” What happens if we do not confess our sins? Or, if we are not sorry for them? Will God forgive them anyway? Not according to Scripture. Unrepented sin will not be forgiven (see Matt. 5:14; Matt. 12:31-32; I John 1:9, etc.), and the Bible is very clear that no sin can enter into heaven (see Hab. 1:13; Rev. 21:8-9, 27).

St. John goes on to say, “As for you, let that which you have heard from the beginning abide in you. If that abide in you, which you have heard from the beginning, you also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father” (I John 2:24, emphasis added). Can we choose not “to abide” in him? Yes! St. John tells us that “whosoever abides in him, sins not; and whoever sins, has not seen him, nor known him. Little children, let no man deceive you. He that does justice is just, even as he is just. He that commits sin is of the devil…Who ever is born of God, commits not sin…”(I John 3:6-9, emphasis added)

This text seems strange on the surface. St. John has already said that everyone who is born of God does sin in I John 1:1-8. We all sin, including St. John! Yet, now he says whoever is born of God does not sin? Is St. John contradicting himself? No! St. John makes a distinction between mortal and venial sins in this same epistle. In I John 5:16-17, John gives us definitions of both mortal (he calls them “sins unto death”) and venial sins (“sins not unto death”). The one who is born of God does not commit mortal sin. If he does, he is “cut off” from the body of Christ and needs to be restored via confession to fellowship with God (see Romans 11:22; Gal. 5:4, II Peter 2:20-22).

We are not talking about a few isolated examples of our salvation being contingent upon our actions. There are “if” and various other forms of contingency clauses all over the New Testament used in the context of our salvation. Colossians 1:22-23:

And you, whereas you were…enemies…now he has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before him: If you continue in the faith, grounded and settled and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard.

I Cor. 15:1-2:

Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received, and wherein you stand; By which you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain.

BUT DID THEY REALLY KNOW HIM?

In the discussion of the perseverance of the saints it is inevitable: The point will eventually be made that whenever the Scripture talks about people falling away from grace and from God, the people “falling away” never really knew him to start with! Let’s take a look at two texts that are usually used in this regard.

1. I John 2:19—“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.”

“You see? If they were truly Christians, ‘born again,’ and if they really knew Jesus, they would endure until the end. God will not allow anything else.”

Is that what this text says? Absolutely not! St. John is simply saying that folks who leave the Church bodily, have already left in their hearts long before they actually depart. The text does not say anything about whether or not these people ever knew the Lord. It says that at the time they left, they were not true and obedient believers.

2. Matthew 7:21-23—“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he 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 evildoers.’”

“You see? Jesus plainly says; he never knew them! They were never Christians to begin with!”

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once said that Christ here was saying he never knew the people that these had become, not that he ever knew them at all. This is analogous to a woman who leaves her husband after years of marriage and says, “I never knew you!” It is not that she never loved her husband nor is she saying she never had an intimate relationship with her husband. She does not know the man with whom she is parting ways. This is certainly a valid interpretation of this text.

However, my take on this text is different. I like to point out here that Jesus said many people. He did not say all people. There will be “many people” who will be lost who never even heard of Jesus at all, or those who were indifferent to Christ and certainly never “prophesied in [his] name,”  or, “cast out demons in [his] name.” For the Calvinist, this text at very best only tells us that some people who parade around and proclaim the name of Christ are not true and obedient believers.

The bottom line is this: the Scriptures may well indicate that many who will be lost will have never known the Lord. That is to be expected. But Scripture also indicates to us that there are at least some who will have known Christ and then fall away from him. II Peter 2:20-22 is an example of this:

For if, flying from the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they be again entangled in them and overcome: their latter state is become worse than the former…For, that of the true proverb has happened to them: The dog is returned to his vomit: and, the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.

This text hardly needs comment. The Greek word here for knowledge is epignosei. As Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it: “… an opinion can be correct [or possess the aleitheia, or “truth”], but only the ginoskon has the certainty that he grasps the aleitheia” (truth). Moreover, “It relates to the knowledge acquired in experiences both good and bad” (Vol. 1, p. 690.).

A literal translation of the word, epignosei,  in this text would be “a thorough, experiential knowledge.” And when we consider the persons in the text have “escaped (Greek: apophugontes) the pollutions of the world” (Greek: tou kosmou) through this “thorough, experiential knowledge” of Jesus, we would have to conclude that only a personal relationship with the Lord could have the effect that is being described. Knowing about Jesus doesn’t cut it. And note the image Peter uses in verse 22: the sow that had been washed in water. Water is the symbol St. Peter uses for baptism in I Peter 3:20-21. The connection seems obvious. The sow, or female pig, which was cleansed represents the person cleansed from sin; the sow returns to the mud as the penitent may return to her sin later in life. Her “last state has become worse… than the first” (II Peter 2:20).

Moreover, when we back up in the text to II Peter 1:2-4 to establish an even better context for II Peter 2:20-22, we note how Peter begins his epistle with a description of believers:

Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge (the Greek word is epignosei, the same word used in 2:20) of God, and of Jesus our Lord…that…ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped (the Greek word for having escaped is apophugontes, the same word used in 2:20) the corruption that is in the world (Greek: en to kosmo, the same word used in a different form in 2:20) through lust.

The same words used to describe what Christians have been freed from in chapter 1 are used to describe the person in chapter 2 just before he goes back to his old state and ends worse than he was before he ever knew Jesus. I don’t see how St. Peter could be any clearer on this point.

The truth is: St. Peter knew nothing of “once saved, always saved.”

The Bible Really is Clear

There are literally scores of biblical texts we could use to demonstrate the fallacy of “the perseverance of the saints,” or “once saved, always saved.” We don’t have that kind of space here. But here are a smattering of texts.

1. In Matthew 6:15 Jesus tells us that “if you do not forgive men, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your offenses.” I don’t care how “born-again” you are or how many experiences you may have had, if you don’t forgive others, you will not be forgiven according to the text. And remember, no sin can enter into heaven (see Rev. 21:27 and Hab. 1:13), as we said above.

2. Galatians 5:4 says Christians can “fall from grace.” You have to be in a state of grace in order to “fall from it.”

3. In John 15:1-6 Jesus uses the metaphors of a vine and branches for himself (the vine) and Christians (the branches). And yet, he would then say if a Christian “does not abide” in the vine, he will be “cast forth as a branch… gathered, [and] thrown into the fire” (vs. 6).

4. Romans 11:18-22 tells us we can be “cut off” from Christ and be lost. Verse 22 says:

Note 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.

5. Rev. 22:18-19 warns us that God can “take away [our] share in the tree of life (eternal life) and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

6. The sacred text assures us over and over again that if we commit certain sins and we do not repent of them, we will not go to heaven (see Matt. 5:44-45; 10:32-33; Eph. 5:3-5; I Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Rev. 21:6-8). It makes no sense, if we are justified by faith alone, that what we do would be so plainly said to be the cause of eternal damnation.

7. Heb. 12:14-16 tells us we can “sell [our] birthright,” or our “inheritance” in the image of Esau. Romans 8:14-17 teaches our “inheritance” to be eternal life.

When it comes to believing in the T-U-L-I-P of the Calvinists, the question is ultimately simple: Are we going to believe the tradition of Calvin or are we going to believe the Scriptures. You can’t have it both ways.

The Trouble With Calvin – Pt. 4

We now proceed to the “I” in TULIP: Irresistible Grace

Calvinists teach that man is powerless to resist God’s grace; hence, the idea of a truly free will is repudiated. The Catholic and biblical position holds that we must “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”—meaning we must do something—“for it is God who works in you both to will and to do according to his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13)—meaning God’s grace must precede and accompany every meritorious action that will bring about our salvation. The Catholic teaching emphasizes both God’s grace and man’s cooperation. The Calvinist position holds that man is not a “co-laborer” with God as St. Paul says in I Cor. 3:9 and II Cor. 6:1. In Calvin’s words:

 If [by free will] is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object…If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-laborer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilent delusion (Institutes, Bk. 2, Ch. 3, Para. 11).

Of course, Catholics agree that man cannot “of himself” merit anything from God, if by that, Calvin means apart from God’s empowering grace, but Calvin’s meaning is very different than the Catholic and biblical position. “Subdued by the power of the Lord” means man cannot resist the movement of God’s grace.

For Calvin, there is no cooperation with God’s grace as Scripture teaches. The grace of God “subdues” a man and moves him to salvation, rather than God awakening man and empowering him to, “‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’ Look carefully then how you walk…” (Eph. 5:14-15), and cooperate with the grace of God as Romans 11:22, II Cor. 6:1, Acts 13:43, etc. indicate. Man cannot do anything except be moved to act in accord with God’s immutable will and irresistible grace. If God wills us to go to hell, then we will not be given grace and we will be moved to sin by God’s eternal decree. If God wills us to go to heaven, then we will be given grace that we cannot resist to that end.

Two Notes of Importance Before We Proceed

1.  Many Calvinists will claim they believe in “free will,” as does the Westminster Confession. But they apply a most odd meaning to the term. This is akin to the homosexual “couple” who says they believe in “family values.” “Free will” for the Calvinist means that God has given to him irresistible grace that he cannot do anything but accept. They will then say, as John Calvin did, “… after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace,” as cited above. The term “voluntary” becomes meaningless. According to Calvin, when God extends his “special grace” of salvation and mercy he “does not suffer a refusal” (Institutes, Bk. 3, Ch. 22, Para. 6). Yet, man is free? This would be like Marlon Brando (Vito Corleone), in The Godfather, “making an offer you cannot refuse,” and then claiming the offer was “freely” accepted.

2. Honest Calvinists acknowledge the contradiction here. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the then Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who at the time of the penning of the below quote held the highest elected staff position in the Presbyterian Church (USA) provides:

If, then, a sovereign God decides to elect persons to eternal life, that is a decision for all time and eternity…Presbyterians have endorsed this conviction, but with Calvin, we have always had trouble with it for two reasons. First, if God predestines every person, and not all are called, elected, or predestined for salvation, then God has predestined (the Westminster Confession says, “fore-ordained”) some persons to hell or eternal damnation. Second, if God has determined the ultimate fate of all persons, then the individual has no power to make any important decisions. Presbyterians have learned to believe, also, in free will, realizing that these two doctrines are logically impossible to hold at the same time, but that each is true, as taught in the Westminster Confession… Those persons who can with a clear conscience accept what they are taught, regardless of apparent inconsistencies, are in some ways better off than those who think (Clifton Kirkpatrick and William H. Hopper, Jr., What Unites Presbyterians (Geneva Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1997), p. 17. The emphasis in the quote is mine.)

Notice the almost cult-like acceptance of this logical contradiction. The Catholic and biblical faith never asks anyone to check their intellect at the door. Though we are certainly not rationalists—that is, there are certain truths of our faith that are supra-rational—there is nothing in our faith that is contrary to reason. I have to agree with Mr. Kirkpatrick that a thinking man will have trouble with this Calvinist notion of double predestination. In fact, I would say that a thinking man is not going to remain Calvinist, unless he can learn to believe what he knows to be irrational. And that is not faith; that is closer to superstition.

THE BIBLE IS PLAIN

The grace of God is resistible. St. Paul disagrees with Calvin when he says:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?

The context of Galatians is clear. St. Paul is warning Christians not to be seduced by “Judaizers” who were telling them belief in Christ is great, but that they must also return to the Old Covenant temple, sacrifices, law, circumcision, etc. in order to be saved. According to St. Paul, if they do this, they forfeit Christ; they “fall from grace.” To “fall from grace” means they resist God’s grace.

The inspired author of Hebrews teaches we can “fall from grace” as well.

Strive for peace with all men, and for that holiness without which no man will see God. Take heed lest anyone be wanting in the grace of God (Gr.—usteron apo tes karitos tou theou—“failing from,” or “falling from the grace of God” ); lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble and by it the many be defiled; let there not be any immoral or profane person, such as Esau, who for one meal sold his birthright (Hebrews 12:14-16, Confraternity Bible).

The Greek verb ustereo, ranslated above as “wanting,” means “to fall
short of, lack or want.” Because the preposition apo, or “from,” is used
immediately after the verb, a literal translation would be: “falling short of
from the grace of God.” I translate it as “falling from the grace of God.”
Alfred Marshall, a Protestant, translates the text “failing from the grace of
God” in The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, (Regency Reference
Library, Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p. 889. The sense is the same.

Similar to St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the writer to the Hebrews is warning Christians not to “sell their birthright” as sons of God and forfeit the glory of heaven which is our inheritance as Christians. We are truly sons of God “and if we are sons, we are heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided however that we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17, Confraternity Bible). The context of Hebrews emphasizes that Christians can, in fact, “fall from grace” and lose their heavenly inheritance.

St. Stephen chimes in very specifically when it comes to resisting the grace of God. He almost seems to have Calvin in mind 1500 years before Calvin when he speaks to his “brethren and fathers” (Acts 7:2) among the sons and daughters of Abraham:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you (Acts 7:51).

The Holy Spirit calls us by grace; thus, to “resist the Holy Spirit” is to resist God’s grace.

And finally, the words of our Lord himself are most clear:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, you house is forsaken and desolate!

Jesus here speaks as God and informs us that he is ever-calling to his people by his grace to come to him as a hen calls to her chicks. But he is equally clear that he respects the freedom with which he gifted them as well. It is their choice whether they will to resist his call–resist his grace–or cooperate with it unto salvation (cf. Gal. 6:7-9; Romans 5:1-2).

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