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…”
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.