To begin our series examining each of the five points of Calvinism, represented in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., we’re going to begin with the last point—Perseverance of the Saints.
This point of the Calvinist doctrine is often employed to answer the question, Can a Christian lose their salvation? The Calvinist answer is a resounding no! If a person is truly saved, then they cannot lose their salvation in Christ. Sure they may stumble in their faith. Heck, they may even backslide, which is a weird christian-y term that means relapsing into sinful ways for a time. But, they will never actually lose their salvation.
Passages that are often brought to bear in support of the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints are:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
I give eternal life to them, 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. (John 10:28-29)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
What about Apostates?
These are wonderful passages, and they speak highly of God’s love for His children. But they still don’t quite settle the matter. After all, those of us who’ve spent a good deal of time in the church can think of people who were saved—had a “coming to Jesus” moment complete with the Sinner’s Prayer and baptism—only to then lose their faith sometime later. Not stumble, but actually lose their faith. I mean, there’s backsliding, and then there’s straight up rejecting one’s faith. What are we to make of the above passages in light of the fact that people sometimes do have the experience of finding salvation in Christ and then losing it?
The typical Calvinist response (and the one that admittedly coheres best with the rest of Calvinism) is that the person must not have ever really been saved. They went through all the motions. They may have even thought they were saved. But they must not have been part of God’s elect, and so, despite their conversion experience, they didn’t actually lose their faith because they never had it in the first place.
The first epistle of John contains a passage that seems to support this idea:
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)
There you have it, some might say. Once a person is saved, they cannot lose their salvation, and anyone who appears to have lost their salvation was never actually saved in the first place. This certainly seems to answer the question in some regards, but only by then forcing us to ask other questions.
For example, people often spout the Calvinist trope, “once saved, always saved,” as a way of offering comfort to those who are struggling with faith and wondering if they might have lost their salvation (generally because of some backsliding-ly-ness). But if a person can have the full blown experience of being saved, while still never being saved, then how do I know that I actually am one of the elect? How do I know that I won’t have a falling out with God some day in the future? Unless we want to say that everyone who ever lost their faith/salvation was faking it all along (which many apostates will tell you is not the case), then there is no way of knowing that any of us is actually saved. So any confidence or sense of security that Christians have in their salvation is fanciful, since all of those not-really-saved people had that same confidence at one time.
And if my experience of being saved is so utterly disconnected from my actual salvation that I can have one without the other, then what the hell are we even talking about when we talk about salvation?
Abandoned, not lost
Perhaps there is another way to understand the security of salvation. More specifically, perhaps there is a difference between losing our salvation (having it snatched from us) and giving it up willfully. If we re-examine the passages mentioned in the first section above, we’ll notice that the focus is on the powerlessness of outside forces—death, life, angels, principalities, etc.—to take us away from God’s love and mercy, and eternal life. However, these passages lack any mention of our own volition to remain within God’s mercy. In fact, unless we want to project our own ideas and beliefs onto the text (which is a big no-no), we should not take these passages to mean that our security in God’s saving love is impervious to our own freewill decisions to choose otherwise.
As for the passage from John’s epistle, again I think sound interpretive principles will go a long way toward helping us to understand what’s going on. For those of you who don’t know, “epistle” in an old-timey word that simply means a letter, as in a message that someone writes to someone else. This is one of the places where Christian ignorance, or even myopia, can run amok.
There is something particularly weird (to say nothing of invasive) when we read someone else’s mail and start applying it to ourselves directly.
You see, John is speaking to a specific audience in a specific location at a specific time that is experiencing a specific situation. In other words, this letter was not written to 21st century Christians… not at all, not even a little bit. To make the point even stronger, John did not write this letter to you.
So, if (and that’s a big if) it is true that everyone who leaves the faith was never truly in it in the first place, then we might take John’s comments as an example of that truth. But, as I’ve said, I don’t think that actually is true. Either way, we should not take the apostle’s assessment of that particular situation as a universal principle that can or should be applied to (or projected onto) all people who ever leave their faith.
Ultimately, the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints sort of takes human free will out of the equation, which actually makes sense because it is built on the preceding point in Calvinist theology—the doctrine of Irresistable Grace… which we’ll talk about next time.