Eternal Security and Prooftexts
I am amazed at how entrenched the doctrine of eternal security is in so many Baptist churches when it is so thinly supported by long scriptural argumentation. To be sure, there are lots of prooftexts which can be read to support eternal security, but the fact is, these prooftexts do not focus in any sustained way on the question of continuance in salvation; rather the prooftexter imports the issue into the text, thereby weakening the argument. Since there is an equally large number of prooftexts that support the possibility of apostasy (see my blog article here: http://treasuresoldandnewbiblicaltexts.blogspot.com/2007/11/scriptures-relevant-for-formulating.html), there is no good explanation of why so many Baptists hold to eternal security except that they have ironically retained the one comfortable point of Calvinism while rejecting the other four weightier points. In this article, I challenge eternal securitists (and others) to make discussion of prooftexts secondary, and to concentrate instead on the study of those passages that actually deal with continuance in salvation in a sustained way.
Let’s start with one of the most cited passages in support of eternal security: “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-29). So, there you have it—eternal securitists argue—Jesus’ sheep will never be snatched out of his hand. If you ask, however, what the context for this quote is, most of those citing the verse will draw a blank stare. Does it matter that Jesus is speaking polemically with his opponents about his own personal status, his dignity and his role as Israel’s shepherd, and is not addressing the issue of continuance of his disciples in any sustained way?
Compare this prooftext with the context five chapters later where Jesus has withdrawn from public, has washed his disciples’ feet, dismissed the traitor, and now looks at his true disciples face to face and tells them,
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit…. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me…. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love… (John 15:1-10).
Jesus is no longer defending his mission and calling against the attacks of his enemies, and has turned his attention and his tender concern to his closest disciples. The topic itself is abiding in Christ; abiding in Christ is the key to bearing fruit, and Jesus issues the most severe warnings to his very own disciples against withdrawing from him and against not bearing fruit. Clearly, without any controversy, the issue is about continuing in fellowship with Christ, and therefore, continuance in salvation. It is in this context that we learn the following points about continuance in salvation:
- Disciples are exhorted to remain in Christ
- Failure to remain in Christ produces the same result as a branch that is cut off and withered; it is thrown into the fire and burned,
- Fruit-bearing depends wholly on remaining in Christ
- Fruit-bearing is essential for disciples
- The Father dismembers from the vine those disciples who bear no fruit
- Remaining in Christ’s love is contingent upon keeping the Lord’s commands
In this text, we’re not imposing an interpretation that is otherwise alien to the context. Rather, we’re attempting to draw out the intended meaning of a passage that is dealing with the topic of continuance in salvation. For this reason, our exegesis is so much more certain than it is for the prooftext of the prior text from John 10.
In addition to John 15, there are some other passages in the New Testament that deal with the issue of continuance in salvation at length; let me briefly introduce them. Arguably, the whole book of Hebrews is about continuance in salvation—the apostle is writing to a congregation that is being pressured to abandon the faith; warnings, encouragement, and cajoling designed to press the believers to continue round out each argument and section of the letter (here's my short intro: http://treasuresoldandnewbiblicaltexts.blogspot.com/2008/01/covenant-benefits-in-hebrews.html). The last two chapters of 2 Peter warn against false teachers who would lead the faithful astray and is replete with dire warnings to the church; this is also the whole concern of the book of Jude.
Finally, the first three chapters of Revelation revolves around continuance in the faith. A central feature of Rev 1 is the vision of Jesus standing and walking in the midst of the golden lampstands which represent the seven churches. Hence, Jesus knows their deeds, their trials, and their weaknesses. Accordingly, Jesus issues warnings to the seven churches in Rev 2-3, saying things such as “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (Rev 3:4, 5) and “…I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15).
Note again that these passages (Hebrews; 2 Pet 2-3; Jude; and Rev 1-3) are not isolated prooftexts that incidentally touch on the issue of continuance in salvation; rather, these are texts that center on our topic. I’m not sure that a comparable list can be produced by those advocating eternal security. For these reasons, I would hope that my Baptist friends who hold to eternal security would reconsider the issue with less fervor for prooftexts and more open-minded concern for those few passages that actually discuss continuance in salvation.