Morning Musing: Hebrews 3:14

“For we have become participants in Christ if we hold firmly until the end the reality that we had at the start.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

It’s amazing how the kind of debates you have depends on the kind of community you’re a part of. This doesn’t mean that some debates are necessarily more important than others (some debates are more important than others, but this isn’t a reason for it), rather that different communities have different concerns. One debate I haven’t had for some time but which I used to participate in fairly frequently is whether salvation can be lost once it has been gained. As far as the Scriptures go, Hebrews contributes more to the back and forth of this debate than just about anything else you’ll find in them, mostly because of verses like this one. Let’s talk about it.

I remember going back and forth with other theology nerds in high school, college, and, interestingly, to a lesser extent, seminary about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. We would sit around go back and forth on the matter, never coming to any firm conclusions except to be reinforced in whatever our own thinking was. No one wanted to concede their own point and let the other side get a victory. The debates never got terribly heated, and we were all still friends in the end which just goes to show you that believers can disagree agreeably, but debate we did all the same.

The basic question here is whether or not a person can gain the prize of salvation at one point in his life and subsequently lose it later on down the road. A further question is whether or not someone who has lost his salvation can gain it back again. The two major camps on this issue are defined by leading theologians of the past whose thinking shaped the respective positions more powerfully and directly than anyone else. On the side of salvation being a permanent state of affairs is John Calvin, one of the early French reformers. His ideological followers are called Calvinists. Today they are often more broadly referred to as “reformed” in their thinking and theology. On the side of salvation being something that can be gained and lost is Jacob Arminius, a Dutch pastor and theologian from about a generation later. His ideological followers are typically called Arminians.

To wildly oversimply their respective positions on the subject of the gaining and losing of salvation, Calvinism holds that once a person has been saved, that person will always be saved. There is no leaving the faith or somehow getting out from under that particular burden. This is because once God has chosen a person to be counted among the elect who will receive the gift of salvation, that choosing never changes. Salvation begins with God, is administered by God, and is maintained by God. If pushed too far, this can be construed to make us out to be little more than automatons who are merely doing what God has pre-programmed us to do, but it doesn’t typically get pushed that far. While all of this is absolutely by grace through faith, there is a fairly heavy emphasis on God’s election. Arminianism, on the other hand, places a great deal more responsibility for receiving the gift of salvation God offers in the hands of the one receiving it. God offers us this gift by grace, but receiving it or not is entirely up to us. Additionally, because salvation is something over which we have so much control, we are able to lose it if we turn our backs on it at some point along our journeys. But, if we repent and return, salvation is there waiting for us to take it up again. The emphasis here is pretty strongly on God’s grace and human responsibility.

While both theological positions claim the backing of Scripture, Calvinism tends more in the direction of rigorous, systematization in ways Arminianism does not. This is why you can find loads of systematic theology books which are ultimately rooted in Calvin’s thinking to one degree or another, but books that offer a systematic treatment of Arminius’ thinking are much rarer. This doesn’t mean there aren’t still thinkers who have given it a great deal of thought, but Calvin’s thinking tended to be more structured and organized than Arminius’ thinking.

The question you are wanting answered here is this: Which one is correct? I guess that depends on who you ask. For me, while I do lean somewhat in the direction of Calvinism, I am not convinced that all of the Arminian arguments are entirely without merit. As a matter of fact, the letter of Hebrews offers some of the most challenging material in terms of backing the position of Arminius over and against Calvin. The author gives several warnings against leaving the faith behind. He talks about how once someone walks away from her faith, there’s no going back at that point. The general impression here is that losing salvation is something that is within the realm of possibility. Calvinists are left trying to come up with all kinds of theological jujitsu to explain why the text doesn’t really mean what a plain reading suggests it means. One of their chief explanations is that when someone appears to have lost salvation, this is an indicator that it was never really securely obtained in the first place. The trouble here, though, is that you are left questioning a person’s committed belief and experience in a moment from their past and that’s a tough position to justify.

As I have grown and studied the matter on my own over the years, I am more and more convinced that neither side gets everything right and that the truth is somewhere in the middle. I would still set the slider somewhat in the direction of Calvinism, but the warnings to remain faithful and on guard against the loss of faith and salvation with it are not things we should ignore entirely. Indeed, as you read through the Scriptures with as few preconditions as possible, there are indeed verses that would seem to justify parts of both sides. The various authors who contributed to the New Testament seem to consistently hold the two different positions in this uncomfortable tension that we would love to have neatly resolved, but which doesn’t get cleanly resolved anywhere.

In a day when believers seem to be on the lookout for reasons to be divided from one another, historical clashes like this one are dangerous. They find us separating ourselves into warring camps that both run the risk of losing their vision of the Gospel in their efforts to be right and get the win over the other side. It is wiser to look for those places where both sides can agree…places like this verse from Hebrews 3. Whether you can gain and lose your salvation or whether a subsequent falling away is the result of never having really had it in the first place, both sides can agree that the person who enters into a relationship with Jesus and remains rooted in and faithful to that relationship over the course of his life is unquestionably saved.

When Jesus calls us to follow Him, He’s not calling us to some side quest to the rest of our lives that, while not unimportant, is something we can be on-again-off-again about in our thinking and doing. He is calling us to an all-encompassing way of life that lays claim to every part of who we are. Nothing falls outside its purview of interest. If we are not wholly committed to it mind, heart, soul, and strength, we are not ready for it at all. Jesus Himself was explicitly clear about the importance of counting the cost before we get started along with the incredibly high demands that will be placed upon us once we sign up for it. But once we are His, we are His entirely. So, give it some careful thought, but when you are ready for the life that is truly life, start following. You’ll always be glad you did.

16 thoughts on “Morning Musing: Hebrews 3:14

  1. chapmaned24

    First, I’m not arminian or calvinist. To do so would mean that I buy off on the doctrine of original sin. I don’t.

    Having said that, Matthew 7 and 25 are warnings that yes indeed you can lose your salvation, because as James stated, faith without proving it, is meaningless. In other words, to prove your faith, you must do something, you must live what you believe.

    In Matthew 7, those people were indeed saved. But, because they didn’t produce fruit, they lost out. Then they beg, Lord, Lord.

    In Matthew 25, Jesus had just finished discussing end times, and then tells them to watch, and continue doing something, and not be complacent, or they, too will miss out. Your own actions will prove whether you believe or not. As James states, you say you have faith, but I’ll show you my faith by what I do. Do something.

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    • pastorjwaits

      Thanks for your reflections. I really appreciate those. You raise some interesting points as well.

      I will have to agree to disagree on the doctrine of original sin. I remain thoroughly convinced of the veracity of that. Besides the witness of Scripture, simple observation seems to bear that out.

      On the matter James 2, I’m not convinced his point was that salvation could be lost. I think your assessment of his point there is correct, but I don’t think having or losing salvation was what he had in view there.

      My take on Matthew 7:21-23 is that while those people believed themselves to be following Jesus, they had never actually gotten there in the first place. They didn’t lose anything, but they didn’t have anything to lose.

      While I absolutely agree that our faith must be demonstrated by our faithful obedience to Christ’s command to love one another in order for our claim to it to be taken as true, the works do not produce our salvation, nor would their absence indicate it has been lost. Rather, they are evidence of our faith and flow from out of our gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ. A lack of works may indicate that salvation was never really gained in the first place, but once we have it, I don’t believe we can lose it.

      That all being said, one’s view on that doesn’t determine salvation, so it is a matter where we can be charitable with one another as we work toward to more important goal of advancing the Gospel. Thanks again for your thoughts!

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      • chapmaned24

        If I were you, read all of chapter 7. It’s not about just 3 verses. Jesus cursed a tree because it didn’t produce fruit, as well.

        Also, in the latter part of Matthew 24 thru 25, Jesus discusses not being complacent. He was talking to… who?

        Regarding original sin, see my own blog. I break it all down.

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      • pastorjwaits

        I have indeed read it all and will be reaching through it in the next few weeks. And, you’re right, it’s about a great deal more than those three verses. Those three verses are a warning that you can think you have all of this stuff down, but have missed the whole point and this missed the boat entirely. I absolutely agree that our faithfulness must be lived in order to demonstrate its veracity. A lack of fruit, though, doesn’t necessarily point to a loss of faith. It can instead reveal a faith that never actually took root in the first place. Again, this will have to be one of those agree to disagree points.

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      • chapmaned24

        Romans 10:9
        That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

        Those people called Jesus Lord. No jumping thru hoops.

        Again, complacency in Matthew 24-25.

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      • chapmaned24

        In calvinism, you have “irresistible grace”, which I don’t believe in, as that is tied to original sin, as is preveniant grace with the Armenian. So, of course you are going to stay with your doctrine that you cannot lose salvation. It’s in your doctrine. It’s in your flower. But the Bible is clear in several references that if you stop believing, you are done, toast, burnt.

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      • pastorjwaits

        I’m not a full TULIP Calvinist. Neither do I think Arminianism’s view of salvation is on point. I think the truth is located somewhere uncomfortably in the middle. The Scriptures, though, are also equally clear in several places that those who have committed themselves to Christ and are in His hands can’t be taken from that position. I do not think we can lose it, but I do think we can convince ourselves (and others) we have it when we don’t really. I don’t suspect we’ll convince each other of the opposing argument, but it’s fun to dialogue about it nonetheless. Thank you again!

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      • chapmaned24

        They can indeed leave on their own accord. You don’t believe in free will? If you believe in original sin, then it’s connected to the two different doctrines of grace, which means that you either believe in irresistible or preveniant, and both states that God chose you, you didn’t choose God, and since that is the case in your doctrine, you will conclude nothing else than what you do. I can’t conclude that those who change their mind wasn’t saved to begin with. You do. Original Sin… not my cup of tea.

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      • pastorjwaits

        I believe followers of Jesus are the freest indeed. They can leave, but their wills are so transformed by the Spirit that they won’t. And I think the either-or there is more likely an uncomfortable both-and.

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      • pastorjwaits

        No double speak here at all. Like I said, this middle position is uncomfortable. They can leave—free will—but they won’t because that’s not their will. Their will has been transformed by the Spirit.

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      • chapmaned24

        They won’t, because it’s not their will… that ain’t free will. That’s your doctrine of grace. They can’t do anything of their own free will, because they are controlled by someone else’s will. Interesting…lol.

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      • pastorjwaits

        I think you’re either misunderstanding, or else I’m not being clear. Either way, it looks like we each remained unconvinced of the other’s position. It is fully their will, but their will has been transformed to more fully reflect the will of God. That’s sanctification: we freely want what God wants and reflect His character more fully in our lives.

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