Friday, May 29, 2009

"In You" or "Among You All": Philippians 1:6 and the Perseverance of the Saints

Arminians are not of one mind with regard to the doctrine of perseverance. Some Arminians see perseverance as a gift which God gives to those who respond to the gospel in faith. These Arminians believe that a true believer will not finally fall away from grace. Other Arminians believe that perseverance is conditional on the continuing faith of the believer, and that it is possible for a truly justified person to be cut off from right relationship with God and perish eternally. For many years I held the former view. This was not necessarily because of rock solid exegesis of scripture. Rather, it was based on the comfort that comes with the idea that the truly converted will certainly be finally saved. In recent years, though, my mind was changed about this doctrine, and I moved over to the position that one could lose their justification. I felt that, if I were to be intellectually honest, the New Testament clearly teaches that the people of God are liable to judgment for unfaithfulness. One of the clearest texts on this (and the crucial text that changed my thinking) is Romans 11:17-25 where Paul warns the Gentiles who stand by faith (pistis) against becoming proud. He then holds up unbelieving (apistis) Israel as an example saying to the believing Gentile, "if God did not spare the original branches, he will not spare you, either" (21, NASB). This is no picture of a believer wrenching his salvation from God's fist. No, this is an image of God judging the believer who has become faithless. I resisted this reading for a while. But ultimately I must be honest about what Paul says no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

At this point, the reader may be wondering why this post is dealing with Romans when the title clearly indicates that the content will focus on Philippians. Well, here it is. Philippians 1:6 was the text that I held on to in order to maintain that my former position on perseverance (or perhaps more properly - preservation) was biblical. Even after I changed my mind I wasn't quite sure what to do with Philippians 1:6. Recently, though, I began to read through Philippians 1 in Greek and was struck by what Paul actually says. I've always taken this text to mean that God would complete his good work in me as an individual. The problem with taking this reading is that it neglects the fact that the English pronoun "you" can be either singular or plural. In Greek, though, there are two different words for you - one singular and the other plural. In Philippians 1:6 Paul uses the plural word for "you" (humin). The pronoun is the object of the preposition en which is often translated "in" but can really function with much more variety than that. One of the chief functions of this preposition is to indicate the location or sphere in which an event or action occurs. Thus, Paul could mean that the location where God's good work will be brought to completion is in the plural you that is the Philippian church. The verse could be translated thus: "The one who began a good work among you all will complete it until the day of Christ" (cf. NRSV) The community of believers is the sphere where God is at work, and it is the sphere where his good work will be brought to eschatological fulfillment at the day of Christ. This is a different matter than whether or not the good work is brought to completion in the life of an individual, a matter that Philippians 1:6 simply is not addressing. Paul's confidence that God is at work in the Philippian church and will complete that work is grounded in that church's participation in the ministry of the gospel (5). Even if some individuals fall away from the work, it does not mean that God's purposes for the church as a whole corporate community will not be brought to perfection.

In conclusion, then, Philippians 1:6 is not speaking to the issue of the final perseverance of individual Christians. That question is not raised in this text. Rather, Philippians 1:6 is evidence for the Arminian view of corporate election. God has chosen his church and will complete the work that he is doing in his church. One comes into the church through faith, and, according to Romans 11:17-25 out of the church through non-faith. But even if some fall away, it does not mean that God's work in the church is thwarted. Indeed, it is he who breaks of the branches because of their unbelief (Romans 11:20).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why the Author of Hebrews Wouldn't Have Been a Calvinist

Hebrews 10:26-30 is known for its shocking and drastic declarations. In the span of five verses, the author deals with both issues of the extent of the atonement and the perseverance of the saints. The author creates a comparative contrast between the Mosaic covenant and the covenant of Christ (28-29). He is claiming that the member of the Mosaic covenant who violated that covenant was judged by the terms of that covenant. He goes on to indicate that the punishment for those who spurn the Son of God will be that much worse. The comparison here involves the similarity between the Mosaic covenant and the Messianic covenant that whoever violates them will be judged according to the covenant of which he is a member. The contrast involves the varying degree of punishment. If condemnation was that bad for the one who violated Moses, how bad do you think it will be for the one who violates the Son of God. Several observations are worth making here.

1. The author of the Hebrews does not presuppose that membership in the covenant of Christ translates into final salvation. He sees this as a commonality between the Mosaic and the Messianic covenants. There are those who can be sanctified by the blood of the covenant of Christ who persist in sin and fail to receive the salvation that is the ultimate and final benefit of the covenant relationship. That is to say, the author of Hebrews did not believe in the final and necessary perseverance of the saints. Note that the verb "to sanctify" (hagiadzo) is from the same Greek root as the word for saint (hagios).

2. Since the author does not presuppose that covenant membership guarantees final salvation, he presupposes that one may be sanctified by the blood of Christ and yet fall away. Thus, he also takes it to be the case that the benefits of Christ's blood extend to some who may ultimately fall from grace and experience the covenantal curse. This means that the author of Hebrews did not believe that the atonement was only intended for those who would be ultimately saved.

So, Hebrews teaches the possibility that the saints may fall away and that the potential benefits of the atonement extend to those who may not be saved. For these reasons, the author of the letter to the Hebrews would not have been a Calvinist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To Calvinists from a Calvinist: Let's Calm Down

I was happy to see a post by Calvinist blogger C. Michael Patton calling for Calvinists to "calm down." I was most pleased to see Patton calling Calvinists to account for commonly associating Arminians with various heretical positions. Patton's attitude is to be greatly appreciated, and if both sides took his tone more often, then the debate would be more productive. I've copied a few exerpts below or you can read the whole thing.

"Calvinists: Don’t send me any more emails talking about the “heresy” of Arminianism. I don’t get excited. Don’t forward me any more videos that dramatize the departure of Arminian theology. I won’t ride that bus. If you do, with sadness, I will just delete them. Not because of the message telling me “Ten Reasons Arminians Have a Different Gospel,” but because the message you give when you forward this kind of stuff."

"Are Arminians wrong? This is what we believe, but the seriousness of their departure should not be overstated. We treat each other with great respect, knowing their love for Christ and the image of God they bear."

"The rhetoric that is out there is embarrassing. I am sick of having to explain over and over again what Calvinism is not before I get to what it is. “No, we are not arrogant.” (At least we are not supposed to be.) “No we don’t think we are better than others.” (How could we? Don’t we promote the doctrines of grace? Do we even know what grace means?) And, most importantly, “No, we don’t think Arminians are going to hell.” If you do, then you are way out of line."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Transgression, the Gift, and the Many: Romans 5 and the Unlimited Scope of the Atonement

Calvinists and Arminians disagree over the scope of Jesus' atoning work. Calvinists argue that the saving work of Jesus is intended exclusively for the elect. God has chosen the unchangeable number of those to be saved, and Christ's work is effective for them alone. Arminians see this as a denial of the clear teaching of scripture that the scope of Christ's atoning work is unlimited being sufficient for the salvation of every person and applied to a person on the condition of faith in Christ.

One of the key texts for the Arminian understanding of unlimited atonement is Romans 5:15, 18-19 where Paul says, "But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many...Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous."

For Paul, if we are to understand the nature of Christ's atoning work for us, we need to understand the nature of Adam's transgression. The sin of the one man, Adam, led to death for all. In Adam, all sinned and died. In his sin, Adam represented the entire human race and the entire human race fell as a consequence. Paul's term for the entire human race here is "the many." Calvinists and Arminians agree that the extent of the fall was unlimited with regard to the whole human race.

Paul draws out the similarity between the transgression of Adam and the obedience of Christ through his use of the term "the many." In Adam, the many were made sinners. Likewise, in Christ, grace abounds to the many. That means that the scope of the atonement is equal to the scope of Adam's transgression. The work of Christ abounds to all those who, in Adam, sinned and died. If Adam's transgression caused the entire human race to fall, then the provision of Christ's atoning work is extended to the entire human race as well.

Now if there is similarity between Adam and Christ, there is also a difference. In Adam, all died without condition. However, in Christ, the benefits of his saving work are applied on the condition of faith, as Paul has indicated earlier in the letter (cf. 3:21-26). This is what guards us against using this text to teach universal salvation.

It should be clear, then, that the provision for salvation in Christ extends as far as the penalty of Adam's transgression. That is, the atoning work of Christ is unlimited in its scope.