Tasting the Heavenly Gift: Defending Eternal Security Against “Problem” Passages

Today, I want to make a final post on the issue of eternal security that I have been addressing for the last several weeks on Tough to Tackle Tuesdays.  I want to examine a few of the key biblical passages used by those who claim salvation can be lost.  These are often called “problem” passages for those who espouse eternal security because they so plainly seem to teach that a person can be genuinely saved and then lose their salvation through apostasy.  These passages are Gal. 5:15; Heb. 6:1-6; and the apparent examples of apostasy in the Pastoral Epistles.

Galatians 5:1-5

Paul is addressing those within the church, thus he is writing to people who made some kind of profession of faith in Christ.  Many of these came from a Jewish background and were unable to set aside the theology of that background even though they had responded positively to the gospel.  These individuals were known as “Judaizers.”  They believed faith in Christ was important, but incomplete.  They taught that adherence to the OT law code was also necessary.  Thus they set up a works salvation paradigm with circumcision being the primary deed necessary for salvation.  Paul shows four tragic consequences of such a belief in this passage.  Paul notes that regardless of one’s association with the church, if they reject the sufficiency of faith in Christ, they:

1. Forfeit Christ’s work on their behalf.  In other words, if a person does not accept Christ’s work solely as the basis of their salvation, they cannot be saved.

2. Places himself under obligation to keep the whole Mosaic law.  Jesus demonstrated in His conversation with the rich, young ruler, that it is impossible to keep the whole law.  Trying to obey what the law says to do will not merit salvation.

3. Falls from God’s grace.  An effort to earn salvation through self-effort will result in a rejection of the grace that God offers.  The phrase “fallen from grace” in v.4 is the key problematic phrase in this passage, but see below how this should be interpreted in the context of justification.

4. Excludes himself from God’s righteousness.  A person who tries to gain God’s favor through works will have no part of His righteousness.

These consequences reveal that the Judaizer was never saved in the first place because his faith was not completely in Christ.  “Severed from Christ” and “fallen from grace” in v.4 are not to be interpreted as losing salvation, but having been a part of the church, exposed to the gospel message, and rejecting it on the basis of adherence to works as a required merit for salvation.  Many in the church of Paul’s day were enamored by Christianity.  They saw the miracles and the powerful preaching of the apostles.  They were exposed first-hand to the truths of the gospel and they made an initial response.  However, they refused to accept Christ alone.  They came to the doorway of grace and then walked away.

It also appears that the language of justification creates a problem for those who want to see in this passage the possibility of losing salvation.  Paul was certainly not teaching that one who is genuinely justified by faith can lose his salvation by becoming legalistic.  Nowhere does the Bible teach that a person can become unjustified.

Hebrews 6:1-8

In this passage, Paul addresses individuals who have five great advantages through their association with the church:

1. They had been enlightened.  The word refers to an intellectual perception of spiritual truth.  It means to be mentally aware of something.  It carries no connotation of response- neither acceptance or rejection.

2. They had tasted Christ’s heavenly gift.  There is great debate whether or not “tasting” means simply to sample something or actually to consume it.  It seems to make little difference.  Some unbelievers can have a slight or intense interest in the gospel.

3. They had partaken of the Holy Spirit.

4. They had tasted the word of God.

5. They had tasted the miraculous powers of the age to come.

In essence, this passage can be interpreted in one of three ways.

One, the author is addressing genuine believers and salvation can actually be lost.  A practical problem with this view is that the one thing this passage does make extremely clear is that if salvation can be lost, it can never be gained again (v.6)- a view that those who believe one can lose their salvation do not espouse.

Two, the author is addressing those who are not actually saved.  The argument here is that the passage is speaking to unbelievers in danger of losing salvation in the sense that they will lose their opportunity to ever be saved.  They hear the gospel and are exposed to Christianity so much, they become immune to ever actually responding to it.  This would be something akin to an immunization given to children.  Immunizations actually gives the person a little dose of the disease.  Similarly, it is possible that a dose of the gospel without response to it can make one immune.  The example in vv.7-8 illustrates this perfectly.  The rain falls on all the earth.  Some ground produces good fruit, while other ground produces thorns.  The seeds of the gospel fall on many people.  Some respond and bear fruit.  Others do not respond and are cursed.

Three, some scholars argue that the whole passage is a hypothetical argument.  It may be a reductio ad absurdum.  This is based on the participle “it is impossible” and the infinitive, “to renew” in v.6 along with the phrase “though we are speaking in this way” in v.9. The participle is used in other passages to introduce if-then statements.  In this view, the author is saying that apostasy is hypothetical and describing what would occur if a person who was saved fell away which in fact is impossible. “Renew” means a different or new repentance.  The argument is this: Say that a person does do the five things listed above and they are the recipe for salvation:  What will happen if he falls?  He will have to have a new repentance.  The only way this could be done is if Christ came back and died again.  That is impossible.  The book of Hebrews on more than one occasion emphasizes that Christ died only once (7:27; 9:12, 28).

Millard Erickson offers an alternate view stating that the terminology in this passage does in fact speak of one losing salvation, but argues that the referents in vv. 4-6 and v.9 are the same.  Thus, forming the conclusion that the passage says it is possible for one to lose salvation, but genuine believers will never leave the faith.  In other words, believers can fall away, but they will not fall away.  I might argue semantics with Erickson’s position, but whatever interpretation one chooses should reflect the conclusion that this passage is not a threat to the doctrine of eternal security.

The Supposed Examples of Apostasy in the Pastoral Epistles

Paul writes of Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Tim. 1:19-20 having “made shipwreck of their faith.”  In turn, Paul handed them over to Satan to learn not to blaspheme.  In addition, Paul notes Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Tim. 2:17-18 of having “wandered away from the truth.”  Are these examples of apostasy in the early church?  The evidence is lacking.  We have nothing conclusive that these men were convinced of the truth of the gospel and that it had become an integral part of their life.  It may be best to view these people in terms of Paul’s treatment in 1 Tim. 6-7 of those who engage in vain discussions.  Here, Paul says that such people “swerve” away from the faith because they do not know what they are saying.  This seems to indicate that people like Hymenaeus, et al, were not true believers from the beginning.  Paul states in 2 Tim. 2:19, right after his description of Hymenaeus and Philetus, “the Lord know those who are His” as if to say these two men were not in the fold.

In conclusion, the biblical evidence clearly and strongly supports the doctrine of eternal security.

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One Response to “Tasting the Heavenly Gift: Defending Eternal Security Against “Problem” Passages”

  1. Thanks Todd! Growing up in a Church of Christ, I struggle with my interpretation of the subject! MJ