Sometimes my blogs put me in awkward position. I almost don’t want to write this post because I am tacking on to the sermon of a friend. His sermon was great, his exhortation timely, and his delivery of the sermon anointed. He is a caring shepherd like few I have every met. If you had to choose him or me as a shepherd to follow, you should choose him.
Nonetheless, we have a subject we disagree on. This post is not for him; it is for you. I am sure he is among those who do not shrink back to destruction, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul (Heb. 10:39). Nonetheless, we all need to know that it is possible for us to fall away. Why? First because it is biblically commanded (1 Cor. 10:1-12; Rom. 11:19-22). Secondly, … well, let me explain.
My friend said many true things in his sermon. We cannot earn our salvation. Everything we have, we have received by faith. We were chosen by him, predestined in him, and saved and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise.
I don’t want to refute him; I want to add to what he said. A great passage to begin with is Romans 6:22-23. It describes the pattern of salvation:
“But now being made free from sin, and made slaves to God, you have your fruit to holiness …”
This we agree on. Once we are saved and mad slaves to God, holiness is the fruit of the gifts and power he gives us through the Holy Spirit and grace.
“… you have your fruit to holiness, and the end: eternal life.”
Again, we would agree here. Holiness is a fruit, a result of simply being attached to the vine that is Jesus Christ (Jn 15:1-0). We even agree that no one gets eternal life without holiness (cf. Heb. 12:14).
Where we disagree is that not all true branches of the vine bear fruit. John 15 says there are branches that are in the vine, but they don’t bear fruit. Those branches will be cut off and thrown into the fire.
Some argue that this is just pruning, not being cut off. Those who say so misunderstand that the vine gets stronger from pruning, but the branch dies. Prune an apple tree according to gardening instructions some day. Then look at the huge pile of branches you cut off. They are not going to get better. There is no recovery for those branches unless they are grafted back into the tree. No pruner does that, however. He takes the branches and throws them in the fire (says Jesus in John 15).
Despite that disagreement, we do agree on the rest of that passage:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Eternal life is a gift. There is no way we could “earn” it my our suffering and efforts, which we endure by God’s power and want to endure because of the free gift of salvation that he gave to us when we believed in Jesus. From front to back it is his work. We “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” only because “God works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Php. 2:12-13).
Surely the question must be asked, “If it is God’s work from front to back, then how could we possibly lose our salvation?”
The answer is, “Because we are a stubborn and rebellious race, even after we receive God’s great gifts.” That is why we are warned over and over to continue in the faith by “making every effort.” Let’s sample just a few of the multitude of verses in the New Testament.
- 2 Peter 1:3-11 has to be the most majestic of those passages. After describing our salvation in the most glorious terms, he gives us things that we must “give every effort to.” If we do not do those things, we become blind and forget that we were purged from our past sins. If we “do these things,” then, and only then, do we make our calling and election sure and gain an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
- Colossians 1:21-22 gives a glorious description of what happens to Christians when we appear before Jesus. Because he reconciled us, not our own work, he will present us holy, without blame, and “unreproveable” in his sight What an amazing work! But it will only happen if we continue in the faith, steadfast and grounded.
- It is always funny to me that Paul is so often quoted to support eternal security apart from our own effort, when he himself disciplined his body daily so that he would not be “disqualified” after having preached to others (1 Cor. 9:27). “Disqualified” is the same word in Greek that he uses in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where he tells the Corinthians to examine themselves to be sure they are in Christ, unless they are disqualified. Yes, it is easy to say that 2 Corinthians 13:5 is telling the Corinthians to make sure they were ever Christians in the first place, but it is very hard to make 1 Corinthians 9:27 say that Paul thought he might never have been a Christian in the first place. If that is what 1 Corinthians 9:27 means, then we all need to wonder whether we were ever saved because if Paul wasn’t, none of the rest of us are!
- Romans 11:19-22 seems irrefutable to me as well. God has cut Jewish people off the one tree of his kingdom, and he has grafted us Gentiles in. He warns us there that if God cut off the native branches, he will cut us off too if we don’t continue in his goodness. What are we going to argue against this? Those branches that were grafted in weren’t really saved? No, we are branches, just like the branches of the vine in John 15. We Gentiles are grafted in “against our nature,” and I am certain all of us experience that. Just like Paul had to discipline his body and bring it into subjection, so do we! It is a fight, and like Paul, we must not consider ourselves to have attained, but keep pressing forward if we hope to attain to the resurrection of the dead (Php. 3:8-15).
- Both letters of Peter are my final example. Both letters are packed with warning. Every time Peter talks about the great gifts of God, he warns us about our part in walking in them. Though he tells us we are “kept by the power of God,” he means the same thing Paul means by that phrase. If we will “make every effort” and “discipline our bodies to bring them into subjection,” then God will make sure we win that battle. It is his power, not ours, but if we shrink back from the effort, it will be to destruction. After Peter tells us of the great work of God in us in 1 Peter 1, he goes on to tell us of what we must do in verses 13-17. Then he goes again into all God has done for us, which gives us no excuse for not “laying aside all malice, guile, hypocrisies, envy, and malicious speaking” (2:1). Thus the warning in 1 Peter 1:17 that God will judge us by our works. It is not possible to cover all of 1 Peter in this list item, but there is a reason that Peter writes that God “sets his face against those who do evil” (3:12), or that “the righteous are scarcely saved” (4:18). Of course, 2 Peter speaks for itself. It needs no commentary in the context of this post.
I could write these things all day. There are dozens of passages like this. In Revelation 3, Jesus tells the church in Sardis that only a few of them have undefiled robes and that only those will walk with him in white. Then he reminds those with spiritual ears that we must overcome so that our names are not blotted out of the Book of Life. In seven letters, he uses “works” or “deeds” a dozen times! How many of us write letters like Jesus?
It is true that those works are not any works. We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. Those works are God’s will, and he is guiding us like a loving Father along that path. Nonetheless, we must hear the warnings of Scripture not to get tired of doing those works. Even when they are done the Spirit, we can grow weary and fail (Gal. 6:8-9). We must fight to go forward, and God will ensure you win. Shrinking back, though … giving up, growing weary, settling in, coasting, and growing comfortable, those are scary places when the assurance of your calling and election depends on “doing these things” and “making every effort” (2 Pet. 1:10). If God frees you from the corruptions of this world, beware entangling yourself in them again! (2 Pet. 2:20-22).
This isn’t a very exciting post, I know. So let me tell you the results of this kind of teaching because I also teach on the great and precious promises of God quite often.
We discuss things like this in our church, and our church meetings are all discussions. We only rarely have teachings with one person up front teaching. When we do, our members quickly say, “Well, of course.” If asked what they are hearing from me, they say, “If you started on this course, you have to keep going even if it’s hard. You have to keep going forward. God has given us the Holy Spirit and grace to make sure we can do that. It is only right that we would be judged for not doing it.”
There is not a spirit of fear in our church, and there is an important reason why. They know they must continue in the faith, so they have sought God for the means to do so. In doing so, they have found him faithful. So will you.
To preempt your comments, my dear and honored friend Jon, I have no idea why you wonder whether you are making every effort when you face the kind of battles you face. Blessed are those who do not [feel], yet believe anyway. If anyone presses and wrestles, it is you. Our God is a merciful God, and if he has made your trail unusually difficult, then surely he will give you unusual rewards for having traversed it. You are ahead of us who “feel” it, not behind.