The Security of the Believer, Part 1: Calvinism and Arminianism

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“Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.” ( 2 Peter 1:10)

“All Christians sin every day in word, thought, and deed,” asserted a Calvinistic friend.

Knowing that he was a sincere, godly pastor, I interrupted, asking, “Are you telling me that you knowingly rebel against God’s authority and deliberately commit sins in word, thought, and deed daily?”

He looked at me in surprise and said, “Oh no, that’s not what I mean! I believe a true Christian walks in all the light he has and purposely strives to obey God. What I mean by saying that I sin daily in word, thought, and deed is my failure to measure up perfectly in every respect to the standard of God’s Word.”

“Oh,” I replied. “You are talking about being perfectly Christlike in every aspect of your attitudes and actions—in other words, the perfect man who measures up to ‘the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:13).”

“Yes,” he agreed, “that’s what I mean.”

I responded, “What you are calling sins are not deliberate acts of disobedience but what a Wesleyan Arminian like myself would call ‘sins of ignorance’” (see Lev. 4). I continued, “When a Wesleyan-Arminian talks about sin, he is usually speaking about a willful transgression of a known law of God—a deliberate, purposeful choice to disobey Him.

We Wesleyan-Arminians believe that God grants us the grace through the power of the Spirit to walk in all the light He gives us, so as not to commit willful sin. Any sin of ignorance we may inadvertently commit is automatically cleansed by the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7).”

How Many Willful Sins Can a Christian Commit and Still Be a Christian?

According to R.B. Thieme, “It is possible, even probable, that when a believer out of fellowship falls for certain types of philosophy, if he is a logical thinker, he will become an ‘unbelieving believer.’ Yet believers who become agnostics are still saved; they are still born again. You can even become an atheist; but if you once accept Christ as Saviour, you cannot lose your salvation, even though you deny God” (Apes and Peacocks or the Pursuit of Happiness, 1973, p. 23).

In the first section above, I was sharing a conversation I had with a Calvinist. In the next section I was quoting a “neo-Calvinist.” I am a Wesleyan Arminian. All of us have definite ideas and beliefs about sin and the security of the believer. Which of us is right? Before we seek an answer, let’s look at our text of Scripture. Peter has just enumerated seven spiritual attributes that each Christian is to add to his faith: virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, charity.

If we possess these qualities in increasing measure, he assures us, they will keep us from being ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8). He says to believers, “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.”

So Peter is urging professed Christians to make sure that they are in a right relationship with Christ, promising that they need never fall from grace. Here is true security for a believer. It is one of the great doctrines of the faith!

Peter is urging professed Christians to make sure that they are in a right relationship with Christ, promising that they need never fall from grace

But it’s almost impossible to talk about it without producing strong emotional responses. Those who embrace unconditional eternal security believe that those who believe in conditional eternal security are denying the promises of a faithful God and coming perilously close to blasphemy. They also falsely assume that those believing in conditional eternal security believe that they are kept by their good works.

On the other hand, those who believe the Bible teaches conditional eternal security believe that those who disagree with them fail to take the warning passages of Scripture seriously. They insist that the proponents of unconditional eternal security are teaching the ancient lie that Satan told Eve: disobeying God would not effect one’s spiritual standing with God (“You surely shalt not die,” Gen. 3:4). Why is there so much controversy among people who equally cherish the Bible as God’s infallible Word and are studying to show themselves approved unto God… “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15)?

I received fresh insight from a young Baptist minister whom I had been privileged to lead into the Spirit-filled life (Ephesians 5:18). As we discussed the whole issue of conditional versus unconditional eternal security, he said that many who believe in unconditional eternal security are taught that one is saved by faith and kept by promise.

As we examined the scriptures, he came to see that God’s promises of security apply only to those who maintain a faith relationship. As Romans 1:17 says, “in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith” (NIV).

God requires people to respond to His gracious working in their life and exercise believing faith continually from the start to the finish of the Christian life (see also Rom. 1:5).

Understanding Theological Labels

When discussing the security of the believer, we are tempted to tag those who disagree with us with a theological label, then dismiss what they say.

For example, to label someone a “Calvinist” or an “Arminian” and then dismiss him as “heretical” or “dangerous” does little good.

Further, many people really don’t understand the meaning of such labels. Let’s take a moment and briefly define the meaning of some commonly used theological labels.

Subdivisions of Calvinism and Arminianism

We must first define the terms “Calvinism” and “Arminianism.” The injudicious “labeling” that occurs today usually reflects a lack of careful definition and understanding of the terms used.

It may come as a surprise to learn that there is still debate over the proper definition and theological implications of the terms “Calvinism” and “Arminianism.” Mildred Wynkoop,

Mildred Wynkoop, author of Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology, suggests the subdivisions within each of these groupings that we shall now consider.

Calvinistic Groupings

CALVINISM (SOMETIMES CALLED “HIGH” OR “EXTREME” CALVINISM)

This persuasion insists on these “five points of Calvinism”:

  1. Total depravity,
  2. Unconditional election,
  3. Limited atonement,
  4. Irresistible grace, and
  5. Perseverance of the saints.

These are frequently referred to by the acrostic TULIP. When discussing the security of the believer, a Calvinist does not like the phrase “unconditional eternal security.” He prefers the phrase “perseverance of the saints.”

“They whom God has regenerated and effectually called to a state of grace can neither totally nor finally fall away from that state, but shall certainly persevere therein [live a holy life] to the end and be eternally saved,” as Louis Berkhof explains in his Systematic Theology, p. 545.

The Calvinist denies the doctrine of “free will” and refuses to make the perseverance of the saints “dependent on the uncertain obedience of man” (Ibid).

NEO-CALVINISM (OR “MODIFIED” CALVINISM)

This persuasion advocates only the first and a modified form of the last of the “five points of Calvinism”:

  1. Total depravity (#1 above) and
  2. The preservation of the saints (#5 above).

Note that the neo-Calvinist changes the emphasis in the fifth point from perseverance (continuance in holy living) to preservation (being kept by God).

The Calvinist says that a true believer will live a holy life, walk in all the light God gives him and hate sin. If a professed believer goes back to a life of sin, the Calvinist says such a person was never saved.

Neo-Calvinists, on the other hand, say that once a person is saved, he is always saved, no matter how much he sins after conversion. They stress “imputed righteousness,” arguing that from the moment of the new birth, God looks at a believer through the blood of Jesus Christ and does not see his sinfulness.

For the neo-Calvinist, this imputation provides unconditional eternal security.

WESLEYAN-CALVINISM

This persuasion accepts the first and last points of Calvinism, but emphasizes the need for a further work of God in the heart. Great emphasis is placed on the concepts of “surrendering” and “consecration” to God. They believe that the depraved heart cannot be cured but that the Holy Spirit can exercise great control over it. This view is called “Wesleyan” Calvinism, because it attempts to embrace Wesley’s doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit. This view is also identified with Keswickian teaching.

Arminian Groupings

ARMINIANISM

This persuasion accepts only the first tenet of Calvinism—that is, that all are totally depraved. It teaches that Christ died for all and that anyone who is quickened by God’s free grace may come to Christ.

However, an unsaved person may resist God’s grace and love, and believers may make eternal shipwreck of faith if they choose to reject God’s truth.

WESLEYAN-ARMINIANISM

This persuasion adds to the doctrine of justification by faith the twin doctrine of entire sanctification by faith. It teaches cleansing from inherited depravity and a filling of the Spirit which empowers the Christian to be a witness for Christ (Acts 1:8).

We must understand that the emphasis in the popular media on “once saved always saved” is not the position of the Calvinists but of the neo-Calvinists, who compose so much of today’s evangelical Christianity. The neo-Calvinists oppose “lordship salvation,” for they teach that you can take Jesus as your Saviour without taking Him as your Lord.

 


 

Originally published in God’s Revivalist. Used by permission.

Allan Brown
Dr. Allan Brown is Professor and Chair of the Division of Ministerial Education at God's Bible School & College. He holds his PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of several books and articles.