Preservation and Perseverance: Part III

leatherbook.jpgThe apostle John was a Calvinist.

Well, let me think about that for a second.  Okay, no, he wasn’t a Calvinist.  That’s a bit of an anachronism.  Still, when I want to read a biblical author that declares the absolute sovereignty of God over all things, including our own faith and salvation, there is no better place to go than the gospel of John (with the possible exception of Romans).

But as much as I love to read of God’s absolute sovereignty in Romans, here’s what I so love and cherish, as a pastor, about the Gospel of John: When you read Romans, you know you’re reading about God’s absolute sovereignty over all things for his own glory.  It’s obvious.  Romans is a dense theological treatise, written to a reasonably well-educated bunch of people.  When you’re reading it, it’s not likely that you’re going to make a mistake about the genre of what you’re reading.  No one is going to pick up Romans and get the impression that they’re reading a narrative or a biography.

But John is much more insidious (if I can use that word positively).  John will make you think you’re reading a story about some sheep and a shepherd, about knocking back a few too many at a wedding shindig in Cana, about a master washing his followers’ feet, about a nice guy who prays a lot.  But that’s where you’re wrong.

Well, you’re not wrong.  John does talk about all those things.  But just below the surface, John is declaring the absolute sovereignty of God over all things just as powerfully and compellingly as Paul is.  You just have to pay closer attention in order to see it when you’re reading John.  John was the first biblical author I preached as a pastor because I wanted to give my flock a rich and deep vision of the power and glory of God without really letting them know that that’s what I was doing, because I was mainly talking about shepherds and sheep, vines and wine, light and darkness.

One of the most obvious places we see this sort of thing is in John 10:25-29: “25 Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.'”

Within the veil of agrarian language, in these five verses, are powerful statements about unconditional election (v. 26), irresistible grace (v. 27) and, most pertinent to this discussion, the doctrine of the preservation and perseverance of the saints (v. 29).  Let me make three brief observations from v. 29:

First: Jesus says it is the Father who keeps us in his hand.  It is the Father who refuses to let us go.  The person, emotion, experience, circumstance, sin, demonic force, devil, etc., who would aim to snatch us out of the Father’s hand—who would have us foresake the Father and reject our faith—is not contending with our will, but with the Father’s great hand.  You are not as strong and as faithful as you think you are, friend.  If you knew the forces aligned against you, that seek the destruction of your faith, you would not believe that you are strong enough to keep yourself in the Father’s hand even for one day and you would be right.  Only the Father’s powerful grasp can and does keep genuine believers in his hand.

Second: Nothing can snatch us out of his hand.  Arminians are quick to want to insert an exception into Jesus’ statement along the lines of: “Well, sure, nothing else outside of our own free decision can snatch us out of the Father’s hand.  If we want to remain with him, we can and he will help us do just that.”  That’s close to a plausible reading, but not quite.  The Greek word beneath “no one” in v. 29 is oudeis, and it is universal.  It means “no one,” or “no person.”  To argue that we ourselves, as believers, are not included in this statement is to disagree with the text itself.  To argue that this statement still allows that believers can remove themselves from the Father’s hand is, in essence, to say to Jesus, “You really don’t mean what you say you mean.”

Third: Any statement, then, regarding whether or not a genuinely converted believer can fall away from the faith is a statement about God’s power.  Jesus doesn’t include any extraneous words in v. 29.  He includes the phrase, “My father…is greater than all” for a reason.  God’s ability to keep his chosen ones in his grasp demonstrates his power and sovereignty.  If we can bring ourselves into his grasp and then, by our own simple act of choosing, elude his grasp in spite of his desire for us, then God is a lesser God.  He is not mighty enough to overcome our corruption and save us ‘to the uttermost’ (Heb. 7:25).

It may be helpful to close with a question.  While it is a subjective question, it’s helpful nonetheless.  If God means to be worshiped and glorified (Calvinists and Arminians agree on that), which understanding of him makes one want to worship him more?  Would you more passionately worship, glorify and treasure a God who holds us in an open hand and is grieved, but willing, to let us jump out of his gracious hand and into eternal agony?  Or, is He more worthy of worship, glory and adoration who brings his chosen people to himself and exerts his power and authority, as a good shepherd, to keep his beloved sheep in his fold for their eternal good?

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15 thoughts on “Preservation and Perseverance: Part III”

  1. I agree. Whenever someone wants to discuss Calvinism, I always start in John 6. It’s hard to argue with vs. 44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.” That chapter is also useful because there are some verses that seem Arminian mixed in with verses that clearly show God’s sovereignty in salvation.

  2. I’m not sure if this makes me a Calvinist or an Arminian, but I believe that those who are raised to eternal life are there because God wants to be with them. Those that enter into eternal damnation are there because they do not want to be with God. It’s that simple — and that complex. In the language of computer programming, God executes perfectly written code that anticipates and handles properly every exception in the data, without being the cause of those exceptions.

  3. I agree with your interpretation, Bryan, which I’m sure you know. But I’m intrigued by your subjective question. Of course God’s power to preserve his saints makes him even more worthy of glorification, but that is only obvious if you see yourself as part of the in-group. Actually, my encounters with non-believers and nominal Christians has shown me that many believe a limited atonement (what I believe to be the opposite side of the perseverence coin) is a deplorable act. I disagree, but I can see their point. I worship God much more passionately when I remember that he will not let me jump from his hand. But there are many who believe that any God who would select some to place in his hand and some to leave out is not worthy of worship at all. Indeed, for some that is the very reason they choose against Christ. Objective denial through subjective opinion.

  4. “But there are many who believe that any God who would select some to place in his hand and some to leave out is not worthy of worship at all. ”

    which is similar to the questions posed by Epicurus/Hume on the ‘Problem of Evil’, i.e.:

    “Is God willing to prevent evil but unable to do so? Then he is not omnipotent. Is God able to prevent evil by unwilling to do so? Then he is malevolent (or at least less than perfectly good). If God is both willing and able to prevent evil then why is there evil in the world?”

    Amazing how many Christians believe this deep down and have not sorted out the answer… (which many secularists to this day believe has still not been answered…) No wonder so many flounder.

    DJ

  5. Kyle,
    I understand your point, and I know that even people who are in in “in group” (believers) have a hard time with limited atonement. Still, there are plenty of people who believe that God preserves the saints without believing in limited atonement (4-point Calvinists), and worship God for his preserving grace.

  6. I will stick up for limited atonement/particular redemption/definite atonement. You can all beat me up 🙂

    The following is certainly not original with me. I first heard it from John Piper:

    Everyone “Limits” the atonement. The only question is “in what way do we limit it?”. There are two ways in which this is done;
    1). The Arminian view (Universal redemption) limits the atonement by stating that Christ did not accomplish a “finished” work on the cross. He only made salvation possible for all who will believe. This limits the “intent” of Christ. Christ’s crosswork did purchase “prevenient grace” which is given to all equally. Prevenient grace removes enough of the taint of Original Sin to enable each individual to make a choice to believe or to reject Christ.

    2). The Calvinistic view (particualr redemption) limits the “scope” of the atonement by stating that Christ’s work on the cross is a “finished” work. It procured the salvation of all of those “given” to Him by the Father. As we are all guilty of rebellion against God, all deserve eternal punishment. Yet God chose, graciously, to save some.

    Both views believe that Christ’s atonement is sufficient to save everyone in this world and a thousand besides. Neither limits the “value” of the atonement.

    Both views believe that Christ’s atonement is only “efficient” for those who believe.

    The question we face is which is the scriptural point of view?

    This one will get me in real trouble:
    In terms of evangelization, do we expect that the Gospel will necessarily be “appealing” to the “natural” man?

    James

  7. I must say, even as one who believes firmly in limited atonement, that I am far more apt to worship God for his preservation than I am for his limitation. I suppose their are some theological truths we do not like. And, I suppose, truth is not designed for our benefit, but flows from the decree of God himself. One thing is for sure, it would be hard to accuse a Calvinist of having created an anthropocentric God!

  8. Well, James, regarding your last part (on evangelization) – that’s what changed for me after my revival when I first started understanding “Calvinism”. Whereas I was scared to share my faith before, trying to figure out ways to share with others that would engage them and not offend them, after my revival I suddenly didn’t care so much. No, I don’t want to be insulting, mind you, but now I see the gospel as a power in and of itself, that the Holy Spirit will decide on how to use it to stir the heart of the hearer. Meddling in it meant that I simply didn’t share the gospel as often as I could because of trying to figure out *how* I should. I have far more trust now in God to do his part. Funny, I find more people are open to it than I thought would be (harvest is many, laborers are few…)

  9. sorry, but I just don’t get all the back patting going on here.

    What about the meta-perspective – a calvinists style pascals wager: how does it bear on my life/actions if Calvinism is true? vs how does it bear on my life/actions if Calvinism is not true?

    Either God has done all the work or he has not done all the work (and someone/something else participates).

    What yields greater likelihood of christlike behavior – living *as if* I have some responsibility/accountability or living *as if* i have none?

    My guess is that *it depends* on who you’re talking to.

  10. Billy,

    It depends on what you are saying people should be living “as if (they) have some responsibility/accountability” *for* – for their sin or for their salvation. It is my understanding that true “Calvinists” (a term for another discussion that has been discussed elsewhere in this blog and others on this website) take *full* responsibility for their sin and *no* responsibility for their salvation.

    As for the “wager” – how the beliefs I now have after my revival affect my life versus before I experienced the revival (and before I understood some of the points of “calvinism”, I don’t know that I agree with them all), well, it’s a night and day difference. Understanding these things, and understanding God better, simply put, made me trust *Him* more and not myself. As such, the joy He’s given me is so great that I can hardly contain it (Jer. 20:9) and where I was scared to share my faith before, now I’m excited to share my faith (in love and with joy!), leaving the “persuasion” and “conversion” work to the holy spirit and not myself. I don’t have to “convince” someone anymore, just joyfully share my faith! 🙂 That’s why Col. 4:5-6 meant so much to me, because I love how these verses tell me “how” to share :). That is why these understandings are so dear to people’s hearts because it *radically* bears on our lives (incredible growth) and actions (incredible new desires to share our faith and to rightly love others).

    Food for thought, for what it’s worth…

    DJ

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