My last few posts have sought to explain the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of sin and election. Thus far, I have attempted to show that the bible teaches that because we are enslaved by sin, we are unable to choose to follow Christ. As a result of our spiritual deadness and slavery to sin, there is no hope for mankind to be saved unless God first set his love upon some, not because of anything about those people or because of any decision they made, but as a free decision on God’s part to bring glory to himself by showing mercy.
This raises two important and related questions that those in the Reformed tradition believe the bible answers. First, can anyone resist this sovereign choice and work of God in such a way that a person God has chosen is not actually saved through faith? Second, can anyone fall away who has been chosen by God in such a way that they continue in unbelief and unrepentance throughout their life after initially believing? Reformed Theology argues that the bible answers both these questions with a negative.
The best way I can think to answer these questions is by examining further the doctrine of regeneration that was briefly mentioned in my last post. Because we are spiritually dead, we must be born again, given new life from God by the Spirit, in order to exercise faith. And faith, is evidence of the new birth.
The first thing we must deal with is how God brings about the new birth. The bible is clear that God calls us and makes us new through this calling by his word. A great example of this is found in John 11 where Jesus calls Lazarus up from the grave. Lazarus was dead, but by the power of Jesus’ words, Lazarus is raised from the dead. Lazarus could not resist this call for he was dead one moment and alive another. He could only have remained in the grave alive, but even then, the power of Jesus’ call effectively raised him from the dead and compelled him out of the grave into fellowship with Jesus.
This is exactly how the new birth happens in the elect. God sets his love upon some from eternity past, and then he calls them through the preaching of his word to make them new. This is also clear in John 6. After feeding the 5,000, Jesus began to teach the crowds who had marveled at his power. There were many who were impressed by Jesus, until he taught them further. They liked him for his power, but they didn’t like the difficult things he taught, for one, that their works could not commend them to God but rather, eternal life comes through faith (Jn. 6.29 & 60). As Jesus explained that he is the true bread of life, he says: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” This is a clear statement concerning election (the Father gives some to the Son), and perseverance of the elect (whoever comes I will never cast out). Thus, none of the elect are lost. But, just after saying this, he also explains in verses 44-45 that only those whom the Father calls can believe in Jesus and all that are called believe and persevere in faith:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard from and learned from the Father comes to me.
The first statement makes it clear that no one can believe in Jesus apart from God drawing them. The last statement makes it clear that everyone the Father draws will in fact believe in Jesus (thus no one can resist this calling). The second statement makes it clear that everyone who believes in Jesus will persevere in faith throughout their lives and be raised up on the last day. And the third statement explains how a person is born again: they are taught by God when they hear the good news and are quickened to life by the Spirit. Jesus uses a quote from Is.54.13 to explain that only God can teach them who Jesus is, and anyone who learns from the Father will come to Jesus. This verse reference is a typological application of the passage. In the same way the holy faithful remnant was taught by God in exile to repent and believe to be restored, so too the true Israel, the messianic community will repent and believe in Jesus as a result of the Father’s teaching. This is what theologians call the effectual calling where God by his Spirit, through the preaching of the gospel, quickens the elect and gives them new life so that they respond to the gospel in faith.
Before I go much further, I need to distinguish between a general call of God and this effective call mentioned above. It is true that when anyone preaches the gospel, God is calling people to believe in Jesus. God’s word is God speaking now, and thus, when we preach the gospel to elect and non-elect alike, God is appealing to people to trust in Christ. However, no one will respond and be saved unless God works by his Spirit to bring a person to life through the new birth. Thus, in a general call, God often speaks effectively to some. So, it is good and right for us to offer salvation to anyone we meet by preaching the word and calling men and women to faith and repentance. But, we must always know that the effectiveness of this preaching and invitation is dependent upon God’s free choice to work through it to draw men and women to himself.
This distinction between a general call and an effective call is important when we read the bible. Most of the time, when we see the word ‘calling’ in the New Testament, it is being used to refer to the calling believers have received when they were born again through the washing of God’s word. Take Romans 8.30 for instance: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Here we see the doctrine of election, effectual calling, and perseverance all connected together. God chooses some, every single one he chooses he calls effectively, and every single one he calls effectively is justified through faith and perseveres to the end and is thus glorified at the return of Christ. None are lost. Christ purchased the elect with his own blood and we can be confident that “he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” (Philippians 1.6).
At the risk of beating a dead horse, we should also look at I Peter 1.23, which explains this effectual calling and its relationship to the doctrine of perseverance in a different way. Peter says: “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” The new birth comes about through the word of God which is imperishable. The life that comes in the new birth is the very life of Jesus. We are united to Christ through faith as an effect of the new birth, and thus the life we receive through faith will not perish, but endure because Jesus has eternal life. None who are truly born again can fall away.
Now, if you have followed what the bible says thus far on these issues, you will probably have some questions as to how these teachings relate to two things. First, how do we deal with the passages of scripture that seem to suggest that a person can fall away and lose their salvation? Second, how do we deal with the real life situations where people who have been living within the life of the church, partaking in the sacraments, and exhibiting signs of Christian character, but who eventually walk away from the faith or embrace false doctrine?
First, it is true that there are a number of passages that appear to suggest that a person can be saved but then lose their salvation. Hebrews 6.4-6 says:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
And again in Hebrews 10.26-27:
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
At first glance, both of these verses seem to imply that there are some people who are truly born again who continue in sin to such a degree that they lose salvation and will not be saved. However, this is not the case. The author of Hebrews argues throughout the letter that continuance in faith, repentance, and obedience is a test of the reality of the person’s faith. The author is actually stating a practical fact, that those who have lived life among the covenant community and experienced privileges of walking among Christians and hearing the preaching of God’s word along with the visible demonstration of the gospel in baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the most difficult persons of all to reclaim for the faith if they walk away from God. The point is, that those who experience the covenant community and reject God by continuing in unrepentant sin are people who will be convinced by nothing else to turn back to God. Thus, these people are not actually true believers.
This first answer help us to deal with the second issue of the real life situations where people walk away from God after demonstrating general Christian faith. I John 2.19 explains what is going on with those who are part of the visible church for a time but then leave: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” We must not assume that just because a person prayed a prayer of repentance at some point in their life they are saved. Those with true faith do not continue to walk in unbelief and unrepentance. Many people appear to be Christians for a time, but eventually show themselves to be unregenerate. So we must take the warning passages seriously, and trust that those who are born again will respond to the warnings with repentance and faith.
I have often heard Christians say that God is love and that love never forces itself on anyone. Others say that God never forces us to do anything because that isn’t love. Probably most often, I have heard people say that God doesn’t force anyone to love him because love cannot be forced. While these ideas may seem true at first glance, this is not what the bible teaches about love. Rather, that is an Enlightenment Romanticized notion of love that has filtered down into popular culture through Hollywood. The bible clearly teaches that God’s love doesn’t just force itself upon us, but it totally changes who we are. Apart from the new birth which God affects through the Holy Spirit, no one would ever love or choose God. God does not force us to love him against our will in one sense. It is not as if in our hearts we hate God but somehow he controls us so that we love him with a conflicted psyche. Rather, he loves us against our unregenerate will by giving us a new will and a new everything altogether. He loves us against our will so that we will be a new creation that does love him! Real love is to give someone what they need, not necessarily what they want. Real love doesn’t give a drug addict his drugs since that is what he wants. Real love takes that drug addict against his will and throws him into detox! Parents who know how to love their children do not give them everything they want, but rather teach them what they should want. These are both analogies that do not quite get to the dramatic change that comes about in the new birth, but they do show us that we must grow up and let go of the Hollywood love that so many of us try to impose upon God.
Our final look at the doctrinal teaching of Reformed Theology will come in my next two posts. It is there that I will explain how all of these benefits can be given to us in the first place. We will examine the nature and scope of the atonement.