It’s been a while, a long while, since I’ve written anything longer than a tweet. I’m starting to wonder if I have anything more to say that what I’ve already said, and/or whether what I’ve said heretofore is worth repeating. Am I becoming a resounding gong or a noisy symbol? Probably – I need more love in my life, less theology, less prophetic posturing.
With that being said, there is one gong that I spend a lot of time sounding, and I think it’s worth the effort for me to hit it at least one more time because it’s important. This issue (what I typically refer to as the “mechanics of salvation”), causes a lot of division and angst. Division because many people are quick to correct others when they perceive them to be jumping over one ledge or another, angst because those who have given their lives to Jesus know how much they miss the mark (that, if nothing else, is plainly laid out in scripture). Therefore, it’s imperative that we know what the scriptures say about this, and how we ought to respond.
On this issue, most Christians seem to be aligned with two biblical principles:
I agree with both of these principles; take the first one out of the mix and we’ve pulled the rug out from all Christian theology – the cross serves no purpose. Take the second out, and we’re ignoring most of what Jesus actually had to say. Seems straight-forward, right?
When we dive into the details, however, it gets messy. Does bearing fruit mean that we never sin again? Are we going to hell if we slip up? How do we walk that line between cheap grace and legalism? What happens when I give my life to Christ, and then, days later find myself happily indulging in the same sins from which I just swore to turn away? Does Hebrews 6:5-6 apply to me? Am I going to hell now? If I come to Christ and now find myself woefully unable to conquer my sin, does that mean my salvation experience was just that, an experience, i.e. not genuine? Do I repent again? Do I get baptized again?
The question boils down to this: is it possible to lose my salvation once I’ve received it (or believe I have), and how will I know if that’s happened?
Essentially, there are two camps here: the Eternal Security camp (impossible to lose your salvation), and the NOT Eternal Security Camp (possible to lose your salvation).
I’m not going to side with either of these groups because I don’t know the answer, not really. The Bible clearly teaches the faithfulness of God (Deuteronomy 7:9), but it also teaches us to be on guard against our own unfaithfulness (Revelation 16:15). The bible teaches us that we’re saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), not of ourselves, but it also clearly teaches us that we’ll be judged by our conduct (Matthew 25:31-46).
Bottom line for us, I think, is that we’re not bright enough to understand this the way that God does, at least not in intellectual terms (the Bible doesn’t repeatedly compare us to the dumbest animal in the barnyard for no reason), but we can understand the ethical, behavioural implications of how we are to respond easily enough. That’s why (I think) Jesus spoke a great deal in parables.
So, with that in mind, here’s a parable of my own to explain how I understand this:
My children will, if you ask them, tell you that our household is pretty zero-tolerance on bad behaviour. We expect our kids to behave appropriately 100% of the time. While we may sometimes relax the rules or the chore schedule, there is no moment where it is okay for them to behave rudely or disrespectfully. Poor behaviour is punished; and we expect to see a positive progression in their lives in general. I know that my daughters can’t change a bad habit (of which there are plenty) overnight, but as time goes on, I expect to see maturity increasing. Never does it cross my mind to stop loving my children, never does it cross my mind to throw my children into the streets to fend for themselves (even if such a thing were legal).
This is also, I think, how it works in the Kingdom of God.
God expects us to be on our best behaviour 100% of the time. He expects us to be done with sin, to throw away the pornography, stop tilting the bottle to excess, stop throwing adult-sized temper tantrums, stop holding grudges, practice forgiveness, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He expects us to be intimately concerned with the plight of the poor, and to give until it hurts. He expects us to be meek and humble, considering others to be better than ourselves.
He expects all of this; yet I have never, ever in my life seen a Christian pull it off, not perfectly, not even close to perfectly. Those who aren’t still struggling with porn are maybe struggling with the bottle or self-medicating with prescription drugs. Those who aren’t doing either may be struggle with unrighteous anger. Some indulge unhealthy TV programming. Some struggle to let go of grudges. Some are hoarding wealth. Everyone I’ve ever met (including me) is far too comfortable judging others.
What we can infer from this is either:
As option (a) is not an option that can lead us anywhere but despair, I choose option (b). God’s expectations are for 100% good conduct, 100% of the time (Matthew 5:48). Yet God is patient, He’s realistic, and His love for us didn’t end in at the cross – it continues. Jesus paid our entry fee into God’s house; we’re expected to behave in accordance with God’s rules once we’re in that house; God is generous, loving and kind: He’s not going to toss us out again the moment we misbehave any more than I’m going to kick my kids to the curb because they forgot to clean up their dishes for the thousandth time.
Is there a line that we can cross that will get us tossed out of the Kingdom? Is there a point where God says “enough is enough” and revokes our salvation privileges? Maybe, John certainly seemed to think so when he indicated that there is a kind of sin that “leads to death” (1 John 5:16-17); unfortunately, he doesn’t do us the favour of telling us what that is.
He does go on, however, to indicate that one who is born of God “does not continue to sin” (1 John 5:18); and I believe the only thing that we can rationally infer from that, if we’re going to take seriously what he literally just said, is that there’s a difference between committing a sin (an action that displeases God), and living in sin (an openly rebellious attitude that rejects God’s right to rule).
The difference? I think it’s repentance. Remember how John starts his letter:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
John’s not speaking in the past tense. In no way does he indicate that he’s taking the time to address anyone except people who are already in the church. He’s not talking about the mechanics of salvation, he’s talking about sanctification: Christian living. Christians are not to pretend that they’re without sin; Christians are to openly, quickly and readily confess their sins and repent, again and again. He precedes the above by saying “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7) I used to think “walking in the light” meant not sinning, until I realized that this is a logical absurdity. How on earth could we be purified from a sin that we didn’t have in the first place?
No, the light in this metaphor isn’t moral purity, it’s the light of confession. We are to deliberately shine God’s light into our lives and say to our Lord “I’m sorry Lord, I repent of my sin. Create in me a clean heart”. How do you know if you’ve committed a sin from which there’s not going back? Likely? You’ll know because you won’t care. It won’t be God kicking you out of the Kingdom; it will be you deciding that you’re not interested in being a part of it.
I once knew a pastor who was caught in the act of adultery with one of his parishioners: someone he was counselling. Both he and she were married to other people. Now, as odious as that behaviour was, I believe that there was room for him to repent in that situation. It would have been a horribly humbling experience, and it would have required (in my opinion) an unqualified resignation and some serious efforts to repair the damage that he caused, but there was room for it.
Unfortunately, a year or so after the fact I ran into him, and he hadn’t chosen to repent. On the contrary, he was (no longer working for the church in question) spending his time writing a book “exposing” the hypocrisy of the denomination in question. (No idea if he ever published, not remotely interested in reading such a thing).
Now, I’m not saying that this man is going to hell. I hope not; I sincerely hope that he has repented and is now living a Godly life. But this may be the sort of “sin that leads to death” that John is talking about. It’s the sort of sin that says “I don’t care what you think or what God thinks for that matter, I’m going to do what I think best”. It’s not the sin so much as it is the refusal to repent from the sin.
Now the head-scratcher, if such a person does commit a sin that leads to death, were they saved to begin with? I don’t know. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? How do you calculate the number of the beast? Does it matter? As Alistair Begg (one of my favourites) likes to say, “the plain things are the main things and the main things are the plain things” (or vice versa, don't recall). What we’re to take from this is behavioural. As Christians we are to:
If we do these things, I don’t think we have anything to worry about. If you don’t care to do these things, you’re probably not too fussed about this anyway.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.