An Ex-Calvinist’s Tiptoe Through TULIP – Perseverance of the Saints
The final tenet of the Calvinist TULIP doctrinal statement is the “Perseverance of the Saints.” This teaching contends that after having undergone a genuine conversion experience, a Christian, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, cannot turn from the faith and forego that seal of salvific assurance, having joined the elect. Christ stated that no one can be snatched out of the hand of God [John 10:28-29]. Since it requires irresistible grace and unconditional election for a totally depraved person to convert to Christ, it therefore stands to reason that those who truly are elect do not fall away; if a purported believer does leave the faith they are not of the elect, and their faith clearly was not genuine.
It feels strange for me to articulate an alternative to this view as I often outlined arguments in support of perseverance of the saints in the past. 2 Timothy 2:12-13, for example, seemed to be a clear affirmation that true believers cannot “lose their salvation”:
If we endure,
We shall also reign with Him.
If we deny Him,
He also will deny us.
If we are faithless,
He remains faithful;
He cannot deny Himself.
This seems to say that those who are not saved will end up denying God while those who are saved will ultimately endure, even if they undergo periods of faithlessness, since on the Day of Judgment God cannot condemn the Holy Spirit dwelling within those who are true Christians.
CONVERSION EVENT VS. THEOSIS
Evangelicals commonly debate this “can one lose their salvation?” hot topic and develop highly convincing scriptural support for both viewpoints. But the issue with even spending time on this discussion at all is that it is a point of contention built upon a premise that existed nowhere in Christendom prior to the later years of the Reformation in the West, receiving emphasis in the Great Awakening movements. This premise is the overstressing and reduction of salvation in Christ to a dramatic mental conversion experience where one accepts Christ and “gets saved.” The advance of this thinking to the fore of Protestant thought caused the abandonment of the concept of salvation as a journey, segregating this growth in Christ-likeness to something one should do in gratitude to God for their assurance of a previously accomplished salvation event. The juridical nature of Western concepts of the atonement, which I discussed in my article on Limited Atonement, introduced the need for a “justification” event where one is legally declared righteous before God at conversion, and all progress in “sanctification” is a subsequent endeavor that holds no bearing on redemption in Christ.
The Eastern concepts of atonement and salvation hold any such “justification” and “sanctification” as intimately intertwined; not because becoming a better person is required to receive God’s justifying grace, but because “getting saved” involves a repentance – a turning around and reorientation – of our being, which saves us from ourselves in order return to the image of God. In marriage, the wedding ceremony is not the definition of the marriage covenant, although it is an important initiation sacrament to officially begin the journey. But it is the day-to-day struggle, enjoyment, co-working, and growing-in-communion process that we place the emphasis on when we describe “marriage,” because the covenant is something we have to live out together. Although the initiation experiences of mental conversion, belief, and baptism are important to begin our covenant marriage to Christ, it is the lifelong journey of growing in the greatest communion possible with Him that is the means of “working out our salvation.” And many times one does not truly fall in love with their spouse until long after the initiatory ceremony of their marriage.
The term that the Greek Fathers used to describe salvation is Theosis, the process of becoming like God. This takes an eternity to progressively become more like our Lord since He is infinite and we are finite, walking on the narrow path towards the small gate [Matt. 7:13-14; Luke 13:24] in order to be refined and purified through our life experiences. Ancient Christians were not interested in saying sinner’s prayers only to receive Divine pardon, but in being “filled with all the fullness of God,” [Eph. 3:19; 4:13]. Everything that happens to me that aids in overcoming my passionate sins and helps me intrinsically become more like my Savior is a part of my salvation. From this perspective, how does one quibble over whether someone can lose what is yet to be fully attained? And why would Scripture speak of a final judgment if we have already received our due? Christ’s words are not “he who is saved will endure to the end,” but that “the one who endures to the end, he will be saved,” [Matt. 24:13].
SHOW ME A BIBLE VERSE
Rather than only point to a few obscure Bible verses to prove my point, I urge readers to take a presuppositional approach and attempt to read Scripture through this historic lens of salvation as Theosis, which I believe will illumine many previously unclear passages. However, I will cite a few biblical examples on the topic of perseverance of the saints. In the parable of the seed that fell on several kinds of ground [Luke 8:11-15], all but the final seed which fell on good soil actually receive the faith and “believed for a while” but then ultimately “fall away,” [vs. 13]. The ones who endure are those who “bear fruit with perseverance,” [vs. 15] showing that our salvation is tied to our life condition much more than whether we can point to an event of conversion in our past.
Scripture also consistently warns believers to continue striving and not to fall away, but never speaks of a “total assurance” system, or that if one is a true believer then they will remain faithful. See for example Colossians 1:22-23:
. . . yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.
Following Christ involves a daily effort to continue on the path of the faith, making progress in personal transformation; thus we are charged to take up our cross daily in that pursuit [Luke 9:23]. This is why we simply cannot make soteriological judgments about those around us when their journey looks different than ours. The Orthodox Study Bible comments on the bearing of our cross:
Note two things: (1) Each person must take up his own cross. The burden in this world is different for each person, and each has been chosen by God to bear certain struggles for his own salvation and the salvation of those around him. (2) The cross is to be taken up daily. Commitment to following Christ is not just a one-time event. Rather, it is the continual practice of faith and obedience, even to the point of being shamed and persecuted by the world.[i]
Quite frankly, the Apostle Paul himself does not seem to have absolute assurance of his own salvation or that he will definitely persevere, especially in the language of Philippians 3:10-14:
. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
WHO ARE THE SAINTS?
In discussing the “perseverance of the saints,” the above understanding of salvation also applies to what it is to be a saint. The Orthodox understanding of saints is that all believers are truly saints; but at the same time, not everyone reaches the same level of Theosis in their earthly life. As my priest Father Thomas would say, while many of us may play basketball, we will not all be Michael Jordans. So the Church puts a capital “S” on those figures that most especially exemplify what it is to be a Christian for us to imitate as we bear our cross in the real world.
The process of Theosis, however, will remain incomplete until we accomplish martyrdom. “Martyr” in Greek means “witness,” the name given to those killed for their faith because a total death to self is involved in testifying to Christ within us. Be it physical or spiritual, martyrdom is the goal of our salvation where we join the Lord in trampling down death by death ourselves, as typified in our baptism. This is why the Church does not canonize or consider anyone officially as a saint until after they are deceased. The Orthodox Church also reflects this mindset in the annual celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. This is the commemoration of Mary’s death where she is seen as a symbol of the Church, subjectively accomplishing in the personal life of the one who bears Christ what Christ has objectively accomplished in His incarnation (see my article on Mary). Perseverance is the precursor to becoming saints, not the other way around as in Calvinism; we must fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith [2 Tim. 4:7] to be saved.
PLUCKING THE TULIP
This concludes my series outlining the thought process I traversed in losing my conviction of five point Calvinism. As is the case with many other contemporary teachings and practices clouding the air of our day, the horizon begins to become clearer when we look back at our Christian roots. The word “radical” comes from the Latin term for “root,” and with all the current hype about becoming “radical Christians,” this must involve a look back at where we originally came from. When I undertook this endeavor, what I found was far removed from what I expected.
The TULIP system along with most other modern “Christian” movements are simply the product of an extensive period of time of attempted biblical interpretation that was divorced from the Apostolic Tradition of the historic Church, as more and more misled doctrinal constructs were built upon presuppositions false from the beginning. Let us cease speculating and trying to force Bible verses into our “doctrinal” systems and instead return to the wisdom of the Fathers, the Ecumenical decisions of the councils, and the Tradition of the Apostles as preserved within Christ’s Church, which is the pillar and support of all the truth [1 Tim. 3:15].
[i] The Orthodox Study Bible. Footnote on Luke 9:23. Elk Grove, CA: St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. P. 1383.