Eternal Security Vs. Conditional Perseverance

by Ray Moore and Mike Stine

The subject of eternal security (or lack thereof) is a topic that has been of debate in the church since it began.  Letters from Barnabas dating back to 70- 130 AD strongly elude to a lack of salvation.  The first strongly noted opposition came from Origen (circa 225 AD).  Even Origen seems to flip back and forth in his beliefs, although it is difficult for us to truly discern what he means as many of his writings are rather ambiguous.

Today, the debate appears to be broken up usually into two camps, Calvinism and Arminianism.  Calvinists tend to cling to the sovereignty of God, while Arminianists hold to the free will of man.

Calvinists hold to five points in their doctrine, one of which pertains directly to eternal security.  “The precise ones God has elected and drawn to Himself through the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith.  None whom God has elected will be lost; they are eternally secure.”  (Moody 480)

Arminianists also hold to five points in their doctrine.  In the 1610 Remonstance five articles were written by Arminius’s followers.  Article five pertains to conditional perseverance.

“That those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the words of Christ, John x:28:”Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.”  But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy scripture which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with full persuasion of our minds.”

In order to attempt to come to a conclusion on this matter (although we realize that we really can’t because theologians have been arguing this matter for centuries) we have determined three prime factors surrounding this discussion.  They are: a person’s views on election, grace, and perseverance.

While election and grace are not directly related to eternal security, we feel that they must be brought into discussion  because they bring about a basis for many beliefs surrounding eternal security.

We should also note that we take a more philosophical approach to this issue.  While we do use biblical arguments, any theologian, as they’ve been doing for years, can say that we have a wrong interpretation of any passage we may use.  Therefore an appeal to reason is taken.

The next three points will be in a debate format with a presentation of an argument and then a rebuttal.

Next Section – Election

Arminianism vs. Calvinism

Arminianism was started by Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). He was born slightly before John Calvin died and was actually taught by Calvin’s son-in-law. He was a Calvinist until one day when forced to defend his beliefs and found that his opponent could more ably defend his views against Calvinism. This caused Arminius to reject his Calvinistic background and “sought to modify Calvinism so that ‘God might not be considered the author of sin, nor man an automation in the hands of God.’”

There has been a great amount of interest in the basics of Arminianism and Calvinism and I’ve finally decided it was time to compare and contrast both views and try to give some biblical support for each view.  This has been a debate for four centuries and I can in no way be considered the authority on the subject, so I will limit my discussion of what the Bible references mean and instead will simply say what arguments are used for each point.

I personally do not hold to either view and would not consider myself to be of either camp.  However, I will offer as a disclaimer that I do lean more to the Arminian side.  I believe that I can fairly offer arguments for both camps but my own personal biases may be displayed in some cases.

The clash between these two views comes down to a matter of free will and whether we have any at all as compared to what God wills.  Some will say that God will override human will in all cases if God wills something different.  Others say that God gave humans free will and because he created humans with free will, he will not override.  Finally, there are some who do not believe humans have free will and that the sovereignty of God causes everything to happen.

I will examine the five points of Calvinism and contrast them with Arminianism.  To save my fingers from typing the words a hundred times, I’ll use (C) for Calvinism and (A) for Arminianism from now on.

(C) Total Depravity vs. (A) Natural Ability

Total depravity is best explained by quoting Romans in saying, “no one seeks God, no not one.”  Because of an inherent sinful nature, man does not search for God and will not ever.  Natural ability is not the idea that man can save himself but rather once prodded by the Holy Spirit a person may choose Christ.  Man, while flawed, is not so bad that he will never look to God on his own.  (This, in my own thoughts is contra the above scripture from Romans)

(C) Unconditional Election vs. (A) Election based on (fore)knowledge

In Unconditional Election, God hand selects who is going to be saved.  No matter what a person may have to say about it, God is going to save them despite themselves.  Good examples of this are Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians and the Apostle Paul.  Both were in the business of persecuting the people of God.  Nebuchadnezzar spent seven years as a madman before turning to the Lord while Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus .
Election based on (fore)knowledge acknowledges that the Bible speaks of people being elect.  The argument is made that God knew how a person would react to the gospel before it was ever presented to them.  It is not a matter of God forcing His will on anyone, but rather God knew they would become saved and God chose them because of that.  Despite Paul’s free will seeming to be violated, it could be argued that God knew Paul would become a Christian and thus elected him and never forced anything upon him.

(C) Limited Atonement vs. (A) Unlimited Atonement

This argument is a bit difficult to explain, but I’ll try my best.  In limited atonement, Christ died only for the elect.  If he died for those who were not elect, his blood was either wasted or it would have overridden the will of the non elect and they too would have been saved.  This is the point which some Calvinists stumble.  Some willingly accept the other four points of Calvinism but believe in unlimited atonement.  They are dubbed by some as “four point Calvinists.”
Unlimited atonement is much easier to explain and to believe for most.  Christ died for the world.  “For God so loved the world…”  To not believe in unlimited atonement means that inclusive words such as “world” or “all” only refer to all the elect.  While this has been argued, it seems a stretch under the original meaning of such texts.

(C) Irresistible Grace vs. (A) Prevenient Grace

Irresistible grace is the notion that when God extends grace to a person, they have no chance, opportunity, or will to reject it.  Just as in the case of unconditional election, the person has no choice over the matter.  Prevenient grace is grace that is extended to a believer before salvation.  It is a matter of God opening the doors to heaven and a person choosing for themselves to walk through.  If God does not open the door, the person cannot get in, but just because the door is open does not mean the person will walk through it.  The person still has free will, this grace allows the person to choose God that would otherwise be unable to do so.

(C) Perseverance of the Saints vs. (A) Conditional Perseverance

Perseverance of the Saints is the idea that once a person is saved, they are always saved.  Because God has elected them and they had no choice in the matter, no one has any choice in the matter of becoming “unsaved.”  Proponents cite that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit upon salvation and that nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Conditional Perseverance believes that salvation is dependent upon faith.  If a person stops believing in Jesus to take away their sins, they are no longer saved.  Those who believe in once saved always saved will say that a person would not stop believing in Jesus once they are saved and the situation is merely hypothetical.  Believers in conditional perseverance cite that ongoing belief is required in the Bible.  Even John 3:16 says “anyone who believes” not believed at one time, but is in the act of believing.  Numerous epistles in the New Testament also exhort people to overcome and promise eternal life to those who do so.  If overcoming was guaranteed upon salvation, the exhortation would be foolish.  There’s a lot more to be said on this matter as it is an entire different debate.  You can read more here.

Both sides have some questions that need to be answered as far as I’m concerned.  Of course there have been answers offered, but I have yet to find answers that suit me on a few of them.

(A) How can man come to God unless God opens the door?  If God doesn’t open the door to everyone, then he must still “elect” those he opens the door for.

(A) How do you get around the sealing of the Holy Spirit upon salvation?

(C) The Bible says that God desires all to be saved.  If God is the only instrument necessary in salvation and man has nothing to do with it, why doesn’t God save everyone?

(C) What is the point of evangelism if people are elect – they are going to be saved no matter what anyone does?  (Aside from the fact that the Bible tells us to do it… The question is more what is the point of evangelism.)

For both- How does praying effect salvation?  Does praying change God’s mind and cause him to save someone?  Would God answering our prayers override someone else’s free will?

I don’t believe that either side has all of the answers which is why I don’t claim to be part of either side.  A compromise would be appropriate but honestly it is quite unrealistic as the sides have been split for over four hundred years.  The important thing to remember is that both believe that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ and him alone.

I do not wish to downplay the issue but as long as both sides agree on this, everything else – even what actually happens in the process of it all – is pretty trivial.

Arminian Basics

Arminianism was started by Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). He was born slightly before John Calvin died and was actually taught by Calvin’s son-in-law. He was a Calvinist until one day when forced to defend his beliefs and found that his opponent could more ably defend his views against Calvinism. This caused Arminius to reject his Calvinistic background and “sought to modify Calvinism so that ‘God might not be considered the author of sin, nor man an automation in the hands of God.’”

Arminius’s views stirred up controversy in Holland, his home.  Arminius asked to speak to the government on the issue but it was never brought before them until 1618, nine years after his death.  It was soundly rejected and his followers faced persecution from Calvinists; 200 pastors losing their posts, statesman John van Olden Barneveldt beheaded, Hugo Grotius imprisoned for life but escaping two years later.

By 1625 the persecution had waned and followers began to return to Holland once again.  They spread a principle of toleration throughout the churches in Holland so that there was much more religious toleration.

England had been Arminian to some extent before Arminius was born but faced the struggles of the Purituan revolt, Oliver Cromwell, and the Glorious Revolution.  This caused “Charles II, who despised the Presbyterians, to reinstitute Arminian doctrine in the Church of England.”  This Arminianism wasn’t exactly the same as that taught by Arminius but was similar.  John Wesley (1703-1791) later championed the Arminian beliefs, “traveling more than 250,000 miles and preaching 40,000 sermons.”

Arminians followers responded to the five points of Calvinism (see Calvinistic basics for more explanation) with five points of their own. The following explanation of the five points is as per the Moody Handbook of Theology.

Election Based on (fore)knowledge- God elected those whom He knew would of their own free will believe in Christ and persevere in the faith
Unlimited Atonement- In His atonement, Christ provided redemption for all mankind, making all mankind savable. Christ’s atonement becomes effective only in those who believe
Natural Ability- Man cannot save himself; the Holy Spirit must effect the new birth
Prevenient Grace- Preparatory work of the Holy Spirit enables the believer to respond to the gospel and cooperate with God in salvation
Conditional Perseverance- Believers have been empowered to live a victorious life, but they are capable of turning from grace and losing their salvation

These are just the very basics of the Arminian theology.  For a more in depth discussion, check out
Arminianism vs Calvinism.  

* selected quotes taken from The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns