A friend, A. D., sent me a quote from a seminary professor who argues that there are saving promises in the NT that are not clearly irrevocable. Or, stated differently, that professor argues that one can believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of his past sins only and be saved. Here is a portion of the paper that A. D. cited:
…We are just establishing that assurance is of the essence of faith and that this assurance principle applies to any and every promise of God listed in the Bible. If the faith is in a promise dealing with forgiveness of sins, we are assured that our sins are forgiven if we believe the promise. Thoughts of eternal life or eternal security may not even be on the radar screen when one trusts in Christ for forgiveness of sins. But if the promise is one dealing with life with God forever (John 11:25) and assurance is of the essence of faith, then faith in that promise includes the assurance that one will live with God forever.
But saying that assurance is of the essence of faith is not the same as saying that saving faith includes belief in eternal security. If the promise is forgiveness of sins, then to believe it means to have the assurance that one’s sins are forgiven. It says nothing about future sins, the key issue when speaking of eternal security. To be sure, when Mary believed Jesus’ words to her concerning His being the resurrection and the life, she had assurance that she would be raised and live with Him forever. The assurance is linked to the promise given. To say that one must believe in eternal security to be justified brings us back to the questions of whether the only clear statement regarding what is required for justification comes in the Gospel of John and whether the life John references is always an indication of linear time. The issue is not whether assurance is of the essence of faith for Hebrews 11:1 says it is. The issue is whether or not there are other promises outside of John which are adequate to transfer us from death to life (emphases added).i
I had read that paper before. But I either missed or forgot that point.
I found three terrific positives in that statement.
The first thing I love about that quote is that the author agrees that assurance is always of the essence of faith. That is, whatever we believe, we are assured/convinced it is true.
Many theologians argue that it is possible to believe and not believe at the same time. That is, of course, impossible. If you are convinced something is true, then you are convinced. If you are not convinced, then you are not convinced. It is not possible to be convinced and not convinced simultaneously.
Kudos to this professor for recognizing and promoting this truth.
The second thing I love in that citation is the fact that the author suggests that one must believe God’s promise, or in this case, one of God’s promises, related to eternal salvation. Some theologians have suggested that we do not need to believe in any promise in order to be born again. The promise is considered a result of the new birth, not something that must be believed to attain it (see this April 2018 blog by me, this September 2021 blog by me, and this January 2022 blog by me.)
The third thing I love in that statement is the fact that it is focusing on what the Scriptures say that one must believe to be eternally saved. It is not focusing on church history (though he does earlier in the paper), logic, philosophy, or consensus theology. The point is that we must believe whatever Scripture says we must believe.
I also found three concerns in what he wrote.
My first concern is that the writer speaks of different (i.e., non-synonymous) saving promises that if believed result in the new birth. What he is saying is that while justification is always by faith alone, apart from works, there are different messages we can believe to be justified. The Lord in John’s Gospel did not speak of different saving messages. Nor did the apostles in Acts or in their epistles. This leads to my second concern.
My second worry is that the author does not point us to any evangelistic texts that say the one who believes in Jesus receives the forgiveness of his past sins. He simply assumes his point is true. In John’s Gospel, the only evangelistic book in the Bible (John 20:30-31), the Lord Jesus never mentions the forgiveness of sins prior to His death.ii He never said, He who believes in Me has the forgiveness of sins.
Peter’s words to Cornelius and his household might seem to fit the bill. He said, “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). However, we know from the words of Cornelius in Acts 11:14 that he had been told by the angel that Peter would tell him “words by which you and all your household will be saved.” When Cornelius and his household heard the words of Acts 10:43, they understood that whoever believes in Jesus received not only the forgiveness of sins, but also eternal salvation.
My third issue is that the citation given above is implicitly arguing that works salvation is a saving message. Nearly everyone in Christendom teaches that at the moment of faith a person’s past sins are forgiven. That is true of Catholics, Orthodox, and all Protestants. Even the cults teach that.
Don’t many passages rule out belief in salvation by faith plus works as a saving message?iii
Yet according to the author, if someone believes that he starts the Christian life with temporary salvation and temporary forgiveness of sins, he is eternally secure, even though he believes he must work to keep his salvation and to gain the forgiveness of his future sins.
Thank you, A. D., for pointing me to this quote.
i David R. Anderson, “Is Belief in Eternal Security Necessary for Justification?” CTS Journal (Spring 2008): 58. See here.
ii After He rose from the dead, He told the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:23). That is probably speaking of forgiveness as part of church discipline. In any case, it is not a promise that whoever believes that Jesus has forgiven his past sins is eternally secure.
iii See, for example, John 4:10, 14; 5:39-40; 6:28-29; Eph 2:8-9; Rom 4:4-5; and Rev 22:17.