The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) is an association of thousands of Evangelical educators, theologians, and pastors from around the world. To join, you need a Master of Theology degree or better.
I joined ETS in 1982 when I received my Th.M. from DTS. My first ETS annual meeting was in San Diego, California, in November of 1989. I presented a parallel paper on repentance and salvation. There were maybe twenty parallel papers being presented during each parallel session. The average session would have about twenty in attendance. But since I was preceded by a paper on repentance by a leading Lordship Salvation seminary professor, I had about fifty people in my session.
ETS has a handful of plenary sessions each year. A plenary session is one in which the paper being presented is the only option that hour. Over 1,000 conferees were present when John MacArthur presented a paper explaining and defending the Lordship Salvation understanding of saving faith.
After the session, conferees could go up to microphones and ask questions. I was fortunate to get to ask a question and some follow ups. This was thirty years ago. I was thirty-seven. MacArthur was fifty.
After the event, in the Jan-Feb 1990 Grace in Focus newsletter, I wrote up my recollection of MacArthur’s answers to my question in our newsletter. I then received word that my write–up was inaccurate. I ordered an audio recording of the message and Q & A time, and I found out my recollections were not accurate. Both GES and MacArthur’s ministry made transcripts of the interaction available.
While this is a bit dated, I think it still shows the passion both of us had (and still have) and our significant difference of opinion on the matter of assurance. Here is a transcript of our back and forth:
Wilkin: I was wondering if I understood you correctly to suggest that we should test ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5)—if that is something we should continue to do throughout our lives.
MacArthur: I think the answer to that would be generally yes. The assumption of 2 Cor 13:5 is that it is not limited to some one-time event. Particularly 1 Corinthians 11 comes to mind also, where even gathering at the Lord’s Table (which is by virtue of Biblical revelation to be a continual exercise for the believer, in the ordinance) demands a self-examination process. I also think a corollary to that, and something I would want to add to what Dr. Saucy said in taking this thing further, is this whole matter of treating the ministry of the Holy Spirit’s work within us demands a certain kind of self-examination. Or at least a certain kind of communion process going on as we experience, as Berkhof would put it, the multiplicity of ways in which the Spirit of God communes to us the witness affirming our salvation. So I think it is an ongoing situation—we’re really kind of getting over into the whole matter of assurance at this point, and I think as we become assured of our salvation, that self-examination process might diminish, but I do think it can be more than certainly one occasion.
Wilkin: I guess on the assurance issue then, when would we be 100 percent sure that we passed the test?
MacArthur: Well, again you’re back to those quantifying situations. I don’t know what 100 percent means. If you…
MacArthur: Yeah, if you read say, some of the Puritans, if you read Brooks or Hooker on this, if you read Berkhof’s book Assurance of the Faith, you will find that all of them will speak of the fact that a person can be redeemed, to use your term, 100 percent, and never necessarily experience the fullness of assurance. So, there is no way to quantify that because everybody is different, and there are a myriad of factors which deal with that. I personally believe that since the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, and so forth, inherent in that is certain confidences about my position before God. And if I am exercising my flesh and living in disobedience, I may not enjoy the fullness of that. So, to say that you could reach a point that you are 100 percent sure of your salvation permanently would be very difficult to deal with scripturally.
Wilkin: Thank you.
Can a believer be sure that he has everlasting life that can never be lost? That is a major debate these days. And it was thirty years ago. And it was five hundred years ago too.
(As an aside, 2 Cor 13:5-7 does not concern assurance of our salvation. Instead, it concerns assurance that we are approved by God in our current Christian walk. I’m working on a journal article on that passage for the Autumn 2020 JOTGES.)
The Biblical answer is clear. If we believe the testimony of God concerning His Son, then we know that we have everlasting life (John 11:25-27; 1 John 5:9-13). We know we are eternally secure. That is our desire for everyone who reads our blog, our free magazine, our journal, or our books. Knowing you are saved once and for all produces a profound sense of love and gratitude, which in turn highly motivates us to please God (2 Cor 5:14; 1 John 4:19).