By Paul Carpenter
On a late winter night in the spring semester of my senior year in 1975 at Miami Christian College, in Miami, Florida, my world came crashing down around me. I had been postponing a dreaded assignment: write a major paper on the meaning of Heb 6:4-6. The text reads,
“For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God, and put Him to open shame” (NASB).
A cursory reading suggested to me that for some people there was no hope for eternal life, precisely because they had had some kind of ineffective, superficial spiritual experience.
But assignments have to be completed, so at long last, I sat down with trepidation to do my work.
No Comfort in the Commentaries
I opened the commentaries to get to work. There was no comfort in any of them. They seemed to confirm my fears.
The worst was William R. Newell’s, Hebrews Verse by Verse. As I understood him at the time, the passage pointed to someone who came close to getting saved, and then fell away. Now he could not get saved. It was not so much that he was rejecting God, but that God was rejecting him. So, though this person most earnestly wanted to get saved now, God refused to save him because he had crucified “to [himself] the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Heb 6:6b KJV).
Looking for a Changed Life
I was raised in a Christian home in central Missouri. My father was a Southern Baptist Pastor, having been saved through reading a Gideon Serviceman’s New Testament in the Navy in the last half of the 1940’s. Eventually, he felt “called to preach” after his five years of duty were complete. He was called back for the Korean conflict, thus the five years were not served in succession. So it was in the late 1950’s that he took his first pastorate without the benefit of formal Bible school training or seminary.
Dad was an avowed Dispensationalist, but his favorite theologians on the subject of salvation were Reformed and Puritan. They had a heavy emphasis on the sovereignty of God, divine election, and predestination.
According to their view a saved life was necessarily a changed life, and the Holy Spirit will inevitably produce sanctification in the believer. Failure in the Christian life was inconceivable in light of “sovereign grace.” Therefore one ought easily to be able to look at his life subsequent to salvation and ascertain from the good works or fruit springing forth that he really is a Christian. Contrarily, the absence of such evidence would supply potential proof that one was not a Christian.
I assumed that was true. So did our church. And we also assumed that assurance was to be derived from one’s good works, or one’s changed life generally. Those were also the assumptions of the evangelists who preached in our church. If you were doing anything on their particular list of sins you were clearly not a Christian, or at least there was a good possibility that you were not. Doubt was introduced on the basis of failed conduct.
Did all this mean that we did not believe in eternal security?
Not at all!
In fact, the content of the gospel, as I remember it, was relatively clear, though admittedly there was confusion introduced in requiring the walking of an aisle, confessing of sins, and asking Jesus to come in to one’s heart, etc. We believed in salvation by faith and the eternal security of the believer.
The problem arose in knowing whether or not such marvelous truths had been applied to oneself.
If one could ever determine whether they had been applied, then at long last, one could have peace of mind. I never found that peace except for a few days after I had walked the aisle for salvation in my youth. Thereafter I was regularly plagued with doubts, particularly under certain kinds of preaching wherein I was confronted with various standards of righteous living which were considered to be required of true or genuine believers. Yet, I always tried to rise higher in my Christian life so that at long last, I could produce the necessary evidence that would suffice to quiet my own troubled conscience.
Off to Bible College
So off to Calvary Bible College in Kansas City, MO, I went at age seventeen to prepare for whatever life of service God had for me. Instead of the sought-after assurance of heart, I found plenty to fear in my classes.
Again and again, I heard that if there was insufficient holy living, it was time to call into question one’s salvation.
I cannot begin to tell you how many chapel speakers, for example, regularly urged the students to reexamine their initial salvation experience to test its validity. How would you ever be able to tell for sure? What kind of an experience would suffice? How could there be objective proof? Not finding the answer, my doubts grew deeper.
The ramifications were far reaching.
For example, if a person was not certain of his salvation, then of course he could not know whether he had the Holy Spirit and was free from sin. He was very likely the slave of sin, and really did not have the power to say “no” to temptation.
I began to be assailed by temptations to commit the most abominable acts, and felt like the only power that I had to resist them was my own strength. This was frightening! Oh, how I cried out to God! But I could not seem to reach Him.
Same Song, Different Dance
Just before my senior year, I transferred to Miami Christian College in Miami, FL.
Things did not improve.
I cannot begin to tell you how many times in that first semester I cringed all over again at the possibility that I might not really be a Christian.
The teaching that a saved life is necessarily a changed life, and if there is not sufficient change, then there has been no salvation, was even more prevalent.
We heard that we were saved by faith alone, but a faith that saves is never alone.
We heard speakers rail against the abominable notion of “easy believism.” Florida Bible College, just up the road in the next county, was regularly bashed for espousing this evil notion of “easy-believism.”
I distinctly remember hearing one of my professors say, “Many Christians think they got saved when they ‘believed’ the gospel, but when they get to heaven they will discover that they were saved the moment they began to live for Christ.”
That did not give me any comfort at all, even though I was in Bible College preparing for “ministry.”
One of the reasons for this was that I had heard of more than one man who had been in ministry for many years who suddenly got saved, and then confessed publicly that up until that moment he had never really been a Christian. So what good was Bible College for offering proof?
In addition to all this, I heard reiterated the notion that bare intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel did not constitute saving faith. I was told such faith was dead faith. A dead faith will not yield justification before God, for one can believe all the right things, but if this faith is not acted upon via obedience in the form of good works, then such a person is not a true believer. The only way that a person can tell the difference is by his behavior.
Only Close to Being Saved?
Then came that paper on Heb 6:4-6. I remember reading somewhere in one of the commentaries that night, “If you are not sure of your salvation, do not read any further!” But I had a paper to write! So I blundered onward.
In reading Newell, I concluded that what he described there must be what had happened to me. The night I walked the aisle I had merely come close to being saved. I had sort of gone along with the Holy Spirit and had merely “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” but then I had “fallen away” (cf. Heb 6:4-6a). In falling away, I had committed what amounted to an unpardonable sin and I could never be renewed “again to repentance” because I had crucified to myself “the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (Heb 6:6).
I was doomed to eternity in the lake of fire!
Fear unlike anything I had ever known struck my heart at that moment. I was physically affected. I felt paralyzed, veritably frozen with fear. I had no defense whatever against the fiery missiles of the evil one. I was at his mercy, but he had none.
My life went to pieces. I walked around the campus like a zombie. Tears were a way of life.
Eventually, I was kicked off the gospel team because of bad grades, something with which I had never had trouble before. I had no capacity for study. I tried, but I could not study. I withdrew failing from all my courses. What was the use? I was going to hell anyway. Or was I? Was there a possibility that I had erred somewhere in my understanding? Had that old serpent had a great victory via deception? I wondered, but I could see no way out.
However, I began to ask a few people about my situation anyway. I would ask certain chapel speakers what they thought about my case. They tried to be encouraging, but I got the impression that they held it possible that my fears were based in reality, so they refrained from giving me any false hope. In so doing, they gave me no hope. During this whole experience I relentlessly cried out to God, just in case He might hear me.
On one occasion, I imagined that God had heard me, and had saved me. But the reality of Hebrews 6 and those awful commentaries wiped that out shortly, and my life was made worse for the experience.
Finally, I could conceal what was happening in my life from my family no longer. I called home after weeks of incomparable torture and anguish of soul, now a complete academic failure as well. My worst fear was that my own father might say, “Yes, I think you have hopelessly fallen away and there is no hope for you.”
However, just the sound of my breaking voice on the phone caused him to leap into action.
He announced with remarkable authority that this was simply a last-ditch, all out effort by the Adversary to prevent me from going into the Lord’s work.
He told me several things, not the least of which was that Jesus says, “the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37b).
Jesus did not say, “the one who comes to Me (and has not committed the unpardonable sin or crucified Christ afresh or any other added condition) I will certainly not cast out.”
I thought, now isn’t that simple?
Dad added that the next day I should go to a local Christian bookstore and purchase a copy of John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
I did. I sat in the parking lot and read the entire book. It is John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography in plain English. It was not so much that the book contained the answers, so much as it contained the struggle. I was astonished and encouraged to learn that somebody else had gone down such a similar path. I am not sure to this day that Mr. Bunyan ever really found peace in this regard, Pilgrim’s Progress notwithstanding, but I admit that the book helped me greatly.
I returned to Missouri and remained there for the rest of the year, not returning to school until the spring of 1976.
By the way, I still vividly remember the empty feeling of sitting at graduation and watching my own class graduate in the spring of 1975. When I returned to school, I cannot deny that just being there aroused old fears. For as a matter of fact, I still believed in works for assurance. Thus far, I had merely found a way to circumvent the problem by refusing to look solely at my works as a ground for assurance. I would look to my life, but when the doubts arose as they always did, I would simply quote John 6:37 or 1 John 5:1 and I would feel better quickly. I suspect that this is a regular practice for those who believe in works for assurance.
Rumours of Grace
After I graduated and got married in 1977, having worked for a few years in a secular position, I thought the time had come to “go for broke” and get into fulltime ministry. How I longed to be able to erase lingering doubts about my eternal destiny. I am sorry to say I went into ministry for the most part for that reason. So my wife Carol and I, along with our daughter Erin, moved to northwest Missouri where I began my “ministry” at Antioch Christian Church. It was an interesting place, because these people understood even less about the Bible than I did. God blessed His word in spite of my limited understanding of the basics. People were saved too, something for which I will be eternally grateful.
From 1983 to 1992 my dad and I traveled annually to the Moody Pastor’s Conference in Chicago, IL. It was there one day that I stood and bemoaned my plight to Kirk Muller who was at that time pastor of my father-in-law’s church. I rehashed off the top of my head what you have been reading here. I got to the point where I said something like, “Well, of course, we all know that a saved life is a changed life; if there’s no change, then there’s been no salvation.” He interrupted me to say, “Did you know that there is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who does not quite believe that is true?”
That was the first time I had ever heard of any such thing.
I said, “Who is that?”
He said, “Zane Hodges.”
The only thing I had ever heard about Hodges was from a pamphlet on the superiority of the Majority Text.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued.
I got Hodges’s books Gospel Under Siege and Grace in Eclipse. I thought, “If what he is saying is true, I am a free man!” But I was hesitant, because I knew of no others who were saying such things. The more I thought about it though, the more I became persuaded that he was right. Soon I became convinced that the believer’s ground of assurance was to be found in the promise alone, just as Calvin had taught.
This was transformational for me.
What freedom and what joy was now my daily experience! Moreover, though I lost my original motive for being in ministry, I now had a great message to preach. Thank God!
After moving to Jansen Bible Church in Jansen, NE in 1988, I found myself studying 2 Pet 1:10-11 which reads,
Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.
I thought those verses sounded like works for assurance. I exhausted all my resources and could find no help.
In desperation, I turned around and picked up a book off my shelf entitled, Once Saved, Always Saved by R. T. Kendall. I looked for Scripture references in the back, and there I found my verses. I hurried to look at what he had to say and found help. I later called him to discuss the issue on the phone.
He told me that Calvin said there are two interpretations of those verses. One is that you are to be diligent to prove to yourself that you are saved, and the other is to be diligent to show others that you are saved. The Puritans went with the former, and Calvin the latter view.
The former arose from Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva, who ultimately rejected Calvin’s view of assurance. Calvin had taught that assurance is of the essence of faith. From his perspective, it was impossible to separate assurance from faith.
Beza disagreed. When it came to assurance, he said, “We must begin at the sanctification which we feel in ourselves, for as much as our sanctification from whence proceedeth good works is a certain effect of the faith, or rather of Jesus Christ dwelling in us by faith.”
What was he saying?
He meant that if you want to know whether you are a Christian or not, check your life and look for the certain effects of faith.
It was this point of view that prevailed at the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1649, where Calvin’s view of assurance was deliberately repudiated. And the dominant pastoral questions became, “How do I know that I am elect? And how many good works would suffice to assure?”
The answer is that no amount offered certainty to the doubter. It followed that, “There never, never, never, was a way by which one felt that he had sufficient sanctification, by which he could now say, ‘I know for sure I am elect, and eternally and irrevocably saved’. It always eluded them” (Westminster Record, Winter 1988).
Calvin already had forecasted this outcome. Had they listened to him and not Beza, they could have saved themselves all this trouble.
Faith in the promise of eternal life is the only ground for assurance. If I had only known that!
Contending for Grace
After reading Kendall, I learned what had happened historically to assurance and it all made perfect sense. The Westminster Confession’s view of assurance holds sway in our country. That is why we have such stiff opposition to the Free Grace movement. That’s why so many people doubt their salvation, just as I used to do.
Nevertheless, we must contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints: faith alone, in Christ alone, for eternal life that can never be lost. I am committed to that. I trust that you are also.
Paul Carpenter is Pastor of Jansen Bible Church in Jansen, NE.