Election and Perseverance. College Studies Series. By C. Norman Sellers. Miami Springs, FL: Shoettle Publishing Co., 1987. 193 pp. Cloth, $12.95.
Divine determinism and human free will occupy opposite poles on the theological spectrum. Invariably, whenever one attempts to emphasize one over the other, the balance is disturbed. Robert Shank’s doctrines of election and eternal security presented in Elect in the Son (Springfield: Westcott Publishers, 1970) and Life in the Son (Springfield: Westcott Publishers, 1960) upset that balance since they are based entirely in man’s choice. Sellers’s Election and Perseverance is a response to Shank. His thesis is that Shank’s views are unbiblical, noting that the Bible teaches unconditional security and particular election for all believers (p. iv).
According to Shank, election is corporate. By this he means that it is the Body of Christ that is elect as opposed to individual believers. Christ is the only Elect One and His election is the “one electing act of God” (p. 25). Since all believers are “in Christ” (Eph 1:4) and comprise the corporate Body of Christ, their election is only secondary in that they become elect when they believe and are placed in Christ’s Body. Therefore, since Shank maintains that a believer’s election was not established in eternity but in time, it is an election of the regenerate in time rather than an election of the unregenerate before time. As such, a believer’s election is conditional since it is based on man’s choice by faith in Christ rather than on God’s unconditional choice. Shank believes the Church’s election parallels God’s corporate election of Israel and that “foreknowledge,” a key term in election, means prescience, i.e., seeing what will happen in the future.
In response, Sellers appeals to: (1) a text which questions the inclusiveness of every Israelite in Israel’s election (Rom 9:6), (2) passages which support particular election (e.g., Acts 13:48; John 6:37, 65; 2 Tim 1:19), and (3) a lengthy analysis of the term “foreknowledge” (prognōsis). Regarding Israel’s election, Sellers states that though Israel was God’s elect, “they are not all Israel who are descended of Israel” (Rom 9:6). Then, texts which support particular election, he writes, override Shank’s doctrine, and “must be reckoned with in the formulation of a truly biblical doctrine of election. Corporate election cannot adequately explain these passages” (p. 47). In opposition to Shank’s definition of “foreknowledge” as prescience, Sellers defines the term as a pretemporal, intimate, personal knowledge of those whom God has predestined to election (p. 60). In this sense, then, Paul’s statement “whom He foreknew, He also predestined” (Rom 8:29), means that God personally knew those whom He elected in eternity, rather than knowing the identity of those who would believe at a later time.
Sellers’s critique of corporate election is followed by his evaluation of Shank’s doctrine of conditional security. According to Shank, since the believer’s election is based in his faith rather than on God’s choice, salvation remains secure. But should he abandon his faith, he may forfeit eternal life. Shank supports his thesis by appealing to Christ’s discourses (e.g., Matt 13:1–23; 25:1–13, 14–30) and other passages in the NT which warn of the dangers of sinful living, lack of perseverance, and apostasy (e.g., Acts 5:1–16; 1 Cor 9:24–27; Heb 10:26–31).
Recognizing that warnings imply danger, Shank’s concerns are legitimate and he deserves credit for giving diligent attention to scriptural admonitions and warnings. But by failing to take at face value passages which guarantee eternal life to all who believe (e.g. John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47) his interpretations are inadequate to stand up to careful scrutiny.
In his response to Shank’s doctrine of conditional security, Sellers fails to improve on Shank’s postulations in that he removes the severity of the warnings and admonitions for Christians by means of defective hermeneutics in reading theological assumptions into the texts. This is the major weakness in the book.
Sellers’s chief assumption is that the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints provides an interpretive panacea for the problem texts mentioned in Shank’s doctrine of conditional security. Because “faith that saves is faith that continues” (p. 129), Scriptural injunctions and warnings are only a means to an end, “by which the believer is nurtured and brought more and more into conformity to the image of Christ” (p. 190). In other words, there is really no danger in warnings because the genuineness of faith is seen in perseverance.
This assumption, it seems, leads to three further problems. First, it forces Sellers to equate the term “believing” with “abiding” (p. 95). Secondly, he unjustifiably severs texts to serve his own intent. For example, he asserts that 2 Tim 2:11–12a refers to believers while 12b–13 refers to unbelievers (pp. 139–40) and that the term “believe” (pisteuō) in Luke’s account of the Sower in 8:5–15, “is used in verse 12 to denote ‘actual saving faith.”‘ (p. 85). Thirdly, the author’s view of perseverance leads into a theological dead end. Since Sellers believes that all true believers will continue in faith, he is forced to conclude that apostasy is impossible for believers. Thus, in his discussion of the warnings in Heb 6:4–6 and 10:26–31, which he believes are written to believers, he has no option but to accept a very dubious interpretation of the warnings; namely, that the warnings are hypothetical (he offers no personal opinion on their correct meaning). In presenting this hypothetical view, Sellers’s position on perseverance results in confusion: “Therefore while apostasy for true believers is not possible, the warnings about the consequences of it are used as a means to keep it from happening” (p. 153). This is a contradictory statement because what cannot occur (apostasy) cannot be prevented from occurring.
Apart from his rebuttal of corporate election, Sellers’s work leaves much to be desired. One looming question he has ignored in his book is the problem of sin in the life of the believer. He agrees with the Apostle John that “If we saY that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not m us” (1 John 1:8). But to what extent may a believer sin? Is there a limit? If so, what is it?
Shank’s Arminian solution (conditional security) to the question of sin in the life of the believer lacks an adequate scriptural base, and Sellers’s book may be commended for challenging Shank. Unfortunately, Sellers’s position of perseverance lacks coherence and creates more problems than it solves.
Hank B. Slikker