Once in Christ, in Christ Forever: More Than 100 Biblical Reasons Why a True Believer Cannot Be Lost. By William MacDonald. Grand Rapids, MI: Gospel Folio Press, 1997. 208 pp. Paper, $15.99.
Even though this book was first published many years ago, it is still available. The title of the book would attract many readers of the JOTGES. The author was part of the Plymouth Brethren movement, of which many Free Grace writers were a part. A reader today may think this book would be helpful in defending Free Grace Theology. The reader would be mistaken. It is a lesson not to judge a book by its cover.
The title of the book shows that MacDonald believes in the eternal security of the believer. He wants to address those verses in the Bible which appear to contradict that doctrine (p. 12). Some of his points are outstanding. He points out that eternal life is a gift, with no conditions at all. Believers are the sheep of the Lord and can never perish (John 10:4-5, 28; p. 16). Even the believer cannot snatch himself from the hand of the Father. A Christian cannot remove himself from the body of Christ (p. 37). Perhaps the best statement in the book is MacDonald’s comment that it is the “consistent testimony of the New Testament that God gives eternal life to those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” This life cannot be forfeited (p. 43). On the issue of assurance, the author states that we cannot add works of any kind to the offer of salvation. No believer can know if he will meet those standards (p. 49).
However, MacDonald quickly adds conditions to this offer. Good works are the result of true salvation. There will be fruit in the life of the believer (p. 20). Christ will ensure our “continual” salvation through His ministry in our lives (p. 30). The author also hedges his bets when he refers to those who are “genuinely” born again (p. 47). James 2 is a passage he thinks proves that such people will manifest their new birth with good works (p. 98). True faith might have a temporary lapse, but repentance will take place, and the faith will live on. John 8:31-32 also shows that believers will abide in the teachings of Christ (p. 103).
Concerning Romans 8, the author says that predestination means that God knew who “would choose Christ as Savior.” Romans 8:31-39 also teaches the eternal security of the believer and is not describing the experiences of a believer who suffers for Christ (p. 23).
MacDonald takes on the warning passages in Hebrews and concludes that they are addressed to people who were never saved in the first place. If a person apostatizes, this is proof that he was not a believer. MacDonald seems to imply that a person who claims to be a believer and renounces the faith can never be saved, but it is not clear (p. 61). He thinks true believers can never renounce their faith; the Lord will not allow it (p. 177).
The author does not see 1 John as a book addressed to believers only. The sin that leads to death in 1 John 5:16 refers to spiritual death and describes the fate of unbelievers. The same thing is true for the apostates in Jude (pp. 75-76). In the Parable of the Four Soils, the first three soils do not produce fruit and are a picture of unbelievers (p. 82). There is no such thing as an unfaithful servant, so such a “servant” in the Parable of the Talents is cast into the lake of fire (p. 88). Any person who loves the world and claims to be a Christian, such as Demas (2 Tim 4:10), is a liar (p. 89). Simply put, Demas was an unbeliever, even though he professed to be a Christian and had served along with Paul for some time.
MacDonald does have a good, but short, comment on rewards. He says that the good works of the believer will result in eternal rewards that will be enjoyed in the kingdom. Verses which speak of such things deal with discipleship and not the reception of eternal life. There is a difference between the two. He plainly states that rewards are earned, and salvation is not. Believers who momentarily backslide will experience the temporary discipline of God (pp. 110-11, 151). The branches who do not abide in Christ in John 15:1-8 are believers who experience that discipline. They lose their testimony and are rejected by men as hypocrites.
It is not difficult to see that MacDonald engages in contradictions. He maintains that there are no conditions for receiving eternal life but often speaks of the reception of that gift as needing to meet certain conditions. These conditions cannot be measured. For example, regarding 1 John, he says that believers cannot “habitually sin,” even though all believers sin (p. 125). We should doubt the salvation of any professed believer who backslides but also realize that if he repents, we should conclude he really was a child of God after all (p. 129). We might have misjudged a true believer who was experiencing the discipline of God in his life.
This book is disappointing. A reader looking at the title might expect a book that would encourage him in grace. What he would find, however, is typical Lordship fare. Not surprisingly, MacDonald favorably quotes John MacArthur’s view of salvation and discipleship (p. 160). After reading the book, one would be left questioning whether he had eternal life or not. What good is the teaching of eternal security if no one can know whether he has it? This book is a reminder that many who teach the eternal security of the believer in one minute rob the listener of that assurance in the next. There are plenty of books like it. I do not recommend this one.
Kenneth W. Yates
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society