This is the third (and final) part of a three-part guest post by David Bates of the blog Restless Pilgrim, on the topic of the doctrine of eternal security, better known as “Once Saved, Always Saved”:
In the last two blog posts I critiqued the Scripture interpretations of Mack, a commentator on my Once Saved, Always Saved post. Mack had responded to my article, claiming that I had been misapplying Scripture passages to support my argument that it is possible to lose your salvation. If you would like to read my two previous replies, they are available here and here.
We have nearly finished looking at Mack’s commentary, so please pour yourself one last cup of tea and we’ll take a look at the final two passages…
Text #6: Hebrews 3:12-14
“Take care, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living
God. But exhort one another every day . . . that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end”
Hebrews is addressed to Hebrews, just like James 1:1 is. We should be reluctant to contradict church age theology in the epistles Paul wrote to gentile Christians by citing what was addressed to Jews. Apparently God allowed these books (James and Hebrews) to be written early (see Act 12:2) prior to Acts 15 as a way to put into the Bible passages that would have [doctrinal] application during the tribulation. That is a complicated answer, but falls under the heading “rightly dividing the word of truth” which is another lengthy topic.
Complicated indeed…as I have absolutely no idea what Mack means! I really don’t see the significance of a Hebrew audience. Is he suggesting that the New Covenant works differently for Jews and Gentiles?
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you areall one in Christ Jesus – Galatians 3:28
I’m also puzzled because he speaks about “church age theology” as though the Church wasn’t in existence when the epistles of James and Hebrews were constructed… :-/
Rock blunts scissors, paper covers rock and Paul beats Jesus
I asked a few of my friends what they thought Mack meant and one possible theory was suggested…
My friend explained that some Christians consider Hebrews, James and even the words of Jesus Himself to be something like a “Middle Testament”. It is asserted that this “Middle Testament” was written for Jews and therefore treats legalism as salvific.
It is then asserted, rather worringly, that this “Middle Testament” was then superseded by Acts and the epistles of Paul. That’s right…some Christians assert that the words of some New Testament authors abrogate the words of Christ. That’s quite a shocking claim! Now, Mack might not espouse such a theology, but it does seem to make sense of the above comments.
Like I said, I’m not sure what Mack’s main point is here, but I think it’s worth pointing out a few things.
Firstly, he assumes that the author of the New Testament epistle is James the Apostle. From this belief he concludes a very early date of composition. However, it is often asserted that the author is, in fact, James the bishop of Jerusalem. Not only that, but a good case can be made that the Epistle to the Romans was written before the Epistle of James.
Secondly, although James’ epistle is addressed to the “twelve tribes of the dispersion”, it doesn’t necessarilymean that it was written for Jews alone. Even with a very early date, the Gentiles had already entered the Church (Acts 10) and spiritually had become part of Israel.
Finally, Mack speaks about James and Hebrews being written prior to the Council of Jerusalem. I can see that he bases James’ early date on his assumption concerning the epistle’s author, but I’m not quite sure how he reaches this conclusion for Hebrews. However, even if he’s right, what is the significance of those two books having been written early?
If’s, but’s and maybe’s
But back to the verse in question. Again, Mack neglected to comment on the important clauses that were underlined. The author to the Hebrews says that some may “fall away from the living God” and that we share in Christ “if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end”. So, what happens to us when we fall away? What happens if we don’t hold our first confidence to the end?
So once saved, always saved? I’m afraid it doesn’t sound like it to me….
Text #7: John 15:1-6
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”
[This passage] has to do with fruitfulness, not salvation. The branches are cut off and burned “by men” not by God.
I’m again confused by Mack’s response. He doesn’t explain how it is that he knows that this passage “has to do with fruitfulness, not salvation”. I also don’t know why he says that “The branches are cut off and burned ‘by men’”. After all, back in verse 1, Jesus identifies the vinedresser.:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser – John 15:1
Either way, it is clear that Mack and I have very different understandings of this passage. The main difference is that I think this passage refers to salvation. I will attempt to demonstrate this by walking through the text…
A garden variety Catholic interpretation
Jesus says that He is the Vine. Attached to the Vine are branches. Since these branches are in Christ we know the branches are Christians. Jesus says that if we remain in Him, attached to the Vine, we will bear much fruit. Great stuff!
However, He warns us that, without Him, we can do absolutely nothing. Jesus goes on to say that if Christians don’t remain in Him we will “wither” and be “burned”, images of death and Hell, respectively. So, it’s not simply that Christians won’t be fruitful apart from Him, it’s that they’ll die! Is this an idle warning? I don’t think so.
Wither or not?
The main point I want to make is that the Lord presents detachment from the Vine as a real possibility. It is possible to be attached, to be in Christ, but then at a later point in time to be detached, cut off from Him.
So, I have to ask, is it possible to be severed from Christ and still be saved? Is Mack making the incredible claim that the saved will still be saved, even if they do not remain in Christ?
So once saved, always saved? I’m afraid it doesn’t sound like it to me…
So that’s my response to Mack’s interpretations of the passages I presented. I would like to thank him again for his thoughtful comments, but I still think that you have to do a lot of exegetical gymnastics to make “…cut off…fall away from grace…[and] alienated from Christ…” mean something other than what it sounds like…the loss of salvation.
“Those who do not obey Him…have ceased to be His sons”
– St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4.41.3
– St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4.41.3