There is nothing here to teach that a man can be saved, then lost, then saved again. Such a thing is taught nowhere in the Scriptures. There is only one reason why people ever teach anything like that and that is that they forget the doctrine of regeneration. They put so much emphasis on a man’s decision.
-D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: Romans – To God’s Glory
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. For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
One of the key points of Calvinism is the concept of the “perseverance of the saints”. The idea behind that concept is that “the saints” or those who “truly believe” can never lose their salvation. Crudely this point is frequently expressed in the slogan of “once saved always saved”.
I won’t go into an exposition the full system of Calvinism but merely to note a point of interest regards the perseverance doctrine, the point which Lloyd makes regarding the fact that the Bible never speaks of anyone who has lost their salvation and then regained it. I shall then explore a suitable modification to the perseverance of the saints doctrine before looking at its impact on the assurance of salvation.
While the Bible is clear that people can fall into sin, even very grievous sins, and then restored in mercy, the Bible never actually speaks of anyone who has lost their salvation regaining it. As Hebrews 6 above puts it very pointedly, for those who fallen away from salvation, it is literally impossible to renew them again to repentance.
No doubt there has been many devices employed to explain this passage and temper the force and awfulness of its implications. However when we combine the prima facie obvious reading of this passage with Lloyd’s observations that no one in the Bible who has lost their salvation has ever regained it, we may need to consider seriously the idea that those who have lost their salvation will never regain it.
The implications of this premise cuts both ways against the Arminian and the traditional Calvinist doctrine. For the Arminian this premise underwrites the Calvinist point that salvation isn’t a matter of human decision, as Lloyd points out, for you cannot “decide” to be renewed back into repentance. For the Calvinist if people can lose their salvation effectually that means that the “once saved always saved” formula is not quite correct.
While it might suggest that Novatian, the (in)famous “anti-pope” and rigorist, may have a point in his argument that those who have “fallen away” from the faith cannot be restored to repentance but can only be perpetual “penitents” and commended to the mercy of God, Novatian is still wrong however in thinking that we can actually know the true inner state of anyone to judge whether or not that person has truly been saved or has truly lost their salvation. As such even if we grant the premise that those who have lost their salvation cannot regain it, it doesn’t mean that we are able, on this side of heaven, be able to conclusively know or prove that anyone has in fact been saved and then lost their salvation. The proposition that once lost always lost does not as such imply that we can in fact be able to identify the reprobates or those who have lost their salvation, as it were.
If the “once saved always saved” is not quite correct that may suggest the following modification to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. I remember reading somewhere, I think it was Peter Leithart, who suggested that the doctrine should read “perseverance of the elect” rather than “perseverance of the saints“. The difference is this: a “saint” was simply any baptised Christian who enjoyed the experience and benefits of salvation. However as Hebrews 6 implies, such a Christian can in fact still lose their salvation. However, not all such “saints”, who are empirically and experientially Christians (as in those who have “tasted of the heavenly gifts”, even practised holiness and righteousness, etc), are “elect”, predestined by God to be saved and persevere to the end. Those whom God has elected however will persevere to the end.
What will such a modification mean? It will be consistent with the prima facie reading of Hebrews 6 that those who are “saints” or empirically/experientially Christians can lose their salvation. However it will eviscerated any “consolatory” value of the doctrine of the perseverance. This is because no experience or practice can serve as conclusive evidence that one has in fact been “elected” unto salvation, since such salvatory experiences, as well as works of righteousness, are consistent with those who are not elect and may perish eventually. Just as no experience or empirical evidence can serve as conclusive proof that someone has lost their salvation, likewise no experience or empirical evidence can serve as conclusive proof that one has in fact been elected.
If “assurance of salvation” is not a matter of finding “evidence” of our salvation or damnation, what this will entail is the sweeping away of the large body of Puritan divinity, the “experimental religion” where one attempts to determine the state of one’s soul or election via introspection. Since no salvatory or spiritual experience can ever serve as conclusive evidence or proof of one’s election, we instead will need to adopt a more “Lutheran” posture towards assurance of salvation.
The Lutheran approach to assurance of salvation is that instead of trying to ascertain whether one is the elect via introspection or inference from one’s life, one should simply look to Christ and his salvation as offered and promised in Word and Sacrament. In the words of Philip Melanchthon precisely on the topic of predestination:
“Yes,” you might say, “but I cannot believe that God gives me his Holy Spirit!” True, but we should know that God gives his word even to us and that he wants to give us the Holy Spirit, just as he gives us his word. Inasmuch as he has called us, we should accept his word and Holy Spirit. Having heard the gospel, we should not consciously continue in sin or remain mired in doubt, foolishly thinking, I will wait until I feel God’s miraculous rapture upon me. These are the words of enthusiasts and Anabaptists. The heart should trust itself with God’s word, and immediately the Son of God himself will work in us and strengthen us with his Holy Spirit, and at the same time we should beseech him to help us, for Christ says, “How much more will your Father give his Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” And the terrified man in Mark 9:24 pleads, “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief.”
-Loci Communes 1555, “Chapter XV: Of Eternal Predestination and Reprobation”
As such one does not attempt to infer or guess one’s election from one’s subjective state. Instead one simply makes an existential leap, as it were, to simply trust and believe the Word and general promises held out in the Scriptures for us and our salvation. One does not attempt to guess at one’s election but to have a living trusting relationship with Christ via faith.
This is also the approach commended by the Anglican Articles of Religion where in Article XVII concerning predestination it concludes with the point that
…we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.
So while acknowledging that for godly persons the consideration of election and predestination can be edifying, it can even confirm faith, especially when coupled with internal evidences, however eventually we must still receive God’s promises as they are set forth in the Scriptures and follow the will of God as “expressly declared unto us in the Word of God”. It is there where the salvation is infallibly and truly located and not within us.
Salvation is ultimately simply a matter of faith, a matter of believing and trusting in God’s revealed promises. It isn’t a matter of introspection, inferences or construction of one’s righteous state from one’s life. It is a living trust in Christ and we “know” that we are saved simply by a living faith. It is “ineffable” in that sense and cannot be enunciated or deduced or inferred from introspection or evaluation from one’s own righteous living.