Friday, February 01, 2019

Can a Christian lose salvation?

I was watching a debate between Catholic apologist Trent Horn and Reformed Baptist apologist James White on whether a Christian can lose salvation:

It was a pretty high level debate by two smart, well-prepared opponents. Horn has a chapter the same issue in his The Case for Catholicism (Ignatius 2017), chap 12. Although I wrote a partial review of his book, I ignored the chapter on eternal security because it's such well-trodden ground. However, after watching the debate, I've decided to comment on his case. My remarks will be based on his book, supplemented by the debate. 

I don't know why Trent singles out one of the "five points of Calvinism" to critique? Why not all? If not all, why just one? But perhaps this is a special interest of his. 

Before discussing some specific prooftexts, I'll comment on some general methodological problems with Horn's presentation:

1. Trent accuses Calvinists of beginning with their theology and discounting certain interpretations in advance because they conflict with Reformed theology. They are reading their theology into the text. A problem with that allegation is duplicity. Every theological system has some problem passages. Passages that apparently conflict with the theological system. Every theological system tries to harmonize the problem passages with the the theological system. The question is whether that's just a prima facie point of tension, for which there's a reasonable explanation, or whether the passages are intractable. Assuming the inerrancy of Scripture, the goal is to have a theological system with the greatest explanatory power. A theological system that integrates the most data. 

Catholicism is no exception. At one point in the debate he appealed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to prooftext predestination. Likewise, he rejects what Heb 6:4-6 says about how an apostate can't be restored because that runs counter to Catholic theology. By the same token, Tridentine theology commits him to the gift of perseverance in some cases. 

2. Trent quotes Protestant scholars who agree with him as if there's something significant about the fact that there are Protestant Bible scholars who reject the perseverance of the saints. But it goes without saying that there are Bible scholars who subscribe to freewill theism. The existence of that viewpoint within Protestant tradition is hardly inconsistent with Calvinism. 

3. From what I can tell, his basic objection is that Calvinism is either internally inconsistent or inconsistent with his prooftexts. Problem is, he seems to lack a clear understanding of what the Reformed position represents.

In Calvinism there's a distinction between what I'll call nominal believers and regenerate believers. Incidentally, this has analogies in other theological traditions. 

It doesn't take saving grace for someone to believe the Bible. They can believe the Bible for the same reason they believe a story on the news, or believe what their parents or peer group tells them. Belief in Scripture, like belief generally, can be a result of social conditioning. So this isn't unique to Calvinism. It doesn't take saving grace to believe most of the things we believe. There are natural belief-forming mechanisms and psychological predispositions that religious as well as secular claims trigger. 

From a Reformed standpoint, the fact that a professing Christian loses his faith doesn't mean he lost his salvation inasmuch as his faith was never the product of saving grace, but a naturally produced belief like other naturally produced beliefs. So many of Trent's prooftexts miss the point. His prooftexts are entirely consistent with the Reformed position. Trent points to examples of "Christians" who lose their faith or commit apostasy, but Calvinism doesn't deny that. 

Trent fails to distinguish between nominal and regenerate believers or two different kinds of professing Christians. Trent says if faith is a gift from God, how did apostates ever believe unless they were true believers in the first place. But in Calvinism, bare belief isn't the same thing as saving faith. Saving faith is a gift from God–not bare belief. 

Now Trent may reject that distinction. He might think that's ad hoc. But if his objection is that certain verses are inconsistent with Calvinism, then he needs to show that they are inconsistent with Calvinism on its own grounds. 

He can try to show that the distinction between nominal/generate believers is false, but that's a different argument. That's not an argument about consistency but truth. 

I'd add that in Calvinism, a regenerate Christian can undergo a crisis of faith. In Calvinism, it's not faith that saves us but grace that saves us. Faith is a result of grace.

4. Trent commits some fallacies in semantics, hermeneutics, and theological method. For instance, when you interpret a Bible writer, you should use his own writings as the primary frame of reference. You should interpret each writer on his own terms. His own usage. The flow of argument. Trent, however, has a bad habit of using one Bible writer to interpret or explain away another Bible writer. That's bad hermeneutics and bad theological method. 

5. Trent appeals to passages where final salvation is contingent on perseverance in faith and fidelity. Once again, this fails to grasp the nature of the opposing position. Calvinism doesn't deny that salvation has a conditional or cooperative aspect. The question, rather, is whether that hinges on the independent contribution of the Christian. Or is his faith and fidelity the inevitable effect of God's saving grace? 

6. In the debate, Trent bifurcated God's will by stating that God can will or desire things which don't happen. For instance, he indicated that God can't simultaneously will sin and forbid sin. 

But that's confused. Is he expressing his own position or is he alleging that Calvinism is inconsistent? If the latter, his understanding is simplistic. In Calvinism, God does will what he forbids. God doesn't will sin for the sake of sin, but he wills sin as a necessary condition for second-order goods. Trent may disagree with that, but if so, his disagreement is irrelevant if the question at issue is not whether Calvinism is right but whether it's consistent. 

BTW, that's not distinctive to Calvinism. There are other predestinarian traditions like Augustinianism and classical Thomism, both of which were at one time honored traditions in Roman Catholicism. 

7. Because he's a Catholic apologist, unlike the average freewill theist, his outlook commits himself to the Tridentine position that God grants the gift of perseverance to those who are destined to spend eternity with God (as he puts it). That, however, generates tensions in his position:

i) That means there are two classes of Christians: those who've been granted the gift of perseverance and those who haven't. But isn't that analogous to the Reformed distinction that Trent opposes?

ii) In addition, what does the gift of perseverance confer? Presumably, it ensures that the recipient will die in a state of grace. The reason some Catholics persevere while others  don't is because some were granted the gift of perseverance while others were not. It causes them to persevere. If it didn't have that causal or determinate effect, it wouldn't explain the divergent outcomes.

But that means those with the gift of perseverance cannot fail to perseverance. It is impossible for them to commit final apostasy. But that means Trent can't infer from warning passages and apostasy passages that salvation is amissable. He must interpret the same passages the same way Calvinists do. He himself must fall back on "impossible hypotheticals". 

8. Trent says predestination means God knows what will happen and sovereignly incorporates that into his plan of salvation. He knows those who will initiallyaccept his grace and then later reject to to their own peril, and his plan takes that into consideration. 

But if predestination is based on foreknowledge, what does predestination do? What does it add to the foreseen outcome? If what God foresees is independent of predestination, what's the difference between an outcome that was or wasn't predestined? On Trent's view, doesn't predestination at most rubber-stamp what God foresaw apart from predestination? It doesn't seem to cause or ensure a particular outcome. 

9. For freewill theists, when Calvinists say an apostate was never a true believer in the first place, that may sound like the No True Scotsman fallacy. However, that's not an ad hoc explanation. Rather, it's based on the principle that salvation is by grace alone. Now, you can reject sola gratia, but if you accept sola gratia, then to say an apostate was never a true believer in the first place is an implication of that principle.

10. There's a larger context to the debate. According to Catholics like Trent, why did God save the prospective apostate in the first place if he knew they were going to forfeit salvation? Why does God revoke salvation or justification? Does God change his mind? 

11. Trent compares apostasy to losing or giving away a Christmas present. But that's a flawed analogy. A Christmas present is external to the recipient. By contrast, saving grace has a psychologically transformative dimension. The mind doesn't accept or reject the grace of faith, as if the mind is one thing while the grace of faith is exterior. These aren't separable. Rather, the grace of faith (or regeneration) operates on the mind. It creates a new predisposition. Trent may repudiate that conception, but if he's arguing against Calvinism, his comparison fails to engage the Reformed position. 

He says parents can disown (grown) children. Children can abandon parents. True, but that reflects the limitations of the human analogy. Humans are permanently dependent on God in a way that's not the case for kids of human parents. 

12. Trent says if salvation can't be lost, these warnings are nonsensical. They can't keep the reprobate out of hell and they aren't necessary to get someone to heaven because you don't need warnings. 

i) That's a classic blunder by failing to distinguish between predestination and fatalism. Predestination isn't que sera sera fatalism. In predestination, the end is secured by particular means. Not just any pathway will get you to the desired destination. 

ii) Moreover, his objection conflicts with his admission, based on Tridentine theology, that God does grant persevering grace to some believers. 

Now let's turn to how he handles some prooftexts for or against his position:

13. Mt 23:37

Trent uses this as a wedge tactic to relativize the promises in Jn 6, 10, 17. God's will isn't necessarily irresistible. God's will can be frustrated by human freewill. So goes the argument.

i) It's hermeneutically illicit to cite a passage in Matthew to override a passage in John. 

ii) Mt 23:37 concerns the attitude of God Incarnate. That's psychologically complex. Some things are true of the Son qua Incarnate that aren't true of the Son qua Son. 

iii) Jesus had a human side. An emotional bond with the Jewish people. He was born to a Jewish woman. Had Jewish friends and relatives. 

At a human level there will be an element of partiality in Christ's attitude towards the Jewish people. Ironically, that puts this text in tension with freewill theism, which rejects divine favoritism. 

iv) Suppose we grant, for argument's sake, that God has some unrequited desires. All things being equal, God wishes he could save Palestinian Jews from the catastrophic Jewish wars. But that conflicts with the atonement. Jews in Jerusalem play an instrumental role in the crucifixion. God's plan requires 1C Palestinian Jews in general to reject the messiah. 

If so, the tension isn't between what God wants and a human veto, but between two incompossible divine desires. God can spare the Jews from judgment or God can use them to engineer the atonement but he can't do both. If the atonement/crucifixion requires many Jews to repudiate the messiah, then God can't simultaneously spare them from the consequences of their actions. Those are two divergent world histories. They can't be combined in the same timeline.

v) Finally, this is irrelevant to the passages in John. Those aren't about divine wishes but divine promises and predictions. 

14. Jn 6:37-40,44

Trent says the use of the present tense verb implies continuous action. On that view, the fact that someone initially believes in Jesus doesn't mean they can't stop believing at a later date.

i) One issue is Trent's grasp of verbal aspect. This is a contested issue in contemporary Greek grammar. An objection to traditional Greek grammars was imposing an English tense system onto a language with a different perspective. That in Greek, verbal aspect doesn't denote the time of the action but the viewpoint of the speaker. Cf. S. Porter, J. Reed, & M. O'Donnell, Fundamentals of New Testament Greek (Eerdmans 2010), 84, 110. 

Another example is the use of the historic present, which is common in John's Gospel. But it's nonsensical to say the historic present denotes continuous action. So there's no presumption that the "present tense" implies continuous action. In fact, it's been argued that it can denote a timeless state or relation. Depends on the context.

ii) What's the context of Jn 6:37ff.? It's about individuals converting to Christianity. But what's the timeframe? At the time Jesus spoke, was that era a thing of the past? Something ongoing? Something future?

I think the passages use the present tense because that's more open-ended. People come to Jesus at different times in history. Coming is present for the convert, but the phenomenon of Christian conversion is past, present, and future. 

iii) Trent fails to grasp the nature of 6:37b. But as one commentator explains:

Formally it is a "litotes", a figure of speech in which something is affirmed by negating its contrary…"whoever comes to me I will certainly keep in, preserve…"I will never drive away" therefore means "I will certainly keep in". D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans 1991), 290. 

15. Jn 10:27-28

Trent says that in the Gospels, sheep stray. But that fails to interpret John's Gospel on its own terms. As one commentator explains:

For emphasis, Jesus repeats himself: "but as for you, you do not believe," adding the reason for their unbelief, "because you do not belong to my sheep" (v26)…One might have expected rather, "You do not belong to my sheep because you do not believe"… [but] those who do not "believe" prove that they are not Jesus' sheep. Behind it is the strong accent on election: those who "believe" do so because they are already Jesus' sheep, his gift from the Father. J. R. Michaels, The Gospel of John (Eerdmans 2010), 598. 

"Lost" sheep are not "found" in John's Gospel (as, for example, in Lk 15:6). Rather, Jesus' mission is to make sure his sheep "will never be lost, and no one will seize them out of my hand" (Jn 10:29). He does not come "to seek and to save that which is lost" (Lk 19:10), but to keep people from ever being "lost". In this Gospel a person is not first lost and then saved (as in Lk 15:24), but either lost or saved. Both are final, not temporary conditions. Ibid. 380. 

16. Jn 15:2,6

He claims the apostates had to be in Jesus (in the vine) before they defected from the faith.

i) One danger is an overly individualistic interpretation. But the vine imagery is a common metaphor for Israel (Ps 80; Isa 5; 27; Jer 2; Ezk 15; 17; 19). Cf. E. Klink, John (Zondervan 2016), 650-52.

So the emphasis may lie on corporate apostasy. That includes some individuals, but we need to guard against the composition/division fallacy.

ii) Then there's the question of what the vine/branch metaphor corresponds to in real life. In John's Gospel we have examples of individuals who temporarily believe in Jesus or temporarily follow him (e.g. Judas; 6:66ff. 8:31ff.). So that may be the kind of thing Jesus has in mind.  

But that's consistent with Reformed theology. What Reformed theology denies is not that someone can lose their faith but lose their salvation. Not all faith is saving faith.

17. Jn 17:12

He cites this passage to prove that promises about Jesus keeping the chosen notwithstanding, Jesus can and did lose someone the Father entrusted to him or Jesus chose.

But Judas is not an exception. Jesus didn't choose Judas for the same reason he chose the Eleven. Even before he chose him, Jesus knew that Judas would betray him. That's why Jesus chose him. Judas had an instrumental role to play in the atonement (Jn 6:64,70-71; 13:10-11,18,21-22). Judas was excluded from rather than included in the sphere of soteriological election and protection. Christ's ability to keep everyone the Father entrusted to him didn't break down in the case of Judas; rather, Judas always had a different function and destiny. Cf. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans 1991), 291-2; 563-4. 

18. Rom 8:28-30

Trent says God predestined those he foreknew would cooperate with his grace. To say proginosko means prior choice makes the passage redundant: those he predestined he also predestined. 

i) You have to wonder what Reformed commentators on Romans he bothered to read. It's not redundant to give both words a deterministic force; rather, "predestination" in v29 states the goal of prior choice in v29. The first claim says the choice was up to God while the second claim spells out the objective. 

ii) In addition, Paul says the same group is called, chosen beforehand, predestined, justified, and glorified. There are no deserters. 

19. Rom 8:28-39

Trent says that sin is missing from the list. God will protect us from other things but sin may separate us from the love of God.

That, however, drives an artificial wedge between psychological and external inducements to apostasy. Adversity, suffering, persecution, deprivation, demons, torture, and fear of martyrdom motivate some professing Christians to lose their faith or commit apostasy. And Trent believes that at least some of the apostates were regenerate, justified, sanctified believers. So his interpretation makes this a broken promise. 

20. Rom 11:22

He cites this to show that Christians can lose their salvation. But one problem with his appeal is that Rom 11:22 has a corporate context. Collective judgment. Although corporate entities have an individual dimension, inasmuch as they are constituted by individuals, it commits a composition fallacy to infer that whatever is true of the whole is necessarily true of the part, or vice versa. The Babylonian Exile was an example of collective judgment, yet that included a righteous remnant.

21. Gal 5:4

Trent says you can't fall from a state of grace if you never had it to begin with. In a sense I agree with him, but the question is what "grace" denotes in this verse. Does it mean saving grace? In the larger context of Galatians, I think it's a synonym or shorthand for the Gospel–in contrast to the false gospel of the Judaizers (Gal 1-2). Some of the Galatians are losing their grip on the the Gospel means: justification by faith alone through salvation by grace alone. Their doctrinal understanding has become muddled by false teachers. 

22. 1 Tim 2:12-13

He cites this to prove that Christians can forsake their salvation. The threat is not an impossible hypothetical.

i) But this trades on the ambiguity of "Christian" or "believer". It's not inconsistent with Reformed theology that a professing believer can become an infidel.

ii) The passage is ambiguous about what it means for God to remain faithful in that situation. In may mean that God will restore errant believers. Cf. P. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Eerdmans 2006), 510-14 (esp. p514).

23. Heb 6 & 10

He asks how people who were never true believers can be penitent, sanctified, or have the Holy Spirit. 

i) The author of Hebrews doesn't use "sanctification" in the sense of inner renewal but cultic holiness. While the experience of the prospective apostates falls short of saving grace, their participation in the life and fellowship of the Christian community puts them in a position of aggravated guilt if they turn their back on those privileges. 

ii) And when the author talks about their spiritual experience, that has reference to Scripture. People encounter the Spirit when they encounter the Bible because the Spirit authored the Bible. The apostates don't experience the Spirit in terms of inner renewal. Those aren't the author's theological categories. 

iii) More generally, the warning/apostasy passages are worded to evoke the experience of the wilderness generation:

It's not the language of systematic theology. 

iv) As it stands, the text is a double-edged sword in the hands of the Catholic apologist because, contrary to Catholic theology, it says an apostate cannot be restored. Trent tailors it to fit Catholic theology by asserting that it's hyperbolic when it denies the possibility that an apostate can be restored. How convenient–and arbitrary. His prooftext is hyperbolic when it falsifies Catholic theology but straightforward when (on his interpretation) it falsifies Calvinism. 

24. 1 Jn 2:19

i) It's true that 1 Jn 2:19 doesn't take the form of a universal statement, but it does establishe a principle. 

ii) He says the passage doesn't state that the apostates were never Christian in the first place. They may originally have been devout Christians.

But that doesn't work. 1 Jn 2:19 is explaining why they later shunned the fellowship. To say they were originally true believes fails to answer that question. 

Although the heretical schismatics at one time shared in the fellowship of the Christianity community, something deeper was always missing, and their departure exposes that underlying deficiency. That interpretation explains their departure. 


  1. I believe the best explanation for the tree analogy in Romans 11 is to understand it covenantally. The Jews who were broken off were never believers, but they were in the covenant community.

    1. That's certainly a valid distinction. Membership in the OT covenant community was a birthright. It didn't require faith. Of course, even then, circumcision of the heart was an ideal.

  2. I quite like Carson's comments regarding John 15- specifically the salvation - historical shift that occurs when Jesus comes on the seen.

    Also Steve, there's an interesting PhD thesis I'm trying to chase up by Laurie L. Norris on the "warning passages" and their literary function analysed through Speech-Act. I noticed it as a footnote on Schreiner's (2nd Ed) commentary on Romans 11. Doug Moo was her doctoral supervisor. You might have better luck than I in finding it!

  3. Steve,

    I don't remember whether Horn made this comment or not during the debate, but he surely made it repeatedly somewhere else. He says that the doctrine of perseverance of the saints was unknown prior to the Reformation. As if we should dismiss it simply because the Fathers didn't teach it. Is that claim true? And if so, why is it such a big deal? We still have the Gospels and the Epistles, which predate the Fathers.

    1. Federico,

      I have a list of articles we've written that address such claims about the alleged lack of historical precedent for Evangelical beliefs. See here. And see here on eternal security in particular. As I note in that article, eternal security is defined in different ways by different sources. I haven't listened to the Horn/White debate, and I don't know what qualifications Horn included with his claim in the debate or elsewhere. But the article linked above addresses eternal security broadly speaking, and one or more portions of the article may be relevant to Horn's view.

      Keep in mind, too, that the issue here isn't just what views were held by extrabiblical professing Christians prior to the Reformation. It's also a matter of what views were held by the relevant Jewish sources. The Old Testament existed for centuries prior to Christianity. If some ancient or other pre-Reformation Jews held a variation of eternal security, perseverance of the saints, or whatever you want to call it, that's significant. Josephus refers to a variety of views of predestination among ancient Jews, and I'd be surprised if nobody in Judaism prior to the Reformation held some form of the perseverance of the saints. It's not an area I've studied much, though.

    2. And here's something I wrote several years ago about Calvinism in the early church. The last paragraph in the post makes some points about the significance of the Biblical evidence, which is often underestimated. It's not as though patristic Christians give us our first historical interpretations of the Bible. Rather, later Biblical authors often interpret earlier ones. (And there are extrabiblical interpreters of the Old Testament who predate the patristic Christians.) Since the Bible is a collection of documents that were largely written independently of one another, it can be misleading to dismiss the Bible as just one source. If somebody holds a view that seems to be affirmed by multiple Biblical authors, then his view is supported by multiple sources, not just one. The existence of all of the Biblical books under one cover, as we have them today, shouldn't be allowed to obscure that fact.

  4. Steve,

    You said, "in Calvinism, it's not faith that saves us but grace that saves us." I know there is a lot going on here and a lot of definitions need to be parsed (how are we defining faith, for example), but isn't this antithesis a bit imprecise?

    To be more precise, I would argue we are saved by grace through faith--both are necessary conditions. Faith has a prior condition--grace--and faith itself has an object--Christ--but without faith, we are unable to benefit from grace.


    I don't know if Horn said that, but it's not accurate. Augustine had a strong doctrine of perserverance of the saints. Now, that is not to say he believes what the Reformed do, precisely. For Augustine, one can receive the gift of election without the gift of perseverance, but Augustine most certainly had a doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints (Here is the New Advent link to a work he wrote on Perseverance:

  5. Trent Horn, in 'The Case for Catholicism,' page 256 says: "The doctrine of perseverance of the saints was simply unknown in the church until the writings of Calvin in the 16th century."

    1. Federico,

      It's best to view the claims of partisans of all stripes with some healthy skepticism. Catholic apologists have a penchant for decontextualized reading of the Fathers and often overstate how much historical continuity they can actually maintain with Christian history. Now, Protestants often do not fully appreciate the ways in which we diverge from teachings of Christians in previous centuries. My point is, just keep a healthy skepticism with apologetic chest-thumping of all stripes.

      Regarding Horn's statement, I can only go on your quote, so I'm not sure if he's trying to make a more nuanced point, but his claim exposes his historical ignorance if he actually means perseverance of the saints is 'unknown in the church."

      Here are just some excerpts from the link I posted from Augustine (who quotes earlier theologians, like Cyprian & Ambrose):

      "For, assuredly, when that gift of God is granted to them — which is sufficiently plainly shown to be God's gift, since it is asked of Him — that gift of God, then, being granted to them that they may not be led into temptation, none of the saints fails to keep his perseverance in holiness even to the end...If, therefore, it be granted to him according to his prayer that he may not be led, certainly by the gift of God he persists in that sanctification which by the gift of God he has received."

      And continuing he notes, " This gift of God, therefore, may be obtained by prayer, but when it has been given, it cannot be lost by contumacy. For when any one has persevered unto the end, he neither can lose this gift, nor others which he could lose before the end. How, then, can that be lost, whereby it is brought about that even that which could be lost is not lost?"