Since I use the word “apostasy” here, I want to acknowledge Ruth Gledhill’s very worrying post Sharia in Iran: ‘Death to converts’. It seems that the government of Iran wants to impose the death penalty for “apostasy” from Islam, which will apply to those of other religions who have even one Muslim parent. But this is not my real theme in this post.
I have been having an ongoing conversation with John Hobbins about the conditions for Christian salvation. As I reported here, it started in the comment thread of this post on John’s blog, and it continued in the comments on this post. I think the discussion is more or less finished. Now I want to present here some of my conclusions, although I don’t think John will agree with them.
Before I can explain my position, and how it compares with that of other Christian traditions, I need to establish some definitions. Here is the first one, taken straight from the American Heritage Dictionary:
a·pos·tate (ə-pŏs‘tāt‘, -tĭt)
One who has abandoned one’s religious faith, a political party, one’s principles, or a cause.
Then another one from the same source, redirected from “backslider”:
intr.v., -slid (-slĭd‘), -slid·ing, -slides.
To revert to sin or wrongdoing, especially in religious practice.
To my amazement, when I quoted the first of these two definitions in a comment on his blog, John rejected it, the definition of “apostate” in this respected dictionary, in the following words:
You continue to impose an idiosyncratic definition on the word ‘apostate.’ The Mafia members I referred to, which the Church excommunicated because it judged them to be apostate – apostate not just as a matter of private opinion but in function of the power of the keys (on earth . . . in heaven), wanted to continue to remain members in good standing within the Church, with rights, for example, to a Christian burial. They had not renounced their faith.
But who called these Mafia members “apostate”? None of my first 50 Google hits on “mafia apostate” relate to this story, easily found by a search for “mafia excommunicate”, suggesting that the word “apostate” was not generally used in relation to it.
Well, let me say that for the purpose of this post I will follow the dictionary definitions of “apostate” and “backslider”, however idiosyncratic John might consider this. This is because I want to make a real distinction between two categories which I will label with these words.
Within a Christian context, I here define an apostate as someone who has explicitly abandoned their Christian faith, for another religion or a non-religious position; a backslider, however, I define as someone who after starting to live the Christian life has fallen into regular sinful ways. I would not consider an apostate someone who makes an occasional anti-Christian statement and is subsequently repentant, but only those who have taken a definite decision to abandon their faith. Similarly, I would not consider a backslider someone who commits an occasional sin, however serious, and is then repentant (aren’t we all like this at times?), but only those who repeatedly flout God’s moral standards and are unrepentant about it. On these definitions, the excommunicated Mafia members were not apostates, for they “wanted to continue to remain members in good standing within the Church”, but they were backsliders – at least if they had ever been brought up as good Christian children.
It is obviously possible for someone to be both a backslider and an apostate. But there is a clear logical distinction between the two. Apostasy is a matter of belief and confession; backsliding is a matter of ethics and behaviour. In the following discussion I use “fall away” as a more general term to encompass either apostasy or backsliding.
Now every orthodox strand of Christianity, having rejected the Pelagian position that
right action on the part of human beings was all that was necessary for salvation,
in principle upholds the Apostle Paul’s very simple conditions for salvation:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Romans 10:9 (TNIV)
But there is a slight difficulty with this, in that manifestly there are some people who become Christians by making this confession of faith, and who start to live a Christian life according to God’s moral standards, but then fall away, either as apostates or as backsliders. Indeed, some people fall away after many years as Christians, or having been in Christian leadership. The question which must then be answered is, are these people saved?
This partly depends on one’s understanding of salvation. Since one aspect of salvation is having fellowship with God in the present, one might argue that these people become saved when they become Christians and then become not saved when they backslide or commit apostasy. However, the aspect of salvation which most people have in mind when they ask these questions concerns their eternal destiny. In popular terms, will they go to heaven or to hell? More theologically, as NT Wright has recently argued in Time magazine, will they spend eternity in the kingdom of God or separated from him?
There are, as I see it, three possible positions concerning each person who falls away. One, which I will label X, is that they will be saved despite falling away. Another, Y, is that they were never truly saved, never truly Christians, and so will not be saved. The third position, Z, is that such a person was truly saved when they confessed Christ but on falling away lost their salvation.
But there is a complication here, which is that there are two separate ways in which a person can fall away, by apostasy as I have defined it, which I label A, or by backsliding, B. Some people, including myself, would hold that A and B relate to salvation in different ways.
So, let’s look at the different views, as I understand them.
Traditional Calvinism apparently believes Y of both A and B: both apostates and backsliders, at least unless they later repent, demonstrate that they were never truly saved. This is what Wikipedia calls the traditional doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.
But there is a problem with this position, which is that it destroys assurance of salvation. Any believer can see others who apparently used to believe just as genuinely as they do but have now fallen away. If the other person can do so, what assurance can they have that they themselves will not also fall away, and thus show that they were never truly saved?
The “Once Saved, Always Saved” position which John mocks (having misunderstood my position as this) is that X is true of both A and B: anyone who has once confessed Christ will be saved, regardless of subsequent sin or even of subsequent renunciation of their Christian confession. Wikipedia calls this the non-traditional doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (although I might want to dispute the neutrality of Wikipedia’s distinction between “traditional” and “non-traditional”).
It is this approach which has encouraged some Christians to lead people in half-understood prayers of commitment without any real preparation, thinking that by doing so they are populating the kingdom of God even if these “converts” are never seen again. Ironically this position comes close to the Iranian Muslim one in making apostasy impossible: once a Christian, always a Christian. But this is not God’s way of working: he respects human choice and does not force salvation on those who do not want it.
John’s own position seems more like Z for both A and B, that both apostates and backsliders can lose their salvation. He writes:
someone can “deliberately turn away” from the faith they once held dear, and thereby lose their salvation. … a committed believer who becomes a hit man in an organized crime organization, or an idolater, or a sorcerer, is termed an apostate, and thereby forfeits his or her salvation.
This is his definition of “apostate”, which I reject. He denies any real distinction between apostasy and backsliding, and holds that those guilty of either lose their salvation. This position is similar to what Wikipedia calls the Wesleyan Arminian doctrine of the conditional preservation of the saints.
The problem with this position is even more severe than with the traditional Calvinist position, for there can be no assurance of eternal salvation even for someone who is completely assured that they are currently a genuine Christian believer. No one can ever be sure that they will not fall into sinful ways. And so on this understanding the Christian life becomes a matter of legalism and fear that one might commit one too many sins and so be sent to hell.
My own position is based on making a distinction between what happens to apostates, A, and to backsliders, B. I hold that Z is true of A but X is true of B. That is, all who profess Christ are truly saved; those who become apostates lose their salvation; backsliders, however, do not lose it, but are saved regardless of their evil works, even if only “as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15). This position is similar to what Wikipedia describes as the classical Arminian doctrine of the conditional preservation of the saints, but I would reject in favour of a more Wesleyan position the following part of that description:
The willful, deliberate act of apostasy is irrecoverable; it is not possible to recover salvation once it has been lost.
This position allows assurance of salvation, for anyone can be assured that they will be saved unless they make a deliberate choice not to be. They can therefore live the Christian life without fear of negligently losing their salvation. But it also preserves the human free will by allowing people the opportunity to choose not to be saved.
This position also has the great advantage over John Hobbins’ position that in it salvation is not at all by works. John’s position is partially Pelagian “salvation by works” in that final salvation depends on a believer continuing to do good works, or at least not persisting in evil ones, to the end of their life. It is Semipelagianism in reverse: not “it is necessary for humans to make the first step toward God and then God will complete salvation” but God makes the first step and then humans must complete their own salvation. But I, unlike John who calls himself a Calvinist, would identify with the “Most Arminians” in the following Wikipedia description of conditional preservation of the saints:
Most Arminians assert strongly that salvation and eternal security is “by faith, first to last” (Rom 1:17) and “not by works, so that no man can boast” (Eph 2:9), and they draw a distinction between works meriting salvation and works proving faith, which in turn secure salvation (Eph 2:10, James 2:17-26).Kingdom of God, and unbelief – not a lack of good works – is the condition for exit.In the Arminian system, belief is the condition for entrance into the
Well, no doubt the Calvinists among my readers are in despair at the way I am desecrating their TULIP. A couple of days ago I tore out the “L” petal, and now I seem to be doing the same with the “P” petal. Will this flower have any petals left when I have finished with it? Maybe just half a “T”. But I am not planning a series, it is just that the two issues came up on other blogs at the same time.