Falling away from the faith

One of the most disturbing discoveries I made in college as I was transitioning out of some particulars of (Southern) Baptist theology into a more classical sacramental theology, as it is embodied in the Wesleyan tradition, was that most Christians do not, and have not across the ages, believed in "once saved always saved" - which is one of the most sacred doctrines of my Baptist brethren. Once a person had experienced a conversion (generally by praying The Sinners' Prayer at an altar-call), he could never be seperated or fall away from his saved state. There was an ontological change in that New Birth (which was entirely synonymous with that conversion moment) that could not be undone and which itself assured one of final salvation at the coming of Christ.

I discovered, however, that Methodists, Catholics, Anglicans, the Orthodox, most Pentecostals, and perhaps even Lutherans (I'm a little iffy on Lutherans, but see Article 11, paragraph 42 of the Formula of Concord) do not believe this. The vast majority of Christians held in a catholic consensus that falling away from the faith was at least theoretically possible - that those who "have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come" (the power of resurrection and New Creation at work in inner being - exactly the ontological change my friends were trusting in, as in 2 Cor. 5:17) can nevertheless become those who "have fallen away" and who are "holding him [Christ] up to contempt" and who cannot be restored to repentance while they are doing so (Hebrews 6:4-6).

It took me a while to really let this sink in, because it was very different than what I had heard growing up in Baptist-saturated North Louisiana.

Here is an excerpt from the writings of the early Methodist theologian John Fletcher, a fellow Anglican priest who travelled extensively with John Wesley and wrote against 5-point Calvinism. His theological writings were very influential in the early Methodist movement. I recently ran across this, which got me to thinking about this debate again. You will see that Fletcher draws upon several Biblical passages and Scriptural ideas in arguing against "once saved always saved." Wesleyan theology instead argues, along with the catholic consensus, that the converted must continually live and grow in the grace of Christ. If they fall into sin or deny him, the Spirit will call them back to faith and they must turn back to him with faith and repentance if they are again to walk in his grace (Roman Catholics emphasize the importance of confessing to a presbyter and recieving absolution at this point).

It seems to me that the Wesleyan question the is not only "have you been converted in the past?" (as is suggested by the Southern Baptist theology I had heard), but more to the point, "are you walking and growing in the grace of Jesus Christ right now in the present?" And if not, let us confess our sins and pray for the Spirit to give us true repentance (as it says in the old Common Prayer Book liturgy).

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Blogger Andrew C. Thompson said...

Daniel -

Well said.

The thing that has always baffled me about contemporary Baptist theology is its incoherent blend of Arminianism and Calvinism. Generally speaking, Baptists do not believe in irresistible grace. They have a confidence in free will that is often expressed in pietistic statements about "asking Jesus to come into your heart." This position clearly depends on the individual's willingness to "accept Christ as Lord and Savior" as the centerpiece of soteriology. It's something of a distortion of an Arminian position on the resistibility of grace, and I say 'distortion' because the high confidence in free will it represents really says more about the 19th-century roots of today's Baptist soteriology than it does about either Jacobus Arminius himself or the 18th-century Wesleyan appropriation of Arminianism.

Then again, as you point out, Baptists do very much believe in the the perseverance of the saints - the "once saved, always saved" position that gets repeated so often.

A true Calvinist would look at the two positions as deeply confused. The Baptist position is this: Our salvation depends on a person's free choice to accept Jesus, but once that choice is made, no other choice by the individual can ever affect the first choice for Jesus. It is as if the act of acceptance triggers something providential that ensures salvation unto eternity. But if that is the case, then salvation isn't really about what Jesus is doing. It's about our action. And that's not salvation by grace through faith at all. It's just Pelagianism.

Perhaps this is why there seems to be a grassroots Calvinist resurgence among young Southern Baptists these days? I honestly don't know whether the stuff I hear about that is because Baptists recognize the incoherence of their soteriology, or whether it's because they just like the edginess of all the Mark Driscoll podcasts they listen to.

11:49 PM, October 13, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...


When I was in college at LSU some of my friends at the BCM actually made the same argument. They became 5-point (or maybe 4.5-point) Calvinists for exactly this reason that you point out - they saw the blend of a Wesleyan-influenced invitation to accept Christ with a Calvinist-influenced belief in perseverance as incoherent. So I would expect that this is also true of many of the younger, more Reformed, Baptists.

Of these two elements, it was the Wesleyan-influenced invitation that really stuck with me, and so I went the other way in my attempts to become more coherent.

8:50 AM, October 14, 2009  
Blogger Fr. Philip said...

Thank you for this post, Daniel. The struggle for salvation is one that is daily, to our dying breath. For the Orthodox, salvation is union with God, summed up in the teachings on theosis. In speaking on this subject using the imagery of the image and likeness, Norman Russell wrote, "The image gives us the capacity for a conscious relationship, finite as we are, with the infinite God. The likeness is our dynamic realization of that capacity within the life of ecclesial communion. It is our mirroring of God's beauty, holiness and love in our mind and will. And because God has no limit, we shall continue to grow into the likeness of God for all eternity."

9:21 AM, October 14, 2009  

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