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Here's why St Paul taught you can (and can't) lose your salvation

Andrew Wilson untangles the New Testament's teaching on perseverance and God's faithfulness 

Paul is a puzzle. He often warned his converts that if they did not persevere, or behaved in certain ways, they would miss out on final salvation. He also assured his converts that, because of the faithfulness of God and his gift of the Spirit, they would be preserved to the end without falling. As I say: a puzzle.

Some people like the assurances (because they are comforting), but don’t like the warnings (because they frighten believers). Some people like the warnings (because they take sin seriously), but don’t like the assurances (because they make people complacent). Some people don’t like either of them, because taken together they make it sound like John Calvin was right, and we can’t have that.Some people think Paul had got himself in a hopeless tangle on the subject, and we should politely ignore him.

Then there are those—we few, we happy few—who try to have our cake and eat it. The warnings are real: if believers fall away into sin and never repent, they won’t be saved. The assurances are real: God, in Christ, by the Spirit, will keep all believers to the end. And the former are a God-ordained means of ensuring the latter. Paul is convinced that believers will heed his warnings, repent of their sin, and inherit final salvation. God will act within his converts to respond to Paul’s warnings. Grace works.

That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of my PhD research, and the result has just been published by Mohr Siebeck as The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians. (It is surprisingly deflating to see seven years’ work summarised in three paragraphs.) It is a case I have tried to make through detailed exegesis, as well as close-quarter sparring with both Calvinist-Reformed and Wesleyan-Arminian interpreters. Yet as a pastor, and a preacher, one of the most important questions still presses upon me: so what?

If your view of the warning-assurance relationship takes something like this shape—and readers may be familiar with it if they have read Tom Schreiner, or Charles Spurgeon’s handling of biblical warnings, among others—then, I suspect, it affects your pastoral and homiletic practice in at least four ways.

  1. It reassures us that, no matter how messed up God’s people often are, God will carry them (and us!) through to safety. Pastoral ministry can be a frustrating and even disillusioning experience. Sometimes we can consider our efforts and wonder whether the people we serve are getting anywhere at all. None of us, however, have served a church as potentially disillusioning and frustrating as the Corinthians, what with their rivalries, drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper, idolatry, visiting prostitutes, suing each other, denying the resurrection, sanctioning incest, and boasting about it all. Yet Paul begins his letter with a resounding assurance that, despite all of these things, the faithfulness of God guarantees their future blamelessness: “He will sustain you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:8-9). That is a tremendous comfort.
  2. It elevates the significance of preaching biblical warnings. Many Reformed pastors feel anxious about preaching admonitions, because we are worried it will sound like we don’t believe in grace, or security, or both. We wallow in Romans 8, waffle through Hebrews 6, and arrange to be on holiday when 2 Peter 2 comes up. If Paul’s warnings are a means of ensuring the perseverance of his converts, however, it is vital to proclaim them—not only out of biblical integrity, but out of a desire to ensure that the assurances we know and love are actually vindicated. Flee idolatry! Those who live like this won’t inherit the kingdom! If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him! We (rightly) ridicule the idea that divine election rules out the need for gospel preaching; we should equally ridicule the idea that divine preservation rules out the need for biblical warnings. I love the way John Piper puts it in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: “Brothers, save the saints.”
  3. It strengthens our response to complacent, unrepentant sinners in the church. I will never forget the conversation I had with a woman in our congregation who, through our strong emphasis on God’s grace and mercy to everyone, concluded that no matter how much sin she committed, and whether or not she ever repented of any of it, she was completely safe. She was complacent in her “security,” even defiant. In the end, I confronted her with the strongest biblical warning I could think of (Hebrews 10:26-31), and assured her in no uncertain terms that if she did not repent, she would not be saved. That, I think, is the seriousness and strength with which biblical warnings need to be applied to those in the church, whether they end up repenting (as many do), or not (as this woman didn’t). Understanding the relationship between warnings and assurances leaves us free to use the former, without worrying that we are somehow undermining the latter.
  4. It reminds us that the power to persevere in faith, fight sin, resist the devil and stand in grace comes from God, not from us. For all the efforts we make, in ministry and in our own lives—and Paul described it as running, beating his body, enslaving it, and the rest (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)—it is the Spirit’s work in our lives, not ours, that ultimately ensures our inheritance. Divine and human agents work beautifully together, both in our own lives and in the lives of all disciples: “By the grace of God [divine], I am what I am … I worked harder than all of them [human], yet not I but the grace of God [divine] that is with me [human]” (1 Cor 15:10). “For this I toil [human], struggling with all his energy [divine] that he powerfully works [divine] within me [human]” (Colossians 1:29). We work, because he works in us. Which, whether you’re resisting temptation yourself or counselling someone who is, is enormously encouraging.

So there are, I hope, practical benefits to grasping the warning-assurance relationship in 1 Corinthians, in Paul, and in Scripture. There is also a huge theological benefit, as we see the integrity and balance of biblical emphases. It doesn’t solve everything, of course; I’m still not sure about 2 Peter 2, among other texts. Then again, I’m not sure I can spare another seven years.

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