Friday, August 12, 2005

"Perseverance of the Saints": We're Right, They're Wrong

In the comment box to my post "Lutheranism between Calvinism and Arminianism" [as originally posted at Here We Stand--unfortunately the comments have been deleted], Dave H. has claimed that the "perseverance of the saints" is another area in which Lutherans have manufactured bogus differences from the Calvinists and that we actually believe the same thing: the "perseverance of the elect."

Actually, by citing confessions, this is one area where the difference between the two confessions is especially clear.

The issue is, can someone who has sincerely and truly put his faith in Christ, lose his salvation while yielding to grave sin? Calvinists say no, Lutherans say yes. Practically this leads us to the following questions: 1) if someone whose faith seemed sincere and true falls away from the faith, must we believe that his faith was in fact hypocritical, however true it seemed at the time? Calvinists say yes and Lutherans say no (i.e. no, it is not true in all cases; certainly Lutherans do admit the existence of false believers); and 2) if someone first puts his faith in Christ, then falls away into knowing, grave sin, but finally returns to the faith, can we believe that that person’s original faith was maintained through his period of falling away, such that saving faith was at that time compatible with grave sin? Calvinists say yes we must so believe, while Lutherans say, no we mustn’t so believe.

Note that the issue is not: Do the elect of God ever fall into grave sin after first believing? (Calvinists and Lutherans, constrained by obvious facts, both admit the possibility, but we Lutherans teach that should that happen the elect will, if truly elect, be brought back to saving faith by the Holy Spirit before death).

Here is the relevant passage from our confessions, from the chapter of the Smalcald Articles, "Of the False Repentance of the Papists" by Martin Luther himself:

On the other hand, if certain sectarians would arise . . . . they say, besides [the cruder "once saved, always saved" idea that Luther excoriates first], that if any one sins after he has received faith and the Spirit, he never truly had the Spirit and faith: I have had before me many such insane men, and I fear that in some such a devil is still remaining.

It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are certainly not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3, 9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, ... and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1, 8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

C.F.W. Walther in Thesis X of his The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (pp. 210-221) adds a further citation from a letter by Luther in 1536, in which he wrote:

When a person sins against his conscience, that is, when he knowingly and intentionally acts contrary to God, as, for instance, an adulterer or any other criminal, who knowingly does wrong, he is, while consciously persisting in his intention, without repentance and faith and does not please God. . . . Faith and the worship of God are delicate affairs; a very slight wound inflicted on the conscience may drive out faith and prayer. Every tried Christian frequently is put through this experience (cited on p. 217).

By contrast, here is the relevant passage from one of their confessions, the Westminster Confession, Article 17 "Of the Perseverance of the Saints":

1. They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.

[Section 2 speaks of this perseverance being the result of God’s will and covenant, etc.]

3. Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein: whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.

The approved Biblical proof texts given in the footnotes specifically reference Peter’s denial, and especially David’s adultery and murder. Hence it is clear that Luther regarded David in his year after murdering Uriah as having lost the faith, while just as clearly the Westminster divines thought the opposite. Rarely do we have such a nice and clear-cut distinction.

Why is this issue so important? It is important because it gets to the nature of faith. For a Roman Catholic, faith is mere assent to facts about salvation on the grounds that the church teaches them, and is hence compatible with mortal sin. (You can be an adulterer or drunk and still assent to Christ’s divinity, transubstantiation, etc. Such faith is real but Catholics believe this "faith" does not by itself save.)

By contrast Calvinists and Lutherans both do teach that faith is not just factual belief, but also involves trust and reliance upon the person and teaching in which one has faith. This trust and reliance comes from the Holy Spirit but is empirically verifiable, that is, it is visible both to the believer by introspection (he knows he trusts Christ) and to the outsider (his trust in Christ produces good works). Thus for a Lutheran, a theologically orthodox adulterer or drunk does not and cannot in fact have real faith, but only a mere historical faith or belief, which does not save.

But while Calvinists in theory agree with us on this issue, in fact they deny this with their doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The Calvinist must admit that many saints are in fact in the period when their saving faith has lost its "evidence" and thus has no empirical evidence. Similarly they must admit that many who have subjective and objective evidence of faith will later be shown to be hypocrites all along, by the fact that they later fell away. In the last analysis, this article of the "perseverance of the saints" reduces Calvinist "faith" to a mysterious X which sometimes produces effects, but sometimes lives in the person’s life without any subjective or objective evidence at all, and which can moreover be indetectably counterfeited by false faith. Allowing the first possibility even in theory, let alone in the life of Biblical saints, is utterly unacceptable to the Christian and evangelical understanding of faith, and to allow the second is to open the door to constant doubt of faith.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

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