Greetings, ST, ‘Ettes, and ‘Sieurs!
Good to be with you again! As is often the case, our gracious host recently requested an exploration of the idea “once saved, always saved” that is expressed in faith communities of the Reform tradition beginning in the 16th century. This post is not meant to be a debate about the merits of the doctrine. It’s an exploration of its background and its relationship to other approaches to the question of salvation. Some context may be helpful, at the start.
Jehan Cauvin/John Calvin was the first to advance this idea, in the early-to-mid-16th century. Supposedly, it began on the basis of Calvin’s reading of Martin Luther’s understanding of The Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 9, verse 28: “So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” [KJV], and St. Paul’s “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross(.)” [KJV] in the Epistle to the Colossians, chapter 2, verses 14-15; though Luther never subscribed to this teaching himself.
Prior to Calvin, the unanimous consent of the early Christians was that a person is capable of losing his salvation by committing mortal sin, as St. John speaks about in 1 John 5:16–17:
“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.”
In fact, there are early church documents, from the first century, like a liturgical and teaching manual called The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), that are chock-full of reminders that salvation in and through Christ is a gift. Gifts, it must be said, can be cherished, guarded, refused, or lost.
At this point, gentle reader(s), you may well ask: “Chaps, what does this question have to do with me in my daily life?” Excellent response….”Once saved” has at least two potential effects. It can potentially turn a priceless gift into an entitlement – that can excuse all kinds of laziness (even heinous acts). It can also possibly cause a sense of contempt to be present toward believers who look at this process differently. For the sake of clarity, I have to say that because God values human freedom, I can’t assent to Calvin’s notion of a predestined number of a chosen ‘elect’ (from his understanding of St. John’s symbolic numbering in the 7th chapter of the Book of Revelation).
Verses 1-8 describe the “144,000” who will be saved. This number has traditionally been associated with God’s faithful love toward Israel. The number that catches my eye, with respect to the question of “who’s in and who’s out”, might’ve been one Calvin missed. In verses 9-10 of the same chapter, St. John tells us of seeing “a great multitude, which no man could number, from all manner of peoples, nations, and tongues” [KJV] gathering in joy and praise before the throne of God. I cannot find Calvin’s limits here, as hard as I may try.
Nor can I hold that one cannot – by his/her own choice – say no to God’s gift of grace. Viewing salvation as a process can help us to see our restored right relationship with the Father – through Christ’s Incarnation/Passion-Death/Resurrection – as the gift that it truly is: “saved in hope”, so that we can nurture that truth of hope in our hearts, our homes, our workplaces/communities, our nation, and our world. Amen?…
(Please note: If readers would like a more detailed consideration of the differences between “once saved” and “saved in hope”, let me know in the comments. I’ll gladly offer one, but I thought something shorter was called for this time.) Thanks for reading! Make it a great week!
Until next time: Peace and Blessings!