Both Calvinists and Dispensationalists believe that the Christian is eternally secure in Christ. As Jesus had declared, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). However, these two groups have different understandings of Biblical faith, and which kind of faith is associated with our security in Christ. Pastor and dispensational theologian Charles Stanley believes that a saving faith might not be one that endures:
- The Bible clearly teaches that God’s love for His people is of such magnitude that even those who walk away from the faith have not the slightest chance of slipping from His hand. (Eternal Security, 74)
Both groups agree that “God’s love for His people is of such magnitude” that He will keep those who are His. However, the Calvinist would deny that “those who walk away from the faith” completely were ever His, that they were ever in “His hand.”
Stanley clearly believes that even the “believer” who becomes an unbeliever remains in Christ:
- Even if a believer for all practical purposes becomes an unbeliever, his salvation is not in jeopardy. Christ will remain faithful. (93)
Of course, “Christ will remain faithful,” but to whom? Will He remain faithful to someone who had merely a passing “faith?” Or is the real faith – the Biblical gift of faith – one that will endure, however battered it might be? According to Stanley, saving faith need not endure.
Stanley compares the human institution of marriage to our marriage with God. He reasons that because we can be married to our wife without acting as if we are married, we can also be married to God in this unfaithful manner:
- Just as there are married people who act as if they are not, so there are Christians who show no evidence of their Christianity as well. But that does not change their eternal status, any more than a lost man can change his eternal destiny by acting saved. (71)
However, does a mere marriage certificate – think church baptism, membership and signing a statement faith – reflect a Biblical marriage to God, a real connection to Him, and the Biblical gift of faith? In contrast to Stanley, Jesus taught that the water (faith) that He gives would cause the recipient to “never thirst” again:
- Jesus answered [the Samaritan woman at the well], "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:13-14; 6:50-51)
As a result of believing, we become “children of the light,” according to Jesus:
- Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light." (John 12:36)
However, those who have rejected the faith cannot be called “sons of light,” since they no longer walk in the light. Instead, their fruit identify them as sons of the darkness (Mat. 7:15-20).
A true faith bears fruit (James 2:18). A faith profession alone does not make us a child of God. A life that is characterized by the willful practice of sin cannot possess saving faith. Although our good deeds do not save us, a real faith should give rise to good deeds. If it only gives rise to evil, the evildoer should be warned against having a confidence of salvation:
- Then I [Jesus] will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' (Matthew 7:23)
According to Jesus, these “evildoers” are not His children. Neither should they be affirmed as such, as Stanley might do. Of course, Christians struggle against sin daily, often succumbing to its allures and deceptiveness. However, we have the assurance that if we honestly confess our sins, God will forgive and fully cleanse us from the effects of the sin (1 John 1:8-9). However, Stanley’s theology would admit that we can live like the devil – and not confess our sins – and be a child of God. However, this contradicts so much of what we read in Scripture. Jesus gave us a picture of what His sheep look like:
- “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
- When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him [Jesus] because they know his voice. (John 10:4)
While Jesus claimed that His sheep follow Him, Stanley claims that this isn’t necessary. This insistence simply contradicts so much of what Jesus taught:
- Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
Self-denial was more than just a suggestion. It was a requirement. Jesus taught us that our “righteousness” must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mat. 5:20) and then provided a picture of what this should look like. Jesus also claimed that if we live like the devil, we should not expect eternal life (Mat. 25:46). He also warned that those whose practice had been evil “will rise to be condemned” (John 5:29). Friendship with Him was characterized by doing “what I command” (John 15:14). Meanwhile, those who bore no fruit would be removed from where they thought they stood (John 15:2).
The Book of Hebrews also insists upon an obedient life:
- Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Although our personal holiness does not save, it’s something that must accompany faith, if it is a true faith. However, Stanley denies that faith must give rise to some degree of obedience or discipleship.
There are many Scriptural warnings that we cannot live in any manner we wish.
- If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27)
While Stanley claims that we can “deliberately keep on sinning” and expect to go to heaven, this hope is contrary to Scripture. Clearly a real faith will not continue in this manner. Hebrews assures us that if we are His, we will not do so:
- But we are not of those who shrink back [from following Jesus] and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. (Hebrews 10:39)
Likewise, we are warned that if we entirely fall away from the faith, there can be no restoration:
- It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
Falling away from Christ means falling away from salvation. However, once again, the writer of Hebrews assures us that this cannot happen:
- Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case--things that accompany salvation. (Hebrews 6:9)
What accompanies salvation? The fact that we will never completely turn away from our Savior! However, Stanley claims that we can do so and still be saved, despite that warning that those falling away cannot be restored.
There are many other such warnings in Scripture, which equate falling away from Christ with losing salvation (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-24). However, these same warning-verses give us the assurance that we will not fall away.
In fact, God will not allow us to fall away! First John teaches us that we will not continue practicing sin because we have His seed within us (1 John 3:9; 5:18). John also provides ways we can reassure ourselves that we have saving faith:
- The man who says, "I know him," but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1 John 2:4)
John provides many tests to reassure the brethren that they have Christ. If those who professed Christ didn’t follow the commands of Christ, they didn’t have Christ, contrary to Stanley’s insistence. Truly, if we trust Christ, we will do what He tells us to do. If our doctor tells us to take the pills he has given us and we refuse them, it probably means that we don’t trust him.
John claims that those who had been part of the church and confessed Christ but then denied Him were really never of Him (1 John 2:19; Mat. 7:23). If they had been of Him, they would have stayed with Him. However, Stanley insists that we can be saved even if we reject Christ entirely.
John also claims that:
- We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us [the Apostles and their writings]; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. (1 John 4:6)
If we reject the Apostolic writings – the New Testament – this is a sign of the “spirit of falsehood,” that the individual is not “from God.” However, Stanley must insist that we can subsequently reject the entire Bible and still be “from God.”
There are many verses that tell us explicitly that a true faith is one which endures. Jesus warned His disciples that they had to continue to have faith:
- All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:22)
In contrast, Stanley claims that we need not endure to the end. Old-line dispensationalists claim that this requirement constitutes a meritorious work and not grace, and it therefore imperils the central Gospel message that we are saved by grace apart from any works of the law. However, this danger is sidestepped once we realize that it is God – and not we - who guarantees that we will continue in faith (1 Peter 1:5; Phil. 1:6). Our Lord doesn’t simply give us the gift of faith and then leaves it untended. Our salvation is not guaranteed by simply a one-time giving of faith, but also by a God who nurtures us throughout our lives. The gift isn’t limited to a single moment in time, but represents a beachhead where our God has secured control.
Paul also wrote that a real faith is one that endures to the end:
- But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation-- if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. (Col. 1:22-23)
If we don’t “continue in…faith,” it means that we had never been reconciled. However, there is still hope for those who made a profession and didn’t continue. Any who confess their sins will be forgiven and cleansed (1 John 1:9-10).
The Book of Hebrews issues the same warning as Paul:
- But Christ is faithful as a son over God's house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast…We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. (Hebrews 3:6, 14)
If we don’t “hold firmly till the end,” it means that we had never trusted and shared in Christ. Because He works all things for good for His children (Rom. 8:28), this would preclude any possibility of disowning the faith. If we deny Christ, it means that He failed to work everything for good. This suggests that we were never His!
We cannot inherit the promise of eternal life if we fail to continue to follow Christ:
- We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience (Hebrews 6:11-12)
We need to persevere in the faith in order to “inherit what has been promised.” However, if our faith is real (and continually nurtured by the Spirit), we will continue to follow Him.
I fear that what I have been writing might be quite chilling. It might raise old fears that we don’t have enough faith or that we aren’t righteous enough. Therefore, I want to allay these fears. Actually, it is our God, who is so incredibly merciful, who wants to allay these fears. Even though Lot was living a highly compromised life in Sodom, He is divinely remembered as “righteous Lot” (2 Peter 2:7-8).
Peter had denied Jesus – and Jesus had warned that those who deny Him, He would also deny – but Jesus returned to him with a special commission to “feed my sheep.”
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had all been spiritual failures for most of their lives. Yet their God never abandoned them. However, these weren’t people who had rejected their God as Stanley claims that we can do without loosing our salvation.
Our faith can be of the smallest size (Luke 17:6) and yet still be divinely regarded as great faith. Israel was a perfect example of this. Moments before passing through the Red Sea by faith, they had been rebelling against Moses and God. And yet they are examples of faith (Hebrews 11:29). We see the same with Moses (11:27) and Sarah (11:11). They had greatly feared and yet our God remembers them as fearless – people of faith.
I appreciate Charles Stanley’s emphasis on the assurance that comes from knowing that faith and salvation are free gifts. However, I think that we need to understand our free gift as one that will continue in faithfulness.