Once Saved, Always Calvinist?

One doctrinal formula which Calvinists bandy about and non-Calvinists like to mock is “once saved, always saved.”  Like almost all doctrinal formulas, this one is shorthand for a longer assertion.  It’s easy to expand it to “once a person has been saved, that person cannot lose his or her salvation.”  But that formulation still presumes that we know what we’re talking about when we say someone “is saved.”  Although this language is often used, especially among American evangelicals since the 19th C, I don’t think “saved” can meaningfully be used as an adjective as it always is, or even as an absolute verb (i.e. a verb without additional specification of the predicate).  Now, some folks who know their Bibles really well will immediately point out that the apostles used the word “saved” in various contexts without adding additional specification (Eph 2:5 and 8 come to mind).  But we must always ask, in every context, “What is the subject of the sentence saved from?”

Since the notion of “once saved, always saved” has come up recently in a few places, I thought I would re-post here an (edited) email I wrote back in 2010 in answer to a question from a friend.  First, his question:

What does it mean to be “saved”? Is it a once-and-for-all thing, or a lifelong process, or what? A fellow who grows up a believer and manifests all the signs of a Christian and then in, say, his late teens turns away from the faith: is he saved?

This is a common question that comes up in Reformed circles influenced by Calvin and his successors, especially as Calvin is typically summarized to have said “once saved, always saved.”  So anyone who rejects Christ is not “saved,” and therefore never was “saved” by the contrapositive of that statement: “not always saved implies not once saved.”  I think the problem as stated, however, is more terminological than theological, although I think theological questions are buried in there.  But “saved” is not a state you can “be,” i.e. it is not a quality which can be predicated.  Instead, salvation is an action of which we are the beneficiary.  It helps to understand salvation as being saved *from something*, and the question is, “What have we been saved from, are we being saved from, or will we be saved from?”  For Scripture uses all three tenses to discuss the salvation of believers: “by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:8); “to us who are being saved” (1 Cor 1:18); “having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved” (Rom 5:9).  (Notice that these are all Paul, so this is not a Paul vs. other Scripture for those who like to play that game.  I dislike the game, but enjoy pointing out when it is inapplicable.)  One common formulation which I like, although I think it’s a trifle too tidy, is that we have been saved from the penalty of sin, we are being saved from the power of sin, and we will be saved from the presence of sin.  (Note the alliteration for ease of memorization).  But almost all Christians throughout history (except the handful of universal salvation advocates like Origen) have held that those who reject Christ will not experience His reward in His presence for eternity, and therefore the short answer is “no, he is not saved” (if one persists in using the term “saved” as a stative adjective as many evangelicals do).

This gives rise to two questions, one pastoral and one theological, I think.  The pastoral one, and the one which usually drives the raising of this question in my experience, is allegedly epistemological: “Then how can you know that you are saved?”  Again, notice the misuse of “saved” as a simple quality, but grammatical strictures rarely comfort someone who is doubting the efficacy of their own salvation.  Anecdotally, I had a systematic theology professor who did his Ph.D. at Calvin College, who was Arminian soteriologically.  He presented both the Calvinist and Arminian positions very forcefully with references to Scripture, and he remarked that he knew many Calvinists at Calvin who worried about their salvation more than many Arminians, even though one of the alleged “strengths” of Calvinism is “eternal security” while Arminians are alleged to be always in doubt about their eternal state.

I don’t know that Calvin ever used “saved” as a stative adjective the way we do, but his point was more logical: if God determines who will be saved and is all-powerful, then nothing (not even you!) can overpower God to “un-save” you.  It’s an application of Rom 8:35-39.  This combined with a Protestant focus on initial forensic justification by faith alone to apply primarily to the domain of those “who have been saved,” and therefore apostates “never have been saved.”  But I think Calvin’s intuition is correct and comforting to those who struggle with doubts: they need to be turned *away* from the epistemological question (which Calvin does not address in this fashion, but elsewhere, with less clear success) and directed toward God’s great power working redemption through Jesus Christ.  We will not be saved by figuring out if we are saved or not (a flaw that Calvin’s contemporary critics never tired of throwing at him) but by trusting in Christ.  I think some people, but probably few, can be 100% confident that they are “saved,” and this is a gracious gift of God apart from reason, because reason never gives 100% certitude.  But most Christians can grow in their trust in Christ, in their recognition of His unlimited power and grace, and therefore of their confidence in Him: “Just as it is written, ‘Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor 1:31, apparently summarizing Jer 9:24).  So for the pastoral issue, the answer is to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5).

The deeper theological issue is whether an apostate was saved from anything before apostatizing, since I regard it as relatively non-controversial that an apostate does not attain eternal salvation (cf. Phil 3:18-19).  The most explicit passage of Scripture which springs to my mind on this subject is Heb 6:4-6, but the interpretation is hotly debated.  Most Reformed theologians have tended to abhor a waste and feel that God should not waste His grace on those whom He ultimately condemns anyway.  It seems so inefficient.  On the other hand most, Arminians would say that God did save them but they turned away and rejected His salvation.  Official Roman Catholic theology tends to focus on being in a state of grace, which one acquires through sacraments (including confession) and loses through sufficiently severe sin.  But this is a difficult question which I will offer some reflection on, even though you didn’t ask it, because it’s fun.

I think there are two key points of saying that salvation is initial in the Christian life.  The salvation historical point is to say that Jesus Christ has accomplished everything already on the Cross – nothing needs to be added to make salvation effective.  The pastoral point is to say that there is no minimum level of attainment for those who will be saved: if it is all by grace, even someone who lives an awful life and at the last possible moment pleads for God’s grace (consider the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus!) will receive God’s mercy.  In that sense, having turned to Christ for our salvation, we have arrived, so to speak, and our salvation is accomplished.  For most of us, however, having tasted of that initial justification we continue to grow in grace and righteousness (producing the fruit of the Spirit) until we are glorified and perfected after our physical death (or without death, for those of us who remain until Christ returns!) in the presence of the Lord.  My view of the sacraments would suggest that God typically uses them as a means to communicate forgiveness and spiritual growth, and I understand the “enlightenment” and “tasting the heavenly gift” of Heb 6:4-6 as baptism and the Eucharist, and therefore apostates have experienced God’s grace, and indeed been made partakers of the Holy Spirit!

But even apart from these points, so controversial among evangelicals, I think I am on solid ground when I say that God will forgive the repentant sinner who asks for forgiveness, and God having once decided to forgive a sin will not go back and exact it later.  On this understanding, those who have been forgiven for their earlier sins but later reject Christ and rebel against God will be condemned not for their earlier sins but for their later sins alone (apostasy and idolatry for starters).  This is sufficient to evoke God’s condemnation, and upholds both God’s absolute justice and His absolute mercy freely given to everyone who asks.  I think this also makes sense of a passage like 2 Pet 2:1, where those who introduce heresies are “even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction on themselves.”  The denying of Christ and bringing destruction are no surprise, but in what sense did Christ buy them, if they have not in some sense benefited from His death on the Cross?

Anyway, those are my initial thoughts on your set of questions.  I’d recommend avoiding using “saved” without specifying what you mean we are being saved from: God’s condemnation of our sins, the effects of our sins in our own hearts and others lives, the corruption of our twisted general humanity (“the old self”), having to deal with evil-doers, our weakness in doing what is right, or all the other things that we can be saved from.

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8 comments

  1. >>”He presented both the Calvinist and Arminian positions very forcefully with references to Scripture, and he remarked that he knew many Calvinists at Calvin who worried about their salvation more than many Arminians, even though one of the alleged “strengths” of Calvinism is “eternal security” while Arminians are alleged to be always in doubt about their eternal state.”<<

    This actually makes quite a bit of sense, when you think about it. If you think of "saved" as a eternal state of being, then it is only natural to try to figure out whether you are in that state or not. But to do that, you need to establish some sort of criteria that relates something in your life to that state. Either you go with a magic formula ("you just need to say Jesus is Lord"), you ask God and hope you're hearing the answer correctly, or you make your best guess.

    Arminians, on the other hand, don't have to worry as much about the state they're in right now, but only the state which they are headed towards; it's much easier for people to look at their life and say, "I'm not perfect, but I'm heading in the right direction" than it is to look at their life and say, "I'm one of the ones God picked for eternal bliss."

    Not that either position is strictly justified, given that we don't earn our salvation. It's just an easier thought for humans to think than the other.

    1. I hadn’t heard that particular characterization of Calvinism. All of the Calvinists I know would still say that being “saved” is a state which one enters at a particular time. I think the worry creeps in when the epistemological question is divorced from the scriptural criteria (e.g. “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” in Romans 10:9; 2 Pet 1:5-9 also comes to mind).

      But then, I don’t think there’s much substantive disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians, so much as a difference of emphasis.

      1. I would think it would be pretty easy to, as you say, divorce the epistemological question from the scriptural criteria, given both a multitude of not-quite-the-same scriptural criteria and even more so because some people appear to meet any one of those criteria, who then apostatize.

        My “eternal state/God picked me” characterization may come from half-remembered elements of a George Macdonald book read many years ago. 🙂 Even if you think of “saved” as a state you enter into when certain scriptural criteria are met, though, I still think it’s fundamentally easier to worry about whether or not you are in a particular abstract state NOW than about whether you are headed towards that state in the future.

        1. You may be right, and if so, your comment reinforces my contention that we should think of salvation less as a state and more as a series of divine actions. I think the logical points of doctrinaire Calvinism are susceptible of such an interpretation, even if the popularization, “once saved, always saved” probably is not.

          1. Yes, I heartily agree with moving away from thinking of salvation as a state. For one, because I find that noticing the specific things that God saves me from better helps me grow in my relationship with Him.

  2. Excellent analysis. I’ve always felt (though I couldn’t articulate why until now) that the use of the stative causes problems in reconciling with human nature–for example, people who are very strong Christians in their youth may leave the church, and later may or may not come back. However, I still have a problem riddling out Hebrews 6 because of the “shared in the Holy Spirit” part. If that can be considered a state that is entered under a certain condition, you come back around to a very similar problem as you started with.

    Incidentally, I’ve been a Presbyterian for 14 years, and I have never once heard a pastor explicitly talk about Calvinist theology. Does it get brought up more in certain circles?

    1. I think “sharing in the Holy Spirit” is still be considered an ongoing activity rather than a state, although even if considered a state, it is a different sort of state than “saved.” Of course, it is also a phrase which is susceptible of a range of interpretations. I do accept the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (or at least, one interpretation of it), but I accept that as an encouragement of God’s providence and insist on my inability to discern (or at least, to discern perfectly) who is or is not among the elect.

      Some groups are much more excited about Calvinist doctrine (and the TULIP acronym which summarizes its popular form) than others. I think the PC-USA, the RCA, and the CRC include Calvinists, but mostly like to argue about other trendier issues. The PCA is, I think, more staunchly Calvinist, though even it cares more about some contemporary issues. It’s often a question of the pastor’s personal interest, or lack thereof, and some of the most vocal Calvinists I have met have not been Presbyterians but Reformed Baptists. Although I hear that in my new town there is a church which is so Reformed that it only sings the psalms, no other songs, and only a capella. That’s straight out of the sixteenth century!

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