What if I fall away from Christ when temptation comes?
According to Martin Luther (Bondage of the Will, VII, xviii), it is a great comfort to know salvation does not depend on free will but only on Christ’s promise that no one will take his sheep from his hand (John 10:28-29). That promise ensures that the elect who are straying into mortal sin will return prior to death (III, ii).
How can I believe that promise when the Parable of the Sower mentions the withering of those who believe only for a time? What if I am one of them?
The case of a permanent loss of saving faith is there to warn those who would, in Calvinistic fashion, rely on an earlier profession of faith rather than on Christ’s promise. The law warns them, “If you do not persevere in hearing and believing the word of God, bearing the fruit of the Spirit, any past faith will not save you.” As an example of Calvinism’s deadliness, Pieper pointed to Cromwell’s false security in his memory of having once been in a state of grace.
By contrast, saving faith looks to Christ “outside us,” never to itself. Faith clings to the ever-present promise of forgiveness and preservation, not the reasoning that one may have believed at some time in the past. Christ promises that no one will take his sheep from his hand (John 10:27-29).
1 February 2014. Modified 2 January 2016.
Luther’s advice on election (Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Martin Luther, ed. & trans. Theodore G. Tappert, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 2006):
- “… the highest of all God’s commands is this, that we hold out before our eyes the image of his dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day he should be our excellent mirror wherein we behold how much God loves us… In this way, I say, and in no other, does one learn how to deal properly with the question of predestination. It will be manifest that you believe in Christ. If you believe, then you are called. And if you are called, then you are most certainly predestined.” (p. 116)
- “Do you believe what you hear in the preaching of the Word and do you accept it as the truth? … To have faith in him is to accept these things as true without any doubting. God has revealed himself to you. If you believe this, then you are to be numbered among his elect. Hold to this firmly in with assurance, and if you accept the God who is revealed, the hidden God will be given to you at the same time… If we cling to him, he will hold us fast, and he will tear us away from sin and death and will not let us fall.” (pp. 133-134)
- “We should think of [Jesus Christ] daily and follow him. In him we shall find our election to be sure and pleasant, for without Christ everything is peril, death, and the devil, while in Christ [it] is pure peace and joy. Nothing but anxiety can be gained from forever tormenting oneself with the question of election. Therefore, avoid and flee from such thoughts, as from the temptation of the serpent in paradise, and direct your attention to Christ.” (pp. 137-138)
Scripture on election
The doctrine of election appears in several New Testament passages, including Romans 8 (“whom he justified, he glorified”) and John 6:40 (“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”). Paul addressed Christian congregations as the elect. “Christians can and should be assured of their eternal election. This is evident from the fact that Scripture addresses them as the chosen ones and comforts them with their election, Ephesians 1:4; II Thessalonians 2:13” (Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 1932 Brief Statement).
Scripture’s clear promise of eternal election has been obscured by denominational divisions, with the effect that election is seen as a teaching of Scripture to be used more for debate than for the strengthening of faith. The most important debates focus on how to use the teaching for what all Scripture was intended: comfort and hope from the promise of the gospel (Romans 15:4). In fact, Scripture’s hopefulness led the second-generation Lutheran Church to faithfully confess the biblical doctrine of election.
The Lutheran confessions on election
The church that takes its stand on the bare words of Scripture concerning justification by faith alone and concerning eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ also stands firmly on the bare words of Scripture concerning election.
That is why the Lutheran Church adamantly opposes two opposite errors as threats to faith in the gospel:
- Eternal security: Anyone who has ever believed the gospel will inherit eternal life even without remaining in the word of Christ.
- Synergism: Free will plays some role in salvation.
The first error removes terror from God’s law, which sternly condemns us in order that we continue to take refuge in Christ as the one who has faced and defeated that terror for all people. The second detracts from the comfort of the good news that salvation is entirely God’s work.
Consider these gospel excerpts from the article of the Formula of Concord on eternal election:
Thus this doctrine affords also the excellent, glorious consolation that God was so greatly concerned about the conversion, righteousness, and salvation of every Christian, and so faithfully purposed it… that before the foundation of the world was laid, He deliberated concerning it, and in His [secret] purpose ordained how He would bring me thereto [call and lead me to salvation], and preserve me therein.
It can be seen that “every Christian” and “me” refer to the same person: every believer, every Christian. That would mean God was concerned enough with the salvation of every child of God to preserve him or her in it.
Therefore, whoever would be saved should not trouble or harass himself with thoughts concerning the secret counsel of God, as to whether he also is elected and ordained to eternal life, with which miserable Satan usually attacks and annoys godly hearts. But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God’s eternal election of all of God’s children to eternal life…
The formula said there that all of God’s children have been elected to eternal life. Far from leading to fatalism, apathy, or lawlessness, the good news of the election of all God’s children motivates the Christian life. The Formula continues with the exhortation to live in repentance, in the forgiving promises of word and sacrament, and in confident prayer:
According to this doctrine of His they should abstain from their sins, repent, believe His promise, and entirely trust in Him; and since we cannot do this by ourselves, of our own powers, the Holy Ghost desires to work these things, namely, repentance and faith, in us through the Word and Sacraments. And in order that we may attain this, persevere in it, and remain steadfast, we should implore God for His grace, which He has promised us in Holy Baptism, and, no doubt, He will impart it to us according to His promise, as He has said, Luke 11:11ff : If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him!
The Formula of Concord likewise affirms these articles among others:
4. That He will justify all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith, and will receive them into grace, the adoption of sons, and the inheritance of eternal life.
5. That He will also sanctify in love those who are thus justified, as St. Paul says, Eph. 1:4.
6. That He also will protect them in their great weakness against the devil, the world, and the flesh, and rule and lead them in His ways, raise them again [place His hand beneath them], when they stumble, comfort them under the cross and in temptation, and preserve them [for life eternal].
7. That He will also strengthen, increase, and support to the end the good work which He has begun in them, if they adhere to God’s Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s goodness [grace], and faithfully use the gifts received.
In short, God will raise and preserve for eternal life “all those who in true repentance receive Christ by a true faith” (paragraphs 18-20), and he will do so by means of his word and sacraments and in response to prayer grounded in his promises.
Election in the wounds of Christ
Following Luther and the Formula of Concord, Pieper (Christian Dogmatics III:483-484) instructed us to discern our election in the wounds of Christ, that is, in the promise that he takes the sins of the world away (III:482-483). Here is an example of how the Formula grounds the assurance of election in the universality of the atonement (paragraph 70):
But they should hear Christ [and look upon Him as the Book of Life in which is written the eternal election], who is the Book of Life and of God’s eternal election of all of God’s children to eternal life: He testifies to all men without distinction that it is God’s will that all men should come to Him who labor and are heavy laden with sin, in order that He may give them rest and save them, Matt. 11:28.
Not all denominations receive Scripture’s good news that all of God’s children have been elected to eternal life. Taking the Presbyterian Church as an example, the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly makes the promises of the gospel conditional on evidence of conversion. By contrast, the scriptural article of election is a promise of the gospel.
Not everyone believes. Pieper correctly attributes a lack of faith solely to the stubborn rejection of the offer of salvation Christ makes to all, sincerely desiring their salvation. At the same time, Pieper also correctly attributes faith solely to the grace of God. There should be no question that election is a cause of saving faith. Pieper rightly stressed, “As many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” While aware of the apparent contradiction, Pieper points out that all attempts to resolve it lead to either Calvinism or synergism.
The Lutheran teaching on divine preservation did not originate with the Formula of Concord but can be traced at least as far back as Luther’s Large Catechism:
Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same.
Everyone confessing faith in the second article of the Creed (that Jesus Christ is Lord) thereby confesses faith that he “preserves us in” righteousness. Indeed, every baptized child of God has justifying and sanctifying faith and thereby believes all articles of gospel, including its promise of preservation in righteousness.
Warnings against apostasy
What about the threats of Scripture against those who only believe for a time? Of course, the word “believe” has meanings in the language of the New Testament apart from its specifically Christian meaning, “believe with saving faith,” and context always determines how a word is used. For example, the Fourth Gospel spoke of children of Satan who had believed in Christ without really keeping his word (John 8:31-33, 43-44, 51):
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone…” “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires… Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
See also John 2:23-25 and 5:37-38.
Law and gospel
God’s word comes to us as law and gospel. We must take both its warnings concerning apostasy and its promises of election seriously by considering the former as law and the latter as gospel. The law says that if you fall away from the faith and do not repent, you will perish eternally. Indeed, there are former believers who completely fall away from grace because they stopped believing the gospel.
While the law of God does threaten his wrath, his gospel cannot since it is by definition nothing but good news. It says those who persevere in saving faith do so solely by the power of God and in no sense by their free will. The gospel, including the promise of preservation, is available to all since God sincerely desires the salvation of all, as the Lutheran confessions emphasize.
The threats in John 15:1-10 and other Scriptures about what happens to those who believe but do not remain in the word of Christ pertain to the law, not to election, since election is pure gospel. The promise of eternal life is even for those of God’s children who, having fallen away from the faith, repent in response to the warnings of the law.
3 September 2011. Modified 2 and 31 January 2016. I thank Daniel Gorman and Guillaume Williams Sr. for informative discussions.
One should not seek assurance of election according to speculations about God’s hidden will but rather in the wounds of the Christ who as God reconciled the world to himself, as Luther found. That good news is proclaimed by word and sacrament, through which the Spirit creates and sustains saving faith in the same gospel. Faith in that good news includes confidence in one’s election.
These Reformed errors contradict that gospel:
1. The Calvinistic teaching that anyone who ever has saving faith can never cease to have such faith even if committing mortal sin.
2. The Arminian teaching that the human will is free to choose to exercise saving faith.
That is the gospel. Those who actually fall away and remain unrepentant instead need to hear the law: if they die in unbelief, they will be condemned.
Modified 2 January 2016.