Why Christ Cannot Fail to Save
False Faith, Intercession, and the Security of the Believer
And it was not without an oath. For those who formerly became priests were made such without an oath, but this one was made a priest with an oath by the one who said to him: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest forever.'" This makes Jesus the guarantor of a better covenant. The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:20-25)
In this final installment in our series examining the Trinity and Oneness Pentecostalism, we look at how the mediatorial ministry of Christ in heaven is crucial for salvation, according to the book of Hebrews. By his eternal life, permitting him to intercede forever on our behalf, Jesus Christ can “save us to the uttermost.”
The Eternal Security of the True Believer
What does that mean? Hebrews contrasts this with the Old Testament sacrificial system, and points out that while the former required frequent, daily sacrifices, offered again and again, Jesus made a once-for-all sacrifice (Hebrews 7:27). So, in contrast to the popular Jewish understanding, salvation is not something that needs repetitive and recurrent input from human beings to either accomplish or maintain.
This is what we call the doctrine of the perseverance or preservation of the believer: those who truly belong to God (that is, those who are elected and called and regenerated and justified) cannot be lost. In other words, since Jesus is the one who saves and keeps us, we who belong to him cannot be lost. Even we can’t screw this up, because it wasn’t our work in the first place.
This teaching is found elsewhere in Scripture. Jesus told the Jews that whoever came to him, he would never cast out (John 6:37). Why? Because he came from heaven not to do his own will, but the will of the one who sent him: that is, the Father (John 6:38). What is the Father’s will that the Son came to do? The Father’s will is that Jesus lose none – none! Not one! – of those the Father gave him, but raise them on the last day.
(The whole of John 6 certainly presents a pile of problems for the Oneness position, as well. How can Jesus say he came to do not his own will but the Father’s, if he is himself the Father? How can the Father “give” anything to the Son if there are no can be no meaningful personal distinction between them? How can the sovereign monergism (i.e., “Calvinism”) of John 6:44, 65 be compatible with the fundamental Arminianism (if not outright Pelagianism) of Oneness theology?)
See, Oneness theology holds that a believer must maintain himself in a state of holiness in order to retain his salvation. By observing strict codes regarding dress, haircuts, and the like, the person keeps himself “saved.” This idea, that the retention of one’s status as “saved” depends on one’s own effort, is antithetical to the teaching of Scripture. We’ve just seen Jesus teaching in John 6 that this preservation, this perseverance by the believer, is a result of Christ’swork in holding believers safe in his hand – work that is direct obedience to the Father’s will that no believer who has come to Christ be lost.
The Danger of False Faith
Now this does not mean that anyone who expresses and professes faith in Christ is therefore safe, as if they’ve “punched their ticket” and they are good to go no matter what they do. So many people think they’re “in” because they’ve prayed a prayer or felt something or walked up an aisle at an altar call. That’s wrong. The idea that one need only give a bare assent to Jesus, that all you need to do is have some kind of faith in him once even if that faith doesn’t result in any “fruit” or change in their life, is called “easy-believism.” This really dangerous teaching ignores the fact that the Bible plainly warns that people can be deceived about the state of their souls (eg. Matthew 7:21-23). Easy-believism fails to distinguish between a living faith that only God can give and which changes one’s life and never dies, and a false faith that springs up for a time out of man’s sinful heart and eventually withers without affecting the direction of one’s life.
Only those truly born from above by the Spirit, who have been moved to faith and repentance by the Father’s drawing and who have put a genuine trust in Christ, can be said to be secure. But mark this: they are secure because of God’s work,God’s promise, and not because of human effort. A true Christian will do good works, certainly, for the true and living faith that only God can grant must by necessity result in the “fruit” of a changed life. As Calvin once said, faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone! So the lack of fruit or life change or good works is evidence that a true change of heart has not happened. But we must never forget that these works are the result and fruit of God’s work in saving and preserving the believer, and not the cause!
The role of good works in the Christian life is simple: not to secure or preserve salvation, for this would rob God of his glory, but instead to glorify God byproclaiming and witnessing to it.
How God Preserves His Elect
So back to Hebrews. John 6 tells us the what of preservation: Jesus will not lose any the Father has given him. Hebrews 7 and on tells us the how. What preserves the believer after justification, what “keeps him saved,” is the continuing intercessory work of Jesus before the Father above: “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). When we stumble, when we fall, and the righteousness and holiness of the Father is impugned, Christ pleads for us. He reminds the Court that the punishment for that sin was already paid. He reminds the Judge that those failings were laid on Himself, and that we are positionally and legally righteous because His own perfect, spotless righteousness are wrapped around us like clothing. Christ preserves us and keeps God’s grace flowing so that we may be picked up, dusted off, and cleaned up to continue growing in holiness.
As our Mediator, Jesus is able to save us to the uttermost. Not just get us into a state of salvation that we are then responsible to maintain through good behaviour; that maintenance is itself the result of Christ’s continuing work. But this is impossible in Oneness modalism, for at least two reasons:
First, since Jesus is himself the Father, we really don’t have a mediator in the Oneness perspective. The Judge and the Intercessor (or Defence Attorney) are the same person. This would hardly be a situation that would engender confidence in a human courtroom! Jesus’ mediation and intercession are reduced to a mere charade.
Second, in some forms of Oneness modalism, the mode or manifestation of the Son has passed to be replaced by the mode or manifestation of the Spirit. This means that our Mediator no longer exists. Hebrews 7 is a nice story, but cannot be real. At most, it’s an entertaining puppet show.
So therefore, it is not Christ who saves us to the uttermost in Oneness theology. Oh, sure, he helps; he gets us started, or gives us the tools, but in Oneness theology it is ultimately the believer who is responsible for salvation “to the uttermost.” And since it was our own thickheaded sinfulness that got us into the predicament of lostness in the first place, having our eternal salvation rest even in part upon our own performance is a terrifying prospect indeed.
Oneness theology leaves no place for a doctrine of preservation or perseverance of the believer. In this construct, there is no eternal security. And without such security, assurance of salvation is utterly impossible. A Oneness believer can have the right baptism, speak in tongues, rigidly observe the holiness codes, and yet still be in fear of losing his salvation because, after all, who knows what moral catastrophe may befall him in the future? Who knows what spiritual stumble may occur just before death?
I’ll say it again. If Jesus is not in some eternal and personal way distinct from the Father whom he intercedes with, the entire idea of intercession and mediation is reduced to a mere charade. Charades are no ground for confidence, nor for the efficacy of one’s perseverance.
But our Triune God does not play at charades, thankfully. Even now, right at this moment, the Son of God is standing before his Father, conversing with his Father. Our Mediator is pleading our cause with the Judge on high. True and meaningful intercession is taking place on our behalf. And the Trinitarian Christian, one who believes in both the complete unity of the One True God and the Trinitarian distinctiveness of the divine persons who fully share and possess this one God’s nature, can say with tears of joy:
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:31-39)
More in Pastoral Blog
September 13, 2019Luther's Rose and Other Symbols in Stained Glass
August 12, 2019Sexuality, Gender and Christian Witness August 24 with Denny Burk
May 3, 2019Happy and Holy Christians