Can Eternal Security Possibly Be True in an Age of So Many Deconversions?
Dec 06, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 9 Comments
“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19; updated NIV)
I have blogged before about the surprising number of people, especially but by no means limited to young adults, who are deconverting (to use the term of choice in many circles) from evangelical Christianity these days. My wife and I are currently meeting with a young couple for some informal pre-engagement counseling and I was struck the last time we got together by one of the young woman’s comments: “So many of our friends have given up their faith; how do we know that one of us won’t do that too if we go ahead and get married?” I had never heard the issue put quite that way before in that kind of context.
Theologically, a parallel question is how can any Christian, whether or not a thoroughgoing Calvinist, believe in eternal security when the empirical evidence to the contrary of so many people utterly repudiating everything they once stood for seems to disprove the doctrine on a massive scale? The Wesleyan-Arminian answer, of course, is that one can’t—or at least shouldn’t—and that Scripture doesn’t teach it in the first place.
When I was in seminary, a professor who was himself a fairly centrist Arminian, gave us an assignment in a New Testament class we affectionately called “New Testament Leftovers.” I think it’s official title was “Hebrews, the General Epistles and the Johannine Literature,” in other words everything in the New Testament not covered in the classes on the Synoptic Gospels or on Acts and Paul. The assignment was to look up a cross section of commentators and other writers of both Calvinist and Arminian persuasions on a series of prescribed texts in the book we were studying. One set of texts involved classic proof texts for eternal security; the other set were the classic passages those who denied eternal security cited. The professor actually labeled the document setting forth all the parameters of the assignment “An Eternal Security Handbook.” Some of the more cynical students unofficially redubbed it “An Eternal Insecurity Handbook.”
Interestingly enough, it was when I came to 1 John 2:19 that everything fell into place for me. To be sure, Wesleyan-Arminian writers argued that one could not generalize from this specific instance of false teachers leaving the church and orthodoxy to all such people, but I have never understood why not. The specific reasons for deconversion, to revert to today’s newly minted word, vary widely; what people leave orthodoxy for varies equally widely, but the verse is pretty high up the hermeneutical “ladder of abstraction.”
In a previous blog I cited Christian and ex-Christian writers alike who have stressed the presence of three frequent factors in such pilgrimages: a crisis of some kind in life; failure of one’s Christian community to provide the expected support; and an awareness for the first time, or at least a serious look for the first time, at an alternate worldview that, at least in the immediate context, seems to prove more satisfying. Not surprisingly, as seems to be the custom in the blogosphere, those who were most dissatisfied with my post, instead of responding directly to my blog, merely copied it on their websites and then blasted away at me, or let their groupies do so.
One common reply was “but those three factors don’t fit my situation.” Fair enough. I never said they applied to all such people, just that those folks who have actually studied large numbers of such journeys do find them frequently recurring. The November issue of Christianity Today has a fascinating and important article on this same topic, entitled “The Leavers” by Drew Dyck (pp. 40-44). One two-paragraph segment fairly leapt of the page as I read it:
What pushed them out? Again, the reasons for departing in each case were unique, but I realized that most leavers had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith. When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are “good, nice, and fair.” Its central goal is to help believers “be happy and feel good about oneself.”
Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it’s one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this naïve and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.
In other words, we really have no idea how many people who have indicated a decision for Christ in such contexts really are true believers, though others may become convinced that they are and they may themselves believe that they are! It’s one more reminder of how potentially misleading the expression “eternal security” can be. The sixteenth-century Reformers didn’t use the expression; they spoke instead of the “perseverance of the saints”—the P in the famous Calvinist acronym of TULIP. Those who are true believers will persevere until the end. Those who apostasize demonstrate that they were not true believers.
I John 2:19 makes as much sense of both the biblical and experiential data today as it did when I was in seminary in the late 1970s. But the implications are sobering. We cannot take for granted that all of our closest friends in church or parachurch settings who we often take for granted are “saved” necessarily are. To be sure, some who deconvert later reconvert, potentially demonstrating that they had merely been severely “backslidden.” But we dare not use this category as a widespread explanation for the deconverted because a majority of them do not come back.
What then of free grace? It’s as free as ever. But as one former pastor of mine in the 1980s once put it so memorably, “Salvation is absolutely free but it will cost you your life.” It’s not that any specific works or any combination of lifelong works ever merits you salvation. But grace works; faith without works is dead, as James repeatedly reminds us.
Moreover, let’s never forget one important doctrine both Calvin and Arminius agreed on. You can profess belief, you can at some later date repudiate it all, you can die in the latter state, and if this happens you are lost and separated from God and all things good for all eternity. Tragically, some Calvinists subsequently invented the notion that such people were still saved, just barely so, but lost out on all the great rewards in heaven that others would receive. A few have even imagined that biblical texts that teach otherwise are in fact saying that there are compartments in heaven called outer darkness, filled with fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth. How tragic if those who believe these unbiblical notions then take false solace in thinking their friends and loved ones are saved if they are not. Far better to err on the side of caution and continue to love and exhort those about whom there is any doubt to ensure that they remain faithful to their commitments thereby demonstrating the genuineness of their discipleship.