From “How to become a Christian”: Chapter 21 – Assurance of salvation
If we extend the train analogy, what would happen if, as time passed, the refugee got more and more relaxed and casual and chose to get off the train? What if he was to get out at a station and wander off to buy a newspaper? What if he just got out to stretch his legs on the platform? Is it possible that the train could set off again without him? What if he even chose to get off for a more lengthy period and go for a walk and then seek to get back on to a later train? Would there definitely be a later train? Even if there was, would he be able to get onto it?
That analogy also has relevance to the assurance passages. So, it would be true to say to that refugee that:
- the train he is currently on is definitely going to the destination
- he is guaranteed a seat
- no fellow passenger can throw him off the train
- he will not fall out of the train due to any accident.
However, it would also be true, and no contradiction, to say: “But stay on the train and don’t seek to get off and get back onto a later train. Don’t get off at all, even for a moment. Don’t take any chances or be complacent. Don’t even get out onto the platform at any of the stations along the way, not even for a second, in case you cannot get back on and the train leaves without you.”
In other words one could say to him: “You need to persevere. Stay on the train and don’t get off or go anywhere”. The same things can be said about persevering in the Christian life: We must continue to stand and to hold fast and we must never leave the Christian life. Otherwise, we may be judged to have believed in vain:
1Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.1 Corinthians 15:1-2 (NASB)
The warnings in the train analogy do not contradict the promises or reassurance given beforehand. The two messages fit together perfectly well. A sensible, reasonable person can feel assured of his place on the train and yet still realise his own need to take care to stay on board and not wander off or leave the train.
Likewise, we can feel assured that we are going to Heaven when we die but, at the same time, know that we must continue on the Way, hold firm, bear fruit, and not throw away our faith or allow it to go cold.
To put it another way, you could say that your salvation cannot be lost by any kind of accident, or by the actions of any other human being. But you could decide to throw it away yourself, if you were to deny Jesus or to wilfully sin against Him, or to stop following Him. Or, you could gradually let it evaporate away by your own indifference, complacency and lack of reverence.
Over time, those casual attitudes turn into neglect, which steadily erodes your faith. You could end up no longer being a disciple, or no longer even a believer at all. However, if that happened, it would be you who brought it about, not God, and not other people.
That falling away need not have come from any decisive moment when you deliberately chose to reject Jesus. It could be that your love for Him just ebbed away, bit by bit, over a long period. If so, your faith ends up as a dry, empty shell with no life in it. That is not something which happens to you. It’s something you do yourself, over a period of time.
It’s no accident. It’s the end result of many small decisions to ignore Jesus Christ or to put Him to one side and to focus instead on the trivial things of this world. Faith in Jesus Christ can ebb away, just as marriages often do. It happens by a thousand little decisions to neglect rather than cherish, and to focus on something, or someone, else rather than the one we are meant to love. That’s how marriages are usually thrown away, by gradual decay, not by any sudden collapse or trauma. It works the same way with faith in God.
So, it is perfectly correct for God to say that you can be assured of going to Heaven when you die and that He will never accidentally drop you out of His hand or allow anyone else to snatch you out of His hand. It is also correct, at the same time, for God to warn you that you must not wander away from Him.
You must not choose to leave the palm of His hand or take yourself away from eternal life. Certain decisions or actions on your part could eventually result in you throwing away your place in Heaven. There is no contradiction in any of that. It isn’t even particularly complicated. Any sincere person can quickly grasp it.
The assurance and warning passages are largely aimed at different character types
The assurance passages and the warning passages are generally aimed at different audiences, i.e. different types of person:
- The assurance passages are primarily aimed at the sincere, earnest, anxious, God-fearing, repentant, honest, tender-hearted person. He has no intention of neglecting, despising or throwing away his own salvation. He is only asking for reassurance that it will not be taken away from him by other people or by circumstances.
- The warning passages are generally directed towards those who have the tendency to be glib, complacent, careless, presumptuous, over confident, self-reliant, self-righteous, carnal, insincere, shallow, worldly, etc. God is warning all such people that His mercy is something to be treasured and received with gratitude. It’s not to be despised or taken for granted in a presumptuous manner. The Bible therefore tells us that there is a way to throw away our own salvation through our own actions and decisions, but especially by neglect.
When that throwing away occurs it is very rarely ever done in an instant, or as the result of one sin or foolish decision. It is almost always the culmination of a long series of small choices which usually seem insignificant at the time. These many little decisions cause us to move steadily farther and farther away from God.
Each sinful choice or step causes our hearts to get harder and harder, and our love for Him to get colder and colder. Eventually we end up showing indifference to Him. Then we no longer even fear the prospect of falling away, as our mind is focused on other things. It is to such people, and there are many of them in the Church, that the warning passages are mainly directed. However, we are all to take very careful note of them and to be sobered, whatever type of person we may be.
There is a need for a balanced understanding of the assurance passages and the warning passages and to believe both at the same time
Various writers argue passionately in favour of one or other of these opposing positions, i.e. focusing either 100% on assurance or 100% on warning. Some of them are failing to realise that we actually need to hold both these positions at the same time in a proper balance.
We could summarise that balance between assurance and warning by the following series of statements:
a) We are held onto by God’s faithfulness. He is holding onto us firmly, with a steady grip. He is reliable and He can be trusted never to abandon or forget us. He will never forsake us. Therefore those of us who feel anxious about whether He is reliable can be reassured. We will never be let down by Him.
b) While ever we are sincere, remain in Him, and continue to put our trust in Him, God will never reject us. That is still the case even when we fail or make mistakes, as we inevitably shall do. Indeed, no genuine Christian will ever be condemned by God solely for failing or making mistakes, while sincerely trying to serve Him.
c) We can have a real and meaningful assurance, right now, that when we die we will have eternal life and will not face God’s wrath or go to the Great White Throne judgment or the Lake of Fire.
d) But, if we take God for granted, lose respect for Him, cease to honour and love Him and drift away from Him, then it is possible that our names will be blotted out of the Book of Life. We will then lose our place in the body of Christ, and lose our salvation.
e) If so, then when we die we would not be counted as part of the Church, but as part of the unbelieving world. We would therefore be judged with the unbelievers at the Great White Throne judgment and go to the Lake of Fire.
f) If so, the judgment upon us would be even more severe than for a person who had never believed. That’s because we would have trampled under foot the precious truth of the gospel and the great sacrifice that Jesus made for us. We would have despised both it and Him.
g) If our name is eventually removed from the book of life and we lose our salvation, it would not really be something that God has done to us. It would be more accurate to say it is something we have done to ourselves. It would be the end result of all our own decisions and choices, probably over many years. In my experience, I have never seen a real Christian fall away or reject Jesus overnight.
It is almost always the end product of a steady process of decay and neglect that has been going on for a long time. It is like when a rotten old tree falls over in a sudden strong wind. The inside of that tree had probably been rotting away for a long time, or it would not have fallen over. So, it is all our own fault if we fall away and give up the faith.
The need to accept the assurance passages and the warning passages at the same time
Let us consider another analogy which will, hopefully, make all of this clearer. Imagine a person who, in the 19th century, goes to work for the Christian chocolate manufacturer, George Cadbury. He was amazingly advanced and generous in the way he treated his staff. He provided good pay and working conditions plus all sorts of benefits such as schools, medical clinics and good homes for the staff to live in. He was many decades ahead of his time
Suppose that on that employee’s first day at work the great man himself, George Cadbury, was to say “If you come to work at Cadbury’s then you will have a job for life. And, when you are too old or too sick to work any longer, you also have my promise of a cottage for life. Therefore you can continue to live on in your home even when you retire”.
If he gave that promise or assurance to an employee it would be entirely valid and meaningful. It is not hollow or false. It really means something. That new member of staff can immediately feel a sense of assurance, even on their first day at the factory. They know that George Cadbury is a godly man whose word can be totally trusted. There is no question of him failing to honour his promises and deciding, for no reason, to give that job or cottage to someone else.
So, in terms of assurance, that new worker at Cadbury’s has that cast-iron promise. He or she can feel reassured by it. That is precisely how we can, and should, feel in relation to God’s promises to us. His word is His bond. God can be entirely trusted never to leave us or to let us down. The real question, however, is what if we let God down? What if we leave Him? What if we deny Him?
If we return to our Cadbury analogy, imagine that after a period of time that new worker becomes complacent, ungrateful and hard-hearted and begins to behave badly at the factory. Imagine they are regularly late for work, lazy, unproductive, disrespectful, disobedient, or neglect their duties. Or, imagine that they go further and even steal from the company or intentionally cause damage to company property. What would George Cadbury do then?
He would begin at a very early stage by giving warnings about attitude, performance and conduct. He would even be willing to give repeated warnings, escalating in seriousness and intensity. However, nobody would criticise George Cadbury if, eventually, he said “Your repeated neglect and misconduct, and your indifference to your duties, have made you an unfruitful, unproductive employee. You are not fit to remain in employment here. Therefore I am dismissing you from the company.”
Wouldn’t his eventual response be entirely reasonable and understandable? How could he realistically do otherwise? So. if we neglect God, dishonour Him, persistently disobey Him, and produce no fruit for Him, then what other option does God have, in the end, but to remove us? If He does so then He is not breaking His word to us. His assurances were all entirely genuine. They have not been broken or dishonoured. He has been entirely consistent and reasonable, just as with the George Cadbury illustration.
Or, taking the analogy even further, imagine that the worker at Cadbury’s chooses, of their own free will, to leave their job and their cottage and to go away to work for some other company. Doesn’t that obviously mean that they are no longer an employee of Cadbury’s? Of course it does. In terms of contract law, they have terminated their own contract themselves by their own express words of resignation. It was not something which Mr Cadbury did. He played no part in it. The employee did it himself, unilaterally, when he wrote the resignation letter.
However such a departure from the company need not necessarily involve any formal or express decision to resign. The employee could just drift away, such that they do not turn up for work, day after day. Cadbury’s would send out letters saying “Where are you? Please report for work.” But, eventually the contract of employment would end if the employee failed to return. It could be deemed to be an implied resignation by conduct, i.e. by being persistently absent. Or, it could even result in an express dismissal for absenteeism. Either way, Cadbury’s would have done no wrong at all. The responsibility would be entirely on the part of the ex-employee.
I hope that extended analogy helps you to hold together, in proper balance and tension, these apparently contradictory concepts of assurance and warning. In short, if we become a Christian we work for someone infinitely more faithful, honest, trustworthy, and reliable than George Cadbury. Yet God has every right to make demands of us and to hold us accountable for the degree to which we are faithful to Him and for what fruit we produce, or fail to produce. He has told us very clearly, and repeatedly, what He expects of us. Therefore, what basis do we have to complain if we are eventually “dismissed” or removed because we are not faithful to Him and we ignore what He says?
Accordingly, it is not enough to adopt only one or other of these two approaches, i.e. assurance or warning. Both are true. Both apply to you and to me. They each apply more relevantly to some people than to others. It depends on our heart attitude, i.e. whether we tend to be sincere/ tender/ anxious types, or casual/ self-assured/ independent/ complacent types.