Universalism in the Early Church

The vast majority of early church fathers believed that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. But unfortunately, there were several who believed in universal salvation. This has led many universalists to greatly overstate their case by claiming that universalism was the prevailing belief of the early church. While universalism was always a minority position among the church fathers, I would like to summarize their teachings here to serve as a reminder that there is no such thing as a universal consent of the fathers on Christian doctrine except when it comes to the foundational truths of the life of Christ. The writings of the early church fathers are filled with strange beliefs and this should give us pause when someone claims that a doctrine is true because some church father said so.

Universalism makes a mockery of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 5:29-30:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

But if people in hell can leave and enter heaven, then it would not be better to cut off your right hand or put out your eye to avoid going there since those who leave it with all their arms and eyes intact would be able to enjoy using them for all eternity while those who mutilated their body would not. Of course, no one in the new heavens and new earth will miss any limbs, but universalism destroys the hypothetical situation Jesus is painting. The Bible teaches that hell will last forever and is not locked from the inside (Matt 25:41-46; 26:24; Rev 14:9-11; 20:10-15).

The first church father to teach universalism appears to have been Origen (the source of all bad things in Christian theology). While Clement of Alexandria is often cited as an early universalist, I believe it is incorrect to label him as such. The clearest expression of Origen’s universalism is not found in the Latin translation of On First Principles by Rufinus, but in the original Greek text which we only have fragments of. It is preserved by Leontius of Byzantium in his Concerning the Sects 10.6 and in emperor Justinian’s condemnation of Origen in his Epistle to Menas:

“There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting. For when the body is punished the soul is gradually purified, and so is restored to its ancient rank. For all wicked men, and for demons, too, punishment has an end, and both wicked men and demons shall be restored to their former rank” (Greek text of On First Principles 2.10.8).

Arguing on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:28, Origen proposes that all of Christ’s enemies will be restored to fellowship with him:

“If, then, that subjection be held to be good and salutary by which the Son is said to be subject to the Father, it is an extremely rational and logical inference to deduce that the subjection also of enemies, which is said to be made to the Son of God, should be understood as being also salutary and useful; as if, when the Son is said to be subject to the Father, the perfect restoration of the whole of creation is signified, so also, when enemies are said to be subjected to the Son of God, the salvation of the conquered and the restoration of the lost is in that understood to consist” (On First Principles 3.5.7).

This would occur through a series countless ages where eventually all rational souls will be restored to their original condition after undergoing this period of purgation:

“And this result must be understood as being brought about, not suddenly, but slowly and gradually, seeing that the process of amendment and correction will take place imperceptibly in the individual instances during the lapse of countless and unmeasured ages, some outstripping others, and tending by a swifter course towards perfection, while others again follow close at hand, and some again a long way behind; and thus, through the numerous and uncounted orders of progressive beings who are being reconciled to God from a state of enmity, the last enemy is finally reached, who is called death, so that he also may be destroyed, and no longer be an enemy. When, therefore, all rational souls shall have been restored to a condition of this kind, then the nature of this body of ours will undergo a change into the glory of a spiritual body” (On First Principles 3.6.6).

In Origen’s theology, hell exists to rid those who are hostile to God of their hostility so that they are eventually no longer his enemies:

“For the destruction of the last enemy must be understood in this way, not that its substance which was made by God should perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded not from God but from itself will come to an end. It will be destroyed, therefore, not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but of being no longer an enemy” (On First Principles 3.6.5).

Jerome, in his letter to Pammacius and Oceanus, believed that Origen taught universal salvation for all including the devil:

“If you too for your parts will but admit that Origen errs in certain things I will not say another syllable. Acknowledge that he thought amiss concerning the Son, and still more amiss concerning the Holy Spirit, point out the impiety of which he has been guilty in speaking of men’s souls as having fallen from heaven, and show that, while in word he asserts the resurrection of the flesh, he destroys the force of this language by other assertions. As, for instance, that, after many ages and one restitution of all things, it will be the same for Gabriel as for the devil, for Paul as for Caiaphas, for virgins as for prostitutes.”

At one time, Jerome agreed with Origen on universal salvation. But he later changed his mind and embraced the Bible’s teaching that it will not be the same for Gabriel as for the devil (Rev 20:10).

While Origen taught universal reconciliation in private to those who are mature, to the immature and those outside the church, he taught eternal punishment as a means to restrain their evil:

“It is risky to commit to writing the explanation of these matters, because the multitude do not require any more instruction than that punishment is to be inflicted upon sinners. It is not of advantage to go on to the truths which lie behind it because there are people who are scarcely restrained by fear of everlasting punishment from the vast flood of evil and the sins that are committed in consequence of it” (Against Celsus 6.26).

Origen was the original theological liberal who used the language of orthodox Christianity in public so that the church would think he believed as they do while redefining its meaning while among the spiritually enlightened.

Gregory of Nyssa, an important church father who defended the doctrine of the Trinity against Arianism, is the most significant universalist in the early church. In his treatise on 1 Corinthians 15:28, he argues that all of Christ’s enemies will be reconciled to him:

“The exposition of the term ‘subjection’ as used here does not mean the forceful, necessary subjection of enemies as is commonly meant; while on the other hand, salvation is clearly interpreted by subjection. However, clear proof of the former meaning is definitely made when Paul makes a twofold distinction of the term ‘enemy.’ He says that enemies are to be subjected; indeed, they are to be destroyed. Therefore, the enemy to be blotted out from human nature is death, whose principle is sin along with domination and power. In another sense, the enemies of God which are to be subjected to him attach themselves to sin after deserting God’s kingdom. Paul mentions this in his Epistle to the Romans: ‘For if we have been enemies, we have been reconciled to God’ [Rom 5.10]. Here Paul calls subjection reconciliation, one term indicating salvation by another word. . . . When all enemies have become God’s footstool, they will receive a trace of divinity in themselves. Once death has been destroyed — for if there are no persons who will die, not even death would exist — then we will be subjected to him; but this is not understood by some sort of servile humility. Our subjection, however, consists of a kingdom, incorruptibility and blessedness living in us; this is Paul’s meaning of being subjected to God. Christ perfects his good in us by himself, and effects in us what is pleasing to him.”

Hell for Gregory is a period of refinement which is purgatorial and temporary:

“Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire” (On the Soul and the Resurrection).

He believed that even the devil would be saved by Christ:

“But as regards the aim and purpose of what took place, a change in the direction of the nobler is involved; for whereas he, the enemy, effected his deception for the ruin of our nature, He Who is at once the just, and good, and wise one, used His device, in which there was deception, for the salvation of him who had perished, and thus not only conferred benefit on the lost one, but on him, too, who had wrought our ruin. . . . Therefore even the adversary himself will not be likely to dispute that what took place was both just and salutary, that is, if he shall have attained to a perception of the boon. For it is now as with those who for their cure are subjected to the knife and the cautery; they are angry with the doctors, and wince with the pain of the incision; but if recovery of health be the result of this treatment, and the pain of the cautery passes away, they will feel grateful to those who have wrought this cure upon them. In like manner, when, after long periods of time, the evil of our nature, which now is mixed up with it and has grown with its growth, has been expelled, and when there has been a restoration of those who are now lying in Sin to their primal state, a harmony of thanksgiving will arise from all creation, as well from those who in the process of the purgation have suffered chastisement, as from those who needed not any purgation at all. These and the like benefits the great mystery of the Divine incarnation bestows. For in those points in which He was mingled with humanity, passing as He did through all the accidents proper to human nature, such as birth, rearing, growing up, and advancing even to the taste of death, He accomplished all the results before mentioned, freeing both man from evil, and healing even the introducer of evil himself” (The Great Catechism 26).

I believe Augustine’s doctrine of purgatory is an evolution of the purgatorial understanding of hell as expressed by Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. Augustine and later Western theology took this concept of postmortem purgation and drew a distinction between hell which lasts forever and a place of suffering for the righteous who will eventually be admitted into heaven after suffering for the temporal punishments due to their venial sins.

Another universalist was Theodore of Mopsuestia who taught that the punishments of the wicked will eventually come to an end:

“In the world to come, those who have chosen here what is good, will receive the felicity of good things along with praise; whereas the wicked, who all their life have turned aside to evil deeds, once they have been set in order in their minds by punishments and the fear of them, choose the good, having come to learn how much they have sinned, and that they have persevered in doing evil things and not good; by means of all this they receive a knowledge of religion’s excellent teaching, and are educated so as to hold on to it with a good will, and so eventually they are held worthy of the felicity of divine munificence. For Christ would never have said ‘Until you pay the last farthing’ unless it had been possible for us to be freed from our sins once we had recompensed for them through punishments. Nor would He have said ‘He will be beaten with many stripes’ and ‘He will be beaten with few stripes’ if it were not the case that the punishments measured out in correspondence to the sins, were finally going to have an end” (As cited by Isaac of Nineveh in his Ascetical Homilies 2.39.8).

A large number within Eastern Orthodoxy believe that it is possible that everyone in the end will be saved. As Bishop Timothy Ware writes:

“Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons humans, as a place where humans, by misusing their free will, choose to imprison themselves. And even in hell the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy. . . . Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. . . . Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil” (The Orthodox Church, 262).

That so many people could believe in something so unbiblical demonstrates that simply because someone claims to be a Christian does not mean his beliefs are driven by the text of Scripture. May God protect us from the poison of Origen which is still alive and well.

What Is Arminianism?

Arminianism, named after Jacobus Arminius, is a reaction to the theology of John Calvin and Theodore Beza concerning God’s sovereignty, the depravity of fallen man, election, the extent of the atonement, the grace of God, and the perseverance of the saints. The theology of Arminianism is set forth in the Articles of Remonstrance in opposition to the Belgic Confession. The Synod of Dordt was convened in 1618 in response to the theology of Arminianism and condemned it as contrary to Scripture. The Synod of Dordt is where the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism” come from. But there is so much more to Calvinism than just five points. These five points are simply the negation of the Five Articles of Remonstrance.

Arminianism is not the same thing as Pelagianism which teaches that God’s grace is not absolutely necessary for salvation since we are all born into the world innocent as Adam was. Arminianism acknowledges the doctrine of original sin and the necessity of the work of the Holy Spirit for sinners to respond to the gospel. Whereas Calvinism teaches that man is totally unable to respond to the gospel apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, Arminianism teaches that God enables sinners to believe the gospel through prevenient grace without guaranteeing their response to the gospel. The concept of prevenient grace states that God’s grace precedes and enables men to believe in the gospel by means of their free will, but it does not effectually result in regeneration as in Calvinism’s teaching of irresistible grace. It is what enables all men to make a free will response to God in spite of the fall.

But what many of those who use this concept do not realize is that it is Roman Catholic in origin. The Council of Trent taught concerning justification:

“The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight” (Session 6, Chapter 5).

This is why the theology of Arminianism was accused of being a road back to Rome by the heirs of John Calvin.

Concerning the doctrine of election, Arminianism teaches that God’s election is based on his foreknowledge of who will believe. Election then is not unconditional as in Calvinism but conditioned upon their free will response to the gospel. Another Arminian take on election is that it is corporate in nature rather than individual. God does not elect some individuals and pass over others, but has chosen Christ to be the head of his people and those who believe in him become part of the elect. They were not among the elect before they believed, but became part of the elect as a result of their faith. God has chosen this group to be saved, but not the individuals within it. This corporate view of election is the Arminian view that open theists have to believe in because they do not believe God knows the future. If God does not know the future, then his election cannot be based on his foreknowledge of who will believe.

The argument that God’s election is based on his foreknowledge of who will believe is based primarily on Romans 8:29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” But “foreknew” here is the foreloving of God, or God choosing to set his love upon these people. The only other occurrence of the verb in Romans is in 11:2: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?” Foreknowing here is not God having future knowledge about Israel, but the setting of his love upon them to be his chosen people. A similar use of the verb “to know” is Amos 3:2: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” It is Israel alone who is known by God in this intimate way. Jeremiah 1:5 also uses “knew” to refer to God’s choosing of Jeremiah before he was born. Adam’s “knowing” of his wife Eve was his loving of her (Gen 4:1). Another parallel use of the verb is 1 Peter 1:20 which describes the foreordaining of Christ by the Father: “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake.” Foreknowing in Romans 8:29 is a verb of action that God exercises upon these people, not the passive reception of knowledge about them. Just as he actively calls, justifies, and glorifies them, he actively foreknows them which begins the golden chain of redemption. It is not knowledge about persons, but the active knowing of persons themselves. Those whom he foreloved, he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.

Because God in Arminianism has not chosen a specific group of people to be saved through Christ, they believe the atonement was designed by God to make salvation possible for all men by making them saveable. Christ by his death created the possibility of salvation for all men to which they must respond in faith to actualize the benefits of the atonement. In contrast, Calvinism states that Christ actually secured the salvation of those he died for. These are the elect whom the Father has given to the Son and therefore only their sins were imputed to Christ on the cross. Many Arminians reject penal substitutionary atonement because they realize that such a view of the atonement only makes sense in the context of Calvinism where Christ actually pays the penalty of the sins of those he dies for and therefore the extent of the atonement would have to be restricted to those who are saved to avoid universalism. The Arminian J. K. Grider writes in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology that Arminianism the penal substitution are inconsistent with each other:

“A spillover from Calvinism into Arminianism has occurred in recent decades. Thus many Arminians whose theology is not very precise say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet such a view is foreign to Arminianism, which teaches instead that Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach that what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition. Arminianism teaches that Christ suffered for everyone so that the Father could forgive the ones who repent and believe; his death is such that all will see that forgiveness is costly and will strive to cease from anarchy in the world God governs. This view is called the governmental theory of the atonement” (97-98).

When it comes to whether a Christian can lose his salvation, Arminianism teaches that our security is conditioned upon our obedience to Christ. This is known as conditional security as opposed to eternal security. A true Christian who has been justified and born again by the Holy Spirit can apostatize and fall away from a state of justification. Arminians are forced into believing this because they believe that the ultimate reason why a person is saved is because of the free will decision of those who are justified. Because it was their free will that got them saved, their free will must be able to get them out of salvation in order for them to have libertarian free will. The most popular verse used in favor of conditional security is Hebrews 6:4-6 which I have written about elsewhere. This is also why Arminians have historically believed in theological inclusivism so that man’s free will can be the determinative factor in whether or not he is saved rather than the location and timing of where he was born which is outside of his control.

For a critique of Arminianism, see John Owen’s A Display of Arminianism and John Gill’s The Cause of God and Truth.

The Development of John Calvin’s Understanding of the Extent of the Atonement

One of the subjects that scholars of church history love to debate is the position of John Calvin on the extent of the atonement. Was John Calvin a real Calvinist or did later Calvinists depart from the teaching of Calvin by teaching definite atonement? R. T. Kendall argued in Calvin and English Calvinism that Theodore Beza and the Puritans departed from Calvin on the issues of the extent of the atonement and assurance of salvation. While Kendall is completely wrong on the departure from Calvin on assurance of salvation because he ignores the different contexts each group was writing in (Calvin was arguing against Roman Catholicism’s teaching that no one can have an infallible assurance of their eternal salvation while the Puritans were writing against the dead formalism and hypocritical antinomianism of many in the Church of England which presumed that a person was saved because of infant baptismal regeneration regardless of the fruit of that person’s life), there is an element of truth in his assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement.

The truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than either side realizes. While each group claims that its interpretation of Calvin is correct, they are actually both wrong. Calvin’s understanding of the extent of the atonement developed over time. Calvin, in his early preaching and writing, was in agreement with the Catholic Church that Christ’s death was for every person who has ever lived. But later in life, he came to believe in definite atonement where only the sins of those who are saved are imputed to Christ on the cross. In fact, everyone must agree that at some point in his life Calvin held to universal atonement because he was converted out of Roman Catholicism which teaches this. If Calvin ever taught definite atonement, then the question we must answer is, “When did he change his mind on this topic?” Those who argue that Calvin never taught universal atonement believe that this change in his thinking occurred at the beginning of his ministry. I will argue here that it took place later in life. There are many quotations from Calvin that could be used to argue for his belief in universal atonement, but this one is the clearest:

“And again, has not our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed men’s souls: true it is that the effect of his death comes not to the whole world: Nevertheless for as much as it is not in us to discern between the righteous and the sinners that go to destruction, but that Jesus Christ has suffered his death and passion as well for them as for us: therefore it behooves us to labour to bring every man to salvation that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ may be available to them” (Sermons on Job, 454).

He says that Christ suffered in his passion for both them and us. “Them” in the context of his statement must refer back to “the sinners that go to destruction.” That is, sinners who go to hell are among those for whom “Jesus Christ has suffered” in his death and passion. Calvin did not believe in postmortem evangelism so those “sinners who go to destruction” will never be among the saved portion of humanity. At this point in his ministry, Calvin believed that Christ suffered equally for both the saved and for those who perish. But we see the exact opposite taught by Calvin in his treatise on the Lord’s Supper The True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper in which he argues against the real presence view of Lutheranism and Tilemann Heshusius:

“I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?” (Theological Treatises, 285).

The statement “Jesus Christ has suffered his death and passion as well for them as for us” versus “the flesh which was not crucified for them” and “the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins” are in complete contradiction to each other. I’m sorry, but there is no possible way you can reconcile these two groups of statements. It’s no wonder that scholars can’t come to a consensus on Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement when they each have a proof text from Calvin that seems irrefutable. But there is a simple solution to this problem that no one wants to take into consideration for some strange reason: Calvin’s understanding of the atonement developed over time just as every other person’s theology develops over time. Calvin’s theology is not immutable. Your own theological beliefs develop over time. Why can’t the same charity be extended to Calvin? Only the Word of God never changes (Matt 24:35). What is significant about this treatise on the Lord’s Supper is that it was written by Calvin in 1561, only three years before he died in 1564. It represents his mature thought while his sermons represent his early career as a reformer.

Many “universal Calvinists” try to get around the force of this statement by Calvin by saying that he is describing the beliefs of the unbeliever rather than his own beliefs. In other words, the unbeliever does not believe that Christ’s blood was shed to expiate his sins while Calvin does. But why would an unbeliever want to partake of the Lord’s Supper if he does not believe Christ has died for him? Who are these professing Christians who do not believe that Christ’s blood was shed to expiate their sins? The Libertines believed that Christ died for them and used that as an excuse for their unrepentant sin. Merely believing in the truth that Christ was crucified for sinners does not save, it is trusting in Christ alone for salvation which evidences itself by good works.

Calvin’s argument is that Christ is not present in the Lord’s Supper in the same way Lutheranism does because then unbelievers would partake of Christ in the Supper. Christ is only spiritually present in the Eucharist for those who believe, not for those who are lost. Because Christ was only crucified for believers, only believers can spiritually feed on the body and blood that was shed for them. Unbelievers do not feed upon Christ’s body and blood because it was not crucified for them. Therefore, Christ cannot be physically or substantially present in the supper or else they would feed on Christ. The Lutheran view of the Supper is a reductio ad absurdum because it would mean that those who are not saved truly feed on Christ in the Supper in the same way that those who are saved do.

Calvin is arguing from definite atonement to a spiritual view of the Lord’s Supper as opposed to a real presence one in which unbelievers do feed on Christ. His argument is, “Because the cross is limited in its extent, those who feed on Christ must be limited in extent which requires a spiritual eating instead of a physical one or else more people would feed on Christ than Christ was crucified for.” This is why Lutherans such as R. C. H. Lenski rightly understand that Calvin is affirming definite atonement in this quotation because they know the background of the debate and how definite atonement is used as an argument against their view of the Supper. The Lutherans can see what the universal Calvinists cannot because they understand what the debate was about. If Calvin believed in universal atonement at this point in his life, he could not make this argument. No one who believes in universal atonement could or would ever use these words and Calvin does not make any qualification in his words or clarify that he is talking about the unbeliever’s viewpoint instead of his own. But Calvin’s argument is not watertight since many unbelievers do come to faith in Christ later in life proving that Christ certainly did suffer for them.

A similar development can be seen in John Bunyan who taught universal redemption in Reprobation Asserted but then changed his mind because of his interaction with his friend John Owen:

“Now then, his intercession must, as to length and breadth, reach no further than his merits. For he may not pray for those for whom he died not. . . . But this, I say, his intercession is for those for whom he died, with full intention to save them” (Christ a Complete Savior in Works of John Bunyan, 1:235).

The opposite development can be seen in Martin Luther who taught definite atonement early in his career in his commentary on Romans 8:28 but later embraced universal atonement:

“Christ did not die for absolutely all, for he says: ‘This is my blood which is shed for you’ (Luke 22:20) and ‘for many’ (Mark 14:24) – he did not say: for all – ‘to the remission of sins’ (Matt 26:28)” (Lectures on Romans, 252).

As to what I think of this debate, Romans 8:32 is decisive. Paul declared that God will give all things to those for whom he gave up his Son. If God has given us the greater, how will he not also give us the lesser? If he has given us his very own Son, how will he not also give us salvation? The great truth of Christ’s death on behalf of those who trust in him is the foundation of the believer’s assurance of salvation. Because Christ has died for me, I cannot be lost because Christ has paid the penalty for my sins. But if there are some for whom the Father gave up his Son but will not be given all things, then Paul’s argument is invalid “since it might be replied to him, that God might deliver up his Son for persons, and yet not freely give all things with him to them” (John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth, 102). And I don’t believe the Holy Spirit can make logically invalid arguments.

Apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6

Is it possible for a Christian to lose his or her salvation? The most quoted passage in the Bible to argue for conditional security instead of eternal security is Hebrews 6:4-6: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” These apostates who left the Christian faith and returned to Judaism are described as those who once: 1. repented; 2. had been enlightened; 3. tasted the heavenly gift; 4. shared in the Holy Spirit; 5. tasted the goodness of the word of God; and 6. tasted the powers of the age to come. I will argue in this article that these individuals were never true Christians who were part of the bride of Christ.

That these apostates were never regenerate and justified believers is evident from the distinction the author of Hebrews draws between them and the bride of Christ who does persevere to the end in verses 9-11: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation. For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end.” The author of Hebrews is sure that those who are among the beloved will not fall away. These are the members of the bride of Christ, the elect for whom he died (2 Cor 7:1; Eph 5:1-2). It is a term of endearment to describe Christians as those who are loved by God with the unique love that Christ has for his church. That means these apostates were never among the beloved since it is certain that the bride of Christ will endure to the end. And the proof that a person is among the beloved is his good works which are the fruit which prove he is not among those who are lost (Matt 7:17-19; 13:21; Heb 6:8).

The problem with those who use this passage to argue against eternal security is that they don’t actually believe in what the text says. Verse four says, “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened.” But those who believe this passage teaches that a true Christian can lose his salvation also believe that salvation can be regained after it is lost. A literal reading of the text is not consistent with conditional security, especially in its Roman Catholic form which teaches that salvation can be restored through the sacrament of penance. The reason why repentance is impossible for them is because they have committed the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-30). To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to say that the power by which Christ performed miracles is that of Satan rather than the Holy Spirit. In order to be accepted back into the Jewish community, these apostates would have to agree with the opinions of the Jewish leaders about Jesus which included believing that his miracles were performed by the power of Satan instead of God (Matt 12:24, 32). Such a person will never be saved because the Spirit will never grant him regeneration.

Those who had fallen away had at one time repented because they had been baptized which is an act of repentance (Mark 1:4-5). But the act of baptism does not save. In order to be readmitted into the Christian community, they would have to be baptized again since Christ commands all disciples to be baptized as disciples regardless if they have been baptized before (Matt 28:19; Acts 19:1-6). Every true Christian must be baptized upon profession of his faith because the only valid baptism is the baptism of disciples or true Christians. If a person was not a Christian when he was baptized, he was never truly baptized and needs to be baptized because Christian baptism is a baptism of disciples alone. But since those who commit the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never desire to join the church, it is impossible to restore them again to this repentance which is required for all professing believers. But not all who partake of this repentance are saved because not everyone who professes faith in Christ and is baptized is saved (Acts 8:13, 20-23).

They had also been enlightened because they had heard about and believed in the truths of the Christian faith. The term describes the initial conversion experience into the Christian religion as their minds are illuminated concerning that which is true. But James 2 reminds us that mere intellectual assent to the truth does not save. A person is not saved by believing certain truths about Christ, joining a church, or being baptized. Rather, a person is saved by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in the gospel message that results in true saving faith which is trusting in Christ alone for salvation and submitting to him as Lord. It is not merely accepting truths about Jesus which saves, but actually trusting in the true gospel and Jesus of the Bible which is demonstrated by being willing to follow Christ no matter the cost.

They had tasted the heavenly gift who is the Holy Spirit sent from heaven (Luke 11:13). But their experience of the Spirit was but a taste, not a permanent indwelling. They may have cast out demons (Matt 7:22), experienced miracles, and witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit in the church (Acts 8:18), but these things do not save. Balaam, Saul, and Caiaphas experienced the prophetic work of the Spirit, yet the Bible gives no indication that they were ever saved (Num 24:15-17; 1 Sam 10:11; John 11:49-52). They temporarily shared in the Spirit because they participated in some of the benefits that the Holy Spirit gives to the local church. As a member of the church, they tasted the Word of God in the preaching of the Word and may have themselves preached the Word or done evangelism. They at one time believed the truths concerning the gospel, but there was no inner renewal of the Holy Spirit. They witnessed miracles or the powers of the age to come which prove the truthfulness of Christianity (Heb 2:4). But for all of this, they turned away and eventually concluded that these miracles were done by the power of Satan instead of the power of God.

Rather than proving that a regenerate and justified believer can lose his salvation, Hebrews 6:4-6 shows how close a person can come to salvation and yet remain lost. Judas was a man who fit all the descriptions listed here, yet he was never saved to begin with (John 6:64-65, 70-71; 13:11). Judas had experienced the repentance of baptism, had his mind enlightened to the truth, witnessed the miracles of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, was part of the visible church in which the Holy Spirit dwells, preached the gospel, and casted out demons (Matt 7:21-23). But because these people did not endure to the end, this demonstrates that they had never come to share in Christ (Heb 3:14). If those who are in the new covenant could ever be lost, that would overturn the perfection of the new covenant (Heb 8:6-12; 9:15; 12:24). Christ would be unable to save those he died for and intercedes on behalf of just as the priests of the old covenant could not save those they mediated for (Heb 10:1-18). For a more detailed study of Hebrews 6, I recommend Wayne Grudem’s article on the passage.

Why Imputation is Essential to Justification

The words “imputation” and “justification” are seldom used in the church today, but they are essential for understanding the Christian doctrine of salvation. Before explaining why the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is essential for justification, we need to define what justification and imputation are. Justification is the legal declaration by God that our sins are forgiven and will never be taken into account because Jesus has paid the penalty for those sins and his sinless righteousness is credited to us so that we stand in the presence of God with his righteousness and not our own. Justification involves both the non-imputation of sin in forgiveness and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness which is the basis upon which we are justified or declared righteous by God.

Imputation is the reckoning or crediting to our account the righteousness, obedience, and sinlessness of Christ to us. Christ’s righteousness is considered in two aspects: his active obedience in his perfect life of obedience to the Father and his passive obedience enduring the punishment of the law. His life is now our life and his death is our death. We were condemned with him on the cross and vindicated with him in his resurrection because we were in union with him from God’s perspective. Our sins which did not yet exist were imputed to him on the cross and his righteous obedience to God is imputed to us in justification. Christ took our sins and we receive his righteousness. This is the great exchange.

The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is essential for justification because otherwise God would be unjust to declare us to be righteous when we are not righteous in his sight. We need the righteousness of another, the righteousness of God. Just as Christ’s death is necessary for our salvation to satisfy God’s justice and wrath for our sins, Christ’s sinless life is necessary for God to have a basis upon which to declare us to be something we are not actually in ourselves. God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) when it is an abomination for a judge to justify the wicked (Prov 17:15). God can only do this because of the propitiatory work of Christ which allows him to remain just when he justifies us (Rom 3:25-26).

Our problem as sinners is twofold: we have broken God’s law and are therefore deserving of punishment and we have no righteousness of our own to bring before God. We need forgiveness and we need righteousness because we have never kept God’s law as it deserves to be kept. The propitiatory death of Christ covers over our sins with his blood so that God does not take them into account and his righteous life becomes ours in justification so that God sees us through the lens of his Son. When God looks upon his children in justification, he sees no sin upon them because Christ bore those sins away on the cross (Col 2:13-14). And he sees them standing in the garments of Christ’s righteousness so that he cannot but accept them into his presence. The Father will never reject his Son and he will never reject those who come to him through his Son. The Father will never turn away those who are in union with Christ since they are part of his bride.

A key text for understanding imputation is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” How do we become “the righteousness of God” in Christ? – The same way Christ became sin on the cross. Jesus never sinned in thought, word, or deed. He is the spotless Lamb of God who became sin through the imputation of our sins to him on Calvary (1 Pet 2:22-24). Our sins were laid on him and he bore them away never to be seen again (Lev 16:21-22; Isa 53:5-6). He never became a sinner with regard to himself, but legally and imputationally with regard to the sins of others in having their sins credited to him on the cross to satisfy God’s justice for them.

Likewise, we become the righteousness of God legally and imputationally in justification by having his righteousness credited to us. We do not actually become sinless in ourselves the moment we are justified just as Christ did not actually become sinful on the cross. Christ was treated as the greatest sinner of all time for our sins and we are treated the way Christ deserves to be treated. Christ was condemned for our sins and we are declared righteous on the basis of his righteousness. Christ bore our sins and we bear his righteousness. The sinless one was condemned even though he never sinned so that sinners might be declared righteous even though they have no righteousness of their own. For more on the doctrine of imputation, see Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness by Brian Vickers.

What Is Our Role in Sanctification?

What role do we play in sanctification? Before we can answer this question, we need to define sanctification. Sanctification is the lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Christ. Scripture speaks of sanctification as both positional and progressive. We have been sanctified in the past in the sense that all Christians at the moment of justification are called out of the unbelieving world and set apart for service to God (1 Cor 6:11). At the same time, it is a process that will never be completed until we are glorified in the presence of Christ. Christlikeness is the goal of sanctification and therefore we must never take our eyes off of Jesus who perfectly obeyed God in our place. Sanctification must be distinguished from justification, but they are never separated from one another as if one could exist in the life of a Christian without the other.

Both God and man have a role to play in the process of sanctification. Whereas regeneration is monergistic, sanctification is synergistic in the sense that we have an obligation to pursue personal holiness. But we can only make progress in holiness because it is God who works within us (Phil 2:12-13). We work only because God first works in us and his working will not be finally frustrated (Jer 32:40; Phil 1:6; 2 Cor 3:18; 1 John 5:18). The exhortations and warning passages of Scripture are the effectual means by which the Holy Spirit works to bring Christlikeness to us (2 Cor 7:1; Heb 3:14). Our good works and holiness do not save us, but are the certain evidences and results of regeneration without which no man will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). As Paul Washer explains, “Our growth in holiness is the evidence of our salvation. We are not saved because we are holy, but true salvation will always lead to true holiness because as we have already learned, God is doing a perfect work in the life of every Christian” (The One True God, 73).

We have an obligation as Christians to take heed of the many admonitions, warnings, and exhortations of Scripture because they are the very words of God and a means God has ordained to sanctify us (John 17:17). Rather than seeing these commands as a burden, we should joyfully long to serve God with all that is within us. Because God is holy, we are called to be holy as he is holy as we walk in imitation of him (Eph 5:1; 1 Pet 1:15-16). The Christian life is a pilgrim journey and constant fight against sin that never ends. We can never be sinlessly perfect in this life as Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12). We press on because we are certain of our salvation. Since Christ has made us his own, we are eternally secure in him and our security should motivate us to love him more.

A key text that helps us understand the work of sanctification is Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We must remember that salvation in the Bible is an umbrella term that encompasses election, effectual calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. The salvation Paul speaks of here is the work of sanctification rather than justification which is a past reality bringing us peace with God (Rom 5:1). But we can only work out our sanctification because God is at work within us. We do it with fear and trembling because we are in the presence of God whom we are called to fear. It is not a fear that we might lose our salvation, but the fear of standing in God’s presence as Isaiah once did (Isa 6:1-8). Sanctification will be effectual because God is at work in us and his work is perfect and cannot fail (Deut 32:4). We can err by denying that sanctification is our work to which we are called or by denying that God is ultimately behind it and causing us to walk in his laws (Jer 32:40). We must keep both God’s role and our role in sanctification in healthy tension without denying the reality of either one.

The “Legalism” of Second Temple Judaism

What did Jewish people living during Second Temple Judaism believe about salvation? The New Perspective on Paul argues that Protestants have read the beliefs of Roman Catholicism back into the Judaism of the New Testament. Rather than trying to understand the beliefs of Jewish people on their own terms, the New Perspective believes that we have badly misread the original sources on early Judaism. Are Protestants correct that Roman Catholicism is repeating the errors of Second Temple Judaism in denying that we are saved by grace alone? Remember, the Reformation was never about the necessity of God’s grace for salvation, something both sides agreed on, but the sufficiency of his grace to save without human merit. Let’s briefly examine the original sources to see what they say.

One of the reasons Protestants have read first century Judaism as they have is because Roman Catholicism draws from Jewish apocryphal writings to establish their beliefs about salvation. Ecclesiasticus or Sirach 3:3 (not Ecclesiastes!) says, “Whoever honors his father atones for sin.” Ecclesiasticus 3:30 says, “Water extinguishes a blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin.” Wisdom 6:18 declares concerning Wisdom, “And love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality.” Tobit 12:9 is quoted often to support the belief in indulgences: “For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life.” 2 Maccabees 7:9 recounts the story of Jewish martyrs who based their assurance of salvation on their martyrdom: “And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.'” 2 Maccabees 12:45 says that we can make atonement for the dead: “But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”

N. T. Wright has mocked the idea that Second Temple Jews were a kind of “proto-Pelagians” trying to earn salvation by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. But Psalms of Solomon 9:7 sounds rather “Pelagian” to me: “Our works are subject to our own choice and power. To do right or wrong [is] in the works of our hands.” The Apocalypse of Zephaniah 3:5-7 states that our names are written in the book of life based on our good works: “I said, ‘O Angel who are these?’ He said, ‘These are the angels of the Lord Almighty. They write down all the good deeds of the righteous upon their manuscript as they watch at the gate of heaven. And I take them from their hands and bring them up before the Lord Almighty; he writes their names in the Book of the Living.” 2 Baruch 51:7 speaks of those who are, “Saved because of their works and for whom the Law is now a hope.” 4 Ezra 9:7-8 sounds rather “Catholic” when it says that we are saved by both faith and works: “And it shall be that everyone who will be saved and will be able to escape on account of his works, or on account of the faith by which he has believed . . . will see my salvation in my land.”

The writings of the Qumran community as revealed in the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect the common Jewish belief that sins can be atoned for apart from the shedding of blood. In 1QS 3:8 we read, “And by the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters.” With the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., modern Jews, together with Muslims, argue that God can forgive sin without his justice and wrath being satisfied against the sinner. But as Christians we know that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood (Heb 9:22). God’s justice must be satisfied for him to be a righteous judge (Prov 17:15; Rom 3:24-26; 4:5). As for whether the New Testament views Judaism as “legalistic,” Paul answers that question in Romans 10:3: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” I have also written on what Paul means when he speaks of “works of the law,” selections from the church fathers on justification, and Martin Luther on justification.