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ON APOSTASY AND
By Rev. Henry Cowles D. D.
From Appendix B in his Commentary on Hebrews, 1887.
Treating of the apparent contrariety between the warnings of Scripture against apostasy as fatal, and the promises that guarantee the final salvation of all true converts.
THE delicate discrimination and careful statements requisite for the proper adjustment of these two gospel truths, and the diversity of views that have been held respecting them, seem to justify a more extended discussion than the limits of the commentary proper (on Heb. 6: 1-9) could allow.
The doctrine held in my notes and assumed to be taught in the Scriptures presupposes that there is no real contrariety, no absolute incompatibility between these two positions; on the one hand, warnings against apostasy as fatal to the soul; on the other, the final salvation of all the really converted, made certain by divine promise.
1. Expanding more fully the teaching of Scripture on these two points, we may take as specimen passages, teaching the final perseverance of all true convertsthe one already quoted in the notes from John 10: 27-29: "My sheep hear my voice, and 1 know them, and they follow me and I give unto them, eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any one pluck them out of my hand. My Father, who gave them to me, is greater than all; and none is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand."-Also, "This is the Father's will who hath sent me, that of all whom he bath given me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day." "And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one that seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6: 39, 40).-It is well to bear in mind that these words come to us from the highest possible authoritythat of Jesus Christ himself. It must certainly be assumed that he knows; and equally, that he can not mislead his people.-Moreover, the statements are entirely explicit. No declarations could be framed in language more definite, positive, unmistakable.
Next the testimony of Paul: "Whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son; whom he did predestinate, them he also called; whom he called, them he also justified; whom he justified, them he also glorified" (Rom. 8: 29, 30). "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 8: 35-39).-Also (Phil. 1 : 6)"Being confident of this very thing, that he who hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." This shows where his confidence as to the perseverance of the saints lay.-Note also John's testimony: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be manifest that. they were not all of us" (1 John 2: 19). This is John's explanation of those cases of apparent apostasy which seem to militate against the perseverance of all the saints. . .
We also read from Jude (v. 24): "Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy," etc. Paul has the same word "able" in a like connection (Rom. 16: 25). It is certainly significant that apostles held so manifestly and with such positive assurance that Jesus is able to keep his saints from falling fatally, for the ability is in the ultimate result, the test point. His willingness, his real love, and his interest in keeping them, it were cruel and unpardonable to doubt.Peter speaks of Christians as being "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1: 5). Thus all the apostolic writers concur in the same sentiments and essentially in the same phraseology on this point. Pertinent are the words of our Lord (Matt. 24: 24): "There shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." Does not this assume that deceiving the very elect, at least to an extent that would be fatal, is not possible?
Over against these passages and seeming to indicate that falling away is contingent and possiblenot to say, actualare (Ezek. 3: 20): "When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sins, and his righteousness which he hath done shall be no more remembered." To the same purport is Ezek. 18: 24, 26: "When the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be remembered: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die;'"When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness and committeth iniquity, and dieth in, them, for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die.'The same may be seen Ezek. 33: 12, 13, 18.The reader will notice that all these passages are hypothetic; "If a righteous man should turn," or when the righteous doth, turnwhich means: If he should. None of them directly affirm that a truly righteous man does in fact turn back to utter sinning. They do squarely affirm that, if he should, he would die in his Sins. So in our passage (Heb. 6: 4-6): "If they shall fall away," all is over with them; it is impossible to renew them again. Yet this falls short of affirming that any one does apostatize utterly from the true Christian state.
Again (2 Peter 2: 20-22): "For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened to them according to the old proverb, The dog has turned to his vomit again, and, The sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire."This also is hypothetical: "If they are again entangled therein and overcome."Again, Paul writing to Timothy (2 Ep. 2: 18, 19) says of certain false teachers: "They overthrow the faith of some." But this may mean only their theoretical faiththeir faith considered as an opinione. g., their belief in a resurrection; for he adds: "Nevertheless, the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: the Lord knoweth them that are his;" and, "Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity."Here are two points named: (1) That the Lord knoweth his own, and therefore will have them in his care: (2) On the other hand, let those who have taken his name be sure they depart from all iniquity, shunning sin as fatal, damning, and putting their own most earnest and watchful vigilance into the same line with the watchful care of God over them.
Passages that give warnings against apostasy and urge unto watchfulness and prayer appear in abundance, and show plainly that the personal endeavor of the Christian is vital to his ultimate salvation, but they are by no means inconsistent with the fact that God by his Spirit, word, and providence will quicken, sustain and maintain this personal endeavor so that it shall result in every real Christian's being "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation." The above cited passages are grouped here to present the general testimony of scripture on both sides of this questionto show on the one hand how the promises of God, and on the other hand the warnings of God are made to bear in a practical way toward the salvation of his people.
It can not escape the notice of the careful reader that as bearing upon the direct question, WILL all true saints be finally saved?the affirmative testimony is positive, explicit, and unqualified; while the negative testimony is hypothetical, inferential;to this effect: If they do not watch, and pray, and trust, they will not be saved; If they fall away they are lost. But this is not the same as to say that any one of them will fall away, and so will be lost. On the other band, the affirmative statements do not qualify themselves by saying, All the saints will be finally saved if God should prove himself able to accomplish it; if he should succeed in securing the necessary watchfulness, faith, prayer; but they put their affirmation in the most unqualified form.
Now, putting these two very different forms of statement one over against the other, there would seem, to be no room for doubt as to the question of ultimate fact.But our present discussion proposes to bear mainly upon obviating the difficulties and unfolding the true philosophy of the teachings of Scripture on this subject. Hence I proceed to remark:
2. The difficulties experienced in defining the theory of this subject hinge around the following points: Warnings against any sin whatever assume that sin to be possible, not only in theory, but in fact; The moral force of warnings against apostasy is broken if it be held that, after true conversion, no convert will be left to sin unto fatal apostasy; The Scriptures contain numerous warnings which imply real danger, and seem to assume that the sin of fatal apostasy is really contingentis one that may be committed, and the consequent ruin, one that may be incurred.These things are held to be incompatible with a moral certainty of the final salvation of all who have once been truly born again.
3. In many minds these difficulties will be obviated (perhaps they ought to be in all minds) by due regard to the following considerations:
(1.) According to the Scriptures, the final salvation of all Christ's real children becomes certain, not by virtue of any thing in the nature of regenerationi. e., not by means of any thing inherent in the essence of conversion; not by virtue of the convert's own moral strength, considered apart from God's strength and help granted to him; not by the force of his own will; not by the power of gospel motive, in itself consideredbut, ultimately and only, through the help promised and given of God: "Kept by the power of God, through faith, unto salvation;" "None shall be able to pluck them out of my hand."
(2.) Here we have just two questions that are really vital, and, it would seem, should be decisiveviz.: (a) Has Jesus promised to sustain, keep, and finally save all truly converted souls? (b) If so, is he able to fulfill this promise without violence to the freedom of human agents? Are his resources of power, through his truth, his providence, but, most of all, through his Spirit, equal to this undertaking, adequate to all possible emergencies?These are entirely vital points. Around these the whole question hinges. If the Scriptures answer these points affirmatively, the whole question is settled.
On the first of these pointsviz., the fact of divine promiseit would seem there can be no room for doubt. The declarations, as we have seen, are entirely definite, explicit, positive, and could not be made more so. If they do not involve the final salvation of the class described, no statements can be made that would.
On the second, we reach the very gist of the subject when we thoroughly comprehend this factviz., that the work of the Divine Spirit never interferes with human freedom, and yet has divine powera power always equal to the work it undertakes to do. It may be admitted that we could not know by any intuition that in every actual case of a true convert the resources of the Spirit are equal to these results if God's promise had not been put in such form as must imply it. But since it has been given in such form as implies it, we are fully authorized to assume that his power is equal to any demand upon it for this result. And we surely know, from consciousness and from the Scriptures, that the action of the Divine Spirit on human souls is in harmony, and never in conflict, with free agency and with man's free accountability.
3. It is not strange that God should act upon the souls of his converted children in these two lines of influenceviz.: (a) Upon their hopes, through rich promise; (b) Upon their fears, through warnings against apostasy. Upon their hopes, for they often sadly need this assurance of his love and of his gracious help; upon their fears, for their own utmost vigilance must be secured and kept in exercise, their own constant endeavors, their own watchfulness, prayer, and faith in God. Doubtless the interworking of these two lines of influenceappeals to hope and appeals to fearare delicate and critical, and require a careful adjustment of promise and warning; but this should not militate against the fact that both these influences are provided for in the plan of God, and are both brought in the Scriptures to bear on the Christian heart. Both are involved in the ministration of one and the same Divine Spirit. He uses each and both as means for securing the perseverance of the saints. It may be well to consider that warnings against danger are one of the necessary and natural means of protecting moral agents against that danger, and so are among the necessary means of fulfilling the promise of their ultimate salvation. To omit warnings against danger because divine promise has pledged final victory, would be extremest folly. For us to ask it would be equivalent to proposing to the Almightynot to say, demanding of himthat he save his people without any activities or agencies of their ownwithout their own prayer, or faith, or watchfulness. Let us remember that God's plan contemplates dealing with free moral agents, and proposes to save them only as such agentsi. e., by keeping alive their faith and prayer and watchful endeavor. So that the gist of our problem is simply this: Is it in the power of the Infinite God to keep alive this faith, prayer, and watchfulness of his people to such a degree as will insure their ultimate salvation? Can He apply this power of his Spirit behind and back of the appropriate Christian effort, so as to keep alive those holy impulses, and thus preserve truly converted souls from falling fatally?On this point we must say: His promises plainly indicate that, in his view, he can. He would not have promised if he had foreseen that he could not perform.
4. The Scriptures speak to us usually in popular rather than in strictly metaphysical language and style. The reason of this we probably find in the fact that the masses are best reached and influenced by popular rather than by metaphysical address. Hence it comes to pass that the Scriptures warn Christians against falling, as if there were real danger; while, on the other hand, they promise God's protecting power, as if all dangers were to be certainly overcome in the end. This is the popular way of putting warnings, and also of presenting promises.But when we put on our metaphysical spectacles we see that, in one point of view, there is real danger, and, in another point of view, there is no danger at all. There is danger, if you look only at the great power of temptation, the arts of Satan, the moral weakness, the unsanctified appetites, loves, impulses, mental associations of the feeble convert.But, over against this, there is no danger, if you look at the pledged help of Almighty God, the wonderful resources of his Spirit, coupled with the exhaustless appliances of his providenceno danger, when you ask if he will certainly fulfill his promises; if he is surely able to keep his saints from falling; if you may be confident that "he who hath begun a good work will perform it unto the day of Christ Jesus."Or putting it in yet other phrase: On the side of man there is real freedom, and consequently there will be just what we fitly call contingencythat play of activities and that possibility of varying results which come of free moral action. And yet, on the side of God there is certainty as to the final result, else he could not promise; for there is moral certainty that he is able to save to the uttermost all whom be has promised to save, and there is also a moral certainty that he is willing to save; or to put the whole case more comprehensively: There is no lack of moral power on God's part to work upon the free moral activities, so as to secure in the end that moral result which he has purposed and promised to secure.The outcome of this interworking of divine with human agencies is that God is able to determine, and therefore can fitly promise, a given resultthis result involving the free moral agencies of man, yet without infringing upon man's moral responsibility, without overriding it, or in any wise dishonoring it. Else it were in vain for God to foretell future events in prophecy, and at the same time depend upon the free moral action of men to bring those events to pass. "The Son of man goeth as it was determined; but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had never been born." For the fact that his deed was foreknown and fore-indicated of God could neither abate from his freedom nor lessen his guilt!
5. The warnings of Scripture against apostasy are made the more effective by the solemn affirmation in our passage (Heb. 6: 4-6) that it is impossible to reclaim one who falls away after having been fully enlightened and really converted. Such a warning ought to have tremendous power! Oh, how it ought to thrill through and through the souls of men who are tempted to apostatize after having seen and known the glorious things of the gospel!
6. This subject ought not to be dismissed without the remark that the doctrine of saints' perseverance is capable of being abused. It may be used wisely and well; but doubtless also it has sometimes been abused, and may be again. When a professed Christian says to himself" Once a Christian, always a Christian;" I made my salvation forever sure when I was converted, and I can go in the strength of that assurance the rest of my dayswithout watchfulness, without fear of falling, without much, if any, prayer; with little, if any, real endeavor to live and labor for Christhe is manifestly on the high road to perdition. Who has guaranteed the soundness of his conversion? How does he know that he is one of Christ's sheep? The test given by the Good Shepherd himself is"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me;" but this man does neither.Jesus said, "He that keepeth my commandments he it is that loveth me;" and one of his first commandment is"Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation." "Abide in me, and I in you."The professed Christian who thinks he honors the promise of final salvation by resting upon it, without in any true sense fulfilling the conditions of prayer, watchfulness, obedience to Christabiding in him, and living a life of unceasing trust in himabuses the divine promise; misconstrues and misapplies it, and has nothing better to expect, in his way of living, than final ruin. Jesus will be compelled at the last to declare to him the awful truth"I never knew you!"
Printed by Alethea In Heart Ministries 09/01. To order more copies of this tract (Item # 125).