Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Schreiner on the doctrine of eternal security.
Topics of conversation include:
- New Testament and Old Testament support for the doctrine of eternal security
- How to understand some of the more difficult and controversial verses, including the warning passages in Hebrews 6 and 10
- How Christians should view the perseverance of saints in light of the many recent deconversion stories seen all around us
- A pastoral response to both fear and licentiousness as a result of the doctrine of assurance
- Helpful resources for understanding more about the doctrine of perseverance
Dr. Tom Schreiner serves as the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament Interpretation and professor of Biblical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is associate dean of the School of Theology. Dr. Schreiner is the author of several books, including Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (IVP Academic, 2006) and The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance (IVP Academic, 2001). He also serves as an elder of preaching at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:17):
One question that many Christians struggle with is whether or not they are saved. And if they are saved, is there something they could do to lose their salvation? What sin could I commit that would separate me from salvation? How far could I stray from God before he washes his hands of me? Could I have genuine saving faith, and then come to a point where I no longer believe? Well, amplifying this question in our day is the constant stories of deconstructed faith from Christian leaders—pastors of churches, leaders of institutions, well-known Christian artists seem to be abandoning the faith in striking numbers. And if it can happen to them, why couldn’t it happen to me? Well, these are serious questions with eternal consequences. To help us understand whether or not we can lose our salvation, we have Dr. Tom Schreiner with us today. Dr. Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament and the associate dean of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s the author of something like a thousand books, including commentaries on Romans and Hebrews, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, and The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance. Dr. Schreiner has also served as an elder for preaching at Clifton Baptist Church for many years. He combines scholarship with a shepherd’s heart as well as anyone I’ve ever met. Dr. Schreiner, so thankful for your ministry. Thanks for joining us today.
Tom Schreiner (01:34):
Well, thank you so much, Brian. Please call me Tom. And I’m looking forward to our conversation.
Brian Arnold (01:40):
Old habits die hard, Dr. Schreiner. Our big question today is this—can I lose my salvation? And let’s go straight for it. Can a true, genuine believer in Jesus Christ lose their salvation?
Tom Schreiner (01:54):
The answer is absolutely not. You know, we think of Philippians chapter one, verse six—he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. And that’s a promise. Or we can think of John chapter 10—those who belong to the good shepherd, he will not lose one of his sheep. No one will be able to snatch them out of his hand. Or we think of Romans, chapter eight—all of those who are Christians, who have experienced Christ’s love, they’ll never, ever be separated from the love of Christ. Or we can think of Ephesians, chapter one—all those who have received the Spirit, the Spirit is the down payment, the guarantee, of the final inheritance. So I think Scripture is very clear. All those whom God has chosen, all those who have believed in Jesus, all those who have truly trusted in him, not one of them will be lost. So that’s a great comfort to us, because we know from the hymn that we’re prone to wander, prone to leave the God we love. But he’ll keep us. It’s not because we’re so strong. It’s not because we’re so noble. It’s not because we have willpower. It’s because of God’s great grace that he’s promised to keep us.
Brian Arnold (03:14):
It is one of the most comforting doctrines in all of Scripture, I think. You know, we use different names to describe this doctrine—things like perseverance of the saints, preservation of the saints, eternal security, and even the way I heard it, I think growing up the most—once saved, always saved. And it’s meant to be a great comfort to believers and I…the passages you already highlighted, I think are some of the most critical texts we have. I love that image of Jesus as the shepherd, holding onto his sheep. And who can get that out of Christ’s hand? Or Colossians 3—your life is now hidden with Christ in God. Well, that’s quite the force field to penetrate to remove one of God’s saints. Do we see this teaching even in the Old Testament as well?
Tom Schreiner (03:59):
Yeah, I think we see this in the Old Testament. I mean, I think of the New Covenant passage in Jeremiah 31, that we have the promise that those who receive the Spirit, that work of the Spirit is irrevocable. It can’t be revoked. It can’t be changed. Or another great new covenant passage, Ezekiel, chapter 36. Those who receive the spirit—this is verses 26 and 27—those who receive the Spirit, the Spirit writes God’s law on the heart. So that God’s people keep his law. Not perfectly, but that those who belong to God are transformed. And that promise of the Spirit is all over the place—in Joel, chapter two, Isaiah 32 verse 15, Isaiah, chapter 44, verse three. So I think the Old Testament also says, all those who have God’s Spirit, all those who belong to God—and I think this would be true of Old Testament saints as well—they cannot be lost.
Brian Arnold (05:10):
Yeah, I want to press in a little bit there, because a lot of the passages you’re mentioning are pointing forward to what’s going to happen in the new covenant that Jesus kind of initiates in the Last Supper, meaning his death and resurrection to follow. How does that fit then with, say, Moses or David in the Old Testament?
Tom Schreiner (05:30):
Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s a difficult question actually, Brian, because I think…I don’t think we have the same clarity in the Old Testament about the indwelling of the Spirit in Old Testament saints. But I do think it’s fair to say that when we read all of Scripture, that the remnant in the Old Testament—they belong to God and in the same way–not the same way in every respect–but in the same way that their salvation couldn’t be lost as the new covenant saints. Why don’t we read that as much in the Old Testament? I’d love to hear what you think, Brian, but I think one of the reasons is because there’s a good number of people under the old covenant who aren’t saved. In other words, just because you’re part of physical Israel doesn’t mean you’re part of spiritual Israel. So there’s also a difference between the covenants, there. Only the remnant in Israel is saved, but everybody who truly belongs to the church is saved.
Brian Arnold (06:44):
Yeah. I would say something very similar. Not all Israel is Israel. So who constituted real spiritual Israel, that had this relationship with God that they would have been kept? I mean we even think of somebody like David, who had quite a train wreck of a life in many ways. Here he is, a man for God’s own heart, we see twice in Scripture, and yet he has this affair, which leads to murder, which leads to the death of his son. And yet, in Psalm 51, this great Psalm of lament, he’s asking for the joy of his salvation to return. If somebody could lose salvation for sin, you would think that David would check a number of those boxes that would lead to a loss of salvation. And yet, he’s asking God to just return that joy that he once had, and the favor he once had with the Lord.
Tom Schreiner (07:27):
Yeah. I agree.
Brian Arnold (07:29):
So when we get to the New Testament…obviously this is a doctrine that has lots of controversy surrounding it. We might have people listening right now who grew up in more Wesleyan traditions, Arminian traditions, that believe you can lose your salvation. And they’re going to point to places in the New Testament that has some conditional kind of language. So one of them that comes to mind for me is Colossians, chapter one. And Paul says, “and you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.” And so that idea, that conditional—if you continue, stable and steadfast, seemingly indicating that maybe you won’t continue in the faith, stable and steadfast. So how are we to kind of square passages like this with some of those you mentioned before from Philippians 1, Ephesians 1, John 10. How would you approach that?
Tom Schreiner (08:31):
Yeah. So I take the text for exactly what it says. You’re only reconciled, that text says, you can only be presented as holy and blameless and without reproach, if you persevere to the end. But I think the mistake the Arminian or the Wesleyan can make—although I agree with them, we ought to take condition seriously—I think the mistake they make, however, is concluding that since there is a condition, then it’s uncertain whether we’ll meet the condition. So what I think the Reformed would say, and I think rightly—yes, we must persevere to the end to be saved. That is a condition. But because of God’s grace in our lives, all those who belong to God, all those whom he has chosen, all those who are his flock, all those who are his sheep, we will meet that condition. We will fulfill that condition.
Tom Schreiner (09:31):
The only other thing I’d like to add here is—that doesn’t mean that there aren’t dramatic ups and downs in our lives. I mean, you already mentioned David. We can think of Peter, in the New Testament, who even denied Christ at one point. So we’re not talking—this perseverance to the end, it’s not perfection. No one’s perfect anyway. But it is perseverance. And the other thing I’d say—it’s perseverance by faith. It isn’t like, okay, now we get in by faith, and then we persevere by sheer effort and our works. Yes, the works are part of it, but all the works flow from resting in Christ, trusting in God, by depending on the Spirit. So this call to perseverance, it can really be misunderstood. It’s not a call to self-effort and to gutting it out and gritting it out. It’s a call to look to God in Christ to sustain us. And what I would argue is all true believers—we do that. Not because we’re so great, not because we’re so strong, but because—the text I mentioned earlier—the one who began the good work of trusting and believing, he’ll complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. And that includes meeting those conditions, trusting him to the end.
Brian Arnold (11:02):
So I didn’t mention this before, but you’ve also written a commentary on Galatians. And it reminds me of Paul, I believe it’s in Galatians three, where he says, “you began by faith, are you now trying to be perfected by works?” And we get this tendency in the Christian life to say, “yes, I’m saved by grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. But now it’s up to me to power through in sanctification.” Forgetting, like you said, it’s faith that saves us. And faith that’s going to sustain us in perseverance until we’re finally brought home.
Tom Schreiner (11:31):
Yeah, exactly. And at the end of the letter, what does Paul say? Galatians 5:16, he says, “walk in the Spirit,” Galatians 5:18, “be led by the Spirit,” Galatians 5:22, “produce the fruit of the Spirit,” Galatians 5:25, “march in step with the Spirit,” Galatians 6:8, “sow to the Spirit.” So that faith is finally animated by the Holy Spirit. It’s not self-effort.
Brian Arnold (12:01):
I couldn’t agree more. Well, let’s go to some of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, and these are the so-called warning passages from the book of Hebrews. You’ve also written a commentary on Hebrews, and I was actually at the late night event that you did recently at the Gospel Coalition, where you and Dr. Mohler sat down to talk about these challenging passages, specifically in Hebrews chapter six and in Hebrews chapter 10. For my own kind of personal story, I was actually at one of Southern Seminary’s collegiate weekends that you all used to do, and I was in a hotel with a friend and he mentioned Hebrews 10. And I don’t know if I had been aware of the passage before I read it. And I don’t think I slept that night, or a couple of nights in a row, thinking, “man, am I one who’s gone on continuing to sin, and therefore there’s no more redemption available for me?” So these can be terrifying passages for people. And really become the crux of the debate, I think, between those who think you can lose your salvation and those who can’t. So maybe let’s begin in Hebrews chapter six. How do you respond to this individual, who seems to have been enlightened, and then it’s impossible for them to be restored to repentance?
Tom Schreiner (13:13):
Yeah, well, I take the person in Hebrews six to be a Christian. You know, those who have been enlightened, who’ve tasted the heavenly gift, they’ve tasted the powers of the coming age, and the word of God, and they’re sharers in the Holy Spirit. And, he says, you know, if you fall away…what’s the argument? I think the argument is—if you fall away, if you crucify Jesus Christ again, so to speak, then you’re damned. So I actually understand the condition very much the way Arminians do. If you fall away, that there will be a final damnation. Now I just want to say, I think a lot of Christians read that in Hebrews 10 to say, “if I sin at all.” But of course we all sin every day. He’s talking about apostasy here.
Tom Schreiner (14:12):
What is apostasy? Apostasy is denying Jesus, rejecting Jesus, turning your back on Jesus, refusing to follow Jesus anymore. So, you know, Hebrews 10—you mentioned that, Hebrews 10:26—if you sin deliberately, he says, there’s no longer any forgiveness for sins. That really can terrify people. But I think what he’s saying makes complete sense. I would paraphrase it this way—if you say no to Jesus, then he can’t forgive your sins. Well, that’s just common sense, right? If you reject Jesus, he can’t forgive you. So I take those passages as warnings. I think Jesus sums up those passages in his own words—Jesus says, “if you deny me, I’ll deny you.” If you finally and fully deny Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, if you don’t place your faith in him, if you reject him, he’ll deny you on the final day. But then the next thing I’d say is—no true believer ever does that. No true believer ever denies or rejects Jesus as the Son of God.
Brian Arnold (15:27):
And yet it’s been the experience of many people that it looks just like that. I mean, I think about a recent deconversion story of these famous YouTube guys named Rhett and Link. And I first got introduced to them at a Campus Crusade conference almost 20 years ago. And they both famously kind of came out in this last year and said, “we’re not followers of Jesus anymore. We disbelieve in the Bible.” So we have some of these examples. We even see it in the New Testament. It looks like people like Demus, who leaves Paul. He’s in love with the present world and abandons the faith. These seem like genuine believers who have now walked away. So do you think it’s helpful, even from Hebrews six, to think back about Matthew 13, where Jesus is talking about the sower who goes out to sow, and that these might be the seeds that fall on the rocks and among the thorns, but the genuine believers are in the fertile ground that produces fruit? Do you think that’s a helpful way to go on that?
Tom Schreiner (16:25):
I do. I do, because I think that the parable you referred to, yeah, there are people that look like they have new life. There are people who look like they belong to God. They give every appearance of being believers. And I think a really crucial verse that supports your reading of Matthew 13, of the parable there, is 1 John 2:19—”they went out from us.” So they belong to the church, right? Because they went out from us. “But they were not of us,” John says, “for if they were of us, they would have remained with us.” So what does John teach there? If they were of us, if they were truly believers, if they had truly received Christ, they would have remained. They would have persevered. So that’s where we get the teaching of the perseverance of the saints.
Tom Schreiner (17:14):
And well, that’s not the only passage, we get it from a lot of passages, but this one’s particularly clear. “If they were of us, they would have remained with us.” So yeah, there are people in our midst who appear to be believers, but it becomes clear, retrospectively, that they’re not. So we’re not to be suspicious of people. We’re not to anticipate who might fall into this category, right? But when we look back and say, “oh, they were not truly of us.” So perseverance is the proof of the pudding. Then I just want to say, immediately, some people hear that and then they start to worry, “well, will I persevere?” They start to get anxious. And how do we respond to that, pastorally? And we respond to that by saying, “remember, look to Jesus, don’t look to yourself. Don’t begin to worry about whether you can do it, because you can’t. But call on him for help. He’s faithful. If you call on him to help you persevere, he’ll sustain you. He’ll keep you.” Jude says, “now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling”—and I think Jude is talking about apostasy—”and to make you stand in the presence of his glory, blameless, with great joy.” He’s able to do it. He will do it.
Brian Arnold (18:41):
And that’s a beautiful promise of Scripture. And that’s…I love you went to the pastoral note on that, because I know that people listening will be wondering that. The people that even seemed more in step with the Spirit to them, than they even feel, who’ve now walked away from the faith—them saying, “well, if they didn’t do it, can I be sure that I will do it? And I think you’re absolutely right. Take your eyes off yourself. Put it back on Christ. Our faith is rooted in the objectivity of the gospel—of who Christ is and what Christ has done on our behalf. Well, let’s talk about another pastoral note perhaps, because I think a doctrine like assurance and perseverance can get us into one of two ditches. One of them is people are just constantly panicked about whether or not they’re actually in the faith, and that’s the one you’ve just addressed. But I think on the other side, it can lead to kind of a licentious life. It can lead to people saying, “hey, I’ve placed my faith in Jesus. Now I can live however I want, because once saved always saved.” How do you address people like that in the church?
Tom Schreiner (19:39):
Yeah, I think 1 John is helpful. I mean, I would say in 1 John, you know, we have tests, as people say, that we have new life. And I think one of them is—are we keeping God’s commandments? By this, we know—1 John 2:3—by this, we know. We have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. What a simple verse—by this, we know. By this, we’re assured we’ve come to know him, that we’re truly believers—if we keep his commandments. Again, John’s not talking about perfection, but he is talking about a direction in our lives, an orientation in our lives. So we look at our lives, and they haven’t changed at all. We have no love for Jesus, no inclination to keep his commandments. There’s no difference in our lives. I think John is saying, “well, then, we don’t really know him.” So there’s got to be some fruit. You know, the anxious person can overemphasize that. But those who emphasize once [saved], always saved, may not deal with a verse like that. And John also says, another test is—do we love one another? Do we care for one another? Do we pour ourselves out for others? Are we just living by ourselves?
Brian Arnold (21:04):
And you even mentioned, you know, the back half of the book of Galatians earlier—are the fruits of the Spirit more evident in your life than they were before? I mean, you can’t fake that forever. Those are going to be things that organically happen through the Spirit’s leading and sanctification work in the heart of a believer.
Tom Schreiner (21:22):
Yeah. And you know, we think of 2 Peter, you know, he talks about those who are born again, they practice—verses five through seven of chapter one—they practice godly virtues. And then he says, “if these virtues are yours, and increasing, then you’re fruitful”—I’m paraphrasing here—”you’re fruitful in your knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, and your entrance into the kingdom is secured.” But that entrance into the kingdom is secure because your good works function as a clear evidence that you belong to God.
Brian Arnold (21:56):
I think that’s a really helpful way to kind of wind us down, of thinking about the pastoral implications of this doctrine. Every believer I’ve ever known at some point in their life has wrestled through the issues of assurance, and whether or not they’re genuinely saved. And if they’re genuinely saved, will they be kept by Christ? What are some other resources we can point people to that would be really helpful? I mentioned your book before about The Race Set Before Us. What are some other works that you’ve found really helpful on this topic?
Tom Schreiner (22:23):
I…you know, it’s not a book that’s read as much, but I really like Berkhouwer’s book on faith and assurance. I think people would find that book very, very helpful. G.C. Berkhouwer on Faith and Perseverance, I think is a very helpful work. And, you know, I would actually recommend Martin Luther’s 1535 Commentary on Galatians. I think that’s…you know, you may not want to read every word, but it’s…I think it’s really great on the gospel.
Brian Arnold (22:57):
Absolutely. You recommended that to me when I was in seminary, and I read a large portion of it, and was amazed how every page, the gospel just leaps off to the reader. It’s an incredible work. Well, good. And listener, buy Dr. Schreiner and Ardel Caneday’s book on The Race Set Before Us. I read that in seminary, was greatly helped by it, as I was thinking through this really pivotal doctrine. And it has been important in the life of the church. One of my favorite preachers on this was the great Charles Spurgeon of the 19th century. And he once even said, “if there’s one doctrine I’ve preached more than any other, it is the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, even to the end.” Spurgeon knew how much saints needed to hear over and over again, that the God who loved them enough to purchase their salvation with his blood, the God who pursued them first with his great love, will never leave us and never forsake us.
Brian Arnold (23:52):
And Spurgeon knew this of himself. He said, “I knew that I could not keep myself, but if Christ promised to keep me, then I should be safe forever.” There’s great reason to believe that once God has saved us, we’re saved forever. And one verse that you’ve heard us use multiple times in this podcast is Philippians 1:6, where Paul says, “I’m sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” This is a great doctrine for great encouragement for the weary saint. If you’re in Christ, rest in that hope today—God is at work in you, and he’s not finished. Dr. Schreiner, thanks again for joining us on the podcast and giving us a helpful orientation on this critical doctrine.
Tom Schreiner (24:34):
Yeah, it’s been great to be with you, Brian.
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