The Warning Passages and Perseverance of the Saints


I have been in dialogue with a friend on the topic of perseverance of the saints. It was what prompted this post HERE. My basic thesis is that all true believers are kept by God’s power, and continue in faith until the end. There is nothing that can separate God’s people from his love, because God, by his power, keeps his people faithful and believing. I affirmed that apostasy is in fact a leaving-of-the-faith; however, this does not demand that those who leave the faith are truly regenerate believers (for texts which affirm this fact, see the link above).

However, my friend objected to my position. His largest beef was that my position doesn’t take the “warning passages” seriously. He argued that the warning passages warn true believers of the dangers of leaving apostasy. After considering these texts a bit further, I do agree that the warning texts are addressing believers.

The question then becomes, how should one view and interpret these texts? To put another way, does that fact that the warning passages address believers demand that they can forfeit their salvation?

Thomas Schreiner, in his book Run to Win the Prize, attempts to wade this issue. As a Calvinist, Schreiner adheres to perseverance of saints. However, at the same time, Schreiner agrees that the warning texts address regenerate believers. He admits that the Arminian reading (that the warnings are addressed to believers) of the warning passages is not at all “far-fetched”, and actually takes “the warnings… seriously”.

However, Schreiner disagrees with the Arminian conclusion that believers can lose their salvation. The reason is because while Schreiner wishes to deal with the warning texts fairly, he also wants to deal with the assurnance texts fairly. In essence, he concludes that Arminians are too one-sided when it comes to the passages on the believer’s security in Christ. He says,

The problem with the Arminian reading is that those adhering to [conditional security] do not have a persuasive reading of the assurance texts in Scripture… For instance, Paul assures the Philippians that ‘he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 1:6). Arminians read this text to say that the good work will be completed, provided that one continues to believe and if one does not fall away. Such a reading, however, drains the verse of virtually all comfort…

…The same line of argument applies to Romans 8:35-39, where Paul promises that nothing will separate believers from the love of Christ. Again the Arminian argues that nothing external can separate believers from Christ’s love, but believers may be detached from Christ by their own choices. Such a reading of the text is unconvincing… The very point Paul makes here is that even the most terrifying experiences will not move one to forsake Christ. The reason for believers’ faithfulness does not lie in the strength of their will but in the love of Christ, which keeps them even through agonizing sufferings.

I totally agree. The security passages are incredibly clear. The question then becomes, how can the warnings texts address believers concerning the dangers of apostasy, if believers cannot/will not apostatize?

Schreiner answer this question by look at the the purpose of the warning texts. He explains, saying:

[The warning texts do in fact warn believers] against falling away, for those who do so will be damned forever. It is precisely at this point that we must [explain]…the function of the warnings in the NT. The writers in the texts we have examined do not accuse their readers as if the latter have fallen away. They admonish them so that they will not fall away. The warnings are prospective, not retrospective. They are like road signs that caution drivers of dangers ahead on the highway. They are written so that readers will heed the warnings and escape the threatened consequence… The purpose of warnings in the NT is redemptive and salvific. The Lord uses them as means so that believers will escape death…

This is an interesting way to observe the warnings. What Schreiner means to explain is that the NT warnings are a means by which God keeps his elect in the faith. Those in the Reformed camp would all agree that God uses means to infallibly save and keep his people. Schreiner argues that the warning texts are one of God’s main ways of doing so. Another important observation is that the warnings are prospective, not retrospective — in other words, the warnings do not address those who have already left the faith — they warn believers of what would happen if they did apostatize.

Schreiner continues:

I would contend that all true believers (all the elect, all those who have the Holy Spirit and enjoy the forgiveness of sins and are members of the new covenant) heed the warnings and are thereby saved. In other words, the warnings are one of the means God uses to keep his own trusting him and persevering in the faith until the end… The warnings in the NT, then, do not rebuke believers for falling away. They urge them most earnestly not to do so…

The main objection that is raised against this reading of the warnings is that the warning is drained of all significance if it cannot be fulfilled. If the elect always and inevitably fulfill the warning, then what is the point of giving the admonition? [To answer by way of illustration], the other day I was driving my car in reverse and almost hit a parked car behind me, but my son cried out, “Dad, stop!” His warning caused me to put on the brakes and prevented me from hitting the car. In the same way, because, when my children were small, I threatened punishments if they ran into the street, they never ran into the street. Warnings are not abstractions. They are the means God uses to keep believers from falling away.

Schreiner ends his argument by making this helpful clarification:

God has promised that his elect will persevere, just as he promised to grant faith to his chosen ones. Such a promise does not eliminate [responsibility]. Both the summons to persevere and [the call to believe] in the gospel are conditions that must be fulfilled to be saved, but in both instances God grants the grace so that the conditions will certainly be fulfilled in those who belong to him.

While I believe that my last post is still in harmony with this position, I think Schreiner has a helpful discussion, especially considering the nature of the warning passages in the NT.

8 thoughts on “The Warning Passages and Perseverance of the Saints

  1. Thanks for posting this. After reading it—
    1. Mr Schreiner claims “The warnings are prospective, not retrospective.” The Bible has both prospective and retrospective warnings—there are passages stating that believers: will deny the Lord who bought them (2 Pet. 2:1), need to be saved from death (Js. 5:20), have been hindered from obeying the truth (Gal. 5:7), are turning away to a different gospel (Gal. 1:6), and are bound by iniquity (Acts 8:12-13, 23). These, and other passages, state what has happened, is happening, or will happen, not merely offering hypothetical or prospective warnings.
    2. His examples of the warnings his son gave him and he gave his children are inconsistent both with Scripture and his own teachings:
    A. They imply that “all true believers” will never sin. If “I…almost hit a parked car…but my son cried out…I threatened them with punishment…they never ran into the street” is synonymous with Biblical warnings then when God through Scripture cries out “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph. 4:26), no true believer will ever be angry and sin. Or, when Scripture says “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth” then no true believer will ever let any corrupt communication come out.
    B. They defeat his own point because if it is possible for him to hit a parked car and if it is possible for his children to run into the street, then it is possible for true believers to fall way. Does he believe that? Do you?
    3. As briefly as possible, let me address his claim that those denying the doctrine of once saved, always saved “do not have a persuasive reading of the assurance texts,” such as Philippians 1:6. Paul explains this assurance throughout Philippians. They can be assured that God is finishing the good work He began in them as they only conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27), do nothing from selfishness (2:3), have this attitude in themselves (2:5), and do all things without grumbling or disputing (2:14). By holding fast to these words of life, there is complete assurance that Christians will rejoice in the day of Christ (2:16). Mr. Schreiner’s definition of perseverance means that since God, like his son once did, cries out “only conduct yourself worthy of the gospel” that the true believer always “hits the brake” before backing into conduct not worthy of the gospel. And since God has threatened that murmurers will be destroyed (1 Cor. 10:10-11), that the true believer will never run into Grumbling Avenue. Will Mr. Schreiner, you, or any Calvinist claim that you have only lived worthy of the gospel and have avoided murmuring from the moment you believe Christ saved you? If not, you admit that you have backed into the car and/or run into the street and therefore the warnings, for you, are not prospective but retrospective.
    4. Last, let me say again that I appreciate and respect you letting these things be publically discussed. This is no mere “theological exercise” for me but is a serious effort to both take heed to myself and the doctrine I teach (1 Tim. 4:16) while also searching the Scriptures concerning what I hear from others (Acts 17:11).

    • Davud id be careful not to stretch the illustration of the car too far. Hes trying to give imagery. Pontification beyond that isnt help. The ephesians 4 passage is irrelevant. theres a difference between sin and the possibility of losing salvation.

      We disagree w the 2 peter 2 passage. Also, the james passage helps my argument. god uses means to keep his people. Community is one of thise means. The galatians were tempted to turn, i think galatians 5:4 reveals that they hadnt yet. U may disagree.

      Regarding the philippians 1 passage. In what way is God the starter of iur salvation? I hold to election. God starts it by choosing to give grace to some, pay for their sins, draw them by his Spirit, and keep them by his hand. How does God begin salvation in ur mind? I would say that if he starts our salvation, he enables us to comtinue in it. If u read the last part of the quote in the blog, none of us are against responsibility. U and i just view that reaponsibility differently. I believe that biblically, God enables us to keep in the faith. U believe we have to work to keep ourselves there. To me that creates a vast chasm between our points. And if we have to work to keep ourselves there, it undermines the gospel

  2. I don’t think I abused his illustration, but now I see that he believes that even if he spiritually “hits the parked car” or if his children spiritually “run out in the street,” those violations do not separate him from God. Likewise, if I understand you, a “true believer” might be angry and sin but the wages of that sin is not death. So I see that he/you are not saying the Christian will not sin. Here, we must have a different definition of “falling away.” I am still baffled by his statement “The warnings in the NT, then, do not rebuke believers for falling away. They urge them most earnestly not to do so…” Does he/you believe Christians can fall away but when they do they are not lost or that Christians cannot fall away?
    The problem remains, that his statement “The warnings are prospective, not retrospective” is grammatically and factually contradicted by Scripture. James 5 and Galatians 5 are two such examples. There are many more.
    Yes, we disagree on 2 Peter 2:1, but I’m interested in textual evidence for your position. Can you cite other examples of Peter sarcastically referring to lost people as saved people? I cite verse 20 as evidence that Peter is not being sarcastic because they had escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of Him, which in 2 Pet 1:3-4 is the language of salvation. If 2:1 is literal, it contradicts your belief about perseverance and election.
    James 5:19-20 How does this show a true believer cannot be lost by sin, when it says that he was in danger of death until he was turned back to the truth which he wandered from? If I understand you, you say no true believer is in danger of death.
    Gal. 5:4 How does “you have fallen from grace” mean they were tempted but had not fallen? You said “they hadn’t fallen yet”—why the “yet”? Don’t you believe that no one can fall from grace?
    Philippians 1 He began that good work in them “on the first day” (verse 5) that they “obeyed the gospel” (Rom. 10:16). For example, one of those Philippians was the jailer who was told to “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts16:31). Paul then “spoke the word of the Lord to them” (Acts 16:32) and immediately he was baptized (Acts 16:33), and then he rejoiced having believed in God (Acts 16:34). The jailer didn’t start his own salvation without God– he learned from God (through Paul) that salvation was available and accepted God’s offer.
    Regarding “work to keep ourselves” in the faith: God revealed the plan so that through faith (Phil. 1:25) we work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:12) and that this is God working in us (Phil. 2:12)—we learn and imitate His thinking and deeds, God’s mind is in us (Phil. 2:5). This keeps our conduct worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27)—how does any of this undermine the gospel or involve works by which the wages are not counted as grace but as debt (Rom. 4:4)?
    I would like to have this discussion on your other posts, but you write faster than I can review and comment! Thanks for sharing some of your limited/valuable time with me in this, and related, studies.

    • Here’s the thing David. You’re baffled by these things because your understanding of sin, apostasy, and even salvation is worlds apart from mine. This is why every time we talk we start talking about the nature of sin, and the nature of salvation. The reason is because we have such a different basis for defining those, that you become shocked at my position (and I at yours). It’s a reality. Like I said yesterday: while you don’t appreciate church history or backing from other theologians, I believe that once we get bogged down in such drastically different interpretations of what it means to be a Christian, we have to bring in church history, and scholarly works. I have 1500 years of church history backing me — you yourself said that you don’t care for confirmation from church history. That is dangerous, and arrogant, in my view. Proverbs says that there is wisdom in the counsel of many. To try to interpret passages OUTSIDE the larger scope of church history leads to misinterpretation, by definition. To me, in order to have any more fruit in our conservations, we have to define sin, and the nature of salvation. This involves bringing in theological works which have defined these things for centuries. You aren’t willing to do that. At that point, it’s hard to agree on anything, based on the two opinions of two men.

      And another word on apostasy, while I affirm that people leave the church, what are they leaving? Does their leaving necessitate that they were saved at all? No. While that may shock you, I build my theology on itself. In other words, I don’t build a theology of apostasy, and work my way back to salvation. I build my theology logically. I build on election, then salvation, then sanctification, and from these building blocks I can build a healthy view of apostasy.

      Beyond this, the questions you are bringing up are already ones I’ve answered. I find it very hard to accept your theology based on a biblical view of sin, election, salvation, and God’s sovereignty. While I affirm apostasy, the nature of it is different from yours.

  3. You’ve made an insightful observation regarding our differences: “…we have such a different basis for defining” sin and salvation. Do we not agree that Scripture is that basis and “thoroughly equips” us to define sin and salvation? Scripture was originally written so that the common man could read and understand (Ephesians 3:3-4; 5:17). Has that changed? In Acts 2, people heard Peter preach, recognized their personal guilt, asked what they should do to be saved, and were told to repent and be baptized. They understood what the Holy Spirit was saying through Peter without scholars. Can’t people today do the same? The Ethiopian eunuch understood and believed when Philip preached Jesus, and he was immediately baptized in water (Acts 8:35-38). Scripture is of the same nature as these occasions of God’s communication with these men except it is written, not verbal communication (Heb. 1:1-2). What happened between the first century and today so that we CANNOT understand these same teachings without the past 1500 years of scholars? {The only scholars I know of that are essential in the process of understanding Scripture are translators, but you do not even have to be a Christian to be an apt translator.}
    Bear with me in this—I am not against including scholarly works in the process of study and defining words, so I don’t mind including that in any future studies. I regularly consult lexicographers such as Strong and Thayer and Vine’s dictionary. As I study, I refer to commentaries by Adam Clarke, Albert Barnes, Lenski, and others (often written by men with whom I disagree on a variety of subjects) to aid me in my study, but I do not rely on their comments to be the basis or definitive confirmation of truth. Is this what you are suggesting or do you mean something different when you say “we have to bring in church history, and scholarly works”?
    So, I don’t mind bringing in “scholarly and theological works,” but how we view their comments is of extreme importance. I will weigh their comments by Scripture, just as I do have your comments and those of the books you have cited (one of which I am reading through). I believe that ultimately, Scripture defines itself (hence, 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Scholars may make helpful comments or point us to passages that relate to the fundamental nature of some subject (but then again, many people not considered scholars can do that too). Scholars may also be mistaken, so while there is safety in a multitude of counselors, we have to also ensure that each counselor is a wise counselor (Prov. 24:6). I use caution in whose counsel I accept, both when seeking counsel from people of the past and present. When assessing counselors, how do you weigh out the counsel of men who would offer contradictory counsel on some fundamental topics (like Zwingli and Luther)?
    My approach to the use of religious history is in part shaped by the fact that while we can benefit from what mere men have written (both scholars and non-scholars), some scholars (not all) have also contributed to teachings and traditions that contradict God’s word, thereby complicating, not aiding in, the process of understanding God’s word. This problem existed when Jesus taught, and He warned against traditions that violate God’s word which make worship vain (Matthew 15:1-9). Paul warned about this too in Colossians 2:22-23. This problem still exists today, in part because of an over-emphasis on scholars and traditions. For example, in part because of Martin Luther’s influence (because he was influenced by Catholic tradition), many people view Lent as a “holy day of the church.” Did Peter or Paul preach or practice the observation of Lent? Clearly it did not originate with them, and the first-century saints were “thoroughly equipped for every good work” without Lent (2 Tim. 3:16-17). But today Lent, and the whole “liturgical calendar,” is attached to many people’s ideas about following Jesus. That use of history and tradition is what I am avoiding when I say things like “I don’t look to history to confirm my beliefs.” I have not chosen this approach but learned it from Scripture, from passages like Colossians 2 and 3:17 which teaches us to be limited to Christ’s ways only doing what is from Him [“in His name”]). Since/If you disagree, what Scripture says or teaches this is a mistaken approach?
    On apostasy, you asked “What are they leaving”? Your answer was that they leave the church. When you say they leave the church, do you believe they truly belonged to the church (from God’s view)?
    Thanks for listening, Lucas. Though at times we “baffle” each other, I am convinced this is a healthy discussion for both of us and a worthy subject and use of time. I hope there will more of this in this town, state, country, and world to the glory of God.

  4. Here’s a book with my thoughts on tradition and creedal theology:

    I here all the time that the Pharisees were tied to tradition, and so we should just be about the Bible. I think this is a flawed argument. This book addresses that.

    While I understand that the Pharisees got it wrong, and they were tied to their tradition OVER the scriptures, it is also true that no one is born in a theological vacuum. We all have influences which not only color our theology, but how we approach biblical interpretation

    For instance, the Church of Christ came from a movement started from the Restorationist Movement in the 1870s. Your church is birthed from that. And while it may not agree with EVERY church of Christ, you are influenced from a movement, and it colors how you do theology.

    Lets take Reformation theology.This goes back to Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, in the 1500s. Their theology has shaped mine. I’m not ashamed to say that. I appreciate their diligent exegesis and theological work.

    Beyond this, doctrines such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, were shaped in the 2-3rd century. The doctrine of salvation was formed and solidified in the 3rd century, and then again emphasized in the Reformation in Luther’s day. The doctrine of predestination was developed through Augustine, and then again through Calvin.

    Also, regarding YOUR view of baptismal salvation, that is a predominately Eastern theology, and the Eastern Orthodox church has practiced baptism as a mode of salvation for centuries. I staunchly disagree with it, as has the entire protestant church for centuries (based on Colossians 2, the very scriptures you brought in. And Romans 4, and Galatians 3, et al).

    All of these doctrines were shaped, molded, solidified throughout the history of the church. I (and you do too) owe thanks to great men who went to the scriptures, and helped mold theology to what it is now. They got their theology from the very scriptures that you and I study. To me,it is simply arrogant to ignore the labor that the church went through, and DIED FOR. These men lived and died for Christ, and for the truth of the scriptures. I am heavily influenced by the Reformation, and Augustine, and the early church, on differing areas of theology. And I am benefitted for it.

    My whole point in saying this is that my interpretation of salvation, or apostasy, doesn’t and indeed CANNOT come out of thin air. I am a Christian, which means I stand on the shoulders of great and godly men (NOT Pharisees) who loved Jesus and loved grace. And I feel all the more confident standing on Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Martyr, and others.

  5. Out of respect for your blogspace and its intended purposes–since our discussion has left the topic of this particular blog post, I’ll reply to you privately. These are important discussions for us, and others, to read and have.

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