Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Paradox of Perseverance and Apostasy

Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum
The Word of the Lord Endures Forever
The concept of justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ is central to Christian theology. Paul’s writings emphasize that believers are considered righteous by God through Christ’s sacrifice, despite their inherent sinfulness. This righteousness is imputed to believers through faith, a truth echoed in the faith of Old Testament saints like Abraham. At the same time, God’s word also teaches two paradoxical ideas: 1) that a person who is a believer in Christ can forfeit, or lose that faith, and 2) that God who works faith in men by means of God’s word will cause men to persevere in that faith.

According to Paul’s writings in Romans and Galatians, God justifies believers by reckoning or counting them as righteous, even though they are not inherently righteous.1 God does this not because of anything we do; his favor is unmerited. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ because of His death and resurrection.2 God sees believers through the lens of Christ’s righteousness, despite the fact that we are sinful.3 The believer is called to actively strive against the sinful flesh,4 considering it as good as dead because of Christ’s crucifixion.5 This concept of justification through faith finds its foundation not only in the New Testament but also in the experiences of Old Testament believers. Consider Abraham: scripture affirms that Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.6 Like Abraham, we believe, and God counts us righteous because of our faith. We are considered Abraham’s children by faith.7 Thus, the nature of justification highlights how God’s reckoning of righteousness extends to both old and new testament believers, demonstrating His consistent faithfulness throughout all times. He deals with all mankind in the same way.

While believers are justified and counted righteous through faith in Christ, they are not exempt from the ongoing struggle with their sinful flesh. Paul describes this battle against the power of sin in Romans Chapter 7. He describes the tension of having “sin living in me,” acknowledging the coexistence of the redeemed inner man and the lingering influence of sin.8 The sinful flesh is not eradicated; rather, we can consider it dead and defeated because of Christ’s work on the cross.9 Believers are called to actively starve their flesh and not gratify its desires.10 This duality within the Christian experience reveals that while the inner man delights in God’s law, believers must persistently strive to overcome their sinful inclinations. It is an ongoing journey of sanctification where the inner transformation by the Spirit is met with the arduous task of mortifying the flesh. This tension between righteousness and sinfulness in the life of a believer is often referred to as “simul justus et peccator” in Lutheran theology, which means “simultaneously justified and sinner.” This concept underscores the paradoxical nature of the Christian’s state, being both declared righteous through faith and yet still struggling with the effects of sin. In the words of the Formula of Concord, Epitome:

“We believe, teach, and confess that original sin is not a minor corruption. It is so deep a corruption of human nature that nothing healthy or uncorrupt remains in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers11...This damage cannot be fully described.12 It cannot be understood by reason, but only from God’s Word. We affirm that no one but God alone can separate human nature and this corruption of human nature from each other. This will fully come to pass through death, in the blessed resurrection. At that time, our nature, which we now bear, will rise and live eternally without original sin and be separated and divided from it13 (FC Ep. I, 8-10).”

Yet, though we were by nature children of wrath, God graciously saved us and made us alive in Christ.14

As there is a paradoxical element in the Christian’s nature, so too there is a paradox that must be acknowledged when discussing the faith of the Christian and the possibility of falling away from it. This is more commonly known as election or predestination. The concept of election or predestination is the understanding that God, in His sovereign will, chooses people for salvation in Christ.15 Scripture also teaches, however, that man is entirely responsible for his damnation. In the words of the Solid Declaration, “Few receive the word and follow it. Most despise the word and will not come to the wedding.16 The cause for this contempt for the word is not God’s foreknowledge but the perverse human will (FCSD XI, 41).” Consequently, Holy Scripture is littered with calls to repent, and to guard against falling away.

These biblical teachings reflect a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. On one hand, it affirms that salvation is entirely the work of God, as He alone is responsible for granting faith and securing the believer’s eternal destiny. This aligns with passages such as John 10:27-28, Romans 8:28, and Ephesians 1:3-6, which emphasize God’s role in choosing, protecting, and preserving His people. On the other hand, scripture recognizes the reality of human accountability and the potential for falling away. The paradox lies in holding these truths in tension, affirming both the divine initiative in salvation and the necessity of human response and perseverance.

The language of “losing salvation” can be misleading, as it implies misplacement rather than a deliberate choice (Cooper, 2018). It seems to suggest that it is something that happens to you rather than something for which you are responsible. While no external force can pluck believers from Christ’s hand, individuals can reject Christ and willfully apostatize themselves. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, the Jews who were not willing to be gathered together by Christ as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.17 As he faces death by stoning, Stephen calls his murderers stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts, who always resist the Holy Spirit,18 which is the cause of their faithlessness. Living in unrepentant sin can lead to the forfeiture of faith, as sin destroys faith (Cooper, 2018).19 This tension between the possibility of falling away and God’s perseverance of His people is a paradox and cannot be resolved by human reason. Neither element should be ignored in favor of the other; neither scriptural truth should be used to cancel the other out (Cooper, 2018).

The author of the letter to the Hebrews warns against falling away from the faith, emphasizing the danger of a hardened heart and turning away from God.20 He gives the examples of Israel’s rebellion and unbelief as a caution.21 Similarly, Paul warns against falling away as Hymenaeus and Alexander did.22 He warns the Galatians who were trying to be justified by the law after having believed the Gospel preached to them had fallen from grace and were cut off from Christ.23 Peter describes false teachers who lead others astray and who are destined for destruction.24 Peter affirms that both the false teachers and those led astray have fallen from the faith;25 he does not say that they did not have genuine faith to begin with.

Paul and Peter probably learned this from Jesus Himself. Peter’s epistle echoes what Jesus teaches in the parable of the sower. In Matthew 13:18-23, Jesus explains the meaning of the parable, which depicts different types of soil representing the condition of people’s hearts in receiving the Word of God. The seed that falls on rocky ground and among thorns symbolizes those who initially receive the Word with joy but later fall away due to persecution or the cares of the world. This parable illustrates that genuine believers can face obstacles or temptations that lead them astray from their faith. Paul’s language of being cut off from Christ reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that He is the vine and we Christians are the branches.26 He urges the disciples to remain in Him, lest they become like branches that have been cut off from the vine which are gathered up and thrown into the fire.

Cooper points out that the reception of the Word and the participation in the sacraments are the means by which God works in us, nurturing and sustaining our faith (Cooper, 2018). This makes sense, particularly in light of John 15. Jesus calls His disciples to remain in Him. He repeats the admonition several times. How are we to remain in Jesus? By eating His body and blood, which is real food and real drink:

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.27”

Through means of grace, and particularly the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus “perseveres” His Christians, guards them against falling away, and empowers them to remain steadfast.

The Solid Declaration reflects the paradoxical nature of the biblical teaching on election and does not speculate beyond what scripture says (FCSD XI 53, 64). It acknowledges that the doctrine of election is both mysterious and profound, encompassing the tension of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. It confesses God’s choice of individuals for salvation in Christ is an act of His pure grace, independent of any merit on our part. It affirms the nature of salvation, emphasizing that God alone is responsible for granting eternal life to believers, and that this teaching about election should be a comfort to Christians (FCSD XI 45-49). At the same time, the Solid Declaration recognizes the reality of human accountability, as individuals bear responsibility for their own rejection of God’s saving grace and their resulting damnation (FCSD, XI). This understanding aligns with the paradoxical nature of election presented throughout Scripture, affirming both the sovereignty of God and the human response to His grace. From the Solid Declaration, we learn that matters such as how election works from God’s perspective should not be investigated beyond what scripture tells us, and that the teaching about election should not be considered apart from Christ:

“We neither can nor should investigate and fathom everything in this article, the great apostle Paul declares. After having argued much about this article from God’s revealed word, as soon as he comes to the point where he shows what God has reserved for His hidden wisdom about this mystery, he suppresses and cuts it off with the following words, ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?’28 In other words, we cannot know about matters outside of and beyond what God has revealed in His word. This eternal election of God is to be considered in Christ, and not outside of or without Christ29 (FCSD XI 64-65).”

In conclusion, the doctrine of justification by God’s grace through faith is foundational to Christianity. Christians, though justified and regarded as righteous through Christ, continue to wrestle with their sinful flesh. The admonitions against falling away serve as sober reminders of the significance of perseverance and the perils of unrepentant sin. It is essential to embrace these paradoxical truths, recognizing the danger of apostasy while concurrently relying on God’s ongoing work of preservation through His means of grace, His Word and sacraments. The Holy Spirit works through His means of grace to strengthen and sustain the Christian in the faith. Through God’s Word by the working of the Holy Spirit, believers find assurance and steadfastness in Christ. ###

End Notes

1. Romans 3:24
2. Ephesians 2:1-10
3. Galatians 3:27
4. Galatians 5:16-17
5. Romans 6:5-10
6. Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6
7. Galatians 3:7-9
8. Romans 7:17-25
9. Romans 6:11
10. Galatians 5:16
11. Romans 3:10-12
12. Psalm 19:12
13. Job 19:26-27; 1 Corinthians 15:53
14. Ephesians 2:3-5
15. Ephesians 1:4-5; John 10:28
16. Matthew 22:3-6
17. Matthew 23:37
18. Acts 7:51
19. 1 John 1:8-10; 3:7-10
20. Hebrews 3:12-14
21. Hebrews 6:4-6
22. 1 Timothy 1:19-20
23. Galatians 5:4
24. 2 Peter 2
25. 2 Peter 2:18, 20-22
26. John 15:1-8
27. John 6:56-57
28. Romans 11:33-34
29 Matthew 11:28; 17:5; John 10:9; 14:6; 16:14; Ephesians 1:4-6

Works Cited

McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (Pocket Edition). Formula of Concord - Solid Declaration, XI (Election). Concordia Publishing House.

Cooper. (2018, January 31). Can a True Christian Fall Away From the Faith? Just and Sinner. Retrieved June 15, 2023, from