Recently Scot Mcknight wrote a seven part series on his history with Calvinism (I doubt his choice of seven was intended to have the same divine significance as in the bible). I agree with Scot but found his work more detailed than anything I’ve done, so I’m going to summarize his arguments here, linking to each post as I go for your further reading.
1. Hebrews: Scot tells about the days when Grant Osborn was his teacher who handed him a paper on Eternal Security to work on and suggested he read I Howard Marshall’s book, Kept By The Power of God. It’s mildly ironic that only days before Scot wrote this article a friend of mine told me about the book for the first time. He said that when he first became a Christian attending a “once saved always saved” Baptist church, it was one of the first books he read that convinced him that Calvinism could not be true (of course this got him kicked out of Bible Study). The result from reading this book, for Scot as well as my friend, was nothing short of a theological conversion:
“When I came up for air in Hebrews I had been persuaded that I was wrong about Calvinism. Like C.S. Lewis getting on a bus and then getting off converted, but not knowing when or how, so with me: from the beginning of working through Grant’s notes to reading through Marshall and arguing with him until he wrestled me to the ground and pinned me, I had become convinced that I was no longer a Calvinist.”
The basic thesis that Scot presents is one in which, if the Arminian understanding of “losing salvation” is correct, the 5-points of Calvinism cannot be.
“If God’s saving, effectual grace can be resisted somehow, if believers can somehow choose to forfeit their salvation, then unconditional election and irresistible grace (and probably limited atonement) and surely perseverance (as preservation) of the saints are not right.”
2. Warning Passages: In his second article in the series he outlines the key passages in Hebrews, summarizing his first post: “If it can be established that genuine believers can fall away and lose their salvation then any sense of effectual grace or perseverance (as God’s preservation) are undone” and asks the pertinent question, what happens to Calvinism if those who lose their salvation are genuine believers? It is in this post that he lays out his method: 1) look at all five warning passages as a whole and 2) find four features in each warning passage (he says four because that’s how many he discovered after reading all of the warning passages as a whole). The four elements are:
1. Who are the audience?
2. What is the occasion for the warning passages or what is the sin?
3. What is the exhortation the author gives?
4. What are the consequences if the exhortation is ignored?
3. “Consequences”: Here Scot quickly examines the consequences laid out by the author of Hebrews, sourcing 3:11; 6:4-6; 10:26; 10:27; 10:28; 10:30-31; and 10:39 (see his article for further explanations). He concludes “the author of Hebrews warns a specific group of people about some sin and tells them that if they commit that sin they will find themselves outside the company of God.”
That’s pretty straight forward and everyone agrees, but it needed to be said as a part of the construct of the argument.
4. “Exhortations”: Interesting question Scot poses. If the book of Hebrews, and in particular the warning passages, are a call to perseverance, than do non-Christians really need that call? Scot sources some of the things he says that the author of Hebrews expected from his readers to do instead of falling away, including things like “let us fear” “let us strive hard” “let us hold fast”. Scot would ask us to reflect upon this question, in these passages, who are the “us”? Or rather, does the “us” imply Christians?
What does it mean to persevere, Scot asks, it means to continue to believe (or continue to be faithful). Since the author includes himself, it seems the exhortations are to genuine believers.
5. “The Sin”: In this article Scot provides a complete list of the sins the author fears his audience may commit. I won’t give a complete list, you can go and see it on his site. A sampling of it is “trample the Son of God”, “disobedience”, “hardening your hearts”, “disregard you salvation”, “deliberate sin”, “bitter root”, “treat with contempt the Spirit of Grace”, and so on.
He observes from this list 1) that the author chose to avoid a single term for this sin. 2) That the sin is a willful rejection of the Triune God. 3) That it is deliberate and 4) that it is moral.
Scot puts a term to this sin: apostasy, which can only be committed by Christians.
6. “The Audience”: Finally Scot turns directly to the question of the audience. Are the genuine Christians, or not? He makes the following points: 1) the author includes himself in the “we” (2:1-14; 3:14 et al). 2) Second the author calls the audience brothers, citing in particular 3:1: “holy brothers, we share in the heavenly calling”. 3) Third he calls his audience believers (4:3). 4) Sometimes the author refers to his audience as “you”, suggesting that he believes some of them will not make it (3:12; 5:11 et al). 5) The author says in 10:29, “How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?” 6) The author recalls their conversion experience (2:3-4; 10:22; 10:32-34) observing, “this all indicates a full Christian experience: conversion, gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the work of the death of Christ, and a Christian community commitment.” 7) The author indicates that when someone reaches a certain level and turns back, no more sacrifice remains. That level includes “enlightened”, “taste”, “partake in the Spirit”, et cetera.
“The author of Hebrews saw his audience as believers but knew that some would fall away, or had fallen away, or might fall away. For those who did, there would be no final rest. The implication is that a believer can fall away.”
7. Why It Matters: Scot concludes the series like he started, sharing a tid-bit autobiography of how all of this affected him. You can read that if you want. What I am particularly interested in in this article is a question that one of the commenters asked and Scot answered. It’s a question that many people, especially struggling Calvinists, have asked me.
James (#10) asked,
“Scot, good post but all this leaves me with the same questions this topic always leaves me with. What is required to “fall away”? How does struggling with sin fit in? Will I “know” that I have fallen away or could it be a big surprise at the judgment?
Maybe these aren’t important questions…but they’re the ones everyone in my congregation would ask.”
Scot (#14) answers,
“Jason, great question but the question wants to know something so that things can be settled — in vs. out — and the entire issue in Hebrews is framed, not so folks can know if they are in or out (and safe), but so they will persevere. There’s an unsettledness about this for many, but assurance can be had in faith and in relationship with God and in observance of one’s life… but there’s always the need, in both Calvinism and Arminianism, to keep on keeping on.”