On “Assurance”

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On “Assurance”

James R. Aist

“The God who conforms our will to His will in order to save us (John 6:44), is the God who keeps our conformed will conformed to His will in order for us to remain saved (Philippians 2:13).”

The Christian doctrine of “assurance” refers to the absolute certainty that whoever God saves will remain saved and will inherit eternal life. The question then arises, “Upon whom does this absolute certainty depend, the one whom God saved or the God who saved him?” Many Christians believe that, because God never cancels our natural-born, misaligned, will to make choices, a born-again Christian can exercise that same free will to abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven. And, they believe that many choose to do just that. Other Christians believe, instead, that the God who saved them is the same God who will keep them saved, while not cancelling their freedom to use their, now realigned, will. And they believe that no one who is truly saved (i.e., born again) will abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven. So, which, if either, of these two opposing views is better supported by the biblical witness, and which offers genuine assurance? Following are 21 of the most direct and to-the-point Scriptures that I believe, when taken together and in context, provide an answer to this question, followed by my commentary on each:

Ezekiel 36:26-27 “Also, I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.”

Commentary: God is describing here some of the awesome details of the “born-again” experience that true believers in His promised Messiah (Jesus Christ) will undergo (click HERE for details). Note that God says that He will “cause” them to obey His statutes and that they “will” keep His judgments. In other words, the born-again believer will obey, and continue to obey, God, because God will cause him to do so, not because they will choose, of their own volition, to do so. Surely God’s statutes and judgments include salvation (cf., John 6:39-40); thus, God himself will keep them saved.

John 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

Commentary: Since Jesus will (not just can or may, but will) raise him up on the last day, he will not, even if he could, abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his claim to eternal life with God in heaven.

Philippians 2:12-13 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but so much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the One working in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure.”

Commentary: Once you are saved, God himself works inside you to will to remain saved; that would certainly qualify as “His good pleasure”, would it not? Your will remains free to decide, but because your will is now realigned with God’s will, you have only one desirable choice and you’re “good” with that. So, “free will” becomes, in effect, a moot point, because you won’t ever want to abandon your saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit your inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven.

John 6:39-40 “This is the will of the Father who has sent Me, that of all whom He has given Me, I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Commentary: The Father’s will is that none (not some or most, but none) will be lost. Jesus will (not just can or may, but will) raise him up on the last day, because he will not abandon his saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit his inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven. Moreover, “everyone” whom God saves will stay saved, every one, and Jesus will raise all of them up on the Last Day…all of them.

John 10:28 “I give them eternal life. They shall never perish, nor shall anyone snatch them from My hand.”

Commentary: Never means never, and nor means nor, period! All who are saved will persevere to the end.

John 17:11b-12a, 20 “Holy Father, through Your name keep those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are one. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. I have kept those whom You have given Me. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word…”

Commentary. Jesus is the one who “kept” the disciples saved while He was still alive in the world; they did not keep themselves saved. Here, Jesus asks the Father to keep them saved after He returns to heaven. So, who keeps us saved? Jesus’ Father, that’s who; we do not keep ourselves saved.

1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, and He will not permit you to be tempted above what you can endure, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may be able to bear it.”

Commentary: God is faithful, and He has promised (elsewhere) to keep you saved. He will do that by limiting the temptations that you may experience and providing a way of escape, if necessary. Thus, God will control the influences that might otherwise convince you to abandon your saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit your inheritance of eternal life with Him in heaven.

1 Corinthians 1:8 “He will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Commentary: God himself will strengthen you until the day of our Lord (i.e., to the end), so that you will not abandon your saving faith, deny Christ and forfeit your inheritance of eternal life with God in heaven.

1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 “May the very God of peace sanctify you completely. And I pray to God that your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, who also will do it.”

Commentary: Simply put, the same God who saved you is the One who will also preserve (i.e., keep) you until the second coming of Jesus Christ.

John 8:31 “Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you remain in My word, then you are truly My disciples.”

Commentary: This verse is often passed over lightly, without really seeing the full implication of it. Jesus is implying that, of those “who believed Him”, those who truly accepted the Gospel are the ones who will remain saved (i.e., “in My word”). In other words, a true disciple will remain a disciple, and those who do not remain in His word are not truly disciples of His, but only appear to be. A parallel point was made more explicitly by John himself in 1 John 2:19, next.

1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have remained with us. But they went out, revealing that none of them were of us.”

Commentary: Here, John is speaking of  “antichrists”, those who denied Christ and left the fellowship of true believers. These folks appeared to be true believers, but they showed that they were not by denying Christ and walking away. True believers, on the other hand, will not deny Christ and walk away.

Romans 11:29 “For the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.”

Commentary: This is a general truth, and Paul is applying it here to make the point that the Jews will, someday, also put their faith in the Messiah (Jesus) and be saved. Since this is a general truth, it also applies to the calling of all people to God and the gifts (i.e., grace, saving faith and salvation) given to them when they are converted; thus, salvation is not revocable, but permanent.

Philippians 1:4-6 “In every prayer of mine for you all, I have always made requests with joy, due to your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Commentary: The God who saved you is the One who will keep you saved until the day of Jesus Christ (i.e., the end). God will finish what He started!

Romans 8:34-39 “Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, yes, who is risen, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities nor powers, neither things present nor things to come, neither height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Commentary: Paul says that there is no outside influence whatsoever that can take our salvation from us (separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord). But what about our misaligned will; can’t we use that to separate us? Paul said “No”, when he included “any other created thing” in the list, because we are created things! So, nothing and no one – not even we, ourselves – can cause ourselves to revoke our salvation. Besides, the will of the saved has been realigned to agree with the will of God, and there will no longer be any incentive to disobey God.

Ephesians 1:13-14 “In Him you also, after hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and after believing in Him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory”, with…

Ephesians 4:30 “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you are sealed for the day of redemption” with…

1 Corinthians 1:21-22 “Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and established the guarantee with the Spirit in our hearts.”

Commentary: Taken together, these previous three passages say that the Holy Spirit, dwelling in every true believer, seals our salvation and guarantees that we will not lose it, ever, and certainly not by an act of our realigned will.

1 Peter 1:3-5 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that does not fade away, kept in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Commentary: The power of God protects us, through faith, from denying Christ and losing our eternal inheritance. The God who saved us is the One who will keep us, by His power.

Hebrews 10:38-39 “Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the saving of the soul.”

Commentary: Here, the writer is making it clear that those who shrink back do not have saving faith, whereas, those who do not shrink back have saving faith. He is not saying that true believers can or will shrink back or fall away. (Compare this to 1 John 2:19, above.)

Jude 24 “Now to Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you blameless before the presence of His glory with rejoicing…”

Commentary: God is able to keep you from “falling” (i.e., denying Jesus and revoking your salvation). So, if God is able to keep you saved, then would He not, in fact, do it? After all, it is His will that you remain saved (John 6:39-40). God both saves you and keeps you saved.

My Conclusions: In view of the considerable, clear and direct biblical evidence presented above, I conclude that it is, ultimately, God who keeps us saved, and that it is not primarily by the power of our own efforts that we will endure to the end, but by the power and the will of God working in us and for us. In other words, once God has saved us, He so re-enforces our will to remain saved that we will, in fact, remain saved. The God who conforms our will to His will in order to save us, is the God who keeps our conformed will conformed to His will in order for us to remain saved. He does this through various means, including the work and witness of the Holy Spirit in us, the continued preaching of His word to us, the witness of other believers to us and continued warnings to us to not “fall away.”

Genuine Assurance: So, which version of assurance offers absolute certainty for the true believer? If the saved person is able to renounce his faith in the divinity of Jesus and lose his salvation, then his is only a hope of assurance, a hope that is contingent upon his own power and strength to retain his saving faith. His eternal security is only as secure as his faith is. I liken this, somewhat, to a letter in the mail that says on the outside of the envelope, “Congratulations, you are the winner of $5,000 a week for life!” But, when you read the letter inside, it says “…if yours is the lucky number to be drawn soon.” You have to wait until the drawing to find out whether or not you have won, and you cannot guarantee that you will win anything! What kind of a God would go to such lengths and pay such a price to draw us and save us, only to leave it entirely up to us to keep ourselves saved? On the other hand, if, as the Bible says, the saved person is protected by the power of God and given the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that he will never renounce his faith in the divinity of Jesus and lose his salvation, then his is an absolute certainty – that is to say, real assurance – from the day of his salvation right on into eternity. His eternal security is as secure as God is faithful. Put another way, “Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.” (J.I Packer in “Knowing God”). Now, I don’t know about you, but I would much rather have God in charge of my assurance than me; He is far more trustworthy, faithful and able to keep me saved than I am!

Benefits and Potential Pitfalls: I have found that a right understanding and acceptance of this doctrine of assurance confers true peace with God and guaranteed security in my right standing with Him from the moment God saves me right into eternity. Such peace and security are true blessings of immense value to the born again believer. But, this same doctrine can easily be misconstrued to, seemingly, give us license to sin all the more, because of God’s abounding grace (Romans 5:20). To this erroneous manner of (wrong) thinking the Apostle Paul declares emphatically, “God forbid!” (Romans 6:2, 15). How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? And in Galatians 6:7-8, he issues this warning, “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” The fact that this doctrine can be misunderstood and abused does not diminish, in any way, either its validity or its blessings to the one who understands and practices it rightly.

Who Gets the Glory?

Let’s now compare the doctrines of “sovereign assurance” and of “free will assurance” with respect to who gets the glory (i.e., the credit) for our persevering to the end (Matthew 24:13). If God’s assurance is sovereign, then God gets all of the glory, and we get none of it. But, if our free will is sovereign, then we can claim some of the glory, because it was, after all, our free-will decisions to continue to believe in Jesus that determined our eternal destiny. To my way of thinking, the latter is just another way of saying that we persevere to the end by works (i.e., our choosing to persevere). And, herein lies the primary reason that it matters what you believe in this regard: If you believe that you persevere because you continue to make the right decisions, are you really giving God all the glory that belongs to Him, or are you, in reality, claiming some of that glory for yourself? God has said “My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 42:8).

(To read more of my articles on biblical topics, click HERE.)

On “Sovereign Grace”

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On “Sovereign Grace”

James R. Aist

“So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” (Romans 9:16)

In this article, I will address two questions: 1) Why do some people believe and accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and 2) Which is sovereign over our eternal destiny, the free will of men or the sovereign will of God? As you read, please be patient, as this topic requires several pages to address it adequately.

Some of what I have to say on this topic I have already published in an article entitled “Who Goes to Heaven, Who goes to Hell” (click HERE). The God of the Bible is often referred to as “God Most High” or “Most High God” (e.g., Genesis 14:22 and Hebrews 7:1). Psalm 97:9 declares, “For You, O Lord, are Most High above all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.” Thus we derive the Christian doctrine of the “sovereignty” of God, His absolute rule and reign over all of His creation, including the affairs of men. Nothing happens that He did not either do Himself or allow to be done. There is no higher authority than the God of the Bible, and nothing is impossible for Him (Luke 1:37). But, does this sovereignty of God extend to the process of salvation, and what role, if any, does our free will play in it? Paul pointed out that “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8), and “…who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not by our works, but by His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began…” (2 Timothy 1:9). These and other Scriptures make it clear that both saving faith and salvation are gifts given to us by the grace of God.

In our natural, fallen state, there is no one who seeks after God (Romans 3:11). So, here is the crux of the matter: Do we, by our natural, misaligned (fallen) will, choose to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and choose to obey God instead of Satan, or, does God choose us to be among the saved and then work to realign our will to the point that it becomes our will to both believe the Gospel and to obey God instead of Satan? Following are thirteen of the most direct and to-the-point Scriptures that I believe, when taken in context, provide an answer to this question, followed by my commentary on each:

2 Thessalonians 2:13 “But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth…”

Commentary: From the beginning, God chose you and me for salvation. Not only did God chose you and me for salvation, but He did so before the sixth day of creation. At that time, God had not yet created even Adam and Eve, so how could you or I have possibly chosen ourselves to be saved at that time? Paul could not have made it any more clear than this, that it is God who does the choosing, not us.

Matthew 22:14 “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Commentary: This is the concluding statement in the parable of the wedding banquet found in Matthew 22:1-14, where Jesus is talking about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. In that parable, the King cast out of the wedding hall the “many” who came but did not have on the proper wedding attire. Everyone, “both bad and good”, had been invited and brought to the wedding banquet, but these had not been “chosen.” Only the “few” who had been chosen were properly attired and allowed to stay and participate in the festivities. And what was the fate of the others? “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’, vs. 13. So, who did the choosing, the King or the guests? You decide.

Luke 10:22 “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father. And no one knows who the Son is but the Father, and who the Father is but the Son and he to whom the Son desires to reveal Him.”

Commentary: Jesus reveals the Father to only those to whom He desires to reveal Him. Obviously, then, He does not desire to reveal Him to the others. It is Jesus who chooses, not the chosen.

John 1:12 “Yet to all who received Him, He gave the power to become sons of God, to those who believed in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Commentary: Here, John is speaking about those who have been “born again” (from above), the true believers. He says that they were born (again) not of the will of man, but of the will of God. And, who is it that gave them the power to become sons of God? It was God, of course. So, who did the choosing, the born-again person or God? You decide.

John 6:44-45, 65 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and has learned of the Father comes to Me.” Then He said, “For this reason I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it were given him by My Father.”

Commentary: This is, perhaps, the single most instructive passage on this topic in the Bible. Jesus states clearly that no one can be saved unless God the Father draw (literally, drag) him to Jesus, giving him saving faith. And He says that everyone who is taught by God and learns from the Father, and is, thus, drawn to Jesus, will be saved, everyone. So, whose will is being exercised here, the man’s natural, misaligned (fallen) will or God’s sovereign will? You decide.

John 10:26-27 “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you.  My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

Commentary: Here, Jesus is referring to those given to Him by the Father (John 10:29; John 18:9) as “My sheep.” And, He states clearly that the reason the others (i.e., “the Jews”) do not believe is not because they heard what He said and chose not to believe it, but because they are not among those (already) given to Him by the Father, who hear His voice and follow Him. So, who is it who believes the Gospel, the one who chooses of his own, misaligned will to believe it, or the one whom God has chosen to be among those given to Jesus as His sheep? You decide.

Acts 2:38-39 “Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call.”

Commentary: How many will be saved?  Not all, but only as many as the Lord our God will call. And who will decide which ones will be called? The Lord our God. Note that it does not say, “As many as call themselves will be saved.” God does the calling; we do not call ourselves.

Acts 13:48 “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and glorified the word of the Lord. And all who were ordained to eternal life believed.”

Commentary: Note the order of things here. All of those who were (already) “ordained to eternal life” (i.e., chosen to be saved) believed. They did not qualify themselves for salvation by using their misaligned (fallen), will to choose to believe the Gospel, but God had already chosen them for salvation before they believed it. Note that it does not say, “And all who chose to believe were thereby ordained to eternal life”, as many today believe it happens. So, who did the choosing, the Gentiles or God? You decide.

Acts 18:27 “When Apollos intended to pass into Achaia, the brothers wrote to encourage the disciples to welcome him. On arriving, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace.”

Commentary: How had the Achaians believed? It was through grace (a gift from God), not through a choice made by their misaligned (fallen) will. You decide.

Romans 9:16 “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.”

Commentary: Paul is speaking here of the purpose of God according to “election” (i.e., His choosing) of whom He will save, using God’s election of Israel as an illustration of His election. Read on past vs. 16 and you will see that personal salvation is the main topic here. So, he is saying here that one does not choose himself to be saved, but, rather, that God is the one who chooses on whom He will have mercy by saving them. You decide.

Ephesians 1:11-12 “In Him also we have received an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His own will, that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, should live for the praise of His glory.”

Commentary: Here again, Paul is speaking of personal salvation. He says that we were predestined for salvation according to the purpose of His own will, not our natural, misaligned (fallen) will. I must conclude, then, that it is not we who decide of our own misaligned will to be saved, but that we are saved because God asserts His own will to save us. You decide.

Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one should boast.”

Commentary: This verse speaks of grace and faith in relation to salvation. Now, if salvation is a gift of God, then the means of obtaining it, grace and faith, must also be gifts of God. Otherwise, salvation would be of ourselves, and this verse states clearly that it “is not of yourselves.” So, we cannot, in effect, save ourselves by exercising our misaligned will. If we could, then salvation would no longer be a gift to us, but a prize for making the right choice. You decide.

Philippians 2:13 “For God is the One working in you, both to will and to do His good pleasure.”

Commentary: The relevance of this verse to the matter at hand is that it speaks of God working to influence our misaligned (fallen) will in order to realign it with His will. This is the same process that Jesus was referring to when He said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who has sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). God first works outside of us to realign our will so that we finally come all the way to Jesus willingly, and then He works within us to keep our realigned will fixed on persevering in our faith to the “end” (Matthew 10:22). You decide.

 

I find it instructive to note that, in all of my searching the Scriptures, I did not find even one instance where the Bible says, unequivocally, that anyone chose or chooses to believe in Jesus. The actual wording used almost always is “believe”, “believes” or “believed”, not “chose” or “chooses” to believe. Even in Revelation 22:17, where the Bible says, “Let him who desires take the water of life freely”, no mention is made of how he got to the point where it is his desire (or, will) to partake of the water of life, whereas, as we have seen elsewhere, that was not his will to begin with. To my knowledge, wherever the Bible speaks clearly and directly to this point, it is always God, not man, who does the choosing. You decide.

My Conclusions: I found the biblical evidence presented above to be sufficiently persuasive to conclude that God chooses whom He will save, and that, in order to save us, He influences our fallen, natural will to bring it into alignment with His sovereign will to save us (John 6:39-40). Moreover, in exerting His influence to realign our will to agree with His will regarding our response to the Gospel, we apparently retain our freedom to make decisions in accordance with our realigned will. God does not save us against our will. To what extent, then, that our free will is really free throughout this process is probably a matter of perception. Personally, I am deeply grateful that God did not leave me languishing without God and without hope in this world, due to the fallen, natural, misaligned will that I inherited from Adam. During this investigation, I became convinced that, without sovereign grace, there would be no grace at all for me!

Is God being unfair? When I first came to believe that it is God, not us, who decides who will be saved, I, like many before me, found it difficult to believe that the God of the Bible would do the choosing, because that seemed unthinkably unfair to the ones not chosen. In fact, a friend of mine once declared, “I’m not sure I could believe in such a God!” So, let’s step back for a moment or two and consider whether or not the God of the Bible is, in fact, the kind of God who would do such a seemingly unfair thing. Let’s recall that the God of the Bible is the God who 1) drowned the entire human race, save eight, with a flood, 2) ordered all of the inhabitants of the Promised Land slain so that God’s chosen people, the Israelites, could take their land away from them, 3) sacrificed the life of His only begotten, innocent Son on a cruel cross so that we, the ones who deserved to die, could have eternal life, 4) struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying about a free-will offering, and 5) made no provision whatsoever for salvation for anyone (past, present or future) who lives and dies without any opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Does any of that seem fair to you, from a purely human perspective? You see, the problem here is that we try to understand God from a human perspective rather than a heavenly perspective, and doing that will, more often than not, lead us to false assumptions and conclusions about God, such as “That would be cruel and unfair!” The God of the Bible operates in each and every way that the Bible says He does, and it is not ours to pass judgment on those divine operations. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable are His ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor?” (Romans 11:33-34). And, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

Furthermore, anyone who finds it too difficult to believe that the God of the Bible would do the choosing of whom He will save – because that seems unthinkably unfair to the ones not chosen – must, in all truth, deal honestly with Romans 9:6-18, which speaks plainly, directly and decisively to this very issue: “It is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel, nor are they all children because they are descendants of Abraham, but “In Isaac shall your descendants be called.” So those who are the children of the flesh are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be proclaimed in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and He hardens whom He wills.” From a human perspective, this is indeed a hard saying, but from God’s perspective, it is the “Gospel truth.” So, I had to decide whether or not I would take God at His word or try to find a way to explain this passage away. I chose to take God at His word and believe it.

So, let’s not forget that He is God and we are not! He can work His plan of salvation any way He chooses; after all, “Salvation belongs to the Lord. Your blessing is on Your people. Selah” (Psalm 3:8). Ours is only to read the Word, understand what it says, and believe it, even if we would not choose to do it His way. That’s how I see it, anyway. Besides, if God were to treat us all with fairness, instead of grace, then all would perish, because “…all have sinned…” (Romans 3:23) and “…the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). No one deserves to be saved; it is a gift of God, who declares, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115:3).

Is Free Will Sovereign? Finally, I want to address a presently popular, contrary view of the mechanics of salvation, one to which I formerly subscribed. The argument goes something like this: God knows all things, including “the end from the beginning.” Therefore, God knows in advance who will and who won’t believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved. So, where the Bible speaks of God “choosing” who will be saved, it really means that God has agreed in advance to include in the company of His “elect” (i.e., His “chosen”) those who freely chose, of their own volition, to believe the Gospel. In other words, God “chooses” only those who have first chosen Him, making “free will”, rather than God’s will, the deciding factor. This view also posits that, just as a man is saved by virtue of a “free will” choice to accept the Gospel, one may also, using that same “free will”, choose to deny Christ and lose his salvation.  Such a view of the mechanics of salvation, if true, would preserve, uncompromised and undiminished, the gift of “free will” granted to all mankind from the beginning and would exonerate God from any wrongdoing in condemning to hell those who reject the Gospel; they would simply be suffering the consequences of their own wrong choice, for which they alone are responsible. Moreover, this view would put a man in charge of his own eternal destiny, an idea that can have immense appeal to one whose fallen nature is to rebel against God and to be in charge of his own destiny, both temporal and eternal.

I have rejected this view of the mechanics of salvation for several reasons: 1) it postulates a view of fallen man that does not square with the overwhelming weight of the direct and to-the-point biblical witness; 2) it does not explain what it is that influences the will of one man to choose to accept the Gospel, while another is not influenced similarly and rejects it (to invoke “free will” here explains nothing, because both men had the same “free will;” 3) there is little or no direct, objective, biblical evidence supporting it; 4) the Bible makes it very clear that it is God, not man, who does both the choosing and the keeping; and 5) the Bible says very clearly what it means and means what it clearly says about the mechanics of salvation (I do not believe the Holy Spirit would leave the wrong impression about such an important issue). I strongly suspect that this view has gained so much in popularity because, if true, it would preserve, uncompromised and undiminished, the gift of “free will” granted to all mankind from the beginning (thus appealing to the pride and ego of fallen man), and because it would exonerate God from any appearance of wrongdoing (from a human perspective) in condemning to hell those who reject the Gospel (thus making it easier to believe). In my opinion, this view is essentially a well-meaning, human invention that attempts to perform an end run around the clear biblical witness to make the Gospel seem more attractive and easier to believe.

That said, let me draw your attention to a passage of Scripture that speaks directly and definitively to this creative, but erroneous in my opinion, view of the mechanics of salvation. You can find it in Romans 9:1-18.  Paul is speaking here of the purpose of God according to “election” (i.e., His choosing) of whom He will save, using God’s election of Israel as an illustration of His election. Read on past vs. 16 and you will see that personal salvation is the main topic. Now consider specifically Romans 9:16, where Paul states the key point that he is making about who does the choosing, Man or God (Keep in mind here that, in context, “it” refers to “election”, the choosing of who will be saved): “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” Did you catch it? The choosing of who will be saved does not depend on “him who wills” (i.e., the one who is to be saved), but on God, according to His choice of whom He will show mercy. So, this one verse, by itself, destroys the notion that God simply “chooses” to save only those who He already knows will choose Him, when it says that “…it is not of him who wills…” But, Paul didn’t stop there. So that no one can claim that this mechanism of “election” applies only to the Jews, he declared that it applies to, “…even us, whom He has called, not from the Jews only, but also from the Gentiles (Romans 9:24).” Paul could not have made it any more clear than this!

Who Gets the Glory?

Finally, let’s compare the doctrines of “sovereign grace” and of “sovereign free will” with respect to who gets the glory (i.e., the credit) for our salvation. If God’s grace is sovereign, then God gets all of the glory, and we get none of it. But, if our free will is sovereign, then we can claim some of the glory, because it was, after all, our decision to believe in Jesus that determined our eternal destiny. To my way of thinking, the latter is just another way of saying that we are saved by faith and by works (i.e., our choosing to believe). And, herein lies the primary reason that it matters what you believe in this regard: If you believe that you are saved because you made the right decision, are you really giving God all the glory that belongs to Him, or are you, in reality, claiming some of that glory for yourself? Keep in mind that God has said “My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 42:8). You decide.

(To read more of my articles on biblical topics, click HERE.)

On “Falling Away”

Jesus Rescues Sheep

On “Falling Away”

James R. Aist

“I never knew you.” – Jesus (Matthew 7:23)

“Falling away” (and its variants) is a term found several times in the New Testament to denote the abandoning of one’s Christian faith and/or practice. It is routinely used as biblical evidence that a Christian may abandon his faith and forfeit his salvation. But, is the mention of falling away really evidence of such a spiritual disaster, or could it be an indication of something far less devastating or even a blessing?

To “rightly divide the word of God” on this matter, I believe that we must first understand that the apparent make-up of the “church” includes both those who are truly born again and those who only appear (to us) to be born again. This was true of the New Testament church as well: Jesus used the Parable of the Sower to teach that some who heard and received the Gospel would later “fall away” when persecution came (Matthew 13:21 and Mark 4:17). With this in mind, we can begin to understand why so many “churchgoers” today seem to be born again and on their way to heaven, only to, later on, deny Christ and forfeit their salvation? I believe that the Bible provides us the answer to this question, if we are willing and able to accept it.

Jesus said, “I know My sheep…” (John 10:27) and also “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonderful works in Your name?’ But then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me, you who practice evil’” (Matthew 7:22-23). In other words, these churchgoers were not among His “sheep” (i.e., those whom the Father had given to Him), and so, He never knew them (i.e., they were not really born again). John declared a similar condition of the “antichrists” that left their fellowship when he wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have remained with us. But they went out, revealing that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19). The writer of Hebrews also expresses this same understanding of the two categories of “churchgoers”: “Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who draw back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the saving of the soul” (Hebrews 10:38-39).” He is speaking here of those among the churchgoers who have saving faith and persevere as opposed to those who do not have saving faith and draw back (i.e., fall away). Only those who are born again have saving faith and endure to the end. Finally, in His parable about the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14), Jesus is talking about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. In that parable, the King cast out of the wedding hall the “many” that came, but did not have on the proper wedding attire. Everyone, “both bad and good”, had been invited and brought to the wedding banquet, but these had not been “chosen.” Only the “few” who had been chosen were properly attired and allowed to stay and participate in the festivities. Once again, we see two categories of people – those who had been chosen (born again) and those who had not – all attending the same “church gathering.” Taken together, these passages all point to the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e., the churchgoers) as being comprised of both truly saved, born-again believers and unsaved, non-believers who are not born again though they may appear to be. We cannot know, with certainty, the one from the other unless they “fall away.” Then we can know for sure that they were not truly one of us and that they were not really born again, because, if they had been, then they would not have left us (1 John 2:19). Thus, those who only appear to be born again will seem to fall away and, thereby, they will appear to have forfeited their salvation. However, people cannot forfeit what they never really had, can they?

There is another scenario in which one may appear to have “fallen away” when, in fact they may not have. (This is an important distinction that merits our serious consideration.) This scenario is what we usually refer to these days as “backsliding.” When a truly born-again Christian stops attending church and begins to live as though he is not a believer, we may say that he has “backslidden”, because of the blatant disobedience to God that has become evident in his life style. And we would be accurate in saying that. But a backslidden person has not necessarily also denied Christ in his heart and thus revoked his salvation. Perhaps he has become, just for a season, a “carnal Christian,” and will soon begin living like a believer once again, having never denied Christ in his heart. Such a person would be like the one sheep who went astray out of 100 in the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-6); this one sheep still belonged to the man, even while he was astray for a while. Furthermore, we must not forget that even born-again believers still sin, and God has given us the remedy: confession with repentance (1 John 1:8-10).

Finally, there are several Scriptures that warn against “falling away”, and many people have taken them to imply that a born-again believer may, in fact, reject and abandon his saving faith and lose his salvation. At first glance, there may seem to be no other way to explain why such warnings appear in the New Testament.  But, in my view, those who reach such a conclusion are asking the wrong question. I doubt that anyone denies that the one who perseveres in the faith to “the end” will be saved.  The telling question, however, is “Who keeps him in the faith to the end, the saved person or the God who saved him? When one takes into account what the Bible teaches about how God draws unbelievers to Jesus to save them in the first place (John 6:44), a more biblically consistent and entirely plausible explanation then comes to light. As we know, God uses the preaching and teaching of the Gospel (including both the “bad news” about the wages of sin being an eternity of torment in hell and the “good news” about forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus Christ) to bring unbelievers to saving faith (Romans 10:14-15). That being so, why, then, would He not use similar preaching and teaching as helps to preserve their saving faith “to the end”? I submit that it should, therefore, come as no surprise that there are several Scriptures that warn against “falling away.” In fact, I would be surprised if the New Testament did not include such warnings.

(To read more of my articles on biblical topics, click HERE.)

God and Liesel

God and Liesel

James R. Aist

I will give thanks to You, O Lord, with my whole heart;
I will declare all Your marvelous works.
(Psalm 9:1)

The purpose of my writing this article is to give glory to God for “great things He has done” (1 Chronicles 17:19). It is an article about how God was at work in the life of my younger daughter, Liesel, as I know it. It is incomplete, of course, because I can only relate what I know of it first-hand. If you take the time to read it through, you will find that God was at work and revealed Himself in amazing ways to save her, and, in the end, to welcome her home to be with Him forever. I believe that you will find a blessing or two in it for yourself.

Liesel was a beautiful, musically talented, athletic, sweet and endearing little girl with a special sense of humor. I called her my “Lee-Lee Bell.” She had already professed her faith in Jesus at an early age, before she was 10 years old: in a Sunday School class, she told the teacher that she had accepted Jesus. Then, when Liesel was 10 years old, I had the precious opportunity to lead her in a prayer to receive Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Here’s what happened. Near the end of a sermon at church on a Sunday morning, Liesel leaned over and asked me, “When did you make your decision for Jesus?” I replied “When I was 8 years old.” “Is it too late for me to do it?” she asked. I replied, “No, you can do it any time before you die. Do you want to do it now?” After further discussion, we agreed that I would help her do it at home, after church. So, after we had lunch, I asked her if now was a good time, and she said it was. So, that’s when we prayed, and Liesel confirmed, by her profession of faith in Jesus, what God had been doing! And she said, “This is the biggest day of my life!” Unfortunately, in the ensuing years, as Liesel passed through her teens, she became unsure of her faith in Jesus. But, like the one sheep that had gone astray (Luke 15:3-6), Liesel belonged to Jesus, and God was not done with her.

The following encounter that I had with God is not only pertinent, but essential, to the rest of the story. I was attending the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International Men’s Advance at Lake George in upstate New York. One day when they were immersion baptizing in the lake, I stepped forward to be immersed by Pastor Don Yarborough. We had never met, and he knew nothing about me. As I approached him in the water, he just stared at me straight in the eye with a blank look, and kept staring. I thought to myself, “That’s strange; he doesn’t seem to even see me coming.” Finally, as I drew near to him, he reached out his hand to me, we shook hands and I introduced myself. Then he said that something very unusual had just happened; it had happened only once before in his ~20 years of baptizing people. He said that as I was approaching him in the water, he received a prophecy for me, in the form of several Bible passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. They all had to do with the head of the household being saved and all of his family with him. He then proceeded to share with me all five of those Bible verses. When he had finished with that, he gave me the interpretation of the message: God wants me to stand on and hold fast to these promises, which he is confirming to me and my children. Wow! Through this prophecy, God had just told me that all of my children will be saved! Needless to say, I was a “happy camper” the rest of that afternoon. But, I didn’t say anything to any of my children about this glorious promise at the time.

In August of 1996, Liesel had just turned 19, and it was time for her annual visit with me in Ithaca, NY, from her home in Norman, OK. As was my custom, I brought up the matter of her current position regarding her faith in Jesus, and we talked about that for a while. It was clear that she had a good understanding of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ was all about, but she said that she didn’t want to profess faith in Jesus again unless she was absolutely sure of it. I was OK with that. Now, I had not yet said anything to Liesel about God’s promise to save all of my children. Nevertheless, she looked at me and somehow knew to ask this amazing question: “Daddy, have you ever received any indication from God as to whether or not I will someday become a Christian?” Well, this question blew my mind. I was so overwhelmed by it that, for a few seconds, I was unable to respond. How did she even know to ask me such a thing at that time? I had to conclude that God must have given her that question, and so I haltingly, but eagerly, proceeded to tell her about God’s promise to save all of my children. When I finished, Liesel was visibly pleased and very encouraged by this good news. God had revealed in miraculous ways that He was going to finish the good work that He had begun in Liesel when she was a young child! That was one of the most amazing days of my life.

So, Liesel returned to Norman, and several months went by with just the usual “visits” by phone and e-mail; she did not reveal to me whether or not she had accepted Jesus (again). The only evidence I had at that point that God would save Liesel was His promise that He would save all of my children. Liesel was now 20 years old, and it was late April of 1997. That’s when I got a phone call from the hospital in Norman with the shocking news that Liesel had been struck by a car while walking across an intersection. She was in critical condition with little hope of surviving severe head injuries. She was in a coma, and we were told to get to the hospital as soon as possible. So, we flew to Norman fearing for her life and not having any tangible evidence that Liesel was, in fact, saved. That was the first day of what I refer to as the “week from hell.”

I will spare you the details of her death, but that week I lost my “Lee-Lee Bell.” However, I do want to share with you a spiritual experience I had in the hospital as she was dying. The first three days when we arrived at the hospital, we would go immediately into her room and pray for either her full recovery or no recovery; I could not even imagine how we could cope with her living year after year as, in effect, a vegetable. But the fourth day, something happened to me that I had not experienced before and have not experienced since: we entered her room as usual, and I immediately tried to pray for her as before, but I could not. I kept trying to pray, but something prevented me from even beginning to pray. So, I asked my wife, Janet, to come in and pray for me to be released from whatever was hindering me from praying, to no avail; I still was unable to pray this time. At first, I was confused and perplexed by this strange experience, but before long it dawned on me that, perhaps, the Holy Spirit would not let me pray for Liesel’s recovery this time because her spirit had departed her body since I last prayed. Her mother, Sheila, remarked that she also sensed that Liesel’s spirit was no longer present. That’s when I knew that I had received God’s answer to my prayers for recovery, a very final and heartbreaking “No.”

Next, I will share with you three independent testimonies that week that assured me that God did, indeed, save Liesel. The first of these three testimonies was shared with me in the hospital by her Christian co-worker, Rocky, who used to talk with her privately during work breaks and witnessed to her frequently about Jesus. Rocky told us that, not more than a couple of days before her accident, Liesel had confided in him that she does believe in Jesus. That was a very encouraging testimony, indeed! But, God did not leave it at that. At God’s direction, I testified at the funeral of Liesel’s faith in Jesus, based in part on Rocky’s account. Then, as we were driving to the cemetery after the funeral service, Liesel’s boy friend, Joe, who was riding in the seat behind me, spoke up and told me that, after hearing about Rocky’s testimony, he wanted to tell me that a friend of his (not Rocky) had told him 2-3 weeks earlier that Liesel said she believes in Jesus. Moreover, Joe had just found a letter that Liesel had recently written to Jesus asking Him to help her with a problem. (She would not pray for help to a God that she did not believe in!) Upon hearing that, I was ecstatic and knew full well that when Liesel died, she was believing in Jesus; I now had three independent and credible witnesses to that effect! God not only kept His promise to save Liesel, but He also provided me tangible evidences of it. To God be the glory for demonstrating that He was at work making good on His promise to save my children, by saving Liesel!

But, hang on, there are two glorious and powerful sequels to this story. The first sequel occurred during the first week after our return to Ithaca after burying my daughter. I was so stunned and emotionally numb from the events of the “week from hell” that I couldn’t even go to work. I just sat around in my recliner all day trying to process what had just happened. Now, I had never asked God why He had allowed anything bad that happened in my life, but this bad thing seemed too awful to cope with. So, one day as I sat in my recliner rehearsing the details of the past week, I began to wonder why God had not healed Liesel instead of calling her home. I was about to ask God “Why?” when suddenly the Holy Spirit stopped me from saying it. Then, God said to me, “You don’t need to know why, because you know Me well enough to know that I had a good reason.” I was astonished. On the one hand, I was pleased that God had brought me far enough with Him that I didn’t really need to know why. But on the other hand, I still wanted to know. I had a sense that God might reveal this to me as time went on, but so far, I have not heard a clear word from God about it. I can only rejoice in the knowledge that God called Liesel home when she was professing her faith in Jesus. And, that’s good enough for me!

And now, here’s the second sequel. Roughly two months after the “week from hell”, I received a letter from the mother of one of Liesel’s friends in Norman. She had been praying for the salvation of Liesel and her circle of friends for some years and was delighted to hear of Liesel’s salvation during my testimony at the funeral. But, she wanted me to know what happened as a result of my testimony about Liesel’s faith in Christ. Several of Liesel’s circle of friends had also gotten saved. Another repented and returned to church, becoming a Sunday School teacher. And, in his class, a separated married couple was reconciled. And that’s all in just a few months. Wow! I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to hear of this good news. It gave me a sense that at least Liesel’s sudden and tragic death had led to everlasting blessings for a number of her friends. Now, brace yourself for what came next. As I was basking in this truly amazing good news, God asked me a simple question: “If you had known that Liesel’s death would lead to the salvation of some of her friends, would you have been willing to give her up, so that the others would be saved?” Well, this question caught me up short. Lying about it was not an option, but the truth was painfully convicting: “No, I would not have been willing to give Liesel up for the others!” I replied sadly. Then God said, “Well, that’s exactly what I did for you, isn’t it?” (Please pause and let that sink in.) I have never felt more grateful to Jesus for paying the price for my sins than I did at that moment.

With time, I began to focus less on the loss of my daughter and more on the unspeakable blessing it was that she was with me for 20 years. And I am comforted to know for sure that when the time comes for me to go home to be with Jesus, I will find Liesel there to greet me (Matthew 10:32). That will be a glorious reunion, a time of celebration with “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:7-9).

(To read more of my articles with biblical themes, click HERE)