Thursday, March 31, 2011

Response to Tobe Witmer of Lighthouse Baptist Church - October 17, 2010 - on Eternal Security

I've been following with great interest the development of Pastor Witmer's study of the book of Romans, and while there will be more to say about various other sermons, I thought I'd first comment on this sermon on the second part of Romans 11.  Even though this commentary will be critical in nature, please understand that I think there are many good things in this and other sermons that Pastor Witmer says.  I think Pastor Witmer does a good job unpacking the meaning of these complicated verses, which involve God's plan for opening salvation to the Gentiles.

What is very interesting about these verses to me as a Catholic Christian is that they make a statement about the possibility of losing one's salvation.  Since a tiny percentage of Christians (including Pastor Witmer) believe that it is impossible to lose one's salvation, I was curious to see how Pastor Witmer would interpret Romans 11:17-24, which explains (emphases mine):
17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!
Before looking at Pastor Witmer's interpretation, let me lay some groundwork.

First, the question that we need to focus on is this: is it possible for a born-again Christian to lose their salvation?

Pastor Witmer agrees with the Catholic Church that the following two categories exist: 1) some people get saved and finally enter heaven, and 2) some people never get saved and do not enter heaven.

The question about eternal security is essentially this:  is there a third category of people who get saved but do NOT make it to heaven?  Again, is it possible to lose one's salvation?

Since this is my blog, I'm going to take the liberty of answering this question:  Yes, it is possible for a person to be saved and then later lose their salvation.  This is exactly what the verses above from Romans tell us!  After all, the very point of the olive tree analogy is that one group of people who was part of the tree has been cut off.  After all, how can you be cut off from something that you are not already part of?  Likewise, God's kindness is shown by his grafting the gentiles into the tree (just like Pastor Witmer explains), but God's severity is due to the fact that he will also cut people out of the tree.  Why will he do this?  Because of their unbelief, the same reason some Jews were cut off from the tree.  Further still, God even claims the ability to graft people back into the tree even after he has cut them off.

All of this is straight out of Romans 11:17-24.  I'm not so much interpreting the verses as simply restating what they are saying.  These verses don't just argue that the third category of people (saved but lose their salvation) exist; it assumes it!

However, the Protestant doctrine of Eternal Security denies that this third category exists.  So, let's follow St. Paul's command to "test everything, holding onto what is good" and see if Pastor Witmer's interpretation of these verses holds water.

Before doing so, please note well: Catholics have a moral assurance of salvation.  Catholics believe, as do good Baptist fundamentalists, that God will never take back his gift of salvation.  Catholics believe that no power or principality can rob us of our salvation.  Our salvation is a free gift of grace given to us by God through Jesus Christ, and God is not an Indian giver.  He will not throw us or allow anyone to take us out of his hand.

HOWEVER, the Bible teaches that we may choose to reject the gift.  WE may choose to send the gift back.  WE may choose to reject God and take ourselves out of his hand.  We choose to do this when we embrace serious sins, those whose partakers, according to St. Paul, will not enter heaven.  This is important to note, because there is a difference between knowing that God will not renege on us (our moral assurance of salvation) and knowing that we will never renege on God (which some saved people do by rejecting their salvation and turning to a life of sin).  Sometimes, people try to claim that we are eternally secure because God won't withdraw his gift of salvation, but his argument doesn't address the possibility that we can reject the gift of salvation.  Just like Romans teaches, if we have been grafted into the tree, but then later lead a life of unbelief, we will be cut off.

Okay, on to Pastor Witmer's interpretation of Romans 11.   The video clips below are all set up to start at the time point designated, though you will want to stop the video at the end of the notated time span (which is where the following video will begin).

Clip No. 1 (7:32-9:45)

Pastor Witmer first reads the Scriptures and then prays.  Next, Pastor Witmer returns to Romans to begin explaining how it can not mean that saved people can lose their salvation.

Notice that Pastor Witmer admits that these are difficult verses.  He claims to read the Bible literally, but in this case, it is the literal meaning of the words that Pastor Witmer somehow needs to explain away.  In other words, this would be a passage that Pastor Witmer does not want to read literally.

To create an interpretive framework that will allow Pastor Witmer to escape the literally meaning of this passage, he invokes rapture theology.  He does this, even though this passage has nothing to do with the end of time.  Rather, this passage is directly addressed to first-century Gentiles living in Rome.  He is explaining to them how God has incorporated them into his plan of salvation history while simultaneously warning them not to fall into unbelief themselves, lest they be cut off.

We'll see shortly the application Pastor Witmer wants to make of the rapture context.

Clip No. 2 (9:45-10:11)

Here, Pastor Witmer makes an important and correct interpretive point: that what is true for a group is also true for an individual.  (Note well: the Bible tends to speak of salvation much more in corporeal terms than individual terms.  God wants to save entire families, and in the book of Acts at Peter's first sermon, he proclaims that "the promise is to you and your children," invoking the language that God used when making the covenant with Abraham.)  But indeed, anything that applies to the family does apply to individuals as well.

Clip No. 3 (10:11-12:55)

So, if these verses apply to the individual, what does God's severity mean?  Here is where Pastor Witmer's interpretation starts to break down, and even contradict itself.  In this clip, Pastor begin developing the idea that God is severe and harsh in how he deals with sin and unbelief.  But then notice...

Clip No. 4 (12:55-13:24)

...Pastor Witmer first applies the idea of the severity of God to "backslidden Christians."  And how does Pastor Witmer frame God's severity to those who have not lived their faith for fifteen years?  He will "discipline them."

Notice, whereas Romans says that those who live in unbelief will be "cut off," Pastor Witmer says that they will simply be disciplined.  This is ambiguous, because it is possible to be disciplined but not cut off from the olive tree, which is salvation.  So, here Pastor Witmer starts to depart from the true harshness depicted in Romans 11.

Why does Pastor soften what Romans 11 is actually saying?  Because he is working under the two-category system.  If a person is saved, then they can't lose their salvation or be cut off.  Thus, a saved person who persists in unbelief will not lose their salvation, but simply be "disciplined."  Unfortunately, Pastor Witmer doesn't give any clear indication about how far one can backslide and still be considered a saved Christian who has not lost their salvation.  (Keep this point in mind when Pastor Witmer returns to the unfortunate case of Dan Silverman.)

So, here, Pastor Witmer interprets "severity" as "discipline," not as "cut off."

Clip No. 5 (13:24-14:00)

Here, we get a second interpretation of God's severity.  Pastor Witmer reinvokes the rapture to make this claim: once the rapture occurs, it will be too late for everyone who hasn't yet been saved.

So, here we get a second, different understanding of God's severity.  It is the harsh reality of having missed the boat.  And this is not even a pun!  Pastor Witmer then illustrates his point by citing Noah's ark.  When the flood came, God's severity came with a door slammed closed.  The people who were not able to get on the ark were not saved.  (1 Pet. 3:21 relates the story of the Ark to Christian salvation.)

Here, Pastor Witmer is interpreting God's severity according to the second category, those who were never saved to begin with, and thus are lost.  For this category, God's severity is seen as the harshness of a sudden end, be it the flood (for the OT people) or the Rapture (for NT people).

Pastor Witmer's next illustration is brought close to home in the next clip.

Clip No. 6 (14:00-14:25)

Here, Pastor Witmer claims that there are congregants present who, though "members" of LBC, are still saying "no" to salvation.  He is concerned for these people, since God's severity could mean that they ultimately lose the chance to be saved.

And finally, Pastor Witmer summarizes what he means by this second definition of God's severity:

Clip No. 7 (14:25-end of part 1 of 3)

Here, Pastor Witmer defines God's severity as being "cut off from the opportunity" to be saved, either by flood or death or rapture.  The door is shut; you have been cut off!

Now let's pause for a minute.  "Cut off" is the exact same language Paul used in Romans.  But is this what Paul meant by "cut off"?

Notice, Paul is talking about people who have first been grafted into salvation!  It is these people who, according to Paul, risk being cut off by turning back to a life of unbelief.  They only way people can be grafted into salvation is through faith, so Romans isn't talking about people who never believed at all.  No - Romans is talking about those Gentiles who have been grafted in.

Pastor Witmer's interpretation is in real trouble already, because he wants to see God's severity in two different ways: either as a discipline that does not really cut people off, or as losing the opportunity to be grafted into salvation in the first place, in which case it is impossible to be cut off.

Remember, being cut off from an "opportunity" is not what Romans 11 is talking about!!  The Jews didn't lose their opportunity to be saved.  No, the Jews were God's chosen people, his covenant family, and they were "cut off" from really being saved!!

So, Pastor Witmer's first two interpretations don't somehow apply the clear Scriptural meaning of Romans 11.  They, in fact, deny clear Scriptural meaning of Romans 11.

To Pastor Witmer's credit, he seems to acknowledge that he hasn't really adequately addressed Romans 11 because he returns to the very question he just answered: what could Romans 11:22 possibly mean?

Clip No. 8 (0:22-2:55)

Pastor Witmer returns to apply the language of Romans 11 to the situation of the saved Christians at LBC by stating how severe it is for God to have cut off the Jews but how great and loving it is to have been saved.  Again, the problem for Pastor Witmer is that Romans says that God will be severe with those that he has loved.  God will be severe with saved Christians by cutting them off.

(Remember: God doesn't take back the gift, but God does allow us to reject Him.  When we reject God and the gift of salvation, God's severity kicks in.  This is critical to understand: God's severity is actually letting us have our way!  God's severity is letting his children go when they want to.  Like the prodigal son, we choose to be cut off, and we become "dead" to God.  Even though God is perfectly merciful and loving, he is also perfectly just; it is the justice of God that cuts us off when we reject Him through sin and unbelief.  The good news, of course, is that God will forgive our sins if we repent and graft us back in!)

Clip No. 9 (2:55-3:09)

This is an important point:  Pastor Witmer explicitly claims that he is "glad to be grafted in."  In other words, Pastor Witmer is clearly aware that being "grafted in" means being "saved."

So, the question, then, is this:  if Pastor Witmer is grafted in/saved, is it possible for him to be cut off from salvation?  Romans 11 clearly says yes, since the Gentiles who were grafted in to salvation could be cut off, and remember: what ever applies to the group also applies to the individuals!

Clip No. 10 (3:09-4:37)

Here is where the uncomfortable interpretive dance begins.  For the doctrine of Eternal Security to be true, Pastor Witmer has to deny that people could be cut off from salvation (the third category, where saved people lose their salvation).

Notice what Pastor Witmer says:
1.  "Uh oh, I don't like that..."  With these words, Pastor Witmer is clearly acknowledging at least an apparent tension between what these words literally say and his theology.

2.  So, the very first thing he does is to turn away from the passage and turn to his theology of Eternal Security:  "We know the goodness of salvation can not be taken back from us.  If you skip to v. 29, we read that "the gifts and the callings of God are without repentance" (I think he meant to say "are irrevocable.")

Here is where it is important to recall the point made above: that God will never revoke the gift, but we may reject it through our sin and unbelief.

Pastor Witmer tries to deny the clear meaning of v. 22 (that Christians could be cut off from salvation) by saying that God would not revoke his gifts and callings.  But this is not what causes people to lose their salvation!  God didn't stop calling the Jews - they stopped following him!  God doesn't take back the gifts from Gentile Christians, but that doesn't mean that they can reject the gifts that they once accepted, and hence be cut off!

The error Pastor Witmer is making is what logicians call a "red herring."  A red herring is an argument that distracts you from the issue at hand.  Neither St. Paul nor I am claiming that God will withdraw the gift of salvation when we sin.  Never!  What St. Paul and I are saying is that when we sin, we reject the gift of God's salvation!  Thus, we are cut off from salvation through our unbelief (each sin is a miniature act of atheism, though "not all sin leads to death" as John tells us).

St. Paul repeatedly warns Christians that adulterers, fornicators, sorcerers, etc. will not inherit the kingdom of God.  He never once says that "saved adulterers," "saved fornicators," etc. don't risk losing salvation and will merely be "disciplined." 

Anyway, to get back on track, the central question is: is it possible to be saved an lose our salvation?

Pastor Witmer just claimed that these verses couldn't mean that because we just know that eternal security exists.

Then, he goes on to list other verses (Heb. 12:15, 6:6, 3:12; 1 Tim. 1:19) which also show that Christians can lose their salvation.  He speaks of these verses as "places that talk like this."  (Ask yourself, is Pastor Witmer treating these God-breathed verses with the same respect and awe that he treats verses that support his theology?  I don't think so...  He almost seems to wish that these verses didn't exist...)  After reading these verses, he quips, "well, that doesn't look so good."  "I don't like that, that "departing" thing."  "I don't like that all, I don't like verses like that.  I'd rather just turn the page."  (!!!)

Clip No. 11 (4:34-5:34)

Pastor Witmer here admits that he doesn't even like looking at those verses.  He'd rather just turn the page.

You know what is amazing to me as a Catholic?  If Pastor Witmer were to hear a Catholic sermon where the priest read, say, Eph. 2:8 ("For by grace you have been saved through faith...") and then said, "I don't like verses like that; I'd rather just turn the page," can you even imagine the field day he would have with that priest??

Yet, whereas I have never once in my life heard a priest disparage any single verse of Scripture, here we have Pastor Witmer claiming that these verses make him very uncomfortable, that he doesn't like what they literally say, and that he would rather just turn the page.

Now, in all fairness, Pastor Witmer is most likely using figures of speech to communicate a deeper point.  (I am graciously assuming that Pastor Witmer does in fact love and embrace these passages as much as he does any other in the Bible.)

But whatever point he might hope to make, Pastor Witmer is acknowledging that these passages, taken in their plain literal sense, contradict his two-category system that undergirds the doctrine of eternal security.  They contradict eternal security by claiming that Christians can be cut off and that their faith can be shipwrecked.

I hope your warning flags are flying high...

Pastor Witmer then asks, "what do these verses mean if they don't mean losing your salvation?"

This is a critical, interpretive question.  Notice how Pastor Witmer frames the question.  He doesn't simply approach these verses with an open mind ("What do these verses mean?").  Rather, he puts them (and thus God) in the box of his pre-conceived theology of Eternal Security.  He presumes the doctrine of Eternal Security and then asks "what do these verses mean if they don't mean losing your salvation?"  The only problem is, Pastor Witmer really hasn't grappled with the verse itself yet, so how could he already know what they don't mean?  This is a clear example of Biblical "eisegesis," the act of misreading a text by reading a preconceived interpretation onto it.  In other words, Pastor Witmer is first stating his theology, then stating what the text couldn't mean, and only then dealing with the text. 

As the interpretation begins, notice that Pastor Witmer suddenly introduces a new idea, that he calls the "flip side of eternal security."  He explains, "Eternal Security is God's side where he keeps us."

NB: this is extremely close to the Catholic position!!!  Remember, Catholics have a moral assurance of salvation, which is that God will always keep us in his hands.  We add on to the point to add: "...unless we choose to reject him and jump out of his hands by our own act of will."  (You see why so many Baptists actually have to deny free will, even though they don't talk about this much.)

So, I would actually agree (with that one clarification) with Pastor Witmer here.  We are Eternally Secure in this sense.

But remember the key question:  are we able to lose our salvation (by rejecting God, despite his desire to keep us)?

Pastor Witmer continues: "On our side of this thing, if a man is truly saved, he will continue, or persevere, in following Jesus Christ or the ways of Jesus Christ until the day he dies."

Notice that Pastor Witmer is here, once again, reasserting the two-category system.  If a man is saved, he will persevere to the end.  Pastor Witmer is not actually interpreting Scripture.  He hasn't really addressed Romans 11 yet.  He has simply read Romans 11, acknowledged that it seems to contradict Eternal Security, and is now simply reasserting Eternal Security.  If a person is saved, God will keep them and they will persevere.

Again, this is a red herring.  No one denies that there are people out there who become saved and persevere to the end.  The question is: what about those people the Bible talks about who are grafted in and later cut off?  In reasserting Eternal Security, Pastor Witmer is effectively ignoring and denying--not addressing--the clear literal meaning of Romans 11.

He continues:  "and if they do depart from the Lord, they did not have Christ. They are these verses.  They are failing of the grace of God, they are cut off from what they apparently had." (emphasis mine.)

Let's listen carefully as he continues.

Clip No. 12 (5:34-6:10)

Pastor Witmer's entire interpretation hinges on the word "apparently."

He is claiming that if a Christian falls away from the grace of God and shipwrecks his faith, then he was never saved to begin with.  He was only "apparently" saved.

The problem with this interpretation is that it directly contradicts Romans 11.  In Romans 11, the Jews were not "apparently" grafted onto the olive tree and then cut off.  No!!  The whole purpose of the passage is to say the Jews were the cultivated Olive tree, but they were later cut off.  Then, Paul uses this to say what has happened to the Gentiles, who were really (not "apparently") grafted in as a wild shoot into salvation, but could also really be cut off from salvation if they fell back into unbelief.

Because Pastor Witmer's theology doesn't allow him the third category of people who are saved but then lose their salvation, he is forced to fit Romans 11 into a box that it doesn't fit.

Can you see this?

Do you see how Pastor Witmer is denying the clear meaning of Romans 11 (and the other verses he cited) with the novel doctrine (not believed by Christians until relatively recently) of Eternal Security?

Romans 11 is illustrating people who were really saved be really cut off.  Pastor Witmer is saying they must have only be apparently saved, but were really unbelievers all along (even though God constantly calls the nation of Israel his covenant family).  Thus, Pastor Witmer's theology verges on calling God a liar.  (NB: his theology, not him, is doing this.)  In other words, what God proclaims is true, and all through the Old Testament, God proclaimed the nation of Israel to be his covenant family.  Yet, Pastor Witmer's theology would insist that since the Jews were "cut off," they could not actually have been part of the covenant family to begin with.  Thus, God was proclaiming something to be true that he would have known was not true.  Applying Eternal Security to Romans 11 effectively makes God a liar.

Pastor Witmer goes on to say that if we are saved "we are under Christ's goodness," and if we were never saved, we are "surely cut off...whatever they professed in their life."  But again, Romans 11 is talking about people who were saved and then cut off, not people who were not saved to begin with.  Romans 11 applies "cut off" not to people who weren't ever grafted in to begin with, but to people who have been grafted in, just like the Jews were grafted in.  It doesn't take advanced degrees in theology to get this!

When Pastor Witmer finished by saying "whatever they professed in their life," he seems to be in deep contradiction with the very message of eternal security, which is that if we profess Christ as our Lord and Savior, we will be saved.  Here, he makes the broad statement that "whatever we profess" will not save us if later in our lives we fall into sin.  Which is it?  If we profess Christ, will we be eternally secure or won't we?  What Pastor Witmer is failing to acknowledge is that Christ could save someone who accepts him as savior (grafting him into the tree) and later cut him off (if he falls into unbelief).

Remember: no one is denying categories no. 1 (people who are saved and make it to heaven) and no. 2 (unsaved and lost).  There are people that fall into these two categories.  The question is: is it possible for someone to be saved (grafted in) and then cut off (losing salvation).  Romans 11 says YES!  Romans 11 can not be dodged by just putting on blinders and focusing on categories 1 and 2.  Category 3, according to Romans 11, also exists!  (There is no argument that says, "Categories 1 and 2 exist; therefore, category 3 does not.  This would be like arguing, "Dogs and cats exist; therefore, rabbits do not.")

Clip No. 13 (6:10 and following)

It should be pretty clear to the reader by now that Pastor Witmer is contradicting Romans 11, since Romans 11 makes it clear that the people cut off were previously part of the olive tree of God's saved covenant family.

Pastor Witmer keeps saying that a Christian who falls away was never saved, thereby denying the very meaning of "cut off" found in Romans 11.


To close, please prayerfully consider the following:

1.  If Pastor Witmer is correct about Dan Silverman, then there is also no way to know if Pastor Witmer himself is even saved, since none of us know if Pastor Witmer won't one day fall into sin and unbelief.  And if Pastor Witmer is possibly not saved, then the congregants should be even more vigilant as they listen to his interpretations of Scripture, which might not be inspired by a Holy Spirit that is not dwelling in him.

2.  Even if you believe in Eternal Security (and believe that one day you will go to heaven), you actually have no way of knowing if you yourself really are saved at this very moment, since you do not yet know if you will persevere to the end.  Eternal Security, turns out, provides no sense of security at all, because it is based more on our persevering than on God's promises.

3.  I hope you can begin to see that Eternal Security tends toward either despair or presumption--despair if you begin to think that you can not know whether you will make it to heaven, or presumption if you believe that no matter how much you turn from God, you will still spend eternity in heaven.  Mark Shea beautifully makes these points in this short essay.  Note: both despair and presumption are sins against the theological virtue of hope.  For two thousand years, the family of God has believed that we can hope for heaven, and we place our trust in Christ and his promises to save us, so long as we remain faithful.

4.  Pastor Witmer claims in this sermon that there are hundreds of verses that support Eternal Security.  This, in fact, is not true; there are only a handful of verses that proponents of this doctrine routinely cite to support their position.  Actually, there are almost a hundred verses that show that Christians can lose their salvation. 

5.  The verses in the Bible that seem to indicate eternal security are often misinterpreted due to a failure to understand or account for the Greek verb tense.  In the vast majority of these verses, the "present linear" tense is used, meaning that if we "continue to profess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord, we will be saved."  Present linear tenses describe an ongoing action, not a one-time event.  You have to continue professing Jesus; you have to continue believing in him (John 3:16).  That is why so many verses treat salvation as conditional; we must persevere to the end to be saved.  So, don't be duped by a proof-text that seems to imply eternal security.  Check out the verb tense, and you will see that the verse says something in Greek that is quite different from what it appears to say in English. (This is easy to do.  Just Google "John 6:37 greek verb tense," or something similar for another verse.)

I provide the verses against eternal security and a rebuttal of the verses used for it in this tract.

May the peace of Christ be with you, and may your mind and heart be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Lord, make us one as you and the Father are one! (John 17)


Anonymous said...

While I appreciate the point of the article, it needs to be clarified that the constant use of "Protistant Doctrine" is not correct. There are many Protistant denominations that do not believe in the doctrine of eternal security. Calvanist denominations do strictly follow this belief and it would be more accurate to point the Five Points Calvanists out rather than the Protestants.

Ready said...

Thanks for that comment, Anonymous. I'll try to be more careful in later essays to identify the various denominational camps within Protestantism that hold the view I am discussing. At the same time, I tend to view Protestantism as inclusive of many different denominations and interpretations, even if these are contradictory or not believed by all. Put another way, if we were to reduce "Protestantism" down to the beliefs shared by all Bible-alone Christians, the list would be exceedingly short, thus rendering the term "Protestant" itself to be useless.

So, I'm very likely to continue to referring to certain doctrines as Protestant in the sense that they are believed by some Protestants. And, if you are as bothered by the denominationalism that gives rise to this semantic problem to begin with, I pray you will keep reading and commenting, and ultimately join me in working to achieve, through God's abundant grace, greater unity between Christians of every stripe!

God bless,