11 – Regarding Forever

I have presented my position so far by following (generally) along the line of argument that the Calvinist and Arminian theologians have followed when they try to explain their positions. In doing so, we have looked at mankind’s depravity, and how the lost man is self-centered (the essence of the sin- nature). We have looked at how God electing some to salvation is affected by the believer being transformed into Christlikeness, and in that state, being transformed to desire what Christ desires, namely, to seek and save the lost. We have considered how the believer can stand in the gap on behalf of the lost to intercede and become a means by which God can move to save them.

But what about the other parts of Calvinism? What about irresistible grace and the preservation of the saints? These points need to be considered. But they prompt more discussion than a simple “yes” or “no” regarding whether or not a saved person can later be lost. Let’s unpack the concepts a little first.

Regarding God’s grace being irresistible by the lost man, we may do well to recognize that a concern over whether or not someone can resist the grace of God is perhaps a wrong focus. My limited experience is that believers, not the non-believers, typically pose the argument about the ability of man to resist the grace of God. Ironically, the non-believers I speak to couldn’t seem to care less whether or not God’s grace is resistible. Palmer, however, seems to see it differently. He finds it is typically the non-believer who objects. Perhaps the reason someone like Palmer may get this argument from the non- believer is that as a Calvinist, he may introduce this concept of election to non-believers more frequently in conversation. But he makes an interesting point:

Whenever a non-Christian complains about the teaching of predestination…I would ask…what do you want. Are you sorry for your sins?

Do you trust in Christ as your Savior? Do you love God and want to go to heaven? If the reply is yes, then you should know that you are already a Christian. You have already believed. And “him that comes to me I will not drive away,” says Jesus. You have what you want.

If you say no to those questions, then I would ask, “Why do you complain? You have what you want. You do not want to repent, you do not want Christ, you do not want heaven. Well, you have exactly what you want.”33

Whether the objections to God’s workings in limited atonement and divine sovereignty are from the believer or the non-believer, one thing is still sure…both question God’s right to act in a way that doesn’t quite measure up to our human sense of what He should be like. If it is the believer who is concerned about it, then he should recognize the fact that no one who did “resist the grace of God” for salvation while on earth will be in eternal hell, all the while wishing he could be in the presence of God. For all the misery hell may entail, the one thing the unbeliever will cling to is his right to be wrong—his right to shake his fist in God’s face and say, “it is your fault I am here!” For all the misery of hell, the one place he will not want to be is forever stuck in the presence of a Holy God. (See, for instance, the attitude of the unbelievers in Rev. 16:11). Palmer agrees.

To put it the most blunt way possible…Nobody is in hell against his will…Hellions know that after death everybody goes either to heaven or hell. They do not like hell; otherwise it would not be hell…In hell there is only agony always…So hellions do not like being there. But what they hate worse than their agony is God…The last place they want to be is in heaven. They cannot stomach the idea of repenting for sins and loving God and others more than themselves. They do not want to be in hell, but when they know that the alternative to hell is to go to heaven with a pure heart, they would much rather stay in hell.34

I know from my personal conversations with others that my views about hell are controversial. It seems that most Christians I talk to believe that when Jesus speaks of those thrown into “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12) that the weeping will be because they will then see God in all His glory. And when they do, they will wish that they, too, could be in His presence and they have missed out.

I cannot accept this concept. When Moses was up in the mountain he wanted to see God in all His glory. God said that no one could see His face and live. So God hid Moses away in the cleft of a rock, covered Moses’ face and then passed by him so he could catch a momentary glimpse of God’s back. When Moses came down from the mountain, he reflected a lingering glory of God from just that momentary glance. The people recoiled from Moses’ presence, and he had to cover his face to prevent frightening them (Ex. 33:18- 23; 34:29-35; 2 Cor. 3:7).

When Peter realized who Jesus was for the first time, his reaction was to say, “depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:3-10). When Isaiah, a holy prophet of God, saw his vision of God, high and lifted up, and the train of His royal robes filling the temple, his reaction was to say, “Woe is me, for I am undone” (Isa. 6:1-5). He thought he was going to fall apart because of being exposed to God in all His glory. When the angel of the Lord appeared to people in the Old Testament, they were terrified. They were weakened. They thought they were coming apart. Notice, too, that their reaction of terror is not a reaction to God’s immensity, but to His holiness.

When, in eternity future, the unsaved multitudes will be exposed to God in all His glory, when their beings will be aware of the full reality of who He is and who they are, it will be a miserable experience, no matter where they are. For all the misery of hell, perhaps heaven would be an even more uncomfortable place for those in an unregenerate state for all eternity. I do not state it as a fact, but only pose it as a possibility: I wonder if hell may be God’s merciful alternative to heaven for those who would otherwise be in His presence, as untransformed sinners, face to face for all eternity.

For a believer to be upset about God hardening the unbeliever who will have this attitude in eternity shows a lack of understanding on the believer’s part. He does not recognize the true condition of his own heart, and the fact that he has truly been transformed—by grace alone. More importantly, the believer’s focus should not be on wondering why God hardened the unbeliever in the manner He did. Perhaps he should rather marvel at the fact that God chose to save any of us at all. Most importantly, the believer’s passion should be to call on God to intervene in a different manner on behalf of the unbeliever. Then God can sovereignly transform the sinner, bringing him to salvation in response to the prayers of the saints, narrowing the gap between His will and His desire.

As far as whether or not one who has once been saved can later be lost, I hesitate to make a pronouncement about my humble opinion on the subject with a simple “yes” or “no.” We could do well to recognize that the debate over eternal security also has a serious flaw, as it centers on man’s final state of well-being, rather than God’s glory.

Perhaps this is due, in part, to a lack of understanding of what we are really doing when we accept Christ as our Savior. We need to recognize that when we invite Christ into our lives and ask God to look at us as righteous because of what Christ did in our place, it is supposed to be about more than escaping hell. We easily recognize that we are not good enough to be saved on our own merits. We can even accept the fact, though we may not understand it exactly, that God is holy and sin cannot simply be overlooked on His part without a sacrifice. But most importantly, we need to see that we are approving of Christ’s death in our place. We are acknowledging that it is the appropriate thing for God to do. Richard Wermbrand, in his book, 100 Prison Meditations, spoke of a very compelling concept.

Suppose you were living 2,000 years ago in Palestine, that you were sinful, heavy with guilt, and Jesus told you, “Your sin is grave and deserves punishment. The wages of sin are death. But tomorrow I will be flogged and crowned with a crown of thorns for you—I invite you to assist them when they drive nails into my hands and feet and fix me to a cross. I will cry in anguish, and I will share the sorrow of my holy mother whose heart will be pierced by compassion for me as if by a sword. You should be there to hear my cries. And when I have died, you shall know that your sins are forgiven forever, that I was your substitute, your scapegoat. This is how a man gets saved. Will you accept my suffering for your offenses, or do you prefer to bear the punishment yourself?” What would you have answered? 35

Wermbrand suggests that people seeking to be saved should have this dilemma placed before them. I see tremendous merit in this idea. It is easy for sinners to miss this point when we tell them that Jesus died for their sins, and if they simply accept this as an intellectual fact, then they are forgiven too. We make it sound kind of like a package deal (sort of like a one-size-fits-all stretch-garment) and if we accept it then it means that what Jesus did two thousand years ago, suddenly, somehow, He now did for us, too. No extra charge.

And the fact of the matter is that in a sense, that’s really how it works. That is exactly the point of the chapter about Flatlander. My problem is not with the idea that if a man or woman believes on Christ, then somehow, suddenly, He did it for him or her, too. My issue is more with the stretch-garment mentality. It makes it sound so easy.

It’s true that salvation is a free gift, but only in the sense that there is nothing we can do to earn it. It wasn’t free on God’s end. It cost Jesus a lot.

The Father hungered for the fellowship of His creation. But it was broken. As much as sin separated us from God, it separated Him from us, too. As much as that was a problem for us because of the penalty of death, it was a problem for Him, too, because He wanted our fellowship, but our sin nature prevented it. It was a wedge between us. And allowing His son to die in our place was the only way for Him to fix that. His love for us drove Him to it.

And if our accepting Christ means that His death way back then applies to us now, then it also means that we are consenting now to the driving of the nails in His hands way back then. We are consenting to the crown of thorns and to the scourging. We are recognizing the necessity of Him dying in our place and being separated from the Father. And we have to understand that we’re consenting like we were there back then, and it will be taking place tomorrow. “This is how a man gets saved. Will you accept my suffering for your offences, or do you prefer to bear the punishment yourself?” God forbid that we could ever have a blatant indifference for the price Christ paid for us to have fellowship with the Father.

We need to focus on God’s purposes in salvation, not ours. After all, it was He that paid the price. From His perspective, salvation is a means of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth in the hearts of men, so as to glorify Him through their holy lives—at present, and not merely in eternity. It is not merely an escape from the penalty of hell, but a deliverance from its power and influence. Focusing on whether a man was saved and is now lost, or was never really saved in the first place, or is still truly saved, but living like a son of hell—concentrates attention on what the man’s final state will be—namely, whether he is in heaven or hell. But whether a man is saved or not, if he is living like a son of hell, then from what has he really been saved? From God’s perspective of salvation being a means by which He makes us holy so He can have constant, intimate fellowship with us, has there yet been a significant change? “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning…” (See 2 Peter 2:20- 22). “If any man builds…using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Cor. 3:12-13, NIV). “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28).

It is crucial to recognize that real salvation will produce real fruit. As J.H. Lord says,

There is another Gospel, too popular in the present day, which seems to exclude conviction of sin and repentance from the scheme of salvation, which demands from the sinner a mere intellectual assent to the fact of his guilt and sinfulness, and a like intellectual assent to the fact and sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, and such assent yielded, tells him to go in peace, and to be happy in the assurance that the Lord Jesus has made it all right between his soul and God; thus crying peace, peace, when there is no peace.

Flimsy and false conversions of this sort may be one reason why so many who assume the Christian profession dishonor God and bring reproach on the church by their inconsistent lives, and by their ultimate relapses into worldliness and sin. Sin must be felt before it can be mourned. Sinners must sorrow before they can be comforted.36

John MacArthur makes this same point in his book, The Gospel According to Jesus.

Unlike preachers today who avoid upsetting someone’s assurance, our Lord was determined to destroy the hope of all who falsely thought they were redeemed. He often challenged such people. He never encouraged someone who was unsure of salvation to ignore the doubts. His message stands in stark contrast to the gospel of today, which seems designed specifically to prop up false assurance. The pattern of modern evangelism is to take people through a formula, get them to pray a prayer, sign a card, or whatever, then tell them they are saved and should never doubt it. Such an approach to witnessing actually fights against the Holy Spirit, whose ministry is to bring both assurance to those who are saved (Rom. 8:16) and conviction to those who are not (John 16:8-9). God knows the difference; we do not.37

I want to be careful to make an important point here. I do not believe that we are saved by works. I cannot ever be good enough on my own merits to earn God’s favor, much less, could I ever keep myself saved by walking in good works. After all, it seems the closer I get to the light, the more the dirt shows. As it has often been said, even my tears of repentance are not acceptable to God until they are washed in the blood of the Lamb. But salvation without the evidence of real fruit is a very uncomfortable place for a Christian to be. I do believe that God loves us just as we are, but too much let us stay that way.

Doubts about one’s salvation can come. They may be the work of the Spirit (John 16:8-9), the work of demonic influence (Eph. 6:12-13), or the natural thought processes of the person’s mind. But this is not necessarily a good or a bad thing; it is just the human condition. Doubt only becomes a problem if it becomes the focus of our relationship with God. Our central focus must be to always look to Jesus. But Scripture does encourage the believer to examine his or her faith. As Paul says, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves. Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

Having said that, I do believe that as we mark the passing of time, there is a point in time when each one who has come to Christ has crossed a threshold. In that instant, they pass from death to life, and it is a sovereign act which cannot be undone (John 5:24; 6:51; 6:39-40). From that time forward, our sins are forever after seen as being placed on Christ for our sakes. God’s wrath is from that time forward satisfied, as far as that believer is concerned. He or she is seen from then on as righteous. This is an act that will not be undone (Rom. 8:29-29).

If I live my Christian life in fear of losing my salvation and worrying about my final state, then I have still missed the ultimate point for my salvation. We so often hear the gospel preached as though the primary purpose of salvation is to remove our guilt and shame, to free us from anxiety about the future, and the feelings of inadequacy, so that we can be happy and feel good about ourselves. But really, God’s primary purpose in saving us is to free us from dwelling on our state at all. He wants our focus to be centered in Him. His purpose in saving us is to satisfy His wrath against our sin and empower us for holiness, so that we can worship Him in this righteousness and enjoy His fellowship. All the other stuff—freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from anxiety and feelings of inadequacy and the like, are merely the pleasant by- products of becoming God-focused worshippers—they are by-products of being saved. God much prefers that we be preoccupied with seeking Him rather than keeping ourselves saved. He has already assured us that He will do that.

Ultimately, our sense of assurance of salvation is usually linked directly to our level of obedience.

Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth. We shall know by this that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us, for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. Whatever we ask we receive from Him because we keep His commandments and do those things which are pleasing in His sight (1 John 3:18-22).

In other words, our knowledge that we have come to a place that we are now saved is demonstrated when we persevere and do what we know is pleasing to God, whether we feel saved or not. We know that we were saved twenty years ago because we are still manifesting the fruit of it today. “And you…He has reconciled…to present you holy and blameless, and above reproach in His sight – if indeed you continue in the faith…” (Col. 1:21-22). “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us, but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us” (1 John 2:19). Also, “We have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end…” (Heb. 3:14).

We know we are saved because we do what God wants. We are joyful because He is pleased with what we do in His strength. When we sin and fall short of the glory of God, we are disappointed in ourselves because we know we have grieved the heart of the one who loves us so very much. Until we see salvation, not primarily as a means to escape the penalty of hell, but as a means to rise above its power and sway to the glory and pleasure of God, we miss the entire point.

In the end, I believe that one day, whether we stand as believers in heaven before our Savior, or in hell, eternally separated from Him, we will all recognize that this is the supreme difference between heaven and hell: God will be in heaven, and He won’t be in hell. This is just a natural culmination of the progression of our Christian experience even as we know it now on earth. Even if the non-believer has everything he could ever want, he is yet still miserable. The more he attains of all the worldly things that he believes will make him happy, the more he becomes more and more miserable as he becomes more and more self-indulgent and empty. But for all our suffering here as Christians, when we know that Jesus is with us in the midst of our trials and sufferings, we then rejoice because our weakness shows us more clearly His strength and love for us. Or, as C.S. Lewis so aptly put it:

Ye cannot in your present state understand eternity. …Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn [every] agony into a glory…and of [sinners] damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of [every] sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of heaven; the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises [in heaven] and the twilight turns to blackness [in hell], the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in heaven,” and the lost, “We were always in hell.” And both will speak truly.38

>>> Next: Chapter 12