A few thoughts on Robert Gagnon’s assertions regarding the loss of salvation.
Over the past week or so Dr. Robert Gagnon has posted a series of articles targeting, as he himself has put it, the idea of antinomianism. To quote him directly:
If you believe that the new covenant makes it possible (albeit not preferable) to live a sin-controlled life without fear of not inheriting God’s kingdom, consider yourself a purveyor of the heresy of antinomianism.
Of course all Reformed believers can join in condemning antinomianism, easy believism, the anti-Lordship movement, etc. and etc. But Dr. Gagnon has made it clear that he is likewise denying the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This has caused some confusion for some folks for the reason that Dr. Gagnon was, for many years, teaching for a PCUSA institution, and hence would be, in a broad sense, associated with the Reformed wing of theology.
However, I am a graduate of Fuller Seminary, and back in the 1980s I had PCUSA professors who were far, far to my left. The denomination moved that way long ago. In reading Dr. Gagnon’s materials over the years I have been well aware of the fact that I am well to his right in particular upon views of Scripture, and specifically, the topic of inerrancy. I learned in those years to appreciate the good in those to your left without having to absorb the rest, and have followed that path down through my ministry. I can appreciate the good someone writes without agreeing with some of the comments made in passing regarding alleged errors in Scripture or the like.
Now, when it comes to the topic of the perseverance of the saints, this is the final conclusion of a chain of biblical teachings that focus our attention not upon the believer, but upon the God who is glorifying Himself in the salvation of His elect people. The majority of “Once Saved Always Saved” folks (OSAS) are not Reformed and hence can hold to a very shallow, obviously unbiblical concept of “getting one’s ticket punched” and heading off to heaven without any thought as to one’s holiness or anything else. But the Reformed belief in the doctrine is based upon the consistency of the Triune Godhead in redemption: based in the decree in eternity, the work of the Son in time, the power of the Spirit in bringing that decree, which includes a fixed number of the elect, to perfect salvation. The Son never fails to do the will of the Father, and the Son has the power and ability to fulfill the will of the Father, in conjunction with the Spirit. Since it is the purpose of God to sanctify, make holy, His people, to conform them to the image of Christ, the concern expressed by Dr. Gagnon about antinomianism is not relevant to the Reformed belief. Saving faith is the gift of God give to His elect, and that is why it will not fail.
Now it does not seem that Dr. Gagnon holds to a particularly strongly formulated Reformed soteriology. Whether he did in the past or not I honestly do not know, nor do I know his past seminary’s stance on the WCF and adherence thereto. His current school is surely not Reformed by any stretch of the imagination.
All of that simply to say that I can understand why some folks have been a bit surprised, having assumed certain things from the past without recognizing the wide variety of viewpoints and positions expressed especially within the PCUSA on subjects such as these.
In any case, I especially wanted to interact with the posting on a text that truly does, without any doubt, express plainly the reality that a person who is regenerated by the Spirit of God as one of God’s elect, united with Christ, sealed with the Spirit, a recipient of the imputed righteousness of Christ, cannot be lost, not because that person is superior to others, etc., but solely because the One who has saved Him will be obedient to the Father, and the Father’s will is that none of those so given will be lost: John 6:39.
Having written on this passage a number of times I will not offer much more than a summary: In explaining the unbelief of the men in the synagogue at Capernaum Jesus asserts that “all that the Father gives Me will come to Me” (v. 37). This is direct and unadulterated sovereignty in the context of soteriology and faith, for it is spoken directly after saying that the men seeking signs “do not believe.” The assertion is expansive: all. All who? Those given by the Father. The Father is sovereign over the giving of individuals to the Son. To whom will they come? To the Son, and the Son alone (divine exclusivity). The result? The one who comes to Me the Son will never, ever cast out. Strong denial of even the possibility of the Son ever casting out one of those given Him by the Father who comes to Him in faith. Please note, of course, that it is not the faith of the believer that causes him to be given to the Son, but just the opposite: the believer comes because he has been given.
Why would the Son never cast out one who comes to Him? Now here we must be careful. Throughout this text the emphasis is definitely upon coming, believing, looking, eating—all ongoing actions, not punctiliar, one-time things. But Jesus does not allow the emphasis to shift to the performance, or even “on-going faithfulness” of those given Him by the Father. The focus is upon Him as the perfect Savior, with the result that those who are drawn by the Father to the Son continue looking, continue believing, continue trusting. But the reason none are ever cast out is laid out here with clarity: the Son will always do the will of the Father. The Father’s will for the Son is that he lose NOTHING of that which has been entrusted to Him, sovereignly, but instead, “raise it up at the last day.” He does this because it is the Father’s will, and He is capable—He has the power and ability—to fulfill the Father’s will. This is a tremendous assertion of the Savior’s power to save.
So when we follow the flow of the text we see the sovereignty of the Father in entrusting a people to the Son, and the Son’s ability to save those who are thusly given. Why does anyone come to the Son? Because he has been drawn (v. 44), enabled (v. 65), taught by God (v. 45).
It is common for synergists to confuse the order of the text, jumping over 37-39 to v. 40, and then reading what they think they find in that text back into the preceding materials. But this is backwards. The reason anyone beholds or believes in the Son is not because of a common capacity or ability to do so, but instead is descriptive of the work by which the Father draws men and women to the Son. If one is beholding the Son and believing in Him (on-going actions, not merely punctiliar, one-time events), they are doing so because of the divine initiative in election, not the other way around.
So John 6:39 teaches that one who is given by the Father to the Son cannot possibly be lost. How else can “of all that He has given Me I lose nothing” be understood? This assumes the Father has the right to sovereignly elect unto salvation a particular people (remember, this is all in the same context of explaining the unbelief of the men in the synagogue), and the Son has the capacity and ability to raise them up to eternal life. This is born out in the rest of the chapter, but, as I said, I have written entire books on this text, spent hundreds of hours analyzing it from many different angles over the decades on the Dividing Line, so we will move to an analysis of Dr. Gagnon’s comments.
Here are Dr. Gagnon’s words:
John 6:39 is one of the main proof texts used to promote a doctrine of eternal security. Taken in isolation it seems to demonstrate just that: “This is the will of the One who sent me, that everything that he has given me I will not lose from it (i.e., that I will not lose anything of what he has given me), but I will raise it up on the last day.”
In the context of the whole of John’s Gospel, however, it does not prove eternal security. It demonstrates what Jesus reiterates in the very next verse, “that everyone who is seeing the Son and believing in him has eternal life, and I (Jesus) will raise him up on the last day.” But the “believing in him” is not the one-time act that many promoters of eternal security make it out to be; rather it is a continuous state of being that must persist for the whole of one’s Christian life (a view of faith that agrees with Paul’s own: Gal 2:19-20; 1 Cor 15:1-2; Rom 1:17; etc.).
Now, please note that the only position Dr. Gagnon even considers is that of OSAS, which we all agree is in error. But what about the position Reformed writers have laid out? What of the immediate context of this passage itself, John 6:36-39? Rather than tracing the narrative and argument forward, from the unbelief of the Jews to the sovereignty of the Father to the obedience and ability of the Son, Gagnon does as Norm Geisler did: he finds the key not in what came before, but in a particular reading of what comes after, and even then, in reading what comes after in light of a modern error. Dr. Gagnon does not comment on the parallel: the θέλημα of the Father for the Son is for the Son to lose none of those who are given to Him; the θέλημα of Jesus’ Father is still about Jesus’ actions, not ours, that is, that Jesus raise to eternal life all those beholding the Son and believing in Him. Synergists will assert beholding and believing are human actions that cooperate with God’s grace; monergists insist they are human actions resultant from the work of God in drawing by the Father to the Son. The text indicates the latter.
Those who do not persist in faith by failing to bear fruit (i.e., to live a transformed life) are presented in John 15:1-17 as being like branches that are cut off from the Vine (Christ) and thrown into the fire to be destroyed. Only those who persist in faith show themselves to be “given” to Christ by God and not lost by Jesus — not “lost” in the sense of failing to be raised up on the last day.
Please note that Jesus does not in this text even begin to raise the issue of fruit-bearing vs. non-fruit bearing (the difference between false discipleship and true). This is outside the context of John 6, and, in fact, removes the focus that Jesus insists upon maintaining. Note that immediately after these words Jesus responds to the Jewish grumbling by insisting that no one can come to Him unless the Father who sent Him draws him, and that Jesus will draw every single one of those thusly drawn to eternal life. The emphasis and direction has not been changed to fruit bearing or anything of the kind. While continuation in faith, bearing fruit, etc., are all vitally important truths, they flow from the divine actions of Father, Son, and Spirit. They do not determine whether Father, Son and Spirit will be successful in accomplishing the divine decree.
Those who persist in faith, which is shown by bearing fruit, Jesus will not lose but will raise up on the last day.
But this is the reverse of the text’s order: those who persist in faith do so because they have been given by the Father to the Son and hence will not be lost. The reason they will not be lost is not their performance, it is the will of the Father and the Son. This is the difference between monergism and synergism, between God-centeredness and man-centeredness.
Losing refers to not resurrecting those who persist in faith (not those who at one time in their life had faith in Christ). Jesus is assuring his followers that if they continue in faith he will resurrect them in the Kingdom to come. He is not assuring them that a one-time act of faith gives them an irrevocable ticket to the Kingdom.
There is much that is problematic here. Jesus is assuring His followers that He is a perfect and capable Savior, the Bread of life, the living water, and that their being raised up to eternal life is based upon His faithfulness, not theirs. Their looking, receiving, believing, etc., is the result of God’s actions, not the ground thereof. I will be resurrected because it is the Father’s will for the Son; my faith is subservient, and a part of the result of that divine will, a faith born by the Spirit’s working within me. But it is never the foundation upon which Jesus then acts.
It is quite true that “He is not assuring them that a one-time act of faith gives them an irrevocable ticket to the Kingdom.” That is indeed a horrible error. But what He is in fact assuring them of is that the one-time drawing of the Father, which with certainty results in coming, believing, looking to, eating, drinking, the Son, gives them the irrevocable promise of the Son that He will lose none who are thusly, by grace alone, not by performance, given to Him. And that is the foundation of the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.