Controversies: Once saved, always saved

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By Spencer D Gear

It is predictable that in discussions on Christian themes in person and online, that there will be a dialogue, pro and con, regarding eternal security (often called once saved, always saved – OSAS) or perseverance of the saints. Sometimes this discussion can become somewhat heated.

In fact, Roger Olson, an Arminian, is of the view that there will be continuing Calvinistic-Arminian conflict in Christian theology. He wrote:

Whatever the future of the story of Christian theology brings forth, it is bound to be interesting. It always has been. And there are as-yet unresolved issues for theological reformers to work on. The major one, of course, is the old debate between monergists and synergists over God’s relationship with the world. New light from God’s Word is badly needed as the extremes of process theology and resurgent Augustinian-Calvinism polarize Christian thought as never before. While I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I predict (with fear and trembling) that this issue will be the all-consuming one in Christian theology in the twenty-first century and that new insights and suggestions for resolving it will come from non-Western Christian thinkers. All the options of Western (European and North American) thought seem to have been proposed and have led only to reactions rather than resolutions. If this particular problem of theology is ever to be solved – even in part – the crucial insights will almost certainly need to come from outside of Western culture, with its dualistic mindset that insists on seeing divine and human agencies as in competition with one another (Olson 1999:612).


(courtesy ChristArt)


A. Doubts about Arminians even being Christian

I encountered this and entered into some discussions with advocates of the OSAS position in a Christian online forum. Arminians have come under some provocative attacks (I write as a Reformed Arminian). Here are a couple of challenging examples:

(1) Kim Riddlebarger has stated, ‘Arminianism is not simply an alternative for evangelicals who are uncomfortable with certain doctrinal tenets of Calvinism. Taken to its logical conclusion, Arminianism is not only a departure from historic orthodoxy, but a serious departure from the evangel itself’ (Riddlebarger 1992:5, emphasis added).[1]

(2) Michael Horton has stated:

There will doubtless be Roman Catholics, Arminians, and others in Paradise who were saved by God’s grace even if they, like me, did not understand or appreciate that grace as much as they should have. Nevertheless, if we are going to still use “evangelical” as a noun to define a body of Christians holding to a certain set of convictions, it is high time we got clear on these matters. An evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic. The distinctives of evangelicalism were denied by Rome at the Council of Trent, by the Remonstrants in 1610, were confused and challenged by John Wesley in the eighteenth century, and have become either ignored or denied in contemporary “evangelicalism” (Horton 2013, emphasis added).[2]

Some do not want to use the dichotomy of synergism vs monergism. See:Monergism Versus Synergism: Beware, Kobayashi Maru Ahead!(John Kebbel, Society of Evangelical Arminians). However, for plying these definitions apart, Terrance L Tiessen, wrote:

Calvinism is monergistic in its soteriology, as evidenced particularly in two points in the well known acronym, TULIP – unconditional election and irresistible (or efficacious) grace. These points identify salvation as God’s sovereign work, in which God chose to glorify himself by saving particular people, in Christ, without any conditions on their part except those which God himself efficaciously enables them to fulfill, so that salvation is God’s work from beginning to end, even though it does not come about without human response.

By contrast, though Arminians also insist that salvation is a work of God’s grace, God does not determine who will be saved by it. His prevenient grace enables people to meet the conditions (repentance, faith, and obedience) which they could never have met on their own, but whether or not that grace eventuates in their salvation is determined by the individuals, not by God. So Arminianism has been dubbed “synergistic.”

In both of these understandings of salvation, God’s grace is essential, and in both of them people are not saved apart from their response to God’s grace. But because God determines the outcome in the Calvinist construct, it has been called “monergistic,” though it is clear that God is not the only actor. The key point is that God is the decisive actor, the one whose action determines the outcome.[3]

B. John 10:28-29 and eternal security

These verses read:

I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand (ESV).

In responding to an Arminian who wrote about the falling away of believers in Hebrews 6:4-6, a Calvinist wrote on Christian Forums:

Let me put it another way.

Jesus said: “My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” -John 10:29 (KJV)

If sin, causes you to come out of the Father’s hand, if you, choosing to sin, takes you out of the Father’s hand, and costs you your salvation, then God ceases to omnipotent (all powerful). Sin, and man (namely you) are able to overpower and take yourself from His care.

Now which is corect (sic)?

No man, not even yourself can take you out of God’s hand, or is sin and man more powerful than God?

Either Jesus and scriptures are correct, or Jesus told a lie and subsequently the scriptures lie also, which means sin and man are more powerful than God.[4]

Another responded, ‘The problem is: in this church age, once you are saved by God, there is no way YOU can unsave yourself no matter what you do’.[5] DeaconDean’s reply was, ‘Sure there is. Haven’t you read the thread?’[6] I’d recommend a read of this online thread to see the back and forth between eternal security supporters – unconditional eternal security – and those who believe in conditional eternal security for Christian believers, i.e. between Calvinists and Arminians.

My reply to DeaconDean[7], who cited the Calvinist, John Gill, on John 10:28, Kittel and others. was:[8]

This is what happens when you read John 10:28-29 in isolation from the rest of John’s Gospel. It is true that ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand…. no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand’ (emphasis added).

BUT this is what can happen. Take a read of John 15:6. This is in the context of being in the vine – God’s vine – and Jesus being the true vine and God the Father being the vinedresser (John 15:1). This is what John 15:6 states, ‘If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (ESV, emphasis added).

The gracious power of God is comprehensively sufficient to protect every born-again Christian believer forever. But a believer can in the end be lost, because salvation is conditional. None of our enemies will be able to snatch us out of the Father’s/Jesus’ hands.
BUT … BUT, any Christians can turn from Jesus, enter into disbelief, commit apostasy and perish by wilful acts of their own. That’s what John 15:6 teaches: ‘‘If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away….’.

Therefore, John 10:28-29 is not an absolute that guarantees once-saved-always-saved (which, by the way, is not biblical language). Eternal life is granted to those who continue to believe. We know this from verses in John such as John 3:36; 6:47,

Whoever believes [Gk present tense – continues believing] in the Son has [Gk present tense – continues to have] eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 3:36 ESV)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes [Gk present tense – continues to believe] has [Gk present tense – continues to have] eternal life (John 6:47 ESV).


1. People can commit apostasy

Thus, eternal life only continues as long as a person continues to believe. He or she can commit apostasy by not continuing to believe in Christ for eternal life.

 Chuck Templeton (from Brad Templeton’s photo site)

I know people for whom this has happened and is continuing to happen – apostasy – and they were once vibrant Christians. Consider Charles Templeton, one of Billy Graham’s associates in Billy’s early days of ministry with Youth for Christ. See ‘Death of an apostate’.

Lee Strobel interviewed Templeton for Strobel’s book The case for faith (2000:9-46). Here is a grab from that interview:

And what about Jesus? I wanted to know what Templeton thought of the cornerstone of Christianity. “Do you believe Jesus ever lived?” I asked.

“No question,” came the quick reply.

“Did he think he was God?”

He shook his head. “That would have been the last thought that would have entered his mind.”

“And his teaching – did you admire what he taught?”

“Well, he wasn’t a very good preacher. What he said was too simple. He hadn’t thought about it. He hadn’t agonized over the biggest question there is to ask.”

“Which is …”

Is there a God? How could anyone believe in a God who does, or allows, what goes on in the world?”

“And how do you assess this Jesus?” It seemed like the next logical question – but I wasn’t ready for the response it would evoke.

Templeton’s body language softened. It was as if he suddenly felt relaxed and comfortable in talking about an old and dear friend. His voice, which at times had displayed such a sharp and insistent edge, now took on a melancholy and reflective tone. His guard seemingly down, he spoke in an unhurried pace, almost nostalgically, carefully choosing his words as he talked about Jesus.

“He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?”

I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” I said.

“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him!” . . .

” . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus….’

“Uh . . . but . . . no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most . . .” He stopped, then started again. “In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”

That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”

With that tears flooded his eyes. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed as he wept. . . .

Templeton fought to compose himself. I could tell it wasn’t like him to lose control in front of a stranger. He sighed deeply and wiped away a tear. After a few more awkward moments, he waved his hand dismissively. Finally, quietly but adamantly, he insisted: “Enough of that” (Strobel 2000:20-21).

Chuck Templeton, Torrey Johnson and Billy Graham in a publicity photo for the European trip taken in the YFC offices in Chicago, about  March 1946. (Billy Graham Center Archives, Wheaton College) [courtesy Justin Taylor].

However, Hebrews 6:4-6 is very clear about what happens to those who apostatise from the faith: ‘It is impossible to restore [them] again to repentance’ (6:4).

What, then, is apostasy?

Apostasy refers to

defection from the faith, an act of unpardonable rebellion against God and his truth. The sin of apostasy results in the abandonment of Christian doctrine and conduct. With respect to the covenant relationship established through prior profession of faith (passive profession in the case of baptized infants), apostates place themselves under the curse and wrath of God as covenant breakers, having entered into a state of final and irrevocable condemnation. Those who apostatize are thus numbered among the reprobate. Since the resurrection of Christ, there is no distinction between blasphemy against Christ and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matt 12:31-32; Heb 6:4-6 ; 10:26-29 ; 1 John 5:16-17) [Karlberg 1996].

John 10:28-29 cannot be read in isolation apart from John 3:36; 6:47 and 15:6.

I have to be honest with what the text says, based on the tenses of the original language.

I do not think that you will like this kind of news (and it shouldn’t be new news for you), but that is what the texts say.

And have a guess what? First Timothy 1:19 and Hebrews 6:4-6 confirm that this can happen. People can continue to believe or to discontinue in belief. They then move from eternal life to eternal damnation. That’s how I see the Bible unfolding.

I have to be honest with the biblical text and in this case, with John’s Gospel.

I replied:[9]

So I respectfully disagree with your ‘accessment’. I do hope you mean assessment and not accessment. Accessment is not a word in my dictionary (also check

Also he wrote, ‘Now, regarding the Hebrews passage, I’m sure your (sic) familiar with Kittles (sic)?’ His name is spelled Kittel.
I agree with the Greek exegesis of Kittel (I have the 10 volumes of the Theological Dictionary that he co-edited with Gerhard Friedrich) where he explained that a person who commits apostasy cannot be brought again to repentance. That’s Bible!

See my detailed exposition of Hebrews 6:4-8 in my, ‘Once Saved, Always Saved or Once Saved, Lost Again? What you have cited from John Gill on Heb. 6:4-6 is not in agreement with the exegesis I have provided in my exposition.

I wrote, that John 10:28-29 should not be read in isolation from John 3:36; 6:47 and 15:6′. What did I notice in his response? He provided not one word to refute the content of John 3:36; 6:47 and 15:6, which teach that eternal life is conditional on people continuing to believe. People will continue to have eternal life if they continue to believe and they continue to remain in the vine. These verses are contrary to the view this person was advocating.

In my understanding of the exegesis, a once saved, always saved view is not taught by these verses that require continuing belief to enter eternal life. And that is taught by John 3:16 as well, ‘whoever believes’ means ‘whoever continues to believe’ because the Greek for ‘believes’ is a present tense Greek participle, indicating continuing action. Thus affirming the other verses that I’ve cited from John that continuing / continuous believing is needed to enter and retain eternal life.

Thus, perseverance of the saints is a much more biblical description of the perspective in Scripture – as I understand the Greek present tense used in the verses I have mentioned – than a once saved, always saved view (based on my understanding of the Greek grammar of the meaning of the present tense).

In the Baptist church in which I was raised, I was taught the view this person advocated of once saved, always saved. But my examination of these Scriptures has brought me to the view I am here sharing. I take seriously the Scriptural injunction:

‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers [and sisters], for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’ (James 3:1 ESV).

The NLT and the new NIV correctly translate adelphoi as brothers and sisters, based on the Greek etymology This is shown in the New Living Translation and the latest NIV. Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek lexicon confirms that ‘brother’ as in the singular adelphos means any believer, male or female. Arndt and Gingrich note that ‘Jesus calls everyone who is devoted to him brother Mt 12:50; Mk 3:25, esp. the disciples Mt 28:10; J 20:17. Hence gener. for those in such spiritual communion Mt 25:40; Hb 2:12 (Ps 21:23[22:22), 17 al’ (Arndt & Gingrich 1957:15-16).

So I respectfully come to a different conclusion to yours.

C. Conditional security in John’s Gospel

Another poster wrote:[10]

John 8:31 Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you ?abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.

This shows the principle and is why in John 15:6 those branches that are burned do not abide in His word as opposed to those in v7.

John 15:6-7 If anyone does not abide in Me, ??he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. ?7? If you abide in Me, and My words ?abide in you, ?you ?will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you

My response was:[11]

Now let’s do the exegesis to obtain the meaning of John 8:31, which stated in full reads, ‘So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples”’ (ESV).

‘Had believed’ is a perfect tense, active voice, participle. Thus it means that those believed in the past and had continuing results of believing. As for ‘abide’ it is an aorist subjunctive verb. It is the conditional subjunctive and a point action, but it needs to be combined with the perfect tense of ‘had believed’ to understand that the meaning is that these Jews had believed in Jesus but they had continuing results of their believing. As a result, they ‘are’ (present tense, continuous action) continuing to be his disciples.

Therefore, based on this exegesis of the Greek text, eternal security is based on continuing to be a disciple. This is not talking about once saved and no longer serving God. It is talking about once saved and continuing to be saved by continuing to believe. That’s why I find the language of ‘once saved, always saved’ to send a message that does not line up with the biblical message of continuing to believe to attain eternal life (as in John 3:16; 3:36; 6:47; 15:6).

John 15:6-7 affirms the need to continue to abide (believe) to remain in the vine.

His response was somewhat unexpected:[12]

After reading your comments here, without going back rereading all the earlier posts I am confused as to why we have disagreed. Other than these in v30 had believed just as Jesus had spoken in the preceding verses and later on in this chapter we see that it is not leading to their salvation. But as far as your other explanations in this post I would agree that saving faith is a one time event that needs not to be renewed but saving faith is a present tense action that will evidence itself in abiding in His word. God looks at the heart and even know the future so He is not sealing and unsealing His children. They are sealed unto the day of redemption. It is God holding on to us and not us holding on to God, Ps 37:23-24, God is the one performing the action of the holding on to us. That is why I agree with Paul when he said being fully persuaded that He who began the good work in you will perform it unto the end.

I’m not of the view that we are agreeing with the need to continue to believe and that it is possible for a genuine believer to commit apostasy. So I replied:[13]

I’m not so sure that we are in agreement as I have provided verses to confirm that John 10:28-29 is in harmony with John 3:16; 3:36; 6:47; and 15:6 where believers are required to continue to believe to attain eternal life. Thus OSAS, in my understanding, is an improper explanation of this view as apostasy can be committed (1 Tim 1:19; Heb 6:4-6; 1 John 4:1-3).

Is it your understanding that a person can be generally saved, continue to follow Jesus, walk away from the faith and then commit apostasy? And the person who commits apostasy cannot be brought again to repentance (Heb 6:4-6). If this is your view, then we are on the same page. But is that your view?

But the OSAS is what I was raised on and I’ve rejected it because I do not find it taught with a consistent hermeneutic in Scripture.

D. Continuing belief needed for eternal security

I do wish my two friends who have committed apostasy would be able to return to repentance, but Hebrews 6:4-6 says that is not possible as ‘they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt’ (6:6 ESV). Heb. 6:4 is adamant in its teaching about those who commit apostasy: ‘for it is impossible to restore again to repentance’. That’s not the way my limited understanding of compassion and mercy works. But that’s based on the absolute justice, empathy, love and compassion of the absolutely honest Almighty God.

I have an ultimate commitment to the Lord God Almighty who revealed His will in the infallible Scriptures (in the original languages).[14]

Let’s check out …


E.  R C H Lenski, a Lutheran, on John 10:28-29

John 10:28 in Lenski’s translation is, ‘And I will give them life eternal, and they shall in no wise perish forever, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’ (Lenski 1943:754-755). Of this verse, Lenski wrote of the second half of the verse, beginning with ‘they shall in no wise perish forever’:

This is a double and direct promise; the doubling increases the emphasis. “To perish” is to be separated from God, life, and blessedness forever. John and Paul use especially the middle voice [i.e. meaning ‘for oneself’ – SDG] of the verb in this sense…. It is the opposite of being saved…. “Shall in no way perish” would itself be enough, the modifier “forever” is added pleonastically[15]: this dreadful act shall never occur…. This promise holds good from the moment of faith onward. The verb “to perish” never means “to suffer annihilation,” or to cease to exist.

The first part of the promise is stated from the viewpoint of the sheep: they shall never perish. The second part is from the viewpoint of Jesus and of any hostile being that might attack the sheep: No one shall snatch them out of his hand…. The “hand” of Jesus is his power. His gracious power is all-sufficient to protect every believer forever (Lenski 2001:756).

But wait a minute! Are there not New Testament passages that warn about the danger of a true believer falling away? Reading Lenski on John 10:28 it sounds like Jesus’ followers are saved forever and shall never ever experience anything that would cause them to lose their salvation. But that is not what he concludes from John 10:28. He continues, ‘However weak the sheep are, under Jesus they are perfectly safe. Yet a believer may after all be lost (15:6). Our certainty of eternal salvation is not absolute. While no foe of ours is able to snatch us from our Shepherd’s hand, we ourselves may turn from him and may perish wilfully of our own accord’ (Lenski 2001:756).

His translation of John 10:29 is, ‘My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand’ (Lenski 2001:757). He explained that ‘has given’ is in the perfect tense in Greek and ‘has its usual force: a past act when the Son entered on his mission and its abiding effect as long as that mission endures’. In addition, ‘while “greater” is broad, here it must refer especially to power: the Father exceeds in power every being arrayed against the sheep (Satan, demon spirits, human foes however mighty)’ (2001:758).

But what about nobody ‘able to snatch us from our Shepherd’s hand’? Surely that sounds like a sine qua non to affirm once saved, always saved? Lenski explains:

After thus declaring the Father’s might, it might seem superfluous for Jesus to add, “and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand,” for this is certainly self-evident. The reason for the addition lies far deeper. Jesus deliberately parallels what he says of himself, “no one shall snatch them out of my hand,” with what he says of his Father, “no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” The fact that he mentions the detail (“shall snatch”) with reference to himself is due to his being on his saving mission; that he mentions the possibility (“can snatch”) with reference to the Father is due to the Father’s institution of that mission. Both thus belong together; Father and Son, fact and possibility. Does the promise of Jesus, standing there in human form before the Jews, sound preposterous, that no one shall snatch his sheep out of his hand? To snatch them out of his hand is the same as snatching them out of the Father’s hand. Remember the relation of these two hands as his relation centers in the sheep (Lenski 2001:758-759, emphasis in original).

Lenski applies this understanding to John 10:30, his translation being, ‘I and the Father, we are one’. He explains that ‘what is thus prepared [in the preceding verse] is now pronounced in so many words: “I and the Father, we are one”. The equal power to protect the sheep is due to the equality of these two persons. This makes the mighty acts of equal protection perfectly plain. This makes the mighty acts of equal protection perfectly plain’ (Lenski 2001:759).

Lenski has already indicated that John 10:28-29 does not mean that eternal security is affirmed absolutely, ‘Our certainty of eternal salvation is not absolute. While no foe of ours is able to snatch us from our Shepherd’s hand, we ourselves may turn from him and may perish wilfully of our own accord’ (2001:756).


(courtesy ChristArt)


F. Is any kind of reconciliation possible?

It is evident from these discussions on a Christian online forum that there was no movement by Calvinists affirming unconditional eternal security and my position as a Reformed Arminian, enunciating a conditional eternal security position. The view that one needs to continue to believe to guarantee eternal security (John 3:16; 3:36; 6:47; 15:6) did not make any impact on these people. It is also evident that some Calvinists, who are anti-Arminian (e.g. Riddlebarger & Horton) have doubts about Arminians being evangelical Christians and even align them with a heresy (Arianism).

There seem to be some aspects of Christian theology where there can be no reconciliation between Calvinists and Arminians. Roger Olson, an evangelical Arminian, claims that these include the nature of God and the understanding of free will. He wrote:

Contrary to popular belief, then, the true divide at the heart of the Calvinist-Arminian split is not predestination versus free will but the guiding picture of God: he is primarily viewed as either (1) majestic, powerful, and controlling or (2) loving, good, and merciful. Once the picture (blik) is established, seemingly contrary aspects fade into the background, are set aside as “obscure” or are artificially made to fit the system. Neither side absolutely denies the truth of the other’s perspective, but each qualifies the attributes of God that are preeminent in the other’s perspective. God’s goodness is qualified by his greatness in Calvinism, and God’s greatness is qualified by his goodness in Arminianism.

Arminians can live with the problems of Arminianism more comfortably than with the problems of Calvinism. Determinism and indeterminism cannot be combined; we must choose one or the other. In the ultimate and final reality of things, people either have some degree of self-determination or they don’t. Calvinism is a form of determinism. Arminians choose indeterminism largely because determinism seems incompatible with God’s goodness and with the nature of personal relationships. Arminians agree with Arminius, who stressed that “the grace of God is not ‘a certain irresistible force…. It is a Person, the Holy Spirit, and in personal relationships there cannot be the sheer over-powering of one person by another’” (in Olson 2006:73-74).

Therefore, Olson reaches the conclusion that

the continental divide between Calvinism and Arminianism, then, lies with different perspectives about God’s identity in revelation. Divine determinism creates problems in God’s character and in the God-human relationship that Arminians simply cannot live with. Because of their controlling vision of God as good, they are unable to affirm unconditional reprobation (which inexorably follows from unconditional election) because it makes God morally ambiguous at best. Denying divine determinism in salvation leads to Arminianism (Olson 2006:74).

It was Olson (2006:74, n. 21) who alerted me to what R C Sproul (1986:139-160) addressed the double-predestination issue. Sproul wrote:

DOUBLE predestination. The very words sound ominous. It is one thing to contemplate God’s gracious plan of salvation for the elect. But what about those who are not elect? Are they also predestined? Is there a horrible decree of reprobation? Does God destine some unfortunate people to hell?…

Unless we conclude that every human being is predestined to salvation, we must face the flip side of election. If there is such a thing as predestination at all, and if that predestination does not include all people, then we must not shrink from the necessary inference that there are two sides to predestination. It is not enough to talk about Jacob; we must also consider Esau (Sproul 1986:141).

Sproul regard Romans 9:16 as fatal to Arminianism. He quotes the New King James Version, ‘So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy’. The ESV reads, ‘So then it depends not on human will or exertion,[16]but on God, who has mercy’. Sproul’s commentary is:

Though Paul is silent about the question of future choices here, he does not remain so. In verse 16 he makes it clear. “So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.” This is the coup de grace[17] to Arminianism and all other non-Reformed views of predestination. This is the Word of God that requires all Christians to cease and desist from views of predestination that make the ultimate decision for salvation rest in the will of man. The apostle declares: It is not of him who wills. This is in violent contradiction to the teaching of Scripture. This one verse is absolutely fatal to Arminianism.

It is our duty to honor God. We must confess with the apostle that our election is not based on our wills but on the purposes of the will of God (Sproul 1986:151).

How does an Arminian respond to such an attack on the Arminian view of election/predestination and human responsibility (free will)? I am in agreement with Olson that

the nature of free will is another point where Calvinism and Arminianism diverge and where no middle ground seems possible. Because of their vision of God as good (loving, benevolent, merciful), Arminians affirm libertarian free will. (Philosophers call it incompatibilist free will because it is not compatible with determinism)…. Arminians do not believe in absolute free will; the will is always influenced and situated in a context. Even God is guided by his nature and character when making decisions. But Arminians deny that creaturely decisions and actions are controlled by God or any force outside the self (Olson 1986:75).

As noted by Olson, the Calvinistic, compatibilist free will (if Calvinists talk of free will at all)

is compatible with determinism. This is the only sense of free will that is consistent with Calvinism’s vision of God as the all-determining reality. In compatibilist free will, persons are free so long as they do what they want to do – even if God is determining their desires. This is why Calvinists can affirm that people sin voluntarily and are therefore responsible for their sins even though they could not do otherwise. According to Calvinism God foreordained the Fall of Adam and Eve, and rendered it certain (even if only by an efficacious permission) by withdrawing the grace necessary to keep them from sinning. And yet they sinned voluntarily. They did what they wanted to do even if they were unable to do otherwise. This is a typical Calvinist account of free will.[18]

Once again it is difficult to see how a hybrid of these two views of free will could be created. Could people have freely chosen to do something different than they actually did? Some Calvinists (such as Jonathan Edwards) agree with Arminians that people have the natural ability to do otherwise (e.g., avoid sinning). But what about moral ability? Arminians agree with Calvinists that apart from the grace of God all fallen humans choose to sin; their will is bound to sin by original sin manifesting itself as total depravity (Olson 2006:75).

However, Arminians describe it differently to free will. This moral ability that people have is called prevenient grace, given to them by God. Again, Olson:

Arminians do not call this free will because these people cannot do otherwise (except in terms of deciding which sins to commit!). From the Arminian perspective prevenient grace restores free will so that humans, for the first time, have the ability to do otherwise – namely, respond in faith to the grace of God or resist it in unrepentance and disbelief. At the point of God’s call, sinners under the influence of prevenient grace have genuine free will as a gift of god; for the first time they can freely say yes or no to God. Nothing outside the self determines how they will respond. Calvinists say that humans never have that ability in spiritual matters (any possibility in any matters). People always do what they want to do, and God is the ultimate decider of human wants even though when it comes to sin, God works through secondary causes And never directly causes anyone to sin. These two views are incommensurable. To the Arminian, compatibilist free will is no free will at all. To the Calvinist, incompatibilist free will is a myth; it simply cannot exist because it would amount to an uncaused effect, which is absurd[19] (Olson 2006:75-76, emphasis added).

Contrary to Sproul, Romans 9:16 is not fatal to Calvinism. The Calvinistic and Arminian views of free will are not compatible. Sproul’s view seems to involve his imposition of a Calvinistic worldview on Romans 9:16. What about Romans 9:14-18, which reads:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

This refers back to Exodus 7 and 8. If we note that context, we see that Pharaoh ‘hardened his heart’ (Ex 8:15) and ‘Pharaoh’s heart was hardened’ by God (Ex 8:19). So none of the application in Romans 9 excludes the action of individual responsibility for Pharaoh hardening his own heart and thus God hardened it. Human responsibility was not excluded in God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus, as it is in God’s showing mercy and demonstrating hardening Romans 9. God’s actions and human responsibility go together in God’s super plan for the universe.

Therefore, I find Sproul quite wrong in his wanting to make Romans 9:16 to be ‘absolutely fatal to Arminianism’. Calvinism’s and Arminians’ concept of free will, election and predestination are described very differently, so the finger needs to be pointed to Sproul’s faulty understanding of the differences between Arminianism and Calvinism and making his judgement on a Calvinistic basis instead of reading Arminians on their own terms.

Therefore, there can be no reconciliation on the concepts of free will between Arminians and Calvinists while they maintain the positions as expounded above.


G. Conclusion

The conclusion is that none the twain shall meet. Calvinists will continue to believe in unconditional eternal security and Reformed/classical Arminians will continue to believe that it is possible for a person to commit apostasy for whom there is then no repentance possible to return to salvation.

For a biblical explanation of prevenient grace, see my articles,

clip_image002 Is prevenient grace still amazing grace?

clip_image002[1] The injustice of the God of Calvinism

clip_image002[2]Some Calvinistic antagonism towards Arminians

Other writings to confirm conditional security

I have written on this topic elsewhere. See:

clip_image004 Spencer Gear: Conversations with a Calvinist on apostasy

clip_image004[1] Spencer Gear: Once Saved, Always Saved or Once Saved, Lost Again?

clip_image004[2] Matthew Murphy: Practical Problems with OSAS

clip_image004[3] Spencer Gear: What does it mean to shipwreck your faith?

clip_image004[4] Spencer Gear: Is the Holy Spirit’s seal a guarantee of eternal security?

clip_image004[5]Matt O’Reilly: Eternally secure, provided that…

clip_image004[6] Spencer Gear: What is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

clip_image004[7] Spencer Gear: Does God want everyone to receive salvation?

clip_image004[8]Steve Witzki: The Inadequate Historical Precedent for ‘Once Saved, Always Saved

clip_image004[9] Spencer Gear: Does God’s grace make salvation available to all people?

clip_image004[10] Spencer Gear: Calvinists, free will and a better alternative

clip_image004[11] Spencer Gear: Is it possible or impossible to fall away from the Christian faith?

clip_image004[12] Steve Jones: Calvinism Critiqued by a Former Calvinist

clip_image004[13]Roy Ingle: Holding Firmly, I Am Held (An Arminian Approach to Eternal Security)

Works consulted

Arndt, W F & Gingrich, F W 1957. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (limited edition licensed to Zondervan Publishing House)

Edwards, J n d. Freedom of the will. Christian Classics Etherial Library (CCEL).Available at: (Accessed 28 September 2013).

Horton, M S 2013. Evangelical Arminians: Option or oxymoron?[20] in Reformation online, September 28. Available at: (Accessed 28 September 2013).

Lenski, R C H 2001. Commentary on the New Testament: The interpretation of St. John’s Gospel. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers.[21]

Karlberg, M W 1996. Apostasy, in W A Elwell (ed), Baker’s evangelical dictionary of biblical theology. Available at, (Accessed 8 July 2013).

Olson, R E 1999. The story of Christian theology: Twenty centuries of tradition and reform. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Academic.

Olson, R E 2006. Arminian theology: Myths and realities. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Academic.

Peterson, R A & Williams, M D 1992. Why I am not an Arminian. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Riddlebarger, K 1992. Fire and water. Modern reformation, May/June, 1-8 (Archives of Modern reformation, Riddleblog). Available at: (Accessed 29 September 2013).

Strobel, L 2000 The case for faith: A journalist investigates the toughest objections to Christianity. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.


[1] I was alerted to this citation by Olson (2006:79).

[2] Olson (2006:81) referred me to a portion of this citation, thus directing me to the original article.

[3] Terrence L Tiessen, Thoughts Theological, Is sanctification synergistic or monergistic? April 9, 2013, available at: (Accessed 29 September 2013).

[4] Christian Forums, Baptists, ‘Eternal security’, DeaconDean#73, available at: (Accessed 28 September 2013).

[5] Danv8#74, ibid.

[6] DeaconDean#75, ibid.

[7] His post was at DeaconDean#73, ibid.

[8] OzSpen#79, ibid.

[9] OzSpen#93, ibid.

[10] iwbswiaihl #81 (emphasis in original), ibid.

[11] OzSpen#94, ibid.

[12] iwbswiaihl #96, ibid.

[13] OzSpen#98, ibid.

[14] I wrote the above 2 paragraphs as OzSpen#99, ibid.

[15] This means ‘the use of more words than are necessary to express an idea; redundancy’ (, accessed 28 September 2013).

[16] Here the ESV footnote is, ‘Greek not of him who wills or runs’.

[17] The online Free Dictionary gives the meaning of coup de grace as, ‘a death blow, esp. one delivered mercifully to end suffering’ and ‘any finishing or decisive stroke’.

[18] Here Olson referred to Peterson & Williams 1992:136-161).

[19] At this point, Olson gave the footnote, ‘The classic Calvinist critique of libertarian free will is found in Jonathan Edward’s treatise “Freedom of the Will”’ (Olson 1986:76, n. 23). For this treatise, see Edwards (n d).

[20] This was originally published in Modern Reformation, 1 (3) May-June 1992, available at: (Accessed 28 September 2013).

[21] This was originally published in 1943 by Lutheran Book Concern and assigned to Augsburg Publishing House in 1961.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 3 November 2015.