The Destruction of Description
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Recently, a debate concerning the issue of the assurance of salvation was posted on line. This debate, between Protestant Dr. James White and Catholic Trent Horn, focused upon the issue of whether a Christian can lose their salvation. The debate traces its roots back to the 1520’s when Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic theologian, Erasmus, took up this fight. Martin Luther published ‘On the Bondage of the Will’ in which he claimed biblical support for the idea that God grants the grace of faith in Jesus to his Elect and they cannot thereafter be lost.
The practical outcome of the debate is the same now as it was five hundred years ago. If one can fall from grace and lose their salvation, then what are the things we should do to maintain and build our faith so this outcome does not happen? And who better than the Church founded on the Apostles can provide for us the teachings and practices which can help maintain our faith?
Erasmus essentially argued, ‘Look at all the times in the Bible where God commands his followers to do this or do that. Isn’t it logical that God is telling us we have choices and if we make the wrong choices we imperil or even lose our salvation?’
Luther responded that it every biblical case God is not telling us what to do, but telling us what we will do should we be part of the Elect. In other words, when God says ‘Do not steal’, he is not telling us, ‘Hey, make the right choice and do not steal for if you steal it is a sin that can separate us’, he is merely stating ‘if you are part of my Elect, you will not be capable of stealing.’
Fast forward to this recent on-line debate. In it, Trent Horn used multiple references from the New Testament to clearly show we not only have free-will but we can lose our relationship with God should we make the wrong decisions and ‘make shipwreck of our faith’.
The answer by the evangelical Dr. Wright was the same as Luther’s. He claimed his opponent did not understand the difference between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ scriptures. Just as with taking a prescribed medication, ‘prescriptive’ commands represent things we are told to do (or avoid) for our own good. Even the bedrock Christian command to ‘believe in Jesus’ can be seen as prescriptive in this way. Make the choice to believe and follow Jesus for your own good.
Dr. Wright claimed that ‘descriptive’ scriptures, on the other hand, only describe for us what will be the result of being the Elect and living in that certain spiritual state. The bedrock command, ‘believe in Jesus’, is not therefore a call for us to be faithful, but serves as only a description of what the ‘Elect’ will do after suddenly discovering they are living in a state of faith, given to them by God’s as a result of his eternal plan. We believe because a sovereign God made it so and the sovereign God will not change his mind - thus we are assured to never fail in our faith.
Now, the Trent Horn specifically argued against the idea of assurance from the book of Romans. There, in Chapter 11:20-23, we read:
they (unbelieving Jews) were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 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. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again
The key point in this citation is the word ‘if’. In modern computer programming terms, every ‘if’ is part of an ‘if-then’ statement. ‘If’ one thing occurs, ‘then’ one outcome happens. Every ‘if’ also has a ‘if not’. If that initial option does not happen, if the original choice is not made, ‘then’ a different outcome will happen. There are always two and only two possible outcomes at each decision point.
Think of it this way. ‘If’ we run two miles a day, eat right and get good sleep, ‘then’ we will probably be healthy. The exercise, diet, etc. represents a prescriptive suggestion. We are given a choice for we can choose not to run, not to eat well, or to stay up late into the night. If we choose these poor options ‘then’ we will be less healthy. If instead we consider these suggestions not as a choice but as a description we are essentially claiming that for those of us who find ourselves in a state of health, we will have no option but to run, eat well and get proper amounts of sleep. Those actions are predicated and enforced by the fact we are in the state of ‘healthy’.
And yet, even though I am relatively healthy, last night during the Superbowl I chose to skip my exercise, eat poorly and stay up late. I know that regardless of my state of health, if I continue to make these same bad choices over the next few weeks I will eventually fall into poor health.
Now, let’s assume Dr. Wright’s view of Romans 11 as being only descriptive is correct. Paul then would have written to those who found themselves in a state of faith assuming these people would experience the one and only outcome ( the ‘then’) of eternal in-grafting into Christ. Here we would find the eternal assurance of ongoing faith and salvation.
But this is not what we read in Romans. Instead, Paul tells his Christian readers that there are two possible outcomes. They can remain in Christ. Or, the can ‘be cut off’. We have two possible ‘then’s. One possible outcome is ongoing union with Christ, the other possible outcome is separation from Christ. Two ‘then’s require two ‘ifs’.
We cannot say ‘if you find yourself in the state faith you will either then receive salvation or you will then not receive salvation’. If that’s the case, then faith does not save at all. You cannot have two potential outcomes if you remain in a single state.
Instead, the ‘then’ of salvation must be caused by choosing the ‘if’ of being faithful. The ‘then’ of being cut off from Christ must be caused by being in a different state. That different state (outcome) is caused by choosing the ‘if’ of not being faithful. Since Paul is writing in Romans to a group of Gentile Christians he considers to be faithful and tells them they can actually receive both ‘then’s in the future, he obviously considers that the state in which these believers are currently in can change. Either God may change his mind and move Paul’s readers from the state of faith to the state or faithlessness (opening up a whole new can of theological worms) or Paul believed this group of readers must have the possibility of choosing both ‘ifs’, to live faithfully in Christ or to reject him. Just because they now find themselves in a state of grace, then, they cannot rest upon that reality as an assurance of remaining in that state of salvation in the future.