Becker pp. 208-214.
Antirationalism in the Lutheran Doctrine of Preservation.
The doctrine of preservation in the faith, as it is taught in the Lutheran church, confronts us with another apparent contradiction. This doctrine too illustrates very clearly how Lutheran theology differs from that of Rome, on the one hand, and that of Geneva, on the other, in the matter of dealing with seeming contradictions. The very terminology employed is significant. What Calvinism calls the perseverance of the saints, a term which lays stress on the activity of the believer, Lutheranism calls preservation of faith, a term which lays emphasis on the work of God.
The Scriptures present us with two sets of passages in this doctrine, which reason finds difficult to harmonize. In the following columns we have arranged them in juxtaposition to show how they stand in sharp contrast to each other.
Column 1: Statements of Scripture in which God promises to preserve us in the faith:
"God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear." (I Corinthians 10:13)
Column 2: Statements of Scripture which warn us against falling from the faith.
"So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (I Corinthians 10:12)
[Similarly, Becker now lines up John 10:28 against Luke 8:13, John 10:29 against I Timothy 1:19, 2 Tim 1:12 against 1 Corinthians 9:27, Philippians 1:6 against Hebrews 6:4-6, Philippians 2:13 against Philippians 2:12, 1 Corinthians 1:8 against Romans 11:20-22]
The promises in the first column are promises of God. All the promises of God are to be believed. Not to believe them would be to call God a liar. The believing child of God reading these promises, should be convinced that he will never fall away, that God will not suffer him to be tempted above that he is able, that no man shall ever pluck him out of his Savior's hand, that no creature shall be able to separate him from the Father's love, that the Spirit of God will complete the work which he has begun in him.
But on the other hand, the warnings in the second column are warnings of God. All the warnings of God are to be observed with care, God does not jest. His words should be taken at their face value. And the believing child of God who takes these warning seriously will be sure that he is in constant danger of falling away from the faith, that he may be a cast-away, that he may make shipwreck of the faith, for he is not one whit better than Hymenaeus and Alexander, he is not stronger than Peter, he is no less subject to temptation than David, he is now wiser than Solomon, he is no less attracted by the world than Demas. So he lives in fear and trembling.
It is clear we are here dealing with a rational difficulty. Calvinism looks at the first column and draws from it the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. "Once a believer, always a believer," says the Calvinist. The passages in the second column are either ignored or else they are interpreted in such a way that they are made to agree with the axiom, "Once converted, always converted." A Lutheran finds difficulty in seeing how one can thus interpret the words of Jesus regarding those who "for a while believe and in time of temptation fall away." But in pursuing its course, it must be said, Calvinism remains true to the law of contradiction. It holds that as long as there is a real possibility of falling away, there can be no complete and perfect assurance of perseverance.
The Roman Church, on the other hand, characterizes all certainty of salvation as proud presumption. When the passages in the first column are held before them, they respond that some men may have a special revelation from God. Only they can be sure of their salvation. But the ordinary Christian has no such assurance, and he can have no such assurance. "Let him that thinketh he standeth," they say, "take heed lest he fall." We must live in fear and trembling all our lives and hope that we may be able to overcome. Only if we look at the warnings of God, will we be inclined to avoid carelessness and indifference in our Christian living. Romanism holds that if men are not kept in fear, they will be led into carnal security and will fall away.
... One answer that Lutheranism gives is that the contradictory heart of man needs a contradictory doctrine. The heart of man, desperately wicked still even in the converted Christian, is inclined to become proud. Like Peter, it is inclined to say, "Though all should be offended because of you, yet I will never be offended." (Mat. 26:33). Like an immature teenager, it response to the expressed concern over its salvation with "Don't worry, mother, I can take care of myself." To convince man that he cannot take care of himself, to make him realize that by himself he is lost, that he should never become careless and indifferent in his faith and life, the Lord has given us these serious and earnest warnings which mean exactly what they say and are not to be changed or modified in any way.
But the heart of man is also a timid, quaking heart, which so often needs reassurance. When its feet have slipped into the slough of despond, there is only one way that it can be helped. Man's extremity is God's opportunity. When I am weak, then am I strong. For when I know that I cannot remain faithful, that I cannot persevere, for I am frail and helpless, then the Lord comes with the blessed assurance that no man shall pluck me out of his hand. And so, every day, the Christian, as long as he remembers and believes the promises, will be sure that he will never fall away.
There is no logic that avails here. We must simply hear and believe--believe it when God tells us that we are in danger, believe it when God tells us that we are in no danger.
... Thus the Christian must learn to live in constant tension between these two. When he begins to lean over to the left, toward pride and presumption and confidence in the strength of his faith, and to trust in his own character, then the warnings against apostasy, the Savior's, "Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation," pushes him upright once more. But usually man, even the Christian man, whose heart is never fully what it ought to be, begins then to lean over to the right--he becomes afraid and begins to doubt that he will ever make it to the gates of the heavenly city. Once again the Savior comes and stands on the other side to support him and to push him upright once more with his promise, "Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God" (Isaiah 41:10). And he knows that when his pilgrimage comes to an end, "all the trumpets" will be blowing "for him on the other side."
From The Foolishness of God by Siegbert Becker (c) 1982 Northwestern Publishing House (www.nph.net). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.