Eternal Security, the doctrine that Christians can never apostatize after coming to faith, in Calvinism known as "perseverance of the saints," as a special term was used by Walter Scott (Plymouth Brethren) as early as 1913 (Holness, 186). Under a section heading, "The Eternal Security of the Sheep," he writes, "Can my sins separate me from Christ or break the bond of eternal life? Impossible!" Elsewhere he states, "Eternal life therefore cannot be lost: It is absolutely secure" (Holness, 110). L. S. Chafer, whose Gospel ministry extends back to 1900, did not know when the term came into use; the significance which he attached to this doctrine is shown by the 100-page treatment given to it in his vast Systematic Theology. "Those chosen of God and saved by grace are, of necessity," he holds, "preserved unto the realization of the design of God.... The Scriptures could not . . . do other than declare the Christian's security without reservation or complication" (Systematic Theology III, 268).
By eternal security of the believer, H. A. Ironside declared, "we mean that once a poor sinner has been regenerated by the Word and the Spirit of God, .. . it is absolutely impossible that that man should ever again be a lost soul" (Eternal Security, 6). Other leading advocates of this teaching during the first half of the 20th century have included H. C. Trumbull, C. I. Scofield, and A. W. Pink. Chief among Scriptures alleged in its support are John 5:24; John 6:23; John 10:27-29; Romans 8:32-39; 1 Corinthians 3:15; Philippians 1:6; 2 Timothy 1:12; 1 Peter 1:3-5; 1 John 5:13.
The influence of this teaching upon the Mennonites has not been negligible. While European Mennonites were barely touched, the teaching gained some adherents among Mennonite groups in North America. In the Mennonite Brethren Church the doctrine had little chance in the past to be generally accepted, but gaining a foothold in 1910-20 the doctrine had a greater influence. In general, however, the Mennonite Brethren group rejected the teaching. In the General Conference Mennonite Church this doctrine did not represent its established tradition. After its appearance about 1930, however, sizable groups of adherents were found in a small percentage of congregations. In the Mennonite Church (MC) this teaching made little progress except in one area conference where a private estimate stated that 25 per cent of the members and 40 per cent of the ministers held to it in the 1950s.
The teaching is clearly exotic to Mennonite faith, its chief sources in North America being "Fundamentalist" Bible schools and Bible institutes, a few colleges and seminaries, and some independent Bible teachers and periodicals.
While the term "Eternal Security" had its origin early in the 20th century, the idea of unconditional election is as old as Augustine. Sharpened in the hands of Gottshalk of the 9th century the doctrine was strenuously advocated by Zwingli and developed into a logical system by Calvin. Against this predestinarian background with all its implications the Swiss Brethren and Dutch Mennonites had to work. Pilgram Marpeck called predestination a blasphemous doctrine (Horsch, MQR, 145), and said that we know of no knowledge of Christ or clarity of claim to eternal life, apart from keeping His commandments and teachings (Wenger, MQR, 236). Only by remaining in Christ is one His disciple, and only so does he have a God, said Marpeck.
The Swiss Brethren recognized the possibility of apostasy, of Satan's disturbing the minds of believers in the simplicity of faith (Wenger, MQR, 236). They held just as firmly to Christian assurance. "We know, thank God, of the freedom in and through Christ . . ." (Marpeck, 239). "His Holy Spirit ... will guide us until the end" (Marpeck, 239). Conrad Grebel held that if the believer continued to live in this new life and resolutely separated himself from sin, he might be sure of salvation (Bender, 131). Menno Simons spoke of Zwingli's statement that the sinner is not responsible for his evil deeds as "an abomination above all abominations" (Opera, 311a; Works II, 294b, quoted by John Horsch, op. cit., 146). That the Swiss Brethren and early Mennonites sensed a responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of the membership lest they fall by the way and be lost. That he himself does not believe this Zwinglian doctrine is witnessed by the rigid discipline he exercised and executed in the measures of the ban and avoidance. Obedience of discipleship was held to be necessary for assurance.
The Christian Fundamentals drawn up by Mennonite (MC) General Conference in 1921 seek to meet Eternal Security teaching in two of its articles. Article VIII, of Assurance, reads: "We believe that it is the privilege of all believers to know that they have passed from death unto life; that God is able to keep them from falling, but that the obedience of faith is essential to the maintenance of one's salvation and growth in grace." Part of Article XIV, of Apostasy, reads: "We believe that the latter days will be characterized by general lawlessness and departure from the faith; ... that on the part of the church there will be a falling away and `the love of many shall wax cold."'
The Bible lays a real foundation for absolute assurance based on God's love (John 3:16; Romans 8:35-39), His omnipotent keeping power (John 10:38, 39; Jude 24, 25), His eternal purpose and foreordination (Romans 8:28-30; Ephesians 1:4), the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice (Romans 3:24, 25; Galatians 1:4; 2:20; Ephesians 1:7; Hebrews 9:11-14; 1 Peter 1:18, 19), the saving power of His resurrection (Romans 4:25; 5:10; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22), His intercession at the right hand of the Father (John 17; Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:24, 25; 1 John 2:1), the testimony of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16), the sealing of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:21, 22; Ephesians 1:13, 14; 4:30), the present experience of eternal life (John 3:36; 1 John 5:13), and the sufficiency of His grace (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In equally clear language believers are admonished to faithfulness (Matthew 24:24-51; 25:21-30; Romans 1:17; Revelation 2:10) and warned against apostasy (Mark 24:11-13; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 2:2). The entire Epistle to the Galatians is directed to Christians who were removing from Him who called them unto a different Gospel (1:6; 5:4) and enjoins a return to faith in Christ. In like manner the practical purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the re-entrenchment of faith. The lengthy cumulative warnings pointed up in such unequivocal statements as in 2:1; 3:6, 12, 14; 4:11, 14; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; and 12:25 can be understood only in terms of the possibility of final apostasy of those who had once been regenerated. In similar strain the warnings to the Seven Churches of Asia must be understood in the light of the doubtful issue of the conditional clause, "Except thou repent," of Revelation 2:5, 22 (see also 3:3).
The divine purpose of God to save us does not invalidate genuine human responsibility of faithfulness and obedience. The matchless benediction of Jude 24, 25 is not incompatible with the awful warning of Hebrews 10:26-31.
Holness, A. Selections from Our Fifty Years Written Ministry. London, 1913.
Chafer, L. S. Systematic Theology III. Dallas, TX 1947.
Ironside, H. A. The Eternal Security of the Believer. New York, 1934.
Horsch, John. "The Faith of the Swiss Brethren." Mennonite Quarterly Review 5 (1931): 145.
Wenger, J. C. "The Theology of Pilgram Marpeck." Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (1938).
Bender, H. S. "Conrad Grebel's Theology," Mennonite Quarterly Review 12 (1938): 131.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, p. 253-254. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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