“They Do Not Deserve You”; Wonder Woman and Soteriology

wonder woman(Spoiler Alert: The following notes assume big plot twists and a knowledge of the film.)

My wife and I saw Wonder Woman last night, and thank God, it was a good flick. I was worried the hype was just, well, hype, but it turned out it was a really solid superhero film and will be seen by most as the best of the DC franchise. It probably is, but I actually enjoyed Man of Steel and did-not-hate-kinda-liked most of Batman v. Superman (the extended edition, which actually makes way more sense).

In any case, as is my tendency, I had theological thoughts about the film as I was watching.  I mean, I am a Systematic theology student.

Still, superhero flicks lend themselves to this sort of analysis, since they’re explicitly concerned with quasi-divine figures rescuing humanity from destruction. They, therefore, typically contain an implicit soteriology (view of salvation), and therefore a corresponding anthropology (view of humanity) and hamartiology (view of sin, or what’s wrong with the world). I know it’s the ultimate cliche to find “Christ-figures” all over the films, but with Superhero flicks, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

Wonder Woman is no different. Indeed, it’s quite explicit about these things. One of the main plot tropes is Diana’s encounter with the world of men off the Island of Themascira. It’s what generates much of the humor (confused outsider a la Splash), as well as the moral energy. Yes, Diana is on a mission to defeat Ares, god of war, whom she believes is behind the carnage of World War I. But she is also on a moral journey; she is a goddess learning what it means to be a savior in the world of men.

One thing she has to learn is an alternative anthropology. In her myths about the creation of men, she learned that they are basically good, but they have been perverted and twisted towards violence by the powerful sway of Ares. She thinks, “If I can just kill Ares, men will be released to be good.” In other words, her hamartiology is reduced to a demonology: “the devil made them do it.”

And so whenever she encounters duplicitousness in the world of men–the lies and cowardice of even the “good guys”—she declares, “You too have been corrupted by Ares. You’re under his influence as well.”

A key movement of her moral journey involves recognizing the problem is much deeper. She comes to realize that humanity itself, apart from Ares, has evil within it. Humanity wars against itself, regardless of Ares, and in this war there are no pure figures. At the key hinge dialogue in the film, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) struggles to make clear to her, “Maybe we’re all to blame.” In other words, it’s the flesh, not just the devil at work in human evil.

Actually, this is where the demonology of the film gets interesting. Ares, as it turns out, is not the obvious devil figure you’re led to expect through the film. Ares turns out to be a moral misanthrope. And it is in his role as an Accuser of men that he makes his case to Diana against saving them. He hates men because he sees their weakness, their evil, their inherent proclivity towards hate. He tells her he has never had to control them–he has only had to suggest, to whisper, to stoke ember of evil that were already there in order. He has only fomented the war in order that men might destroy themselves–receiving in themselves the due penalty for their corruption, as it were.

It’s here that the goddess must learn the lesson of grace. Before she goes off the Island to fight, her mother Hippolyta tells her, “They do not deserve you.” She’s pure. She’s good. She doesn’t lie. As soon as she sees the good, she is immediately moved to pursue it.

And it is precisely for this reason, she must learn the lesson of grace. She has to learn why she’s a hero, why she ought to struggle to save humanity.  Before she thought it was because they’re basically good, deserving victims of Ares’s oppression. And while that latter statement is true, they are victims of Ares’s machinations, they are also victimizers. “They do not deserve you.”

And so in that same climactic scene, as the weight of human evil strikes Diana, Steve must play the role of advocate of sorts arguing, “It’s not about what they deserve–it’s about what you believe.” If humanity is going to be saved, it can’t be a matter of merit. They have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of Diana, in that regard. In which case, it must be a matter of mercy and grace. It has to be a decision Diana makes beyond desert.

Now, here the statement “it’s about what you believe” is a little limp. Pressing deeper, reflecting on Steve’s character, his valiant sacrifice, and the other men she has become friends with, she recognizes there is more to humanity than the evil within. There is love and goodness as well. The image of Zeus, if you will. And so she decides that is worth fighting for, even if humanity doesn’t deserve her.

This is one of those places where, coming from a Christian theological perspective, I thought they could have pressed deeper. Because, narratively, it’s not merely a matter of what she believes about humanity, but who she is for humanity. She was created in order to save humanity from Ares, from war, from the hell they make, apart from consideration of their merit. In that sense, it is about Diana’s purpose and the consistency of character as good, merciful, and just; it’s about the obligations that she has to be herself in the face of evil. Diana saves men, because Diana was created to be a savior.

Of course, Diana is not Jesus. And obviously, this wasn’t a “Christian” movie–for all sorts of reasons. All the same, for a being a comic flick about a hero rooted in a Greco-Roman, pagan mythology, there was a lot of theological good sense that makes me curious how it will be received by our friends and neighbors.

Well, that’s about it for now.


A More Elemental Atonement (A Review of Leithart)

Delivered from the elements coverThis review was originally written for Books and Culture before its unfortunate closing. Thanks to John Wilson for encouraging me to write it. 

One mark of a constructive theologian is to ask the perennial questions of Christian theology in a contemporary key. In Peter Leithart’s new work Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, and Mission, he reframes St. Anselm’s famous question, “Why did God become man?” as,

“How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century, an event in the putative backwaters of the Roman Empire, be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and cross-roads for everything?”

To answer that question, Leithart believes we must reconstrue atonement theology as “as social theory”, making social and political questions and consequences central to our understanding of Christ’s work. In that sense, it must be a “theory of everything”, if it is to be a successful rendering of the events that changed everything.

Indefatigable polymath that he is, Leithart is “cheerful, even giddy” about his limitations as he sets about constructing the argument of his self-described “Big Red Book About Everything”, drawing broadly upon a variety of discourses to get the job done. Within its pages, one can find forays into comparative anthropology, religious theories of sacrifice, OT studies, Pauline studies, Gospel studies, theories of secularization, Medieval and Reformation metaphysics, and so much more. The through-line connecting the disparate fragments is Leithart’s typological reading of the whole of Scripture and even human history. Indeed, you can characterize the work as a “systematic typology.”

Cur Deus Homo?

The work defies simple description and summary. In brief, though, Leithart offers a “Pauline” reading of Scripture that takes its cues from the notion of the “elements of the world” or stoicheia tou kosmou in Galatians 4:1-7. Across cultures in time and space, the world has ordered itself according to the “elements”, the basic “socio-religious principles” and categories such as clean/unclean, sacred/profane, life/death, and so forth. These principles give rise to orders of ritual, sacrifice, and social stratification which, though they can be arranged in a bewildering variety of ways, are the same basic “physics” composing the old creation.

These elemental principles order life in the “flesh.” For Leithart, “flesh” is a master metaphor comprising everything from basic, human frailty all the way to the post-Fall, libido dominandi of phallic warfare, which mortal flesh uses to cover over the fear of death. Fleshly life under the elements is Adamic humanity’s lot: cast out of God’s Garden-house, flesh is divided from Spirit, living under the restrictive regimes of “taste not, touch not” aimed at (yet failing in) overcoming death and restoring communion with God.

On this scheme, Torah is God’s own redemptive set of rearranged “elements” (sacrifice, ritual, holiness codes) which God uses in his history-long war of justice to destroy flesh without destroying humanity. With Torah, God separates a new Adamic people, Israel, out of the rest of the divided world, and with a new set of pedagogical elements, taught them to enter into his presence through sacrifice and purity, though under the condition of flesh.

Of course, the Torah cannot work life, or overcome flesh. Indeed, under the condition of flesh, Torah became an instrument of injustice within and by Israel and worked the curse of death against Israel.

For that reason, the Son came in the flesh to be a new Israel—one who enacted all that Torah aimed at, living out the life of the Spirit. This life and ministry inevitably brought him into conflict with the fleshly authorities, both Jewish and Roman, leading to his crucifixion—a sacrificial (and penal) death on behalf of (substitutionary) Israel and the World in which the flesh was condemned. It also led to his subsequent vindication and justification by resurrection (a “deliverdict”), in which the flesh is raised to life in presence of God by the Spirit. (A similar construction is given by Fleming Rutledge in her notion of “rectification”, which makes sense, since they both draw on themes from the Union school of apocalyptic interpretation).

Baptism, faith, and union with Christ’s justifying life, death, and resurrection leads to the justification and deliverance of the individual (his “deliverdict”), as well as the formation of a new, “post-stoicheic” community animated by Jesus and the Spirit.  As one new man, a just community is made from Jew and Gentile, both now free from Torah and the “elements” of the world. As the of this new community around a new, ritual, and moral order eventually begins dismantling of the old socio-religious hierarchies that surround it, we can begin to grasp how Jesus’ atonement leads to the transformation of social life and human history as a whole.

Promise and Perils of Systematics

One can begin to see, then, that Leithart’s answer to the question is innovative, elegant, multi-faceted, and holistic. I have never read something quite like this.

For instance, in setting the stage for his nuanced, biblical account of Levitical sacrifice and Torah (a brilliant distillation of the complex, often-impenetrable specialist literature on the subject), Leithart offers a literary interlude, consisting of a first-person dialogue between the Apostle Paul and the priests of Egypt, Babylon, and Ancient Greece. It’s something of a crash course in Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman comparative studies that manages to set Israel’s religious life firmly in the religious world, without falling into either parallelomania, nor forcing it into some Procrustean bed of a pre-existing theory of sacrifice or religion as so many recent accounts (such as those following Rene Girard) have done. What’s more, it has a literary flair, proving again that theology need not be aesthetically anodyne.

At this point, though, I’m reminded of a story Graham Cole tells about the plight of the systematic theologian. When reading the systematician’s work, a NT scholar will come along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did with the Old Testament, but a few of those bits on the New Testament weren’t so hot.” And the OT scholar comes along and say, “Great book. I loved what he did in the New Testament, but some of those bits from the Old Testament weren’t so hot.” And the historiand comes along and says, “Loved what he did with the Bible, but his historical work could use a tune-up.” The comprehensive holism which systematics demands often leaves exegetical or historical specialists a bit cold (or hot and bothered, depending on temperaments).

Speaking broadly, I’d say that in his attempt to make up for gaps often left unplugged in other accounts, Leithart leaves open a few of his own. For now, I leave it to others to deal with his rough handling of Reformation history, or the idiosyncrasies of his hybridized New Perspective, Apocalyptic, & typological reading of Paul and justification, or even the fuzzy metaphysical status of “nature” in his schema. Brad Littlejohn has explored some of those in his lengthy review, and in the future I may take up his critique of Reformation theology along the lines of the natural/supernatural distinction. For now, I’ll just comment on the pay-out and loss of having opted for his particular reading of Christ’s victory over the elements.

Stoicheia Without Satan 

Reading the stoicheia tou kosmou as the “elements of the world” and the “socio-religious principles” of clean and unclean, etc. has significant payouts in Leithart’s system. As we’ve seen, it allows him to connect Israel’s history to world religious history in its original setting, as well as ecclesiology and the social dimension of atonement. It also allows him to forward a current reading of the scene in which Christian mission happens; the way societies, ideologies, and even other religions like modern Hinduism and Buddhism which have been transformed in their encounter with the continuing impact of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

They also allow him to venture into the contested waters of secularization theory, contending that “we have never been secular.” Rather, modernity is a post-Christian, rationalized reordering of the categories of clean and unclean, sacred and profane, with its own priesthood, and social categories of “other.” It is not the same stoicheic order as the old, but it is a stoicheic order, nonetheless. (Incidentally, this is one of the most interesting parts of the work).

With all these benefits accrued, however, there is one conspicuous absence in Leithart’s story of atonement and his “theory of everything”: there is no Serpent in Leithart’s Garden. (Quite literally, there is no mention of him in the account of Adam and Eve’s Fall.)

In one way this is unsurprising. The other, recent popular interpretation for the phrase stoicheia tou kosmou is to see it as a reference to malevolent, spiritual forces. Opting for the reading “socio-religious principles”, Leithart seems to shelve the alternative almost entirely. With the exception of a few approving references to N.T. Wright’s suggestion that demonic powers or “tutelary deities” stand behind the “powers and principalities”, or a paragraph about Jesus’ exorcisms, the Tempter, the Accuser of the saints, the Dragon, the great opponent of YHWH and his people has gone missing from Leithart’s landscape. Interestingly, the Christus Victor theme is still there, but sublimated—YHWH is still at war, but not so much with demonic powers, but with flesh.

While seemingly unintentional, and while one cannot deal with everything in a single book, this transposition threatens to throw off not only our account of atonement, but our account of churchly mission as well. With respect to the atonement, John tells us that Christ came to utterly destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Paul says one of the great blessings of Christ removed the record of transgressions that stood against us, is disarming the powers and principalities (Colossians 2:13-15). In so doing, Christ liberates us from the fleshy fear of death (Hebrews 2:14), at least in part, by freeing us from Satan’s accusation (Revelation 12:10-12).

Turning to mission, the sidelining of the demonic distorts our understanding of spiritual power at work, lurking behind the “socio-religious principles”, rendering their opposition so potent.  Ignoring this leaves us liable to forget that our struggle is against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), not only a recalcitrant sociology.

I don’t think the narrative he presents can’t be modified to include this line of Biblical theology, but as it stands, the modification is necessary all the same.

At the end of the day, though, even the gaps in Leithart’s exceptional work press us to continually expand the scope of our reflections upon Christ’s atonement to social, political, and cosmic proportions.

Soli Deo Gloria

Giving Jesus Credit Where Credit is Due (Or, Soteriological Maximalism & Atonement Accounts)

There’s a principle in theology that some have named have the “principle of perfection”, or what we might term “theological maximalism”, that says our thinking about God should aim to do justice to God’s maximally great being.  In other words, when trying to do construct your doctrine of God, if you have an option between two ways of looking at God, unless you have some very good reason for thinking otherwise, whichever option is greater ought to be preferred. So, for instance, if choosing between the view that God’s omniscience, his all-knowingness, includes a knowledge of the future as well as the present and the past, or only the present and the past, we should probably prefer the former option. Unless we have some very good scriptural evidence to the contrary, theological maximalism will lead us to expect that God’s perfect knowledge will contain perfect knowledge of the future.

Now, to my mind that makes intuitive and even biblical sense. The Scriptures declare God’s greatness and glory is beyond human comprehension, which likely means that if we could come up with attribute that would make him better, stronger, and more glorious, then he probably has it. The big qualification that comes in, though, is that we need to make sure our reasoning and logic about what would make God “great” is itself formed and normed by what God has said about himself in Scripture. Your “great” and the Bible’s “great” might not always match up in all the details.

From Big God to Big Salvation

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I've ever seen.

This might be the most terrible portrait of Jesus I’ve ever seen.

I go into all of this to set up what I think should be a similar principle in our theology of salvation–a “soteriological maximalism”, if you will. What do I mean? And where am I going with this? Well, essentially, whichever position presents us with a greater, more complex, and comprehensive view of salvation wrought through Christ ought to be preferred. In other words, whichever view of salvation gives Father, Son, and Spirit more credit for getting more done through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, all other considerations being equal, we should opt for that one.

For instance, for a long time now I’ve been annoyed at what I see as reductionistic views of the atonement, (ie, how Christ’s death reconciles us to God). Ever since Gustav Aulen’s treatment of the atonement back in the 30s in Christus Victor, theologians have been talking about three different models, types, or “theories” of atonement: moral influence, penal satisfaction, and Christus Victor. J.I. Packer explains the three quite nicely in his classic essay, The Logic of Penal Substitution so I’ll let him expand at length:

1. There is first, the type of account which sees the cross as having its effect entirely on men, whether by revealing God’s love to us, or by bringing home to us how much God hates our sins, or by setting us a supreme example of godliness, or by blazing a trail to God which we may now follow, or by so involving mankind in his redemptive obedience that the life of God now flows into us, or by all these modes together. It is assumed that our basic need is lack of motivation Godward and of openness to the inflow of divine life; all that is needed to set, us in a right relationship with God is a change in us at these two points, and this Christ’s death brings about. The forgiveness of our sins is not a separate problem; as soon as we are changed we become forgivable, and are then forgiven at once. This view has little or no room for any thought of substitution, since it goes so far in equating what Christ did for us with what he does to us.

2. A second type of account sees Christ’s death as having its effect primarily on hostile spiritual forces external to us which are held to be imprisoning us in a captivity of which our inveterate moral twistedness is one sign and symptom. The cross is seen as the work of God going forth to battle as our champion, just as David went forth as Israel’s champion to fight Goliath. Through the cross these hostile forces, however conceived — whether as sin and death, Satan and his hosts, the demonic in society and its structures, the powers of God’s wrath and curse, or anything else — are overcome and nullified, so that Christians are not in bondage to them, but share Christ’s triumph over them. The assumption here is that man’s plight is created entirely by hostile cosmic forces distinct from God; yet, seeing Jesus as our champion, exponents of this view could still properly call him our substitute, just as all the Israelites who declined Goliath’s challenge in 1 Samuel 17:8-11 could properly call David their substitute. Just as a substitute who involves others in the consequences of his action as if they had done it themselves is their representative, so a representative discharging the obligations of those whom he represents is their substitute. What this type of account of the cross affirms (though it is not usually put in these terms) is that the conquering Christ, whose victory secured our release, was our representative substitute.

3. The third type of account denies nothing asserted by the other two views save their assumption that they are complete. It that there is biblical support for all they say, but it goes further. It grounds man’s plight as a victim of sin and Satan in the fact that, for all God’s daily goodness to him, as a sinner he stands under divine judgment, and his bondage to evil is the start of his sentence, and unless God’s rejection of him is turned into acceptance he is lost for ever. On this view, Christ’s death had its effect first on God, who was hereby propitiated (or, better, who hereby propitiated himself), and only because it had this effect did it become an overthrowing of the powers of darkness and a revealing of God’s seeking and saving love. The thought here is that by dying Christ offered to God what the West has called satisfaction for sins, satisfaction which God’s own character dictated as the only means whereby his ‘no’ to us could become a ‘yes’, Whether this Godward satisfaction is understood as the homage of death itself, or death as the perfecting of holy obedience, or an undergoing of the God-forsakenness of hell, which is God’s final judgment on sin, or a perfect confession of man’s sins combined with entry into their bitterness by sympathetic identification, or all these things together (and nothing stops us combining them together), the shape of this view remains the same — that by undergoing the cross Jesus expiated our sins, propitiated our Maker, turned God’s ‘no’ to us into a ‘yes’, and so saved us. All forms of this view see Jesus as our representative substitute in fact, whether or not they call him that, but only certain versions of it represent his substitution as penal.

So here you see the three types. You can probably also see where this is going with respect to “soteriological maximalism.” It has been an lamentable reality that in the West, and especially in contemporary theology, the three forms have been pitted against each other as rival models that we must choose between, because they’re apparently totally incompatible. I think this is an unfortunate, and quite unnecessary move. Indeed, Packer goes on to say as much:

…it should be noted that though the two former views regularly set themselves in antithesis to the third, the third takes up into itself all the positive assertions that they make; which raises the question whether any more is at issue here than the impropriety of treating half-truth as the whole truth, and of rejecting a more comprehensive account on the basis of speculative negations about what God’s holiness requires as a basis for forgiving sins. Were it allowed that the first two views might be misunderstanding and distorting themselves in this way, the much-disputed claim that a broadly substitutionary view of the cross has always been the mainstream Christian opinion might be seen to have substance in it after all. It is a pity that books on the atonement so often take it for granted that accounts of the cross which have appeared as rivals in historical debate must be treated as intrinsically exclusive. This is always arbitrary, and sometimes quite perverse.

In a sense, accepting some form of penal representation allows you to affirm the truth of the other two models, while accounting for more biblical material that can’t be easily folded into those accounts. Indeed, as some theologians like Hans Boersma, Graham Cole, Henri Blocher, and Robert Sherman have pointed out in their different accounts, accepting it actually gives us a coherent grounding for the other two realities. Following a principle of soteriological maximalism, then, we will strive to affirm it because allows us to give Jesus more credit for his work on the cross, not less.

This comes in handy when, for instance, coming to a text like Colossians 2:13-15:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Here we see very clearly both legal/penal concerns (v. 14), as well as the theme of victory over powers and principalities. Instead of trying to subsume or screen out either theme, instead we can clearly preach both at once, seeing the way they are seamlessly combined in Scripture, and even begin to trace the way they are organically combined together.

A Note on Girard

Incidentally, this should probably be our approach towards newer atonement accounts of a Girardian “scapegoat” type. Basically, innocent Jesus’ obviously unjust death on the cross at the hands of the powers (government, religion, the mob) exposes the violent, scapegoating mechanism at the heart of sinful society, bringing about repentance, or something like that. You can dig through these resources for more details.  I’ll be honest, on its own, it’s an abysmal account of the atonement that can’t really deal with the biblical material, and usually operates with Girard’s own neo-Marcionite reading of the Old Testament. As Scot McKnight has pointed out, it’s basically a new-style Abelarian/moral influence type, only in this set-up, we’re tempted to forget that we’re the ones who put him up on the Cross. (Also, the above works by Boersma, Sherman, and this one by Horton, all ably critique Girardian atonement types.) Still, it is possible to take some of Girard’s insights about the scapegoating process in general and fold them into Christ’s work of exposing the powers of evil on the Cross.

Also, Girardian types remind us of the boundary measure we mentioned with theological maximalism. As I said, Girardian types usually have to screen out, or hold up as false, most of the Old Testament sacrificial system, as well as reject any image of God dealing out judgment upon sin as punishment. And yet the acknowledgement that the Creator God is the just judge who punishes sin stands clearly at the center of the story of Israel’s dealings with him. In putting forward a view of the atonement that’s allegedly consistent with a glorious ‘non-violent’ God, not only do these accounts deny the accomplishments that penal accounts affirm, they have to do so contrary to the witness of Scripture as well.

Objections and Conclusions

I can, at this point, anticipate a couple of objections at this point along the lines of “Well, what about universalism? That seems to make Jesus a more able Savior, wouldn’t it? Saving all is better than saving only some?” Or again, “What about theosis, or Eastern Orthodox forms of deification? Shouldn’t we then try and figure out a way to affirm those? ‘Deifying’ people seems like an extra step up, doesn’t it?” Well, honestly, I don’t have time to address both adequately, but I’d simply say this is where we need to make sure our ideas about what is ‘maximal’ is being normed and formed by Scripture. In the case of universalism, the numeric ‘more’ that seems more maximal must be submitted to the scriptural judgments we have on the subject that apparently imply otherwise.

On deification, actually I’d say that this ought to motivate us to re-examine our hesitancy to reject any notion of deification as entirely out of bounds for a Reformed, or simply biblical, account of Christ’s work for us. J. Todd Billings has done some excellent work to make a case for a Calvinistic doctrine of ‘deification’ through union with Christ that doesn’t violate biblical teaching on the Creator/creature distinction. A number of other Reformed theologians (Michael Horton, Robert Letham) have been affirming something similar as well.

At the end of this (already too long) post, all I’ll say is that our instinct in reading Scripture and preaching Christ should be to give him as much credit as possible for “so great a salvation.”

Soli Deo Gloria


‘Once Saved Always Saved’, or ‘Preservation and Perseverance in Christ’?

one-with-christ-an-evangelical-theology-of-salvation-199x300From time to time I’m asked by one of my students whether or not I think you can lose your salvation. Being that many of them come to me as default Arminians, a few of them are clearly expecting me to dispel the silly notion that ‘once saved, always saved’ no matter what else you do. The idea that you could pray a prayer when you’re five, then go live your life in whatever kind of debauchery appeals to you for the rest of your life, and still be saved is repugnant to them. And rightfully so. Yet, still others, having caught the drift of some of my talks on grace, security in Christ, and so forth, strongly push back that grace is a grace and so it’s all covered. The idea of someone being lost by God is repugnant to them. And rightfully so.

At that point, the challenge is to explain a doctrine of perseverance that gives both the full assurance that those “whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30), as well as the need to “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard” (Col. 1:23).

In his excellent new work One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of SalvationMarcus Johnson gives a little summary of the distinction between pop-level “once saved, always saved’ theology and a more classic understand of “preservation and perseverance in Christ” that ought to be helpful for anyone else struggling to explain this key truth. Prudently he begins with the words of the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. 1. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

Notice the careful wording of the catechism: the believer is able to express complete confidence that she will never be separated from Christ, but salvation has an ongoing content that includes willingness and readiness to live for Christ. This is why Reformed theology has always insisted that salvation includes “the perseverance of the saints.” This does not mean that believers are saved because they persevere in their faith— as if continually to merit God’s grace— but that they persevere as they are preserved by God’s grace in Christ. The saints indeed stumble in sin, and may sometimes even doubt that they truly belong to Christ, but they will never finally be overcome by sin or lose their assurance of God’s fatherly care. The saints experience in their lives the faithfulness of Christ as they grow into his manifold blessings.

This is why a doctrine of “eternal security” that asserts that believers are eternally saved irrespective of the carnality of their lives, including the act of apostasy, is to be rejected strenuously. Quite simply, this construal fails to take into account that the believer’s eternal security is grounded in his preservation in the living, crucified, resurrected Christ, who will never fail to nourish his body. It is also typically reductionistic in its understanding of salvation, emphasizing that we have been saved to the exclusion of the equally important truth that we are being saved. The content of salvation, according to this view, is reduced to, and is often synonymous with, what is referred to as the “gift of eternal life,” an abstraction that neglects the truth that Christ is himself eternal life. The inevitable result is a doctrine of “eternal security” that vitiates the good news that God continually imparts the very life of Christ to his children. When Christ promises us eternal life, he is promising more than a gift to be redeemed when we die— a “get-out-of-jail-free” card, as it were. He is promising us a life in and with him that begins when we receive him, manifests itself throughout our lives, and necessarily wells up into eternal blessedness (John 4: 14; 15: 1– 8; 1 John 5: 18– 20).

Contrary to the rather crass notion of “ once saved, always saved,” the doctrine of preservation in Christ insists that the one who is united to Christ (is saved) inevitably experiences the manifold benefits of that union (is being saved). Christ gives us himself in salvation, and because he is the crucified, resurrected, living Son of God, salvation means a participation in his death, resurrection, and life. This means we not only receive the benefit of justification through this union, we also receive the benefit of sanctification. Sanctification, as we have seen, means not only that we have been made holy in Christ , but that we are being made holy in him —and this because we have been crucified and resurrected with him. In fact, the very design of our predestination in Christ is that we will “be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Rom. 8: 29). We are told, further, that we were created in Christ Jesus “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2: 10). God is in the process of sanctifying us “completely. . . . He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5: 23– 24).

–One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Kindle Locations 3548-3578). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

To be clear, it’s unthinkable that someone who has been truly united to Christ, placed in his unbreakable grip, to be lost. Johnson brings out the staggering implications if that were true:

When God joins us to Christ through faith, he is making real in our temporal lives what he has already decreed in his eternal will and accomplished in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son. To be severed from the Son would require that the Father rescind what he has already decreed and accomplished. Every benefit that we have received from being united to Christ would have to be undone. Having already justified us in Christ, God would have to re-condemn us and repeal our participation in Christ’s righteousness; having already sanctified us in Christ, God would have to reverse our baptism into Christ’s death, burial, and new resurrection life; having already adopted us in Christ, God would have to make us orphans; having already resurrected us with Christ and raised us in his ascension, God would have to lower us into death and cast us from the heavenly realms; and having already glorified us in Christ, God would have to terminate the end to which he appointed all of his blessings. In sum, having joined us to Christ, God would have to dismember the body of Christ.

–ibid, (Kindle Locations 3523-3530).

And yet, it’s also similarly unthinkable that someone truly united with Christ, filled with the Spirit and the gifts of justification, sanctification, adoption, and so forth, to turn aside and live in unrepentant sin. In a sense, yes, “once saved, always saved” is true, but what the doctrines of preservation and perseverance make clear is that a more accurate summary is “once saved, inevitably saved.

 Soli Deo Gloria