Can One Cease Believing?
There are two extremes in systematic theology today, opposite poles of theological thinking. Calvinism stresses the sovereignty of God. Arminianism emphasizes the free will of man. Both terms are used in a pejorative sense by the opposing view.
Probably the Biblical view lies in between the two. Yes, God is sovereign but does this mean that man's free will is an illusion and that life is programmed in advance by the decrees of God. Yes, man has a will, but is salvation simply a human choice or is it the response of man to the wooing of the Holy Spirit, without which there is no salvation?
John Calvin in his Institutes admits there is a kind of faith which falls short of saving faith. There may be an intellectual agreement which does not go on to saving faith. "The next thing necessary is, that what the mind has imbibed be transferred into the heart. The word is not received in faith when it merely flutters in the brain, but when it has taken deep root in the heart, and become an invincible bulwark to withstand and repel all the assaults of temptation." (Book III, Ch. II, 36) How then can we recognize saving faith?
Saving faith is a present faith. "He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18 NKJ). "He who believes" is a presnt, active participle (Greek). Saving faith is current and dynamic. It is true that faith has a historic beginning, a time of hearing the voice of God. God spoke and "Abraham believed God" (Gen. 15:6). But saving faith is on-going, present and active.
Saving faith is productive, life-changing. John the Baptizer refused to baptize the Pharisees. His cry to them was: "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Mt. 3:8). Religious words did not satisfy John. He wanted to see the evidence of true repentance in the life. "He who covers his sins shall not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy" (Prov. 28:13).
Jesus Himself said, "You will know them by their fruits. Do men father grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so every good tree bears good fruit....(Mt. 7;16-17). The true nature of a tree is seen in its fruit.
Paul states emphatically, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation....(II Co. 5:17). The Holy Spirit works in regenerating power; one is "born again" (Jn. 3:5-6). If there has been no change in a person's life, one may question whether he has saving faith.
Saving faith is a persevering faith. In the parable of the sower Christ described those on the rocky soil as having a shallow faith. "But he who receives the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has not root in himself but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles" (Mt. 13:20-21). There is a quick, joyful response to the gospel. He professes to receive the message. But when there is the pressure of trouble or persecution because of the faith he gives up his profession. Saving faith perseveres and produces fruit (Mt. 13:23).
Later in the Olivet discourse, Jesus described the difficulties and persecution that lay ahead for His followers. He never promised a "health and wealth" gospel. These trials would cause the love of the many to "grow cold" (Mt. 24:12). Then came His strong encouragement: "But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Mt. 24:13). Persevering faith is saving faith.
Lest some relegate this teaching to another dispensation, hear the words of Paul: "Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you--unless you believed in vain" (I Cor. 15:1-2). Paul then goes on to describe this glorious gospel that he had proclaimed.
Note that Paul warns of the necessity to hold fast (katecho, Greek) the gospel for salvation. To let go of this message and the Savior it proclaims is to have a vain faith, empty and futile. Saving faith then is persevering faith.
To this the writer of Hebrews would agree. Some of us have spent years trying to explain away the warnings of Hebrews as if they were irrelevant for the Church today. Hear then the warning: "For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God and put Him to an open shame" (Heb. 6:4-6).
Many in Israel saw and tasted the luscious grapes of Eschcol, along with the pomegranites and figs from Canaan (Num. 13:23). They confessed that the promised land was a beautiful land, flowing with milk and honey. But they refused to go in because of unbelief and their carcasses fell in the wilderness (Num. 14:28). Their faith was not a persevering faith. "So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief" (Heb. 3:19).
"Anyone who has rejected Moses' law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God under foot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?" (Heb. 10:28-29)
Without going into a detailed exegesis of these passages it is obvious that they warn against the possibility of some turning away from the Christ they once professed. They have become apostate, rejecting the faith they once endorsed. Theirs has not been a persevering faith and hence is not ultimately saving faith.
Does this ever happen in real life? Sadly, yes. J. N. Darby wrote a book, The Irrationality of Infidelity, to defend the faith from the attacks of F. W. Newman, who had once worshiped God with him at the Lord's table and had gone out as a missionary to work with A. N. Groves in Baghdad. Later he denied the faith.
A man with whom I once preached on the streets of Chicago showed great promise. Later he rejected the faith. When I saw him years later he was an atheist, pleasant and friendly but firm in his apostasy. He died without turning back to God.
In Pilgrim's Progress John Bunyan tells of pilgrim being given a tour of Interpreter's House. In one room he was shown a man in an iron cage, loudly lamenting his fate. When questioned the man said, "I have crucified Him to myself afresh. I have despised His person. I have despised His righteousness; I have counted His blood an unholy thing; I have done despite to the Spirit of grace. Therefore I have shut myself out of all the promises, and there now remains to me nothing but threatenings, dreadful threatenings, fearful threatenings of certain judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour me as an adversary."
"Then said Interpreter to Christian, `Let this man's misery be remembered by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee.'" Saving faith is a present faith. One is currently a believer. Saving faith is productive faith; the fruit of the Spirit is seen in the life. And it is persevering, continuing until the end of life. Without such faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).
By God's grace His children can persevere in the faith until finally taken home to heaven. Praise God!
Now unto Him who is able to keep you