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The Believer's Security — A Response to James Akin

 


by James White

n the February, 1998 issue of This Rock Magazine, the publication of California-based Catholic Answers, we find an article by James Akin on page 33 in their regular feature titled "Chapter & Verse." This month’s installment was "Believer’s Security." We would like to offer a response to the claims of this particular article.


The Article

Mr. Akin begins with a five paragraph discussion of how Protestants, under the influence of sola scriptura, misread the Bible. He takes as his text the precious words of the Lord Jesus in the Gospel of John, specifically, John 6:37 and John 10:27-30. To help with context, however, we provide a little more context:

(John 6:36-40) "But I said to you that you have seen Me, and yet do not believe. [37] "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. [38] "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. [39] "This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. [40] "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

(John 10:26-30) "But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. [27] "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; [28] and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. [29] "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. [30] "I and the Father are one."

Essentially, Mr. Akin’s position can be summarized as follows: 1) "Protestants often treat the Bible as if it were a handbook of systematic theology." 2) "Protestantism habitually misreads the Bible by treating its statements as if they were axioms of systematic theology." 3) "The statements in Scripture are partial expressions of a truth, like we use in everyday speech. They are not like expressions in a technical journal, and they must be given a human rather than a manualistic reading."

This presentation then provides Mr. Akin with a foundation upon which to "examine" Jesus’ statements on the security of the believer. Mr. Akin begins with an illustration drawn from a convert to the Roman Catholic Church that parallels the relationship of the Lord to His sheep (those who come to Him) with a pastor who tells his congregation that if anyone comes to his office for counseling, they will never be turned away, and never cast out. He concludes the illustration by saying, "The statements that you won’t be turned away and that you won’t be pulled out in no way imply that you won’t leave on your own."

In the final four paragraphs, Mr. Akin insists that John 6 and John 10 are merely "partial" statements of the truth that have to be understood in light of another passage in John, that being John 15:1-2, 6, 9-10. He insists, "But if the believer fails to bear fruit and abide in God’s love, God himself will take him out and, barring repentance, the believer will end up in hell."


Response

First, we acknowledge that a short article presents space constraints. Hence, this is not the entirety of what Mr. Akin has to say on this issue. Therefore, some of our criticisms may simply be due to a lack of space. With this in mind, then, we note that 1) there is no attempt at meaningfully examining the actual words of Jesus in John 6 or John 10. Instead, we get a lengthy discussion of how Jesus’ words cannot be taken in a "manualistic" manner. 2) The interpretation of John 15 as teaching that Christ’s sheep can be cast off is taken as a given, with no mention of other better interpretations. Hence, it is difficult to engage Mr. Akin’s article on an exegetical ground, since no meaningful exegesis is offered, and, possibly, the comments given at the beginning of the article preclude any meaningful exegesis in the first place.

To point out the error in Mr. Akin’s teaching, then, we will respond first to the assertion that the Protestant reading of these passages is in a sense "polluted" by sola scriptura, and then we will examine the interpretation of John 15 assumed by Mr. Akin. Finally, we will offer a textually-based understanding of the passages.

With reference to the assertion that Protestants habitually misread the text of the Bible, we can only respond by referring to the old saying about the pot calling the kettle black. The history of Roman Catholic "interpretation" of the Bible is filled with the most egregious examples of ignoring context, language, and every other relevant facet of the text. The long history of allegorical interpretation, brought to an end only by the grammatical-historical emphasis of Reformation theology, is more than sufficient to deflect the assertion that Rome somehow approaches the text in its native environment, while Protestants are guilty of eisegesis. In reality, the reverse is the case. All one has to do is look at how Rome defends some of her dogmatic beliefs to see how Scripture is merely putty in the hands of those who claim infallible interpretational authority.

But there is more to Mr. Akin’s attempts here. Are we to actually believe that one cannot derive statements of actual truth from the text of Scripture? One might well come to that conclusion on the basis of his assertions. Yet, one need only reflect for a few moments to realize the error of the position. Are we to believe that all of Jesus’ teachings are to be placed into the same categories? Upon what basis are we to apply this "leveling" of all the different kinds of literature in the Bible? There are times indeed when Jesus speaks hyperbolically. Parables, for example, partake of a different kind of style than direct didactic proclamation. But we can no more say that the High Priestly Prayer of John 17 is to be understood in the exact same way as the parable of the mustard seed than we can say that the beasts of Revelation should be interpreted in the same fashion as the high theology of Romans 8 or Ephesians 1.

The real reason Mr. Akin says "Almost nowhere in Scripture does one find technical statements of a truth" is because the passages he is attempting to deflect do in fact contain direct, plain, unameliorated statements of absolute truth. But, these truths are not in harmony with what Mr. Akin is taught as a Roman Catholic, hence, there must be some other way to deal with these passages.

As we will see below, these passages are very plain, very consistent in their teaching. And they can be taken at face value.

Interestingly, Mr. Akin falls into his own trap when he refers to John 15. First, he offers us only the most shallow interpretation of the passage, which assumes the exact same audience is in view in the fifteenth chapter as in the sixth and tenth. He then assumes that this means that true believers, Christ’s sheep, those given to Him by the Father, can, by their own lack of fruitfulness, be lost. We will see below that this is not a possible interpretation of John 6, and that the Lord Jesus utterly precludes the idea that any who are given to Him by the Father could ever perish. But what of John 15? Is Mr. Akin’s assumed interpretation the only one borne out by the text? By no means.

Mr. Akin misses the important contextual fact that when Jesus speaks to the disciples in John 14-17, Judas, who has been with them for the entire length of the ministry, has now left. One of the "branches" has been cast aside, pruned by the Vinedresser, who is the Father. As we have provided a rather in-depth discussion of John 15 and the Vine and the Branches elsewhere (tape #482), we will not re-state everything that we said there. Instead, we point out that 1) the Lord Jesus uses language He used elsewhere to describe surface level or false believers (cf. Mark 4:5-6). 2) It is merely an assumption that outward appearance equals inward reality, that is, that any branch, as long as it has the appearance of a branch, therefore represents one of Christ’s sheep. 3) The branches that are pruned by the Father are those that abide in Christ. Again, this is not an action that comes from the branch but from the vine. That is, those branches that have a vital union with the vine are the ones that bear fruit. The fruitfulness of the branch is a function of the vine, not of the branch itself! The error of man-centered theology is in thinking that it is the branch that bears fruit by its own effort, while in reality, it is the vine that makes for the fruitful branch.

Most importantly, it is merely the assumption of Mr. Akin (and many other interpreters who attempt to present this passage as one that promotes a conditional relationship between Christ and His sheep) that the branches that do not bear fruit are, by their nature, indicative of true believers. The text indicates otherwise, as only those who abide in the vine can bear fruit, for apart from the vine, the branch can do nothing. Those branches, then, that "do nothing" were obviously "apart from" the vine, apart from Christ.

We note briefly that it is possible that Mr. Akin would present the idea that these are true, but non-elect, Christians. That is, they are not chosen by God, not predestined unto salvation, but they end up "believing" anyway, and hence can easily fall away. We simply point out that there is no such thing as a person who truly comes to Christ apart from the enablement of the Father (John 6:44, 65). There is no Christian who sought out God on his or her own without His first drawing them by His power and regenerating them by His grace (Romans 3:11). Hence, the entire idea of a "non-elect Christian" is contradictory to the most basic truths of the Gospel.

We also point out that the Lord said that He taught the disciples these things so that they might have joy (John 15:11), and it would hardly bring them joy to have their eternal destiny hung squarely upon their own shoulders so that their own faithfulness became the measure of their salvation.

So we see that we can understand John 15 in such a manner as to not in any way suggest that those who are truly united with Christ can ever be separated from Him. Mr. Akin’s presumed interpretation is not found to be the only possible way to understand the passage. Yet, can we find any way of understanding John 6 or John 10 that is consistent with Mr. Akin? I think not.


John 6

There are few passages in Scripture more compelling, and more challenging, than this one. And we would also insist that this passage is perspicuous, for it is clear in its teaching, and consistent in its use of language and symbology. The honest interpreter will find it a gold mine of truth. Yes, it even contains direct, clear statements of absolute truth!

We have addressed John 6:35-45 in print in James White’s book, Drawn by the Father. For our purposes here, we note that the passages does contain specific statements of doctrinal truth which just happen to directly contradict the assertions of Mr. Akin, and his interpretation of John 15. Note again the Lord’s words:

[37] "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. [38] "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. [39] "This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. [40] "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

It is easy to understand why nearly half Mr. Akin’s article is dedicated to basically asserting that you can’t take Jesus’ words at face value. For if we do that here, the result is unmistakeable:

The Father is sovereign over men, for He gives a people to the Son.

All that the Father gives to the Son will, inevitably, surely, come to Christ. No exceptions.

All that the Fathers gives to the Son will come to Christ, and enter into a relationship with Him, not with anyone else.

The "coming" spoken of here is a continuous action—it does not say all who merely confess the name of Christ once in their life, but those who have true saving faith, who are, as a habitual pattern, coming to Christ for their spiritual food and water (John 6:35).

Those so given by the Father to the Son, and who, as a result of that giving, come to Christ (i.e., the elect), will never, ever be cast out by the Son.

Now at this point it is common for Arminians and Roman Catholics to say just as Mr. Akin said: Jesus’ words do not "imply that you won’t leave on your own." Obviously, if we believed that salvation was the work of man, and man was the one who got himself into the relationship with Christ, it would be more than understandable how man could, then, get himself out. If we were the ones who initiated our relationship with Christ, we could obviously end it, too. But it is just here that the Reformation said "No!" This is why Luther debated Erasmus on "free will," and why Calvin wrote against Pighius in defense of election and predestination. While most Protestants today live in blissful ignorance of their history, the Reformation well understood what passages like this proclaim in loud unambiguous tones: the giving of the Father inevitably results in the coming of the believer, not the other way around. The divine decree of the Father in giving a people to Christ is the grounds of our coming to Christ. Hence, since it is God’s will that the elect come to Christ, and it is God’s initiative that has brought about their regeneration and their union with Christ, it is not within man’s power to sever that relationship. Not only this, but since the elect are given a new nature in Christ, one that loves Christ and longs to be with Him, the idea of one of His elect ones desiring to be severed from Christ is unthinkable.

While most of those who teach that Christ’s work of salvation is imperfect are not aware of it (and what else is it to deny the unconditional position of the elect in Christ than to deny the perfection of Christ’s work?), they are, in fact, saying that it is possible for the Son either to fail to do the will of the Father, or to disobey the Father. Why do we say this? Continue reading in verse 38!

The Son has come to do the Father’s will, not His own. We can be assured that the Son will always do the will of the Father, and that in perfection.

The Father’s will for the Son is explicitly laid out in verse 39: the complete, perfect, exhaustive salvation of all of those given by the Father to the Son. There are no exceptions: Jesus says He is to lose nothing. He must be a powerful Savior to accomplish the will of the Father.

What other possible construction could be placed upon these words? They are clear, straightforward words that communicate without confusion. The will of the Father for the Son is tied to the elect, those the Father "has given to Me." Of those who are so given (and who is a part of this group is indeed the decision of the Father, based upon His own mercy and will, Ephesians 1:4ff), Jesus says He is to lose none.

The perfect balance of the Word shines through in verse 40 where, after emphasizing the absolute power and sovereignty of God in salvation, the "human" element is seen—but in its proper perspective. God saves. The Father gives the elect to the Son. The Son saves them perfectly, so that none will be lost. But what does this involve in the life of the elect? They come to Christ. They feed upon Him. They gave upon Him. They long for Him. They find in Him their all in all. They behold the Son, and they believe in the Son. Neither action "adds" to the work of Christ. Both are the inevitable result of the work of Christ in the person’s life. They look to Christ (the unbeliever may look at Christ, but will not look on Christ in faith), and they trust in Him. This is the result of their being given by the Father to the Son. The divine order is clear: the work of God first, the response of man second.

What could be more clear? What could be more glorious than to see the power of the Savior who is truly able to save? Yet these words strike at any religious system that gives place to the will of man rather than the will of God. Men, so concerned about their "freedom," trample under foot the freedom and sovereignty of God. Man’s pride is crushed under the weight of his utter dependence upon the Father who gives, the Son who saves, and the Spirit to brings new life. There is no place for boasting, for, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31, it is by His doing that we are in Christ Jesus—not our doing.

John 6 and John 10 are closely related. The same elect people are in view, given the Father to the Son in John 6, called Christ’s "sheep" in John 10. His words are again without equivocation:

"But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. [27] "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; [28] and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. [29] "My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. [30] "I and the Father are one."

This section begins with an assertion not cited by Mr. Akin, and not believed by many on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide. Jesus says that the reason for unbelief is really rather simple: those who are not of His sheep do not believe. The standard human-centered idea is that we believe, and hence become Christ’s sheep. The Lord reverses this: those who are His sheep believe; those who are not His sheep do not believe. The decision as to who will constitute Christ’s sheep lies in the will of the Father, not the creature, man.

When the Lord mentions the unbelief of the Jews, He goes on to contrast their unbelief with the belief of His sheep. They "hear" the Master’s voice. There were unbelievers right there who "heard" what Jesus said, but they did not "hear" what Jesus was saying. The play on words speaks to those who see, but do not see; who hear, but do not hear and understand. The sheep not only know their Master’s voice, but they are known by the Master. Jesus says He knows His sheep. This makes Mr. Akin’s position even more untenable, for when the Lord Jesus casts away from Him the ungodly at the judgment recorded in Matthew 7:23, He does not say "I once knew you, but I do not any longer," but instead, "I never knew you!" How could Jesus ever say this to one who was once one of His sheep?

Just as coming to Christ is the inevitable result of being given by the Father to the Son, so too following Christ is the inevitable result of being one of Christ’s sheep. They know His voice, and they follow Him. One does not become a sheep by following; but if a sheep is truly of the Master’s flock, it will follow the Shepherd.

Christ gives eternal life to His sheep. Nothing is said, we note in passing, that about this eternal life being a just reward given to the good works of the sheep that are done in a state of grace. Rather, the Shepherd gives eternal life to His sheep, just as in John 6 the Lord raises up to eternal life all those who are given to Him. He says they will never perish. How can this be, given Mr. Akin’s position? All they need to do is decide to perish, and they will perish! But such is not a part of the Lord’s doctrine. He is the perfect Savior, and He saves His own. They cannot be snatched away, and no one would ever give consideration to the idea that a sheep would, by a volitional choice, abandon the shepherd. The oneness of the Father and Son in bringing about the perfect salvation of God’s people guarantees the work will be completed, and that without failure.

It is a great and glorious thing to listen to the words of Christ—if you are one of Christ’s sheep. We gladly confess our utter dependence upon Christ, not just to begin the work of salvation, but to continue it and complete it. It is His work, not a joint effort, and as such, it is perfect and complete.

The issue of the perseverance of the saints is really simply a matter of asking a simple question: is Christ a perfect Savior? If so, salvation is sure for those who are given by the Father to the Son.


Conclusion

Mr. Akin has given his allegiance to an authority outside of Scripture, that being the Roman Catholic magisterium. That authority does not accurately and rightly present the truths Christ and His Apostles gave to us in the Word of God. As a result, Mr. Akin, even when faced with these tremendous passages, does not "hear" the message of Christ found in them. Instead, he hears a different shepherd, and follows a different leader. The result is a denial of the perfection of the work of Christ, and the sovereignty of God.

We invite the reader to prayerfully consider the words of Christ in these passages, and consider what it means to take away from Christ the singular glory that is His as the perfect Savior.


See the radio discussion with Mr. Akin, tape #465, for a longer discussion.


Copyright 2005-2006 Alpha and Omega Ministries