by Matthew W. Bassford
It is sad but true that often, the most emphatic refutation of doctrinal error is another error. Consider, for instance, Martin Luther’s reaction to the Renaissance Catholic practice of selling indulgences. He objected, and rightly so, to the notion that we could purchase our salvation, whether with money or with righteous actions.
However, he concluded that only faith, apart from any action whatsoever, is all that is necessary for salvation. That’s no more correct than the sale of indulgences is! In their turn, some brethren, in response to faith-only salvation, have taught that we earn our way to heaven, which also is not true. And so the cycle continues.
I believe a similar process is at work in the way that many Christians handle John 10:28. This is a famous Calvinist proof text. They argue that it teaches the doctrine of eternal security, that once someone is saved, it is impossible for them to fall away. Most in the churches of Christ have significant problems with this claim and point to the host of passages that imply or state explicitly that falling away is possible.
However, in the course of so doing, they strip the passage of much of its comfort. They spend so much time dwelling on what the text doesn’t mean (“Yes, we can fall away! See Hebrews 6:4-8.”) that they minimize what it does mean. As a result of this and similar exegetical failures, countless Christians are uncertain of their salvation and live in fear that they have fallen away without realizing it.
The solution to the problem is to focus less on Calvinism and to focus more on the words of Christ. John 10:28 isn’t a disconnected proverb. Instead, it’s part of an argument, and all we have to do is read one verse up to see who the “they” 10:28 is. According to 10:27, Jesus is talking about the sheep who hear His voice and follow Him. Those are the sheep who cannot be snatched out of His hand. He makes no promises concerning the sheep who have stopped listening and following.
Thus, if we want to know whether the guarantee of 10:28 applies to us, all we have to do is ask whether we have met the conditions of 10:27. Do we hear His voice? This does not demand perfect comprehension of us, because no one understands God’s revelation perfectly. It does require, though, that we are interested in His voice and are seeking to understand it.
Second, do we follow Him? This does not require perfect obedience. As we learn in 1 John 1, even those who walk in the light still sin. It does mean, though, that in the overall course of our lives, we are striving to be obedient.
If these things are true of us, guess what? We’re safe! Jesus has promised to protect us, not because we’re perfect (if we were, we wouldn’t need Him) but because we aren’t. So long as we are with our Shepherd, the devil cannot snatch us out of His hand.
Of course, if we abandon our Shepherd, we place ourselves in deadly danger. However, by definition, that’s what faithful Christians haven’t done. So long as we remain faithful, then, we can be assured of inheriting eternal life, not because of ourselves, but because of the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.