Saturday, December 28, 2013

Eternal Security?

Does Ephesians 1:13 Affirm the Doctrine of
Eternal Security?

Eternal Security (ES) Defined

The term “eternal security” (which I will refer to as ES from here on) is the Biblical teaching that it is impossible for an individual, after having become a believer in Jesus Christ and having received the Holy Spirit, to ever be lost again for eternity.

Other terms for ES are:
-          “Once saved, always saved”
-          “Once in grace, always in grace”
-          “Perseverance of the saints” (which some argue is incorrectly applied to ES).[1]

In addition, there are two views taken by ES advocates:
-       The extreme: a true believer may commit grievous sins or even deny Christ, yet his salvation remains intact.
-     The moderate: a true believer will never become an unbeliever; he will never fall into committing grievous sin(s) to the point that he never repents or renders divine forgiveness impossible.[2]

Some scholars contend that the sealing with the Spirit was understood as being divinely accomplished normally at one’s baptism in water, although there may be exceptions.[3]

The Central Objection

My argument takes the position that the author of Ephesians assumes his readers are all genuine believers (1:1 – “the chosen ones…loyal to and in Christ”; 1:13 – “In Him you…believed, you were sealed”; also, “you listened to the good message of your salvation”[4]).  Accordingly, therefore, the contention that some may not be saved is unwarranted.  The apostle wrote Ephesians to those whom he believed were genuine believers.

The Texts

“In whom also you, having heard the word of the truth, the good message of the deliverance of you, in whom also having trusted you were sealed in the spirit of the promise of the holy.”[5]

The Meaning of "Seal"

It seems being “sealed” is a metaphor the apostle Paul used to convey to his readers one or more of the following ideas all associated with “in Christ” concerning God’s:
(a)  Ownership of them.
(b)  Authority entrusted to them.
(c)  Authentication of their standing.
(d)  Fulfillment of His word to them.

“The ‘seal of the Spirit’ is considered a stamp God has put on those who belong to him and are under his protection and a first installment of their inheritance.”  Furthermore, the “gentile addressees are to be assured that they have a full share in all of God’s blessings in Christ.”[6]

Personally, I think (d) is intended as the central thought on the basis of the next verse: “who is given as a pledge” (v.14, NASB), however, I will not argue to any of the above ideas being applicable.

In any case, notice that none of the conveyances above for being “sealed in Him” denote the idea, at least, necessarily, of ES.  The term “seal” is used as a metaphor.

As such, the question may be asked would it be correct to:
(a)   Go beyond the main thought of the metaphorical usage by including every facet of its literal meaning or application, and
(b)   Propose the text teach something, which is neither stated explicitly nor implicitly but rather pulled out of the metaphor.

If one arrives at a negative answer to both questions, it seems that ES is a doctrine foreign to a proper understanding of the word, “seal”, and, therefore, to hold such a view would further be an obstacle to a proper interpretation of the text.

Note how the NASB translates v.14[7] making the seal refer to what is pledged, that is, the inheritance.  Furthermore, this pledge is with respect to the final age: “with a view to the [final] redemption.”  It is a pledge of something for the future, not the present (“now but not yet”).  Furthermore, it is a pledge that is conditional, not on a one-time act of faith, but on a continual act of trusting (v.15) that had begun in the past when they first “heard the message” (Matthew 24:13; 2 Timothy 2:12a).  In v.15, on the part of the Ephesians, the apostle is confidently affirming the faith that had begun in them in the past as evidently continuing in the present moment and, therefore, prays for their continuing growth in grace and faith (v.16ff).  In v.14, on God’s part, one may suppose that the apostle speaks with the same confidence as though it was a “done deal.”

Although having reference to Philippians 1:6 on a different subject, nevertheless, Dr. Shank’s remarks are applicable to our present discussion: “Paul’s confidence for the Philippians…was not based on some inexorable divine law which must continue operative regardless of the conduct of the Philippians.  Quite the contrary, his confidence stemmed from his observation of the personal conduct of the Philippians themselves.”[8]  This also can be said for 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24.

Related Texts

Are there any other clues in the epistle to the Ephesians or any NT document that the seal of the Spirit cannot be interpreted as necessarily referring to the doctrine of ES?  I will mention just a few.

Ephesians 4:30 - “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God [=of promise”, 1:13], by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” [=“with a view to the redemption”, 1:14] (NASB).

This verse is similar in thought to 1:13-14 regarding being sealed with the Holy Spirit.  However, a warning is attached to 4:30 not to grieve the Spirit.  In 1:14, Paul teaches the Ephesians what God has done for them – sealed them – in view of their placing trust in Him upon hearing “the message of truth”.  In chapter 4, Paul shares their moral obligation to God in view of all that he has done for them culminating in their having been sealed in the Spirit.  However, he warns that failure to walk in the “new self” rather than the “old self” would “grieve” (=insult) the Spirit.

This warning seems to imply something more than just causing sorrow to God’s Spirit.  To cause grief to the Spirit is the result of a serious offense with disastrous results against the offender.

Kittel states that “grieve” is used in the sense of to “wound”, “insult”, thereby causing pain, with reference to the warning against speaking evil in v.29.[9]

On what basis do I suggest there is more to the idea grieving the Spirit in Ephesians 4:30 than just an emotional response?

Isaiah 63:10 – “But they rebelled and grieved His holy spirit” [Tanakh, in one of only two OT texts to use the title, “holy spirit”].  The consequence of grieving the Spirit was that God “became their enemy, and Himself made war against them”.  God, being pained, acted against them.  Their grieving of the Spirit caused by their rebellion (i.e. apostasy) resulted in forfeiting entrance into the promised land.

Hebrews 3:15-4:5 affirms Israel’s forfeiture of what was promised because they had grieved his Spirit.  For having insulted God and causing him deep sorrow by their apostasy, what was promised was rescinded (2 Timothy 2:12b; Matthew 10:33: “to deny” = “to disown”).  The divine sorrow was not merely something emotional within God but resulted in a divine act that proved disastrous for people of Israel, at least, to the generation that fell into unbelief.

Colossians 3:24-25 (an epistle that some say was written and delivered to the church in Colossae at the same time as the Ephesian epistle), wherein the whole chapter seems similar to Ephesians 4 in many respects, ends with a word of encouragement and one of warning.  In v.24, they are assured of their reward – “the inheritance” (cf. “sealed in him…given as a pledge of our inheritance”, Eph 1:13-14) – on the condition (clearly implied) that they serve Christ, which sums up their moral obligation to God as listed in vs.1-23.  Failure to remain loyal to Christ is to “receive the consequences of the wrong, which he has done”.  Although the consequences are not explicitly stated, it contextually must be the forfeiture of “the inheritance” mentioned in v.24.  Furthermore, the inheritance is the same spoken of to the Ephesian community for which they were sealed with the Spirit as a “deposit” or “pledge” of obtaining it.

Anticipated Objections Briefly Answered

1.    A cultural understanding of what a seal means supports interpreting the text to teach ES.
My answer: There is no indication that, whatever the cultural significance of the seal, used to preserve and protect legal documents, that it denotes a security in salvation that is unconditional, that is, that requires no continued faithfulness on the part of the believer for its fulfillment.  “When Paul exhorted his readers not to ‘grieve’ the Spirit that sealed them for final salvation, “he did so because they were not being unconditionally preserved for eternal life.”[10]

2.    If we are not sealed, thus being “eternally secure”, then it would show:
(a)  God is unfaithful to his word.
My answer: This is the very objection Paul discusses in Romans.  Did the Jews reject Jesus as Messiah because God was unfaithful to his word (Romans 9:6)?  It was the fault of the Jewish people.  Their hearts were hardened from recognizing and receiving their Messiah and embracing the divine promises. 
(b)  God is not sovereign.
My answer: Is grace irresistible?  On the other hand, do believers no longer have the free will to spurn God and the ability to cease from following Christ?  That God could not gather the Jews under his protection, as he wished, was not because He is not sovereign but because the Jews refused to be gathered.   
(c)  There are sins greater than God’s willingness or ability to forgive. 
My answer: Yes, there is one sin God cannot forgive, and that is the refusal to have faith in Christ.  God decreed nothing would avail for its forgiveness, not even the blood of Christ.  As such, apostasy is necessarily fatal. 
(d)  If we have no assurance of salvation then no one can ever be certain they are saved.
My answer: ES grants no assurance that one is saved in the first place if it is possible for one to be deceived into thinking they are genuine believers.  What guarantee does one presently possess of their future salvation if he cannot differentiate the false believer from the true believer?  However, the promises of God provide a present assurance of being saved, which is the kind of assurance that is the most practical, relevant and meaningful kind of assurance one can possess.  To be assured of future salvation is irrelevant to one’s present standing in Christ.


Ephesians 1:13 shows that being in Christ provides security in the faithfulness and power of God to save but in no way does it provide an automatic or unconditional salvation as if there is nothing more one needs to do to maintain salvation because it will never be rescinded.  It is “in Christ” and only ”in Christ” that assurance of having eternal life, salvation, is obtained; however, should one turn away from faith in Christ through apostasy, he is no longer “in Christ” and, therefore, no longer under his saving care in possession of salvation.[11]

[1] Daniel D. Corner, The Believer’s Conditional Security (Washington: Evangelical Outreach, 1997), 20.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Harper’s Bible Dictionary, James L. Mays, ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 1214.
[4] My paraphrases
[5] Paul R. McReynolds, Word Study Greek-English  New Testament (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1999), 691.
[6] Harper’s, 1214.
[7] “…who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.”
[8] Robert Shanks, Life in the Son, 2nd edit. (Springfield: Wescott Publishers, 1982), 46.
[9] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol.4, Gerhard Kittel, ed., Geodffrey W. Bromily, tsl. (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1967), 322.
[10] Beacon Bible Dictionary, “Sealing of the Spirit”, J. Kenneth Grider and Willard H. Taylor, eds. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1983), 474.
[11] Frederick W. Claybrook, Jr., Once Saved, Always Saved? (Lanham: University Press, 2003], 345:  “Truly, the Holy Spirit is a seal of, or deposit on, the believer’s ultimate redemption.  It is only the down payment, though, not the full consummation of the sale…the down payment guarantees the believer a place in heaven and gives him assurance that his faith is well founded, but it does not complete the transaction in and of itself.  The believer is required to hold the faith until the end.”

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