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  • Ross Moughtin

Secure in his grip?

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Can you stop being a Christian? Is it possible, for whatever reason, to wriggle out of God’s grip?

This was the question I faced yesterday on hearing of a funeral for someone who had been a committed Christian in his younger days. It seems that knowing his end was near, he had arranged a humanist funeral where Jesus was not invited.

As it happened I had been reading only that morning of what the Puritans call “the perseverance of the saints.” AKA “once saved, always saved.” Once you decide for Christ, that’s it. As Jesus himself promised, in the version that I held onto when I first became a Christian: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” (John 6:37 AV)

I’m currently reading an excellent book by Dane Ortlund: Gentle and Lowly. A surprisingly easy read even though it comes from the Reformed tradition, focussing on the theology of Thomas Goodwin, a 17th century contemporary of John Bunyan.

I’m not normally a great fan of the Puritans, especially in their penchant to write several volumes using excessively long paragraphs in expounding just one single Bible verse, and yet this tradition is very much in the DNA of the English church today. Above all, in their teaching of the perseverance of the saints.

So Ortlund writes: “We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off his heart to his own sheep. No such reason exists. Every human friend has a limit. If we offend enough, if a relationship gets damaged enough, if we betray enough times, we are cast out. The walls go up.

“With Christ, our sins and weaknesses are the very resumé items that qualify us to approach him. Nothing but coming to him is required—first at conversion and a thousand times thereafter until we are with him upon death.” (page 64)

So in this understanding of God’s grace once we are in Christ, we are in Christ for life: we cannot stop being a Christian. – although we can always stop living as a Christian.

So what about those who fall away, who appeared to be fervent disciples, but now have packed it all in? Ortlund simply says that they were not truly Christians to begin with; they were never fully surrendered. So he writes: “Yes, professing Christians can fall away, proving that they were never truly in Christ.” (page 66).

And yet sadly I know too many Christians who have fallen away – and in my mind there was never any doubt that originally they were wholly committed. What are we to make of this?

Here the Bible is quite clear. Once we turn to Christ, there is a new creation, a new status as we are adopted into God’s family never to be disinherited. That’s the entire drift of the New Testament even though the odd verse could be understood to mean the very opposite.

So the apostle Paul declares: “I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.” (Romans 8:38f)

Here Ortlund uses a lovely picture of walking with his two-year-old son into a zero-entry swimming pool. “He holds on tight as the water gradually gets deeper. But a two-year-old’s grip is not very strong. Before long, it is not he holding on to me but me holding on to him. But I have determined that he will not fall out of my grip.”

This is the fundamental: as disciples of Jesus, we need to feel secure despite everything in our lives. Come what may, God will hold onto us. That’s the promise that holds onto us, whatever our common sense may suggest. Regarding fallen Christians, that is God's department.

However, as with all doctrines, we need to make sure we use them aright.

For ourselves there is the temptation to take advantage of God’s grace. I’m secure so there is no need to invest in my spiritual growth. Why go to church, it’s raining? Why struggle with temptation, I’ll get there in the end?

As the apostle Paul writes: “So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving?” (Romans 6:1) But that is to stand the Gospel on its head. We are called to rejoice in God’s grace, his giving and giving when we deserve nothing.

As Ortlund writes: “Christ doesn’t handle us roughly. He doesn’t scowl and scold. He doesn’t lash out, the way many of our parents did. And all this restraint on his part is not because he has a diluted view of our sinfulness.

“He knows our sinfulness far more deeply than we do. Indeed, we are aware of just the tip of the iceberg of our depravity, even in our most searching moments of self-knowledge. His restraint simply flows from his tender heart for his people.” (page 54)

Moreover, our aim is not simply for others to just turn to Christ but to encourage them to grow as disciples of Jesus secure in the grip of Christ.

No power of hell, no scheme of man

Can ever pluck me from His hand

Till He returns or calls me home

Here in the power of Christ I'll stand

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