Is Salvation Graspable and Resistible?

At once mysterious and compelling, the question of how human beings obtain salvation and whether they can lose it has preoccupied Christians of all traditions for centuries.

While theologically conservative Christendom (made up of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism) shares significant common ground on most essential doctrinal issues, there is a spectrum of views on the freedom of the human will. In this article we’ll address the question of freedom as it relates to whether salvation is initially graspable and whether it is resistible once it has been apprehended.

Three Questions about the Human Will

Three key questions about the human will and its relationship to salvation offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ help to focus the issue. Here we’re considering how both sin and grace may impact the human will.

  • Just how free is the human will when it comes to salvation?
  • Does sin or the fallenness of human beings limit the human will in its ability to respond to the initial message of salvation?
  • Does God’s grace limit the will’s capacity to reject salvation after it has been initially received through faith?

These three questions are intended to get us thinking about whether salvation is genuinely graspable in sin (or as sinners) and resistible in grace (or as believers).1 To put the issue popularly one can ask: (1) When salvation is offered can it be grabbed by all people and (2) After it is embraced can it then be let go of and lost? The first part relates to whether the human will can rise above sin and clasp salvation; the second part concerns whether that same will can cause the loss of one’s salvation.

Four Perspectives within Christendom

This question of the freedom of the will as it relates to salvation is generally reflected in four perspectives within theologically conservative Christendom. These four may not be the only views but they all seem to be distinct theological perspectives. I will present them very briefly and encourage readers to look to the references for more information.2

All four of these views accept that salvation in Christ is ultimately achieved by divine grace and not accomplished by mere human effort. In other words, all branches of conservative Christendom affirm either the exclusivity of grace in salvation (classical Protestantism) or the primacy of grace in salvation (Catholicism and Orthodoxy). However, these perspectives differ about how that grace comes to human beings and to what degree it affects the human will.

1. Salvation Is Both Graspable and Resistible

Eastern Orthodoxy, modern-day Roman Catholicism, and Arminian/Wesleyan Protestants seem to affirm that salvation is both graspable and resistible.3 God’s grace comes either sacramentally (via the church sacraments) and/or preveniently (prior to salvation) and cooperates with the human will to make salvation graspable. Also, human freedom remains operative after salvation, allowing a person to resist grace and thus be potentially lost. So this view seems to reflect a high view of human freedom and underscores the importance of human cooperation with divine grace. This view may be the most popular perspective within all of Christendom.

2. Salvation Is Not Graspable but Is Resistible

Historic Lutheran theology seems to teach that salvation is not graspable because of the powerful and negative effects of original sin. On this view sin causes a serious restriction of the human will. Thus God’s regenerative sacramental grace must specially enable a person to believe the gospel. But salvation is resistible once it has been received. Yet the resistible part must be qualified by saying that though some people may apostacize, the elect (those specially chosen by God for salvation in eternity) will never be lost because of God’s sovereign choice in election.4 Lutheran theology seeks to preserve divine mystery on these profound theological issues concerning the human will.

3. Salvation Is Graspable but Is Not Resistible

Some Protestant evangelicals affirm that a person’s will can choose to cooperate with the grace of God and grasp salvation. Like the first view, this position affirms a high view of human freedom. But once salvation is gripped it cannot be resisted; thus, salvation cannot be lost.5 Descriptions of this popular evangelical position include “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved.” On this view the person can say yes to God’s offer of salvation but will never subsequently say no to it. This position may be the most popular view within conservative evangelicalism.

4. Salvation Is Not Graspable and Is Not Resistible

In Reformed (Calvinistic) theology original sin has caused total depravity (sin has affected a person’s entire being) and thus caused total inability (human beings are unable to grasp salvation). Thus God’s special efficacious and regenerative grace must work in the human heart before a person can grasp salvation (grace uniquely enables the human will). Moreover, Reformed theology posits that salvation cannot be lost because God’s sovereign grace will ensure that the elect will indeed persevere in the faith.6 This view sees human “freedom” as in bondage to sin. Irresistible grace then frees human beings to grasp salvation and ensures their continued connection to salvation.

On Being Gracious

All four views affirm grace in salvation but differ over its form, extent, and result concerning the human will. Some of the debate among Christians concerning such controversial doctrines as election and predestination relate to this issue of sin and the human will’s ability to grasp and then resist salvation.

I hope this brief and popular introduction to the issue of whether salvation can be grasped and resisted helps you to understand the diversity that exists within Christendom on this controversial issue. Christians don’t agree on all doctrinal matters, but if we endeavor to understand our doctrinal diversity we may be able to work better at both discerning truth and respecting theological differences.

Reflections: Your Turn 

Which of the four positions do you affirm? Why?

Endnotes

  1. My thinking on this topic was first influenced by theologian Richard A. Muller, see https://www.theopedia.com/richard-a-muller.
  2. Some of the issues in this article are addressed in Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation.
  3. See Catechism of the Orthodox FaithCatechism of the Catholic Church,
    and the Arminian/Wesleyan/classical work by Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity (see Part II, chapters 3 and 4).
  4. See the Lutheran work by John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (see sections on the doctrines of man, freedom of the will, and means of grace).
  5. See Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free.
  6. See the Reformed work by Louis Berkhof, A Summary of Christian Doctrine (see chapter 4).

  One thought on “Is Salvation Graspable and Resistible?

  1. Pedro De Jesus
    January 15, 2020 at 12:55 pm

    One thing to point out is God’s foreknowledge not being subject to Space-Time, and our limitation to being currently subject to Space-Time as His creation.
    Since we are currently subject to Space-Time Salvation Is Both Graspable and Resistible, but since God isn’t subject to Space-Time Salvation Is Not Graspable and Is Not Resistible from His perspective which is conveyed in certain scriptures.

  2. January 16, 2020 at 6:56 am

    View #4 seems to be the most consistent with the Biblical texts. I came from the RC view (works orientation) to View #3 and finally to #4 via Sproul and others and a careful examination of the texts.

  3. Mike
    January 17, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    If we can choose salvation certainly we can choose to resist salvation. Things change as we grow older, choosing salvation then never being able to lose it seems what Paul was trying to warn against. We were given free will, and I think scripture clearly points to the dangers of turning our backs on God, or become luke warm. Once saved always saved seems a dangerous and convenient doctrine which can lead people astray

  4. Rod Hite
    January 18, 2020 at 6:27 am

    Nice work Ken. I tend to go along with Bruce and for the same reasons. Mike’s commitment to “logical symmetry” doesn’t seem supported (or supportable, Jn 6.39). Just call me your friendly compatibilist.

  5. Daniel Wire
    January 21, 2020 at 10:49 am

    I’ve been trying to unravel the truth in soteriology for years. I believe that it is graspable because mankind cannot be held accountable for what is impossible to do. Once a decision is made to cooperate with the Spirit, and transformation begins, I don’t believe any can go against it. God’s discipline will get us back on track. I don’t see salvation as an historic event, but a historic beginning of a life-long journey. Those that were sincere in the beginning will persevere. I do not subscribe to the idea of “once saved, always saved’ because many think that they have been saved when they have not. We were told to work out our salvation (Phil 2:12) and to be diligent in making our calling sure (2 Pet 1:10). Thus, I don’t question my own salvation but seek truth in following Jesus and the path he set before me.

  6. January 23, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    Some comments:
    1) Salvation is amazingly easy to obtain. Just look at the snake Moses put on the rod. Just put the lamb’s blood on your doorposts. Just believe on Jesus.
    2) Salvation is much harder to work out than we tell people. You need to remove all the leaven. You have to crucify your flesh. You have to put on a white robe. Paul himself was concerned he might be disqualified in the end.
    3) We focus on salvation and largely ignore God’s rule over us. It’s like all we care about is our ticket to get in the door. We concern ourselves very little with God’s commands for living inside His kingdom. As Jesus warned the Laodiceans, we are blind and don’t even know it.
    4) Do we not need a deep reformation in this area? I think so.
    5) I see God as “optimizing” history, making the absolute most of what He has created. But to what end? Just to maximize how many people are saved? Or is it more to maximize how beautiful a bride He can present to His Son? Are numbers what is important to God? Or is obedience what He treasures, and that we give ourselves willingly to Him?
    6) When God whispers, do we incline our ears to hear Him? Do we turn our eyes to see Him? Are our hearts moved by the thoughts He stirs in us?
    7) Is that not just the start? Does He not look for what will grow out of our hearts? Does He not see who will bring oil enough to last His delays?
    8) We argue about God’s sovereign will versus our free will. And yet we miss His gentle wooing. He doesn’t need to force anyone to do what He wants. He can merely smile at us. And we melt.
    9) For me, one question answers all the paradoxes involved. Answer it, and you’ve unraveled the mystery. The question is, “How do you get a Mary?” If you’re God and you’ve spoken to Your prophets that the Messiah will be born to a very specific person (Mary), and thus she has to respond in a certain way, and yet you don’t want to violate her free will. How do you do it?
    10) My answer is that God is baking a perfect cake. He knows exactly what ingredients to put in, when to put them in, and how long to let them rise. When He needs to, He absolutely gets His way. And yet you were free all along. Not because His grace is inherently irresistible. But because He is a most amazing lover. Think about it. There’s a real difference there.
    11) At other times God calls for volunteers. Who will go for Him? Who desires to be used? Who is willing to give up their own desires? If you turn down His offer, He will use another. You had your chance for a great reward. You missed it. Worse, few of us see the tragedy of our choices.
    12) The more we resist, the less likely He will use us. The less we resist, the more likely He will be drawn irresistibly to our hearts and will take delight in using us, though maybe not in the way we thought.
    13) We can smile at God.
    14) He smiles back. After all, He smiled first.

    • January 23, 2020 at 2:51 pm

      Dean:

      This is very long as a comment. Maybe you should put it on your page.

      Also it doesn’t specifically interact with my article.

      Ken Samples

      • January 23, 2020 at 3:04 pm

        Alas, it was your article that sparked my rather long comment. I haven’t posted on my own page in quite a long time, but your point is valid. I wanted to avoid directly arguing and rather approach the topic more generally, hopefully from a viewpoint that isn’t often considered.

      • January 23, 2020 at 3:05 pm

        Okay, fair enough.

        Best regards.

        Ken Samples

  7. January 24, 2020 at 2:55 am

    Let me try this again.
    I grew up Methodist which in my church did not so much teach “Salvation Is Both Graspable and Resistible”, but rather didn’t teach the other positions. As it is, I happen to be reading right now two books on the “Once Saved Always Saved” subject, one pro (R.T. Kendall’s book) and one con (David Pawson’s book). I’m afraid Kendall’s book has made me depressed. Why? Because he repeatedly says that the verses that seem to say one thing don’t really say that at all. In fact, they *can’t* mean what you might think they mean because then the scriptures that he bases his “once saved always saved” theology on would be contradicted! The depressing part is when he says a given scripture is very clear. Good grief, I can’t trust any scripture after how he’s torn them apart. And who am I to say what they mean? I’m not as smart as he is. I’m not as educated as he is. I don’t understand Greek like he does. It’s all very depressing. (And he wrote the book to bring comfort to Christians!)
    Worse still is that he used to be very much in the “resistible” camp, but was completely changed one day when he had an experience with God. God’s presence came upon him so strong that he just knew that he was always saved. Assuming his experience really was from God, you’d think God wouldn’t want him to get the wrong idea — if “once saved always saved” is really wrong.
    So where do I go? What should I think?
    Well I like how Pawson talks about the word “perish” as is used in 1 Cor 8:11. Something that perishes is something that has become worthless. It has no more use except to be thrown onto the garbage heap. Gehenna was an actual valley where the people of Jerusalem threw their garbage where it smoldered, burned and was eaten by worms. A clear picture of hell.
    But perhaps people who are saved don’t exactly perish in hell. Perhaps only their works do and they merely get no rewards. Either way, it seems quite serious. But few seem to care about that. All we seem to care about is getting into heaven or not. It seems to me that is a big mistake.
    I truly believe a new reformation is on the doorstep of the church. What it will look like, I am not sure, but perhaps it is this:
    It’s a bigger mistake than we realize to resist God in any way. But perhaps we just haven’t grasped that as yet.

    • January 24, 2020 at 12:02 pm

      Dean:

      This topic has hit a nerve with you.

      I recommend you read Saved by Grace by Anthony Hoekema.

      Ken Samples

      • January 25, 2020 at 4:04 am

        Thanks Ken, I ordered that book and will read it, not dismissing it lightly even if just to honor you. For I do appreciate your respect for the theological differences in the church. That came across as well in your book Classic Christian Thinkers, which I received and read being a supporter of Reason To Believe.
        One of the things I like about Hugh is this idea that God made the universe in such a way that we could understand His creation. He positioned our solar system, for instance, in just the perfect place for us to see well enough that we could unravel it. In a sense, God set things up so we could “grasp” what He has done.
        I would think the same applies to salvation. He has created a world that enables us to grasp that there must be a Creator and that we must therefore turn to Him. I picture it as a father who takes his son out at night to view the stars but doesn’t say anything at first. He allows his son to take it all in and to start asking questions. Now maybe the son has a bad attitude and grumbles about being taken outside, and never asks any questions. That is his loss. But the son who senses His father must have a good reason for bringing him outside, who stops to ponder what he is seeing, that is the son who must surly bring a smile to his father’s heart.
        But of course, the Father has made it easy for his sons to grasp. He wants us to grasp it. He encourages us to grasp it. He draws us, and whispers to us. But alas, it seems to me that we can very much resist all His love for us. Even resisting the grasping of His love for us in the first place.
        And perhaps that is the real question we should ask ourselves: how am I resisting God this day? Why am I doing that?

      • January 27, 2020 at 3:17 am

        I got the Saved by Grace book and have started reading, though it will take a while as I can only read a little each day. I’ve never read a book from the Reformed tradition so I’m glad to finally have a chance. But even after just a few pages, it’s amazing to me what a different world that tradition is from mine. It’s like traveling to a different country where you notice all the little things that are different from the way you’re used to. I can’t imagine ever moving over to the Reformed positions, but hopefully I’ll learn better what those positions are and a better appreciation why people hold to them. It’s funny how scripture can be seen so differently. The verses that have been quoted so far I read very differently, so it is helpful to see how others read them, and especially to see the theological framework that goes behind that thinking.
        So thanks again for the recommendation.

      • January 27, 2020 at 8:14 am

        Dean:

        I always ask my students: What’s the best argument on the other side?

        Ken Samples

      • January 28, 2020 at 2:19 am

        I wonder though, what would Jesus say about our positions and our arguments for them? A verse that I really like is Psalms 53:2 “God looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God.” Perhaps instead of asking “What’s the best argument on the other side?”, we should instead ask, “What’s the understanding that receives the biggest smile from God?”

      • January 28, 2020 at 9:59 am

        Dean:

        Greetings.

        This will have to be my last response to you about my article because I have a lot of work to do writing blog articles and a new book.

        What I hope people will appreciate about my article is that Christendom takes different positions concerning the human will and that one helpful way of understanding the differences has to to do with both sin and grace.

        Even the controversies over predestination are in my opinion connected to the issue of sin and grace. For example, the constant debates between so-called Calvinism and Arminianism can be understood in the context of my article.

        So if a person already takes a definitive position on this issue then I hope the article will help them understand why others hold differing points of view. In my experience, Christians seldom ask what is the best argument for other points of view. But asking this question helps ward off confirmation bias.

        My hope is that articles like this will actually promote truth, unity, and charity within Christendom. For that is one of my goals.

        Best regards in the Triune God.

        And thanks for supporting RTB.

        Ken Samples

  8. February 3, 2020 at 9:33 pm

    Nice synopsis, Ken. Always appreciate you posts and thoughtful consideration of different positions.

    • February 4, 2020 at 7:44 am

      Appreciate your comments, Lawrence.

      Ken Samples

  9. samkim87
    February 5, 2020 at 10:11 pm

    Those who believe that salvation can not be lost do not seriously take the biblical warnings for the faithful. They contrive all sorts of excuses for the plain meaning. The favorite excuse of the reformed is that these warnings are the means to keep the elect in faith but are only hypothetical warnings in that the elect do not fall away. This is articulated by preachers such as Charles Spurgeon and John Piper. The problem with this view is that both the old and the new testament contain warnings that are based on the lessons of the past. For examples, read 1 Cor 9, 10 or 1 Tim. The reformed crowd will point out that those who apostasized were never believers. If that is the case, then why would the bible use such examples to warn believers to hold on and to endure? Should it not tell us to cease to be hypocrites or to stop deceiving ourselves to be Christians? Why warn believers of the consequences of falling with examples of people who never believed?

    • February 5, 2020 at 11:46 pm

      Samkim87:

      The Reformed theologians I’ve read seem to take the Bible quite seriously and attempt to exegete the proper meaning of Scripture.

      I think it would be more fair of you to simply say you don’t agree with the Reformed viewpoint than to suggest that they don’t take parts of Scripture seriously or that they contrive excuses which appear to question their motives and sincerity.

      I don’t think you would appreciate being told that you don’t take aspects of Scripture seriously and that you contrive excuses. I’m sure you are sincere and are striving to correctly understand Scripture.

      I also think non-Reformed (Lutheran, Wesleyan, various evangelicals) also endeavor to take the Bible seriously. Sometimes Christians simply read Scripture differently but that doesn’t mean that they lack seriousness or that they intentionally contrive excuses.

      I think it would be better for Christians to offer other Christians the benefit of the doubt and seek to find common ground when possible.

      Christians should always seek truth but they should also care about unity in the body of Christ and strive to treat each other charitably.

      Ken Samples

      • samkim87
        February 6, 2020 at 5:26 am

        I wrote what I believed. I do give the benefit of the doubt when it comes to other Christians’ sincerity. In this matter, however, I mean it when I said that the reformed view does not take certain biblical warnings for the faithful seriously. Surely this is not a hateful or a slanderous statement. I did not say that they don’t take the bible itself seriously or that I question the sincerity of their faith. Perhaps I needed to preface my comments by saying so to clear any misunderstanding. I was hoping that the content of my contention would be engaged but it seems that it was ignored. Please remember that whenever we deal with matters of great importance, we risk offending those who do not believe as we do. That should not shirk us back from expressing our beliefs of strong conviction. Calvin, Luther, and Knox called the pope Antichrist. In their pursuit of biblical truth of great importance, they had to forgo some level of charity and separate themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, I am not suggesting that those who hold the reformed view in this topic are Antichrist or are in grave error like the Roman Catholics. I am simply saying that I believe that the reformed view in this matter is wrong.

      • February 6, 2020 at 8:45 am

        Samkim87:

        Your comments were certainly not hateful or slanderous but they were in my opinion rather dismissive and you seemed to raise questions about motive (excuses).

        But if I misunderstood your intent then I apologize.

        My suggestion for all of us is that in theological dialogue simply focus on the ideas and leave people’s motives and intentions out of the discussion. I think the Golden Rule encourages us to treat other Christians and their views as if they are every bit as sincere as we are.

        The goal of my article was not to champion or defend the Reformed view. But rather to present in summary fashion the four views that are prominent within Christendom concerning the human will’s capacity to grasp and reject salvation.

        My goal here on the Reflections blog is to promote truth, unity, and charity among all Christians. It’s a tall order and sometimes I fail but I think it is worth pursuing.

        I need to get back now to my pressing book writing deadlines.

        Best regards to you in the Triune God.

        Ken Samples

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