I was quietly minding my own business the other day when the following thought abruptly popped, fully formed, into my conscious mind.
The dogma “once saved, always saved” is soteriological monothelitism.
Yes, the inside of my head is often a strange and sometimes frightening place. That’s just a small taste of what it’s like in there. However, as I turned the thought around and looked at it from various angles, I realized it seemed more true than not. There’s a lot of information packed into that short sentence. In this post, I’ll try to unpack it.
For those who are unfamiliar with it, “once saved, always saved” is a particular doctrine found among some modern Christian groups. I’m most familiar with it in a Southern Baptist context. Basically it’s a way of expressing the idea that once a person makes an authentic (and that’s a discussion in and of itself) commitment to Christ, you are sealed as a Christian and nothing you can subsequently will or do can change that status or your status as one of the saved.
In the history of Baptists in America, there are a number of strands which contributed to their development and formation over the years. Some of those strands were either outright Calvinistic or at least adopted some of the ideas of John Calvin, particularly the dogmas of total depravity and the perseverance of the saints. The latter is an intriguing, if misguided, dogma. It postulates a God who, for reasons known only to himself and which we can never know or understand, creates some human beings for salvation and others for eternal damnation. There’s nothing we can do to move from one category to the other one, but if we are in the group predestined for salvation, then we will be ultimately saved no matter what.
However, within this system there’s really no way to tell with which group you belong. Are you damned or are you saved? It’s within this context that the dogma of “once saved, always saved” seems to have developed over time. Basically, it holds that we’re all born damned. (Even so, most variations will give infants and small children a free pass from damnation. That free pass lasts until some uncertain age when the child is able to intellectually grasp the various doctrines and teachings about God.) Over the course of our lives, though, we always have the option to exercise our will and choose to commit ourselves to Jesus of Nazareth. Then, once we do so, we become a saint and cannot become anything else.
When you understand the context of this dogma’s development, it obviously is designed to address the uncertainty inherent in the somewhat older dogma of perseverance of the saints while retaining its preferred features. Since it first requires an exercise of will to become a saint, presumably one would know whether or not you’ve done so. In that way it removes the uncertainty. You can actually know whether you are in the damned or the saved group. (In practices, it doesn’t really work that way and very often those preaching or evangelizing will even deliberately try to instill doubt about your status.)
The dogma seems intended to provide assurance of a sort. You can actually know you are in the saved group and you can be certain that you’ll remain in that group as well. Until I understood that history, the way Baptists often talk about assurance and perceive a lack of assurance in other groups always seemed very odd to me. When you understand the context, it makes more sense.
Going back to my thought, soteriological is just the fancy English word we use for discussions about salvation. It’s really easy to talk right past each other if you assume that salvation automatically means the same thing to all people. It begs the question, what are you being saved from? And what are you being saved to? It even begs the question of what does it even mean that you are saved or are being saved? I’ve noticed that among Baptists, at least, salvation tends to be externalized. It’s something you possess rather than a process you are undergoing. In my mind, from the very beginning, I had an image of saving someone as an active process. That’s probably why I always felt like I understood the Fathers, who described the Church in various terms, but always as a vehicle for the ongoing process of salvation. The Church is an ark, rescuing us from destruction. The Church is a hospital for the healing of our souls and the restoration of our true humanity. Their metaphors describe a process you undergo rather than a thing you have.
And that conforms more to our normal experience of reality. Think about the times we might save or try to save others. If I save someone from drowning, it’s an action and a process. If I try to save someone from abuse, that implies a lengthy series of actions. If I try to save someone from an addiction that is destroying them, I’m committing myself to a long process with uncertain results. When you stop and think about it, salvation as a noun is really very odd. What’s the thing that it describes?
And that brings us to the last word in my thought, monothelitism. Monothelitism was the heresy that was finally resolved in the sixth ecumenical council. St. Maximos the Confessor, the one who wrote the texts of love I’ve been working through on my blog, was the great champion of that council, even though he did not survive to see it. He suffered greatly for the faith when it seemed all the powers stood against him. He had his tongue cut out so he could not speak and he had his hand cut off so he could not write. Nothing stopped him from teaching the truth about Christ, though, and his work kept the truth of Christianity alive from the ground up. Monothelitism is the teaching that Christ had only one will, the divine will. Basically, the divine will destroyed or overpowered his human will and guided him throughout his life without effort or opposition.
The problem with this view is that it makes Christ something other than fully human. If he had no human will that he had to align with the divine will, then he was not really like us. We have to struggle, and often fail, to align our will with God’s. If Christ did not share in that struggle, even though he never failed, then he cannot heal our own wills. It turns the Incarnation from something glorious and incredibly risky on God’s part into a sham.
“Once saved, always saved” turns monothelitism on its head and applies it to us instead. Basically, it says that whenever we once commit to Christ, the divine will for all practical purposes obliterates our human will. Sure, we can still perform individual acts of evil, but we no longer have a will with which we can reject God. And whatever we may then be, I wouldn’t call such a creature human, much less capable of love. Moreover, if God simply wanted to turn us into subhuman creatures, what’s the point of the whole charade of history. He could have overtaken our will from the outset if such a thing were in his nature. Why would he wait until we had actually taken a step toward him to treat us so brutally?
No, I have to reject the idea that our wills mean nothing. God is truly not willing that any should perish, which means that it’s our wills that oppose his efforts. And it’s not God’s nature — it’s not the nature of love — to contravene or force the will of another, much less wipe it from existence. My struggle is to turn my will to God, who has already done everything necessary to save us all. I need to want God. It’s certain that he wants me.
But I retain always the power to turn my will away from God. It’s for that reason we pray for help, for mercy, which God offers in overflowing abundance.