If you're among Christians, talking about politics will rarely lead to an angry debate. Disagreement, yes, but usually a civil and constructive one. Sports? Even Christians have their favorite players and teams and will defend them vigorously, but not at the expense of unity. There is a way of creating a furor, if you're so inclined. Just bring up the question of whether or not a believer can lose his/her salvation. State your position, and then duck!
I've been in a few of those theological donnybrooks myself. They are rarely resolved peacefully. On more than one occasion the dispute focused on Colossians 1:23. Paul has just made the glorious declaration that by virtue of the death of Christ we have been reconciled to God, all with a view to his presenting us holy and blameless and without reproach before him. Then he drops this bombshell: "IF indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister."
This is no place to engage in a full-orbed discussion of this issue. For that, you can check out my website (http://www.samstorms.org/) in the Theological Studies section under Eternal Security. So let me make just a few brief comments that I hope prove helpful in our understanding of this passage.
Paul seems rather clearly to say that if you don't persevere by continuing in "the faith" you will not be presented before God holy and blameless and without reproach. Whether "the faith" is a reference to one's personal trust in Jesus or the objective body of truths we call "the Christian faith", the fact remains: if you don't continue in it you will not experience the inestimable joy of standing forever in the presence of God.
So, yes, there is truly a conditional element involved ("if indeed"). The condition for final presentation is faithful perseverance. The notion espoused by some that one "act of faith" in Jesus Christ eternally secures final salvation irrespective of how one lives is unbiblical. But that's for another day.
Having said this, there appear to be three options worthy of our consideration. There are probably others, but I want to focus on three.
First, the Arminian view says it is possible for the truly regenerated (born again) soul to fail to meet the condition and thereby fail to be presented holy and blameless and without reproach before God. The salvation once gained by faith alone may be forfeited and lost by the disappearance and death of said faith. My aim here is not to challenge this view (again, see my website for an extensive discussion of this position and what I believe is a biblical response to it).
Second, some Calvinists read Colossians 1:23 as saying that perseverance is the proof that one's "act of faith" in Jesus Christ was genuine. Perseverance, or continuing stable and steadfast in the faith, not shifting from the hope of the gospel, is evidence of the authenticity of one's initial conversion and commitment to Christ. Likewise, the failure to persevere, or the decision to shift from the hope of the gospel and abandon one's "commitment" to it, is proof that one's profession of faith in Jesus was spurious and false, an act of self-delusion.
This concept is undoubtedly true, in my opinion, and other biblical texts affirm it. The passage in 1 John 2:19 clearly speaks to this scenario. There John writes, "They [i.e., the false teachers] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us."
The phrase "they went out from us" most likely points to their willful and voluntary separation. In spite of their external membership or alliance with us, says John, they did not share the inner life or spiritual bond of the body of Christ. "For if they had been of us they would have continued with us." If they had truly and authentically shared our unity and life in Christ, it would have displayed itself in fruitful perseverance. "But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us." This is to say that there was a divine purpose in their secession, namely, exposure of those who are merely professors, not genuine possessors, of spiritual life. Their departure was their unmasking (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18-19)
So again, abiding or continuance or endurance is the sign of the saved, just as apostasy reveals the counterfeit character of one's initial profession of faith. Note the emphasis of the phrase: "for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us" (cf. Heb. 3:6,14). The presence of saving faith ("of us") implies (necessitates) perseverance.
Third, the other Calvinist option interprets Paul's purpose in Colossians 1:23 somewhat differently. All Calvinists believe that the elect will fully and finally persevere and thus be eternally saved (in fact, some "Arminians" believe this too). They will not fail to fulfill the condition of Colossians 1:23.
According to this third option, God preserves us in faith and holiness of life by stirring our hearts to avail ourselves of his sustaining grace. One way he does this is BY MEANS OF THE WARNING IMPLICIT IN THE CONDITION. What is the warning? Simply this: no continuation, no presentation. In other words, God preserves and keeps us safe, and thus we persevere, by heeding the warning that, if we don't, we will not be presented blameless and without reproach before God.
On both Calvinist options, the elect will persevere. According to the first, Colossians 1:23 is backwards looking. As we consider whether or not a person continues in the faith we are directed to draw one of two conclusions concerning the authenticity of their initial profession of trust in Jesus.
According to the second, Colossians 1:23 is forward looking. "Christian, TAKE HEED to this undeniable fact: IF YOU DON'T persevere by continuing in the faith you won't be presented before God. Christian, TAKE HEART in knowing that GOD WILL WORK in you 'that which is pleasing in his sight' (Heb. 13:21). Be encouraged with the assurance that 'he who began a good work in you WILL bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ' (Phil. 1:6), so that you will persevere and not shift from the hope of the gospel which you believed."
Some people insist that the idea that God will preserve us undermines and vitiates the urgency to make certain that we continue in our faith. I would argue precisely the opposite. The reason I commit myself fervently to the pursuit of holiness of life is because God has assured me that he will be ever present to energize my heart "to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12-13). Praise God for his preserving presence and power!
If you are inclined to indulge in unrepentant sin and then justify your licentiousness on the grounds that God has promised to preserve you, there is a strong likelihood that your alleged "faith" in Christ is not saving. Given what Paul says in Colossians 1:23, it would be irresponsible of me to assure you that following such a life you will, nevertheless, be presented before him holy and blameless and without reproach. Remember: no continuation, no presentation.
Upheld by his omnipotent hand,