Mike Gendron and Catholic Apologist Tim Staples Debate on the Doctrine of Eternal Security
This debate was published in This Rock,
the monthly magazine of Catholic Answers
, which is the largest lay- run apologetics organization of its kind.
The Lord Jesus promises eternal life to those who repent and believe His Gospel of grace. Yet, there are many who deny the promises of the Gospel and believe eternal life can be lost. One such person is Tim Staples, the Director of Apologetics at Catholic Answers who challenged me to a debate on the topic, "Once Saved, Always Saved." Staples is one of many former Protestants who have departed from the Christian faith to join the Roman Catholic religion. He was raised Southern Baptist, went to Jimmy Swaggart Bible College and then became a youth minister in an Assembly of God church. He has been a Catholic since 1988 and has been defending the Catholic religion as an apologist since 1994.
Mike Gendron’s First Affirmation
God promises eternal life to those who re- pent and believe the glorious Gospel of Grace. When He gives spiritual life to those who are dead in their sins, He does not place them on probation or give them conditional life. Eternal life is given by grace through faith so that the divine promise can be guaranteed (Rom. 4:16
). God’s promise is upheld by His holy character, unlimited power and sovereign purpose. Listen to the Lord’s promise: “He who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24
Jesus declared that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16
). The Good Shepherd protects all the sheep who were given to Him by the Father with these words of assurance: “I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28
). Eternal life is a free gift of God that is irrevocable (Rom. 6:23
). Believers can know right here and now that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13
The word that describes a believer’s eternal salvation is the same “eternal” that de- scribes the eternal triune God (Rom. 16:26
). The word means everlasting, forever and never ending. Not once does it ever mean ”temporary” or “conditional”. According to God's eternal purpose, every believer has been saved from eternal judgment, eternal destruction and eternal punishment (Eph. 3:11
; Heb. 6:2
; 2 Thes. 1:9
; Mat. 25:46
). Believers possess eternal redemption through the eternal Spirit who guarantees an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:12-15
; Eph. 1:14
). The eternal Gospel promises every believer eternal life and eternal glory in His eternal kingdom (Rev. 14:6
; 1 John 5:13
; 1 Pet. 5:10
; 2 Pet.1:11
). The eternal King calls salvation eternal and He has given believers eternal comfort (Heb. 5:9
; Mark 16:20
; 2 Thes. 2:16
Tim Staples’ First Rebuttal
The Catholic agrees that God gives what Scripture calls over and over again “eternal life” to all who believe in Jesus Christ (John 3:16
, etc.). We agree that “no one can snatch [followers of Christ] out of [Jesus’] hand” (John 10:29-30
). And we also agree that we are kept by the power of Christ who is “able to keep [us] from falling and to present [us] without blemish before the presence of his glory...” (Jude 24; cf. Eph. 1:14
) However, none of these texts or others cited above tell us that faith is all we need in order to be saved. Jesus and the New Testament repeatedly tell us we must also be baptized to be saved (Mark 16:16
; Romans 6:3-4
), we must continue to abide in Christ in order to remain in him and receive the promise of eternal life (I John 2:23-25
), we must be obedient (Matt. 19:16
; Romans 6:16
; Heb. 5:8-9
; Acts 5:29-32
) and we must endure until the end to be saved (Matt. 10:22
; Rev. 2:10
Moreover, none of those texts cited deny that followers of Christ can choose to walk away from him. The Catholic Church teaches we can “know we have eternal life” as long as we understand “knowledge” as St. John does in I John 5:13
. He refers to this “knowl- edge” as a “confidence” analogous to the “knowledge” we have of our receiving what we petition God for in prayer. We use the term similarly in English when we say, “I know I am going to get an A on that exam tomorrow.” We know this confident assurance is not absolute because St. John gives conditions for our attaining eternal life in this same epistle (1 John 1:7-9
This leads us to our final point. The eternal life that we can “know” we possess and that is promised to us who believe can be lost through our own fault. “Note then the kind- ness and the severity of God: severity to- ward those who have fallen, but God’s kind- ness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:22
; Matt. 24:45-51
, John 15:1-6
, Heb. 12:14-15
, 2 Peter 1:2-4
Mike’s Second Response
Scripture speaks of two groups of profess- ing Christians - those who have been born- again and those who have not. Those born- again are born by the will of God, not by the will of man (John 1:12-13
). It is the will of God that Jesus will not lose even one (John 6:39
). At the moment of spiritual birth, the justified believer, now sealed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, begins walking by faith and do- ing the works God has prepared for him to walk in (Eph. 1:13-14
). They persevere in the faith, abiding in Christ and His Word, because of God’s faithfulness and His discipline as a loving Father (John 8:32
, Heb. 12:7
). Paul declared our assurance: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6
). The work started “when we were dead in our trespasses...He made us alive together with Christ...and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places” (Eph. 2:4-7
). This is such unshakable assurance that, position- ally, they are already seen in heaven as trophies of God’s grace. Clearly, it is impossible for those who have been born-again of imperishable seed to ever perish. Their inheritance is reserved in heaven and protected by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:3-5
Professing Christians, who have not been born-again, are victims of distorted gospels or faulty methods of conversion. They say they have faith, but have no works, no evidence of spiritual life and have never de- parted from iniquity (Jas 2:26
; Mat. 7:21-23
, Titus 1:16
). Since the Holy Spirit does not indwell them, their faith is dead and they do not abide in Christ. Many fall away as apostates because they never received the gift of eternal life (1 Tim. 4:1
). Those who “choose to walk away” from Christ are giving evidence of their false conversion.
Finally, water baptism does not cause, nor is it the instrument, of the new birth, but it is an act of obedience for those who have received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:47
Tim Staples' Second Response
God knows with infallible certainty those who will persevere until the end, but Scrip- ture makes clear that we don't (apart from a private revelation); thus, even in the above- cited case of Jesus declaring "[he] should lose nothing of all that [the Father] has given [him]," he later makes an exception with Judas, saying "I kept them in your name, which you have given me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled" (John 17:12
). Though Judas was "guarded" by Jesus, he chose to walk away from him.
The Catholic acknowledges that he cannot will his way to heaven by his own power. We will only be saved because it was and is the will of God to save us and keep us by his grace (Eph. 2:8-9
; John 1:12-13
; Eph. 1:14
). Indeed, we can know that God is faithful to
complete what he has begun in us (Phil. 1:6
). However, the Bible is also very clear that we must allow him to do so. "Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain" (2 Cor. 6:1
). "You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace...You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth" (Gal. 5:4-7
The Catholic Church also agrees that Christians are seated "with [God] in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7
). In fact, Scripture says Christians have "become par- takers of the Holy Spirit... tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the world to come" and yet, that same text says these same Christians can "commit apostasy" and fall away from Christ (cf. Heb. 6:4- 6
). Though Scripture does speak of some who are rejected by Christ in the end as per- haps never having had a real relationship with him (cf. Matt. 7:21-23
), Scripture also reveals some who will have known him and even "escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of... Jesus Christ," and yet they will have fallen away from him (II Peter 2:20-22
; cf. 1:2-4
It is difficult to see how Scripture could be any plainer with regard to baptism saving us, washing away our sins, and incorporating us into Christ, than to say, "baptism... now saves you" (I Peter 3:21
), "wash[es] away your sins" (Acts 22:16
), and "baptiz[es us] into Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:3
Mike’s 2nd Response
Those born of God do receive private revelation. “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17).
Jesus knew all along that Judas would fall away and become an apostate to fulfill Scripture (Ps. 41:9). In fact, when Jesus chose the twelve apostles, He knew Judas was a devil and would betray him (John 6:67-71). Clearly, Judas never had justifying faith. He had the faith of demons, which caused him to shudder and commit suicide (Jas 2:19). His apostasy is consistent with John’s description of other professing Christians who were never born again. “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us” (1 John 2:19). Those born of God are kept forever by Jesus (John 6:39-40).
In Galatians 5:4-7, Paul is warning those who were trying to be justified by the law that Christ would be of no benefit to them (Gal. 5:2). Those who chose to continue under the Law would be rejecting Paul’s teaching of salvation by grace.
In Hebrews 6:4-6 the author is referring to apostates who had never been born of God and therefore were never Christians. The passage makes no reference to salvation or the new birth. People can be partakers or witnesses of the Holy Spirit’s power and yet not have His indwelling. They can also taste or sample the Word of God but spit it out in unbelief. Since they never ingested God’s Word in justifying faith they were never saved.
In 2 Pet. 2:20 the people did not know Jesus but had knowledge of Him. Once again these are apostates who after hearing the Gospel of Christ, escaped the defilements of the world for a time but later rejected the offer of salvation.
In 1 Pet. 3:21 eight people were saved from the wrath of God because they took refuge in the ark. In a similar way those who take refuge in Christ who was baptized (immersed) in God’s wrath as atonement for sin will be saved (Luke 12:50).
Tim Staples’ third response:
In your first response, you based an absolute assurance of salvation on the ideas of our “inheritance” (salvation) as well as the “word of God” by which we have been “born anew” being “imperishable” (cf. I Peter 1:4; 23). Both are imperishable, of course, but Scripture also teaches we can forfeit our inheritance as Esau did and we can reject the word of God for various reasons and be lost (see Heb. 12:14-17; Luke 8:12-13; Heb. 10:35-39; Matt. 5:Rev. 2:10, etc.).
Similarly here, you imply Romans 8:16-17 saying the Holy Spirit “bear[s] witness with our spirit that we are children of God” equates to Christians having absolute certainty of their salvation. The text, however, simply says that we are God’s children. And as such, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” The second half of verse 17 adds a very important qualifier: “… provided we suffer with him in order that we may be also glorified with him…” And further clarification is found in verses 24-25: “For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? … we wait for it with patience.” The context makes clear that our “inheritance” is contingent upon choosing to suffer with Christ until the end. We do not “see” or possess that inheritance yet.
The Bible does not seem to concur with your opinion that Judas “never had justifying faith.” In fact, Judas is included when John 2:11 declares all of the apostles “believ[ed] in [Jesus]” through the miracle at Cana. Jesus says specifically of the twelve, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear,” as opposed to unbelievers who did not (cf. Matt. 13:13-16). Perhaps most importantly, all of the apostles confessed Jesus Christ to be the Son of God in true faith in Matt. 14:33. And notice: these all occur before Jesus’ declaration that Judas “is a devil” in John 6:70. If you trace the time-line here, it appears Judas would have fallen away at the time of Jesus’ great Eucharistic discourse.
Catholics agree: God wills “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life” (John 6:39). In fact, I Tim. 2:4 tells us God “desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (see also II Peter 3:9). But Scripture is equally emphatic that some will reject the will of God for them and end up in hell (cf. Matt. 25:46). Therefore, Catholic theology harmonizes these two biblical realities understanding God’s will to have both an antecedent and consequent nature. God’s antecedent will is for all to be saved. But as a consequence of creating man with free will, it is God’s consequent will for those who reject his antecedent will—regardless of whether they are Christians or not when they do so—to be separated from God for all eternity.
And finally, you missed the point of the biblical texts I cited. Galatians 5:4 refers to Galatians “falling from grace,” though they had been “running well” with the Lord (vs. 7). Galatians 3:3 says they had “received the Spirit.” This is a phrase used of Christians (see Acts 8:14-17; 19:2).
Hebrews 6:4-6 refers to it being impossible for certain apostates to be “restore[d] again (Gr.- palin) to repentance.” Again implies these people had already experienced “repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18; cf. II Peter 3:9). It also refers to them as having been “enlightened,” a term this same inspired author uses for Christians as does St. Paul (cf. Heb. 10:32; Eph. 1:18). And contrary to your claim, this text does not say these apostates were simply “partakers or witnesses of the Holy Spirit’s power;” rather, it says they were “partakers of the Holy Spirit.” They were Christians.
II Peter 2:20 never says it is referring to people who had “knowledge of [Christ], but did not know [him].” St. Peter uses the same language he used of Christians who had “obtained a faith of equal standing with [his]” in chapter 1:1-4 to describe them. In 1:3-4, Christians are said to have “escaped the corruption that is in the world,” “through the knowledge of [the Lord].” In 2:20, he says, “… if, after they escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord,” they fall away, “the last state has become worse than the former.”
I Peter 3:20-21 is fairly straightforward that baptism is an instrument of salvation when it says, “… during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…”
Mike’s 3rd Response
As we interpret the Bible we must look for the author's intended meaning and purpose and be sure the context is consistent with the full counsel of God's word. Your assertion that believers can forfeit their promised eternal spiritual inheritance because Esau forfeited his material inheritance is invalid (Hebrews 9:15). God guards the spiritual, not the material inheritance of His children (1 Pet. 1:3-5).
Romans 8:17 does not give “suffering with Christ” as a contingency for our inheritance, but a reality that believers will experience. Their glory in heaven is assured in the next verse. “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” And verse 30 reveals the unbroken promise of God “those whom he justified he also glorified.”
If Judas had justifying faith, as you assert, then God must glorify him according to Romans 8:30. There are many who believe Jesus is Lord (as Judas did) but have not been born again (Mat. 7:21-23). Like other mere professors of Christ, Judas was never one of the Lord’s sheep because He never knew him (Mat. 7:21-23, John 10:14). Furthermore, Judas never demonstrated repentance. Everyone whom God has raised from death to life has been granted faith and repentance (Acts 11:18; Eph. 2:1-10).
Paul wrote his epistle to Galatians to defend justification by grace through faith and to warn them of the dire consequences if they abandoned this essential doctrine. The perverted gospel of the Judaizers was nullifying grace (the only means of salvation) by placing people under the law (Gal. 1:6-9). He was not warning them that they could lose their salvation, but that they were loosing their grip on the principle of grace which must remain mutually exclusive of works (Rom. 11:6; Gal. 5:4).
Your assertion that “partakers of the Holy Spirit” are Christians is not supported by Scripture (Heb. 6:4-6). The Greek word metochos has to do with association, not possession. Prior to Pentecost the Jews had never possessed the Spirit but were present where the Spirit was ministering. The Bible never defines a Christian as being associated with the Spirit but in-dwelt and sealed by the Spirit. People can have a change of mind (repentance) without trusting Christ for salvation. Repentance unto life must be accompanied by faith.
In 1 Pet. 3:21, water was the agent of God’s wrath, not the means of salvation. Just as those in the ark were saved from God’s judgment, those immersed in Christ will be saved from judgment. Jesus was baptized (immersed) in God’s wrath on the cross so that those who believe could be saved (Luke 12:50). The only baptism that saves sinners from God’s wrath is the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13).
You have failed to see the distinction between those who merely profess Christ and those who possess Christ. Those who have never been born again cannot lose their salvation because they were never saved. Those who have been born again of incorruptible seed cannot lose their salvation because they are new creatures in Christ, kept by the power of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit, eternally saved by Jesus, redeemed from the curse of the law and have a permanent right standing before God (John 6:40; Heb. 10:14; Gal. 3:13, 1 Pet. 1:23; Eph. 1:13).
Tim Staples’ Fourth Response:
You’ve missed the entire point of the inspired author’s use of Esau in Hebrews 12:16-17. He uses the temporal inheritance of Esau as a metaphor for the eternal inheritance of Christians. The context makes this clear: “Strive for… the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ spring up… by it many become defiled… like Esau…” (verses 14-16)
You seem to pass over the many “ifs” which represent contingencies with regard to our salvation all over the New Testament. The “if” (Gr.—eiper) in Romans 8:17 is just one of them (see also Matt. 6:14, I John 1:7-9, Hebrews 3:14, 10:37-39, etc.). This is entirely in keeping with the teaching of Christ who said we must take up our crosses daily and endure until the end with him in order to be finally saved (Luke 9:23; Matt. 10:22, Rev. 2:10).
Romans 8:28-30 reminds us that Christ both provided for the salvation, justification and ultimate glorification of all on the cross and that he knows who will endure until the end and so be glorified. However, Scripture also makes clear that unless we cooperate with the grace he merited for us to accomplish all of these things in our lives, or as St. Paul says it, unless we “continue in his kindness… [we too] will be cut off” (Romans 11:22). Our final glorification is revealed to be something we yet “hope for” in this life (cf. Romans 5:1-5). Hope is something that can be lost along with the salvation that is hoped for (cf. Hebrews 10:23-39).
Your claim that “partakers (Gr. metochous) of the Holy Spirit” are not Christians in Hebrews 6:4 borders on the ridiculous. Association and not possession? While metochos can be used in the sense of “campanion,” it is more a synonym of koinonia when used in that sense. It denotes a union in a cause that brings about communion. But to get a sense of its usage here we would do well to examine how it is used in the rest of Hebrews.
In verb form it is used to describe Christ as “partaking” in our human nature (Heb. 2:14; see also 5:13; 7:13). Metochos is used in the nominative plural to describe Christians as “metachoi tou Christou” or “partakers of Christ” (3:14). Hebrews 3:1 refers to Christians as “holy brethren, who share (Gr. metochoi – “sharers”) in a heavenly call” (see also Heb. 1:9). This is not mere association. Neither is Hebrews 6:4. The context is clear.
Mike’s Final Response:
Esau was an apostate, godless, immoral person who had knowledge of the truth but found no place for repentance (Heb. 12:16-17). Your opinion of a metaphor is unsupported.
Your statement that “partakers (metochous) of the Holy Spirit” denotes a “union” with the Holy Spirit is wrong and your position has a serious problem for Catholics since it is impossible to restore those who fall away to repentance (Heb. 6:4-6). There is not a Greek lexicon that defines metochous as “union.” It means “to share or to be associated with” the Spirit. In one sense every unbeliever is a partaker of the Holy Spirit since He convicts the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8-11).
Secondly, God’s Word never contradicts itself. Those indwelt with the Holy Spirit persevere until the end in God’s power and faithfulness, not their own (Rom. 8:11). Jesus declared: "This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life" (John 6:39-40). Eternal life, not conditional life, is the will of God for everyone the Father gives to the Son. The “if” statements you quoted were given to discern true faith from spurious faith.
The recipients of everlasting life strive to please God not in order to obtain or maintain salvation but in thanksgiving for having been eternally saved by the finished work of Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus will take up their cross and suffer with Christ because of their fervent love and heartfelt gratitude for Him (John 14:15). Those who merely profess Christ, then fall away into apostasy were never justified or born of God. They failed to persevere because the Savior NEVER knew them (Mat. 7:21-23).
Your assertion that hope “can be lost” along with salvation violates the very definition of genuine faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1). God-given faith is the present assurance of the future reality of an eternity with God. John’s first epistle was written so that Christians could know, right now, that they have, in their possession, eternal, everlasting, never ending life (1 John 5:13). Jesus is able to keep them from stumbling, and to make them stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy (Jude 24-25). Those who rely on their own power are, in effect, trusting a god who is impotent to finish the work he started (Phil. 1:6). Those who trust God and His Word know they are kept and protected forever by His power (1 Peter1:4).
Tim Staples’ Final Response:
Once again, you missed the point of Hebrews 12:14-17. Esau found no place for repentance only after he “sold his birthright.” The “inheritance” is the metaphor for our “inheritance” as Christians, eternal life. He had to possess it in order to sell it.
I would suggest you examine Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 2, pp. 830-832, which concurs with everything I said about metekein/metochos. The New Testament never uses metochos of the Holy Spirit or of Christ with reference to “the world” as you claim.
Apostates in Hebrews 6:4-6 could not be restored to repentance because they left Christ and the New Covenant to go back to the Old Covenant in order to be saved. The Old Covenant no longer has any such power (see chapters 5, 7-10, 12:18-24, cf. Acts 15:1-2). However, if they turn back to Christ and the New Covenant, they could then be restored to repentance.
The “if statements” I referenced were not merely to determine who has faith and who doesn’t. Faith is not the issue; it is assumed. The issues were perseverance, walking in the light and confession of sins, and more (Matt. 10:22; Matt. 6:14; John 1:7-9, etc.).
Granted, Jesus said if we love him, we will keep his commandments. That is the greatest motivation for service. However, Jesus also said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt. 19:16). St. Paul tells us, “[God] will give eternal life” to “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Romans 2:6-7; cf. Gal. 6:7-9; Matt. 5:44-45). What we do determines whether or not we will go to heaven and not simply faith alone, according to Scripture.
In the final analysis, I think you emphasize the texts that speak of God’s power, protection and the blessed assurance the faithful in Christ possess rooted in hope (cf. Jude 24; Romans 8:28-39; I John 5:13, etc.). The problem is you do so to the exclusion of texts that plainly say Christians can “fall away from the living God” or walk away from God’s protection and power (Heb. 3:12; cf. Matt. 5:32-33; Eph. 5:3-6). In so doing, you fail to declare with St. Paul “the whole counsel of God” that is necessary for salvation (Acts 20:27).
It is interesting that Tim Staples thinks Jesus failed at His attempt to guard Judas from falling away. The fact that Judas became an apostate was no surprise to Jesus. In fact, when Jesus chose the twelve apostles, He knew Judas was a devil and would betray him (John 6:67-71
). Clearly, Judas never had justifying faith but only the faith of demons, which caused him to shudder and commit suicide (Jas 2:19
It is indeed a great privilege to point people, who have no assurance, to the glorious Gospel of grace. It contains the divine promise of eternal, everlasting life with our great God and Savior. Please pray that our Sovereign Lord will use the clarity of His Word to glorify Himself and accomplish His purpose through this debate.