But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.
The apostle Paul testified that he always strove to “keep under” the lusts of his “body” (his old man, or sinful nature)1—so that they did not dominate him (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
In other words Paul, was constantly reckoning himself “dead to sin” (Romans 6:1-14; 7:21-25; compare Galatians 2:20), refusing to allow himself to be enticed into sin.
The reason for his being engaged in this internal struggle is: “Lest…I myself should be a castaway.”
Some critics of the doctrine of God’s preservation of his saints use this testimony of Paul to argue that even he dared not believe that he was eternally secure in Christ. But does this verse really indicate that the apostle feared he could lose his salvation, or imply that true Christians may end up not being saved after all?
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
Some people think they are Christians but are not, based on a wrong understanding of Bible doctrine. They may come to church without deliberate grievous intent to Christians or to the name of Christ. But others are deliberately anti-Christian and anti-Christ, and they infiltrate churches in order to steal, kill and destroy (see John 10:10).
We have been warned repeatedly about wolves in sheep’s clothing (see Matthew 7:15; Acts 20:28-30).
Some un-Christian men may possibly convince a presbytery or church that they are both saved and called to the pastoral ministry. From their pulpits they may preach many sermons quoting the Word of God, which the Holy Spirit uses for the saving and sanctifying benefit to other people—even while the wolf himself is not benefitted in any way, but further condemns himself.
Sooner or later, however, there will come a time when his pretence of Christian faith and holiness cannot be kept up; and his mask cracks wide open and exposes the fact that all he has is his desperately wicked heart (compare Jeremiah 17:9).
Maybe sometimes the public exposure of a ravening wolf does not happen until he appears before Christ’s judgment throne (Matthew 7:22,23; see also 2 Corinthians 5:10). The truth will come out, for God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7,8).
But we do not believe Paul was saying that he himself might, after all, prove to be such a man. As he says in 2 Corinthians 13:6, “But I trust that ye shall know that we [i.e. Paul himself and those with him] are not reprobates.” (Here the word “reprobates” is the same Greek word as was translated as “castaway” in 1 Corinthians 9:27.)
Evil Among the Lord’s People
Some Christians entertain themselves with secret sins—but the Lord knows, and he will not be mocked. Sadly, they will find in their own experience that what the prophet Hab. said of God is true: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13).
They will know what it is to have “grieved” the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). And therefore, they will in some measure be “cast away” from the presence of God.
Their spiritual life will become dull, dry, and withered—even though they may yet crave God’s presence (Psalms 1:1-3; 42:1-11; 63:1; 119:25).
They may have been in this dried-up state for many a long year before their sins became public knowledge.
We may all be sadly aware of catastrophic immorality among true Christians—including among genuinely called and ordained Christian ministers.
Such sinners must then be subjected to church discipline; they must be excommunicated (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)—“cast away” by the church as unworthy of membership because of their scandalous behaviour.
Both secret and open sins may result in a Christian losing his or her close communion with God. They may also find that, in order to bring them to repentance, God afflicts them with chastisements in their bodies or circumstances (Hebrews 12:5-11; see also Ruth 1:21).
Yet have they lost their salvation, whether by their sin, or by their being excommunicated by the church, or by these internal and external chastisements? No. For if they are true Christians, then God will inevitably bring them back to a full repentance—same as he did with kind David (see Psalms 51:1-12).
Such repentance must be recognised by the church (Matthew 6:14-15; 2 Corinthians 2:5-10; Galatians 6:1).
True Christians are—or should be—distinguished by their faith, humility, repentance and good works. This must include “works meet for repentance” (Matthew 3:8; Acts 26:20).
We who believe that God always saves, delivers, preserves, and keeps his people, understand that the Bible does not allow the possibility that true Christians may, through some total abandonment of their faith or through some particularly wicked sin, provoke God to withdraw his Holy Spirit from them and slay their quickened spirit, so that they become unregenerate again.
We also understand that in order to admit that this is possible, then we would have to ignore, suppress or “explain away” all those precious promises in the Bible that true Christians have eternal life, and they will never perish, or ever be removed from Christ’s and the Father’s hands (e.g. John 3:16,36; 5:24; 6:47; 10:27-29; Hebrews 10:24; 13:5; 1 Peter 1:3-5).
In appealing to 1 Corinthians 9:27, eternal security deniers are asserting that the apostle Paul was striving to maintain himself in that state of salvation, out of fear of losing it. But Paul himself considers this same idea “foolish”. He writes to the church in Galatia, “Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (see Galatians 3:1-3). Of course, they should answer no—and so should we!
Therefore where Paul says, “lest…I myself should be a castaway,” we believe he is saying that he must strive to “keep under [his] body” so that he will not give in to temptations and so, falling into scandal, need to be cast away from the church in excommunication, cast away from that close communion of the Holy Spirit which he had in his heart, and chastised by God in his life’s circumstances and even perhaps in his physical health.
No Licence to Sin
Let us directly answer the question: does the Calvinistic—and, we affirm, the Biblical—doctrine of the preservation of the saints give us a licence to sin?
We do not believe Christians can sin without offending God, without grieving the Holy Spirit, and without the prospect of being chastised with affliction by God in this life as he proceeds to defend the honour of his name and to do his precious children good in that affliction. So, no, we do not believe that we have any kind of a licence to sin.
“Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all [Christians] are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (Hebrews 12:6-8).
True Christians are distinguished by having their souls restored by God and by being made to walk in paths of righteousness (Psalms 23:3). This restoration (i.e. sanctification) of soul is, indeed, what enables us to hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matthew 5:6).
Therefore we are not interested in having a licence to sin—not that such a licence exists. Yet at the same time, we also know from our own experience the truth of what Paul teaches: “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is [still] present with me” (Romans 7:21). The lusts of our old man are still present within us, and so we must continually wrestle our thoughts, words and deeds into accordance with our new nature.
Although we acknowledge that we may, sadly, have the possibility of falling into terrible sins so long as we live in this world—yet we also believe God’s promise that he will never leave us. God will come after us as our loving Father, to correct us and to bring us to repentance, so that our prayers become like those of the Psalmist:
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me…Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit” (Psalms 51:1-3,10-12).
And later: “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word…It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes…I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me” (Psalms 119:67,71,75).
Since we have been taught that “whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth” (Hebrews 12:6), we understand that there is no licence to continue in sin. Moreover, the Lord Jesus Christ says to his people: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Revelation 3:19).
Is it implied in our critics’ argument, that if they are true Christians, then they themselves fear that God will deal with them as their Father only up to a certain point—and that Christ loves them only up to a certain point—and that the Holy Spirit will be grieved with them only up to a certain point—after which point the Triune God would cut them off—his own beloved, adopted, regenerate children—and cast them into hell? This is a sad theology.
To be continued.
- See chapter 18 at the section, Our “Old Man” Was Crucified with Christ. This “keeping under” is perhaps an allusion to wrestling sports, with which the Corinthians would have been familiar.↩