Millard Erickson on Assurance.

I was recently asked what I thought about Millard Erickson’s book Christian Theology Third Edition. It is the textbook for a massive number of systematic theology classes in a vast array of evangelical schools. Obviously answering that question as a whole is difficult, so I chose to examine a specific topic in his book from a free grace mindset. So if you’re a free grace thinker, wondering if Erickson’s systematic theology is right for you, then read on.

Being that Erickson is a moderate Calvinist and I have most certainly tried that koolaid and decidedly spit it out, I disagree with Erickson’s analysis on this point. I will first lay out what Erickson believes and then show how my view is different from his. 

Erickson presents good works as an evidence that one is saved. He says this:

works do not produce salvation…

Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 890.

He then cites Ephesians 2:8-10 and James 2:17. Both of these references have numerous authors who have refuted his interpretation, though he does not handle his opponents on this subject, but simply moves on as if the case is closed. He then goes on to say:

If there are no good works, there has been neither real faith nor justification.

Ibid.

What a contradictory statement! How can this be. Compare these two statements:

Works do not produce salvation BUT If there are no good works, there has been neither real faith nor justification.

Ibid.

Therefore, in Erickson’s view works are REQUIRED for salvation as a necessary result. Under Erickson’s system a person MUST HAVE GOOD WORKS in order to be saved. 

Trying to distinguish between the fact that justification results in good works, and justification is not caused by good works is a superfluous division. He is saying, good works are required for salvation. This is in spite of the many verses that say just the opposite. In effect, he’s saying that no one will enter Heaven without doing good works.

The colossal problem with this view is that it erodes a person’s ability to have assurance of salvation. One in no way can have assurance of salvation if one must wait and see if his life will produce good works in order to confirm he is saved. Secondly, there is no indication what quantity of good works is required in order to prove one has salvation. Thus, under this assessment a person cannot “know” he or she is saved.

This is the massive problem that is plaguing the church. Calvinists have bought into a notion that robs genuine believers of their assurance. What a warped system.  

To further prove this point Erickson goes on in his section about perseverance of the saints to say some damaging things. He covers the Calvinist view, and then the arminian view. After this he presents what he considers a harmonization of terms, though it is simply the Calvinist view pressed rigidly into some biblical texts

He cites John 10:27-30 and compares it against Hebrews 6:4-6. He offers three basic options for harmonizing these two sets of verses. He acknowledges that John 10 offers full eternal security, though he walks back a bit when he looks at the Hebrews passage. His three options for harmonizing these two passages fully exclude an entire branch of scholarship on the subject. This is a huge oversight on his part, since there is (in this author’s opinion) a much better method for harmonizing the subject (The free grace viewpoint). The fact that Erickson views this problem in a strickly bionary fasion, shows that he thinks the debate is between only two parties (Calvanism and Arminianism) He leaves out a third and more logically satisfying harmony of these two ideas. Erickson’s final analysis of the two passages is this:

We are now able to correlate John 10 and Hebrews 6. While Hebrews 6 indicates that genuine believers can fall away, John 10 teaches that they will not.

Ibid., p. 921

This brings us directly back to the same problem as mentioned above. If there can be conclusive claims that a so-called “genuine” believer will never fall away, then this robs many believers of their assurance, since they cannot know for sure that they will not fall away. After all, Paul warned believers numerous times to be careful that they not stray from the faith. (1 Timothy 1:6, 6:10, 21) Jesus parable of the lost sheep, shows that sheep can get lost. (Matthew 18:12) Jesus calls a group of people who “fall away” believers. (Luke 8:13)  If sanctification is automatic for all believers why is so much ink spilled in the NT trying to convince people not to stray, disobey, or fall away?

Believers can fall away from fellowship and right living, but the promise of Jesus has nothing to do with good works and behavioral performance. If there is any attachment of Jesus’ salvation work to our good works, then assurance dissolves. Whether one claims that good works are prerequisite, or an automatic result of salvation, the same issue remains. One cannot have true assurance of salvation, if they must behave for the rest of their life in order to know they have salvation. Yet we know we are supposed to be able to have assurance. After all, John said, 

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, (1 John 5:13)

If John is right, and I think he is, you can “know” you have eternal life. No amount of good works can bring that certainty since good works can always be misleading, or they can later dry up.

Even Dr. R.C. Sproul, famed preacher and Calvinist Bible expositor, admitted in a video sometime before his death that he was not sure he was going to heaven. He is not the only among the reformed movement to admit this. If the preachers and teachers of this theology don’t know for sure they have salvation, then how could anyone who sits under their teaching know? All this stands in stark contrast to what John said. It is possible to “know” you have eternal life.

It’s worth ending with this. Paul said that even when a believer wastes his time and produces no good works, he will still be saved. The following statement of Paul shows that the promise of Jesus is guaranteed even to those who don’t have good works.

If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

(1 Corinthians 3:15)

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4 Comments

  • KEN TAMASHIRO

    Thank You Lucas,… It is interesting that those in LS Salvation will ask or demand that one turn from sin (why?) maybe to insure the hearer that maybe he is saved if he agreed to those terms. Much of what I’m hearing from the Calvinists point of view is a lack of trust in the finished work of Christ, so as to push the new convert into Good Works to hold his standing with God.

    • KEN TAMASHIRO

      Revised statement,…It is interesting that those in mainstream Churches will ask or demand that one turn from sin (why?) maybe to ensure the hearer that maybe he is saved if he agreed to those terms. Much of what I’m hearing from many Church’s point of view is a lack of trust in the finished work of Christ, so as to push the new convert into Good Works or Being Good to hold his right standing with God. …So sad indeed, because Jesus paid it all so that All can stand before God, declared righteous because of their Faith in Him.

  • Kelley Easley

    Such a great article on so many levels! Sometimes I confusedly wonder if we make too much of assurance, and then I remember the verse you quoted from John, “that we may KNOW that we have eternal life,” not “hope” or “guess” or “wonder”! Thank you for your strong, public stand on God’s FREE gift!

  • KEN TAMASHIRO

    Hi Lucas, I’m seeing 2 different issues between (1 John 5:13) and (Hebrews 6:4-6) one is encouraging their belief in Christ the other in Hebrews is warning the Messianic Jews to not give up in their Belief in Christ and reject Christ and returning back to Judiasm. For me the reality of Christians falling away are a real factor in many passages in Scripture. In 1st John some where trying to lead the Christians away into Pre-Gnosticism, and that was a reality also. So bottom line for me, its not if someone is saved but rather belivers Falling away from the Truth about Christ and His saving power, because He is God in the Flesh.

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