What follows is from D.A. Carson’s third lecture on Hebrews by D.A. Carson at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, specifically speaking on Hebrews 3:14, which reads, “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Emphasis below is mine.
Those of us who have had the privilege of leading people to Christ have often observed how a few weeks later, couple of months later, they come back and they’re all upset and bothered because they’re not sure if maybe they’ve lost their salvation, they’ve sinned again, or whatever. And what you do in that case is take them to the promises of God.
What they’re doing is looking inwardly and seeing that they’re not up to snuff and they’re really trying to justify themselves again by works. And Christian assurance transcends that kind of thing, so you go back again and again to the promises of God. What is the Gospel? What does the Gospel promise?
On the other hand, it won’t be very long before you’re in the ministry when someone comes up to you saying something like this— this is a real case, someone who had been a long devoted father and husband, Christian man in the Church, taught a Sunday School class, been a deacon, and so on. And he comes in, he’s now in his mid-to-late forties, a rising star in the business field, and so on. And he comes in and says something like, “Pastor Don, I don’t know how to say this, but I think I’m losing my faith. I mean, I’m just finding it more and more difficult to believe all this stuff anymore.”
What do you do? What do you say? So you give the same promises of God that you give to the brand new baby Christian who is just sort of getting anchored? This chap knows them all, probably memorized half of them. Well I’ll tell you what I say, and I’ve learned this one in the school of hard knocks. I’ll always ask two or three questions.
I’ll ask, “What’s your reading been like in the last two years?” Cause every once in a while, you’ll find some of these people who have had a genuine faith, but in a somewhat simplistic faith they’ve never faced really difficult intellectual questions. And so, they’re intellectual late bloomers and then they start reading Richard Dawkins, or one of the new Atheists, and it throws them for a loop. They’ve never just thought about it. What they need is some elementary apologetics and some of the excellent responses, and so on. They’re just late-bloomers, intellectually, that can happen. That’s a minority stance.“One of the things that can destroy faith is sin; unconfessed, buried, suppressed sin.” —D.A. Carson
But in another question that I’ll always ask them is, “With whom are you sleeping with other than your spouse?” Now even if they haven’t been doing something like that, the guilt comes over their faces almost always about, if not that, about something else. In other words, one of the things that can destroy faith is sin; unconfessed, buried, suppressed sin. There’s no joy in the Lord, there’s no sense to it all anymore, there’s an unacknowledged guilty feeling because in fact there is real moral guilt.
Or I might say, “When was the last time that you read the Bible? When did you stop praying?” In other words, God has provided means of grace and in some such cases, they’re caught up short, they repent, and get their lives back on track. And in some cases, they don’t and drift off and remain apostate till the day they die. But while they’re in that state, who am I to tell which one is succumbing to a temporary falling away, a temporary decay that’ll be brought back with repentance and faith, and which ones, in fact, are apostate?
Apostasy is merely the moving away, apo, from the stasis, the place that you were standing. Now obviously, if you are moving away from genuine salvation—you are genuinely converted—and you move away from that to not being converted, then you are in the Arminian camp. That’s the way you are reading this text.
But on the other hand, if you’re moving away from what might be called phenomenological conversion, although that expression has its problems; that is, you are accepted in all public fronts as a believer, you’ve shown signs of grace, there’s fruitfulness there, and you’ve participated in the Christian Church, and you’re accepted as a fellow believer, and then you move away from that position.
“It’s possible to drink deeply enough of grace that your life changes, but not so deeply of grace that you persevere to the end.” —D.A. CarsonWell, in the light of [Hebrews] chapter 3, you’re moving away from your public stance, you’re moving away from what grace you’ve already tasted, but it’s not as if you are moving away from salvation in the absolute sense, because in the absolute sense that means—according to such texts such as 1 John 2, and Hebrews 3, and the parable of the sower, and so on—that you didn’t have the root of the matter in you so that you would persevere to the end. In other words, it’s possible to drink deeply enough of grace that your life changes, but not so deeply of grace that you persevere to the end.
And that’s what raises questions of, where then is Christian assurance? And the answer at that point then, I would say, is this: The Bible provides you with rich, thick, encouraging, bountiful assurance and promise as long as you are walking with Jesus. But it is not interested in providing you with absolutist epistemological certainty when you are living in a fashion indistinguishable from the world of the flesh and the Devil. At that point, instead it gives warning and says, in effect, Are you really a Christian? If so, you will repent and return. And if not, God have mercy on your soul.