The doctrine of eternal security is especially dangerous in contemporary American culture. Here’s why.
The Harmlessness of Eternal Security in the Past
Back in the old days, 50 years ago and beyond, two factors prevented this doctrine from producing the catastrophe that it is creating today.
One factor resided in the nature of the gospel message that was preached. Often that message included a call to repentance and the accompanying teaching that the prospective believer needed to submit to the lordship of Christ. This was reinforced by baptism, which was presented as symbolizing dying to the old self-directed life characterized by sinful patterns of behavior and rising again to a Christ-directed life that had holiness as its objective. There was good reason to believe that those responding to this message were sincere in their commitment to the Lord, and therefore they actually were headed for heaven and were eternally secure.
A second quality of pre-60s antiquity that prevented the promise of eternal security from producing individual and ecclesiastical havoc is found in the fact that even when such a message was not preached, the culture conveyed the truths of the need for repentance and commitment to the prospective Christian. Therefore, people instinctively understood that becoming a Christian included turning from their sinful living and committing oneself to live God’s way. It just went without saying.
Lowering the Entrance Requirements
The first factor mentioned above that lessened the negative impact of eternal security, a gospel that included the need for repentance and submission to the authority of Christ, has all but disappeared.
Some of that change has been theological, as evangelicals have squeezed the gospel into the secular mold of unconditional acceptance. By making grace equivalent to unconditional acceptance, evangelicals in effect convey to the prospective believer that God is happy with them just as they are. It is difficult to include the sinfulness of humanity and the resulting wrath of God into a gospel message framed in the concept that God accept you unconditionally.
With the removal of our sin and God’s wrath from the message, the need for repentance and submission to the lordship of Christ necessarily go with it. If I’m okay just the way I am, what’s there to repent of, and since I’m doing an okay job why should I submit to the authority of Christ.
Unfortunately, this lowering of the bar by the church is a response to and in sync with developments in a similar direction in secular society. The theme of the 60s, you have a right to do your own thing, persists as the foundational ethic of American secular society.
Consequently, unlike our earlier cultural orientation in which people understood that becoming a Christian entailed a reorientation of one’s life, today’s secular culture conveys just the opposite message, that since you have a right to do your own thing, everything you have done and are doing is just fine.
Therefore, when the evangelical comes along to share a gospel that conveys that God accepts them just as they are, without repentance and commitment to Christ, that makes sense to people in our culture. Since society tells them they’re okay, and they have told themselves that there okay, it only makes sense that God should think so, too.
One of the great tragedies of history is found in the importing of smallpox by Europeans to Native Americans. Though smallpox had constituted a tremendous problem in Europe, Europeans had built up a certain immunity to it that the Native Americans did not possess. As a result, it has been estimated that an overwhelming majority of the Native American population was wiped out by smallpox.
A lesson from this tragedy is that a disease that is relatively benign in one cultural setting can be deadly in another.
The contemporary evangelical message that excludes repentance and commitment to Christ is especially lethal in a culture that conveys that people are okay just the way they are. In this cultural setting it is highly possible that those who pray the prayer in the absence of a Gospel of repentance and commitment feel no need for repentance or change in order to be accepted by God.
This does not mean that some of these people are not saved. God works in hearts even in the absence of a biblical gospel and a corrective culture. Nonetheless, substantial indications exist suggesting that a high percentage of these people have not come to biblical faith, turning from their autonomy to live for Christ.
Therefore, importing into this situation the message of eternal security is like the introduction of smallpox to Native Americans. Only this message of security does not produce the death of the body, but it leads to the second in an eternal hell.