The other day one of my readers, John, asked me to share my views on “whether or not someone who has had a genuine salvific experience can subsequently lose their salvation.”
As you might have guessed, much depends on what one means by “a genuine salvific experience”. One could define it in many ways. Let’s go with the following: “a salvific experience that was believed by the one undergoing it to be indicative of saving faith”. Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that folks can have genuine salvific experiences by this definition, and still subsequently lose their salvation. The difference, as the lines have been traditionally drawn, is that the Calvinist infers that the conversion experience that results in apostasy never was genuine to begin with, while the Arminian demurs. (Historically, the Remonstrants — the first Arminians — were agnostic on the question of whether one can lose their salvation, but subsequent Arminians have tended to endorse the view that one can lose their salvation.)
It seems to me that there is only one proper way to address this question, and that is by considering salvation in terms of election. The doctrine of election relates to God’s decree according to which one class of people is chosen for salvation whilst the other class is chosen for reprobation. Calvinists and Arminians both accept the doctrine of election, but they disagree crucially on how it is to be understood.
Calvinists root the doctrine of election in the divine will. On this view, God chooses some people for salvation and rejects others, and then acts to determine the wills of all people so that they will act according to his prior decrees of election and reprobation. (As you can imagine, this view raises difficult if not intractable problems for any doctrine of divine omnibenevolence or love, a topic I’ve addressed at length elsewhere.)
Arminians root the doctrine of election in the divine foreknowledge. On this view, God chooses some people for salvation and rejects others based on his foreknowledge of which group will freely repent and which group will freely not repent. God then acts to create the world in which he knows those that will freely accept him and those that will freely reject him.
(A question: if God foreknows that one group will freely reject him, why does he create that group in the first place? The standard answer appeals to transworld depravity. Had God not created those who are freely reprobate it would have resulted in a different possible world with a different ratio of freely saved and freely reprobated.)
It matters not, for our present discussion, which of these two views of election we adopt. All we need to proceed is the recognition that there is a doctrine of election according to which God foreknows (minimally) the class of elect and the class of reprobate. From there we can address the question simply:
(1) Necessarily, a reprobate person’s salvific experience is not genuine.
(2) Possibly, an elect person’s salvific experience is genuine.
I trust it is rather obvious why (1) is true. Any salvific experience that occurs when the person undergoing it was never elect is surely not genuine.
The only real question is why one would state (2) in terms of possibility rather than necessity. The reason, for those who are interested, is rooted in (i) the assumption that salvific experiences are judged genuine epistemologically, combined with (ii) a recognition of Gettier problems. If folks are interested in this topic, I can explore it further. Otherwise, I’m content to leave it there.