I wanted to respond to a tweet that an anonymous tweeter tweeted the other day on his Twitter account. The tweet has to do with eternal justification coram Deo; more pointedly it has to do with so called ‘assurance of salvation.’ As you’ll note, the tweeter believes, along with his reading of ‘early Christians’ (which I think he offers a sweeping generalization that is ultimately unhelpful) that it is not possible for Christians to have a certainty of hope in regard to eternal life. He believes if a certainty of hope is given to Christians that, for one thing, there will not be impetus for Christians to engage in ‘good works,’ to persevere in faithfulness. I wonder if you are starting to get a sense of where this thinking is situated in the history of Christian ideas. Let’s read the tweet, and then I will respond further on the other side.
For the early Christians, salvation was eschatological. We are not declared righteous (i.e., justified) until the final judgment. Not conversion, good works, baptism, wonders, or profession guarantees our justification, but faithfulness (i.e., perseverance). If you were to ask an early Christian to describe salvation, he would analogize it with a race or contest. We are runners racing for an imperishable crown. Along the way, we can benefit from assurances, but we lack total certainty in our salvation until we reach the end of life. We find this mentality present also in Scripture. It is not until he is being led to his execution that Paul can at last say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). One could say that from the perspective of the Father, I am already justified since all time exists before His eyes as a single consummate present. But if you are to ask me, I would have to say, “No, not yet. But my hope is in Christ and on Him I daily rely.” If I am currently justified and my salvation is certain, then I am suddenly without any incentive to continue trusting Christ for something already guaranteed. Good works become weirdly superfluous “expressions” of faith, rather than the practice of faith.
I do believe this tweeter has grounds in the early church for coming to his conclusion about the ‘incentive to continue trusting Christ,’ but it isn’t with the orthodox among the earlies; it is with what came to be understood as heretical. I emboldened the crux of the problematic that is presented in the tweet. The tweeter seems to think that if a Christian is going to ‘persevere’ in order to attain to a realized and personal experience of eternal life, the would-be saint will constantly live in a life of good works. The theological reductio to this is not promising for the tweeter. It is true that in the early church there was much confusion about various loci, and doctrines. T.F. Torrance identifies in many of the early fathers a strain of what can only be called out-right Pelagianism, and at best semi-Pelagianism. If the tweeter has picked up on anything in his engagement with the early Christians it is this unfortunate strain. JND Kelly helps us appreciate what Pelagius taught; as you read this I think you will be able to place the tweet as corollary with the sentiment in Pelagius’s positioning:
Pelagius was primarily a moralist, concerned for right conduct and shocked by what he considered demoralizingly pessimistic views of what could be expected of human nature. The assumption that man could not help sinning seemed to him an insult to his Creator. Augustine’s prayer, ‘Give what Thou commandest, and command what Thou wilt’ (da quod iubes et iube quod vis), particularly distressed him, for it seemed to suggest that men were puppets wholly determined by the movements of divine grace. In reaction to this the keystone of his whole system is the idea of unconditional free will and responsibility. In creating man God did not subject him, like other creatures, to the law of nature, but gave him the unique privilege of being able to accomplish the divine will by his own choice. He set life and death before him, bidding him choose life (Deut. 30, 19), but leaving the final decision to his free will. Thus it depends on the man himself whether he acts rightly or wrongly: the possibility of freely choosing the good entails the possibility of choosing evil. There are, he argues, three features in action—the power (posse), the will (velle), and the realization (esse). The first of these comes exclusively from God, but the other two belong to us; hence, according as we act, we merit praise or blame. It would be wrong to infer, however, that he regarded this autonomy as somehow withdrawing man from the purview of God’s sovereignty. Whatever his followers may have said, Pelagius himself made no such claim. On the contrary, along with his belief in free will he has the conception of a divine law proclaiming to men what they ought to do and setting the prospect of supernatural rewards and pains before them. If a man enjoys the freedom of choice, it is by the express bounty of his Creator, and he ought to use it for the ends which He prescribes.
Kelly gives us a good sense of Pelagius’s theology, and beyond that he helps us see how the tweet we’ve been engaging with has the same sort of feel and trajectory as we find set forth in Pelagius. The tweeter himself might push back and repudiate any sort of necessary connection to Pelagius’s idea of reward or pain, but I think the push back would be artificial based upon what the tweet itself is funded by.
Beyond all of the above, I also think in regard to method it is not advisable to simply read off one’s theology from this or that period of theological development; in other words, as 21st century Christians we ought to be more critical and constructive than that. More importantly, for the Protestant Christian what ought to be normative and authoritative for life and practice is not our reception of the theologoumena (theological opinions) of various theologians, per se, but only Holy Scripture and its reality. If we come across theologians who faithfully explicate the inner theo-logic of Scripture then appealing to their imaginary, in regard to the grammar they help develop, can be helpful; but this should be done with care. Either way, ‘early’ does not always or ever mean better; this seems to be the supposition of the tweeter.
 I am going to keep the tweeter anonymous because I didn’t ask him if I could quote his tweet; I just am. If he happens to come across my response, and wants me to give him credit for his tweet, I will. But the sentiment he articulates, in my view is, to say the least, highly troubling; thus I want to respond to it.
 Anonymous Tweet, accessed 11-17-2018 [emphasis mine].
 See Thomas F. Torrance, The Doctrine Of Grace In The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960).
 JND Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 356-57 [emphasis mine].