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Cover Image: The Race Set Before Us

The Race Set Before Us:
A Biblical Theology of Perserverance and Assurance

A.B. Caneday and Thomas Schreiner (IVP, 2001)

Blurb Review by Jason Clarke

Review by Jason Clarke

This book explores the Bible's teaching on perseverance in holiness and assurance of salvation, taking an inductive approach to 'substantial and representative' (p10) NT texts. This is the authors' justification for the term 'Biblical theology', not as the development of the Bible's teaching within salvation history, or the synthesizing work of systematic theology, but rather a reference to their inductive methodology.

Chapter one surveys four popular approaches to the subject, recognizing that disagreement focuses primarily on biblical warnings and admonitions. The four views identified are:

1. Loss of salvation 
2. Loss of rewards 
3. Tests of genuineness 
4. Hypothetical loss of salvation

The authors are constructively critical of all four views: because the adherents' systematic commitments influence the questions they ask of the relevant texts, the result is often eisegesis not exegesis. They believe that the right questions concern 'the function of biblical warnings in relation to biblical promises' (p39) and the questions answered lead to their conclusion that the bible's promises and warnings have an 'eschatological orientation' (p43), and that they are a 'crucial means God uses to protect his people'. In chapter 2 therefore the authors discuss in some detail the eschatology of salvation. Against what they term a 'somewhat static and retrospective view of salvation' the authors helpfully survey NT evidence of inaugurated eschatology, 'the invasion of God's end time work into the present age' (p47): salvation is both now and not yet. Chapter 3 explores 'the multifaceted biblical metaphors for faith'. There is, the authors contend, a danger in reducing a 'complex idea to simplistic formulas and slogans' (p139). The reformation motto 'sola fide' stressed that 'faith alone secures God's final approval' (p91), nevertheless the 'implicit clarifying contributions' of biblical metaphors for faith indicate that there is an 'inseparable link between faith and faithfulness' (p95). Not that faith is any sense meritorious, for faith is ultimately a gift. Whilst the nature of true faith is persevering faith, 'God's grace provides what God's grace demands' (p141).

Chapter 4 is the key chapter in the book. Examining representative warning and admonition passages from the NT, the authors contend that the passages in question 'underscore the dynamic and prospective nature of salvation [and] draw our focus to the not-yet aspect of salvation, without doing damage to the fact that believers already have salvation'. Interacting with the four popular views listed above, there is here a helpful discussion on 'framing the right question' of biblical texts. A particular criticism of the 'tests-of-genuineness' view is that it 'redirects the orientation of the [Hebrew] passages from prospective warnings [for believers] to retrospective characterization of certain people [unbelievers]' (p198). The authors' case is that the admonitions and warnings of the Bible are for believers, that they are compatible with biblical assurances, and that they 'function as the means God uses to secure the salvation that he promises' (p160). The question of how conditional promises and warnings work in practice is the concern of the second half of the chapter. Drawing an analogy with road signs that indicate real danger, the authors draw a distinction between an understanding of warning and admonitions as 'conceivable consequences' and 'probable consequences'. The former appeal to our imagination (p207) and an encourage us to go on trusting the gospel, the latter cause introspection and doubt about the gospel. Their conclusion is that 'God secures us in Christ by using admonitions and warnings framed in the same contingent or conditional form as the initial call of the gospel' (p212).

Chapter 5 examines NT passages that speak of 'fallen runners' indicating the mixed nature of the visible church. Far from undermining assurance, this should according to the authors, remind us that we do not run the race in our own strength. In chapter 6 the authors return to faith as continuing trust or faithfulness, stressing however that 'our necessary perseverance is established by and grounded in God's work in our lives'. God uses means, and the means God uses to fulfil his promise of salvation, are the warnings and admonitions directed towards believers.

The penultimate chapter is a discussion on 'assurance' which the authors contend to be integral to saving faith, even if it is not a static entity. Here the authors highlight the foundational importance of God's promises, the objective basis of faith to which the subjective witness of the Spirit points. Since 'God alone is a fit witness of himself in his word' (Calvin p305), 'the subjective witness of the Spirit cannot be abstracted from the objective dimensions of assurance' (p303). Whilst the fruit of the Spirit may confirm and strengthen assurance, it is nevertheless the promises of God in the Bible that form the most important part of Christian assurance. The final chapter examines the relationship between perseverance and election, with an appendix responding to William Lane Craig's essay, 'Lest anyone should fall'.

This is an immensely helpful and thoughtful book. True to its stated objective it is 'irenic in spirit and careful in exegesis' (p10). Two questions:

1. A question about methodology.

How do the authors' view the interplay between their own systematic presuppositions and inductive exegesis. Systematic imposition on texts is a significant (and often justified) criticism they make of others, yet no-one approaches any text as a 'blank sheet', including the authors.

2. A question of pastoral application

If, as the authors acknowledge in chapter 5, the visible church is mixed, are the promises and warnings of scripture not addressed to both the believer and the unbeliever? If so, do they not call for some self examination that may test the genuineness of one whose confession is merely external, at the same time as assuring true believers, and calling them to ongoing trust in Christ? If the admonition to test ourselves in 2 Corinthians 13:5 is 'not intended to throw us into a tizzy of doubt' (p307), isn't it possible that warnings and admonitions elsewhere call for a helpful and future orientated self examination, and not the kind of morbid introspection that the authors suggest?

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