GEORGE BRYSON’S (CALVARY CHAPEL) OBJECTION TO PERSEVERENCE OF THE SAINTS IN LIGHT OF PHILIPPIANS 2:12-13
Who is George Bryson and what does it matter what he teaches?
Sometimes researching theological disagreement can further clarify and further strengthen one’s position, as one is pressed to scrutinize the Biblical case more accurately and precisely. From the quarters of Calvary Chapel churches, one of their leading figures attempting to refute the doctrines of Sovereign Grace has been George Bryson, who is also the director of Calvary Chapel Church Planting Mission. He has debated James White on this issue in print and open debate, and has also authored two books on this subject, The Five Points of Calvinism- Weighed and Found Wanting, and his latest, The Dark Side of Calvinism. The endorsement that Bryson receive from Calvary Chapel comes from as high up as even the founder and father figure of the Calvary Chapel movement, Chuck Smith, who wrote the forward to The Dark Side of Calvinism. Since doctrines in theology are interdependent, the position one adopts concerning salvation will have an impact on other doctrines, such as perseverance of the saints and sanctification. Practically what is at stake is the ground for the believer’s assurance of their salvation and the basis of sanctification. In attempting to refute Sovereign Grace, Bryson’s teaching will have implication in these areas.
SCOPE OF THE PAPER
The scope of this paper will narrow its focus to Bryson’s objection to a Reformed understanding of perseverance of the saints, as he articulated in his most recent full length work, The Dark Side of Calvinism. The first step in this paper will be correcting Bryson’s misunderstanding of the Reformed position of the perseverance of the saints. Perseverance of the Saint will then be scrutinized in light of Philippians 2:12-13.
MISUNDERSTANDING OF PERSEVERENCE OF THE SAINTS CORRECTED
Bryson’s view concerning perseverance of the saints is colored by his rejection of irresistible grace. For Bryson, there is no such thing as the irresistible grace of God, since grace can always be resisted and rejected by sinners. Yet interestingly enough, Bryson who wrote a chapter titled “Perseverance of the Saints Scripturally Refuted”, has himself stated that he does believe in the perseverance of the saints, although it is not the Reformed understanding of the perseverance of the saints! In this particular area, Bryson’s view does not necessarily represent all of Calvary Chapel, where many hold to the position hat one can lose their salvation. Bryson goes on to say that unlike the Reformed perseverance of the saints, his view does not confuses sanctification with justification (Bryson, 263). Unlike salvation, perseverance of the saints is not a “forgone conclusion” in which believers will always continue to walk in Christ (Bryson, 273). While Bryson states that he believe in the perseverance of the saints (but not the Reformed articulation of it), an assessment of his position reveal that it is best to call his position “once saved, always saved”, to distinguish it from the doctrine of perseverance of the saints. In other words, Bryson believes that a believer’s justification in Christ is secured for eternity, although a believer might possibly not experience sanctification for most of the believer’s Christian life (Bryson, 263-266). He even found it appalling that some Christians would reject the idea of the ‘carnal’ Christian (Bryson, 266). Here is a good case which demonstrates how doctrines in theology are interdependent, for Bryson’s major contention with the perseverance of the saints is ultimately with the Reformed understanding of the sanctification of the saints.
The gist of Bryson’s objection in The Dark Side of Calvinism is stated compactly with this question: “At the risk of belaboring the point, however, if all true saints persevere through to the end, why does Scripture so often encourage the saints to persevere and just as often warn them of the consequences of not persevering” (Bryson, 269)? Bryson cites various passages from Scripture, where there are warnings and exhortation to be sanctified. He believes that these warnings would then be totally meaningless and unnecessary if the Calvinist position on perseverance is correct (Bryson, 281).
The root of the problem to Bryson’s objection is a misunderstanding of God’s sovereignty in sanctification. While Bryson has correctly cited contemporary Reformed teacher such as Sproul and MacArthur to demonstrate the Reformed position holds to the believer’s inevitable sanctification as the result of God, Bryson has failed to provide any citation of adherents of Sovereign Grace concerning their position on the means in which God sovereignly sanctifies the believer. God in His sovereignty sanctifies the believer through the means of warning believers from the Scripture itself. A believer ought to test to see if they are in the faith, and admonition from the Scripture is legitimately the means in which God has decided to keep those who are elect, in the faith (MacArthur, 212-215). There is an element of human responsibility in sanctification, according to the doctrines of Sovereign Grace, and warning from Scripture appealing to the believer’s responsibility is how God intends to sovereignly preserve the saints.
Sadly, Bryson has not only misunderstood the Reformed position of the perseverance of the saints, Bryson should have known better, if he has read the context of some of his citation carefully. For instance, according to Bryson, Sproul admittedly concede the problem that Sovereign Grace would make warnings totally meaningless and unnecessary. He quotes Sproul saying “It seems frivolous to exhort people to avoid the impossible” (Bryson, 281). A more complete reading of Sproul would indicate that Sproul does not admit a problem and left it at that. In the very next sentence Sproul addresses the issue further, saying that perseverance is both God’s grace and a believer’s duty (Sproul, 186). In the larger context that Bryson lifted his quote from, Sproul went on explaining how humanly speaking it is possible for a believer to fall away but ultimately why that will not happen is because God is the who is preserving a believer from falling away (Sproul, 186). Scriptural warning and admonition is the human side to the perseverance of the saints. This is the Reformed position which Bryson failed to accurately understand or represent. The next part of this paper will see if the Reformed position is also the Biblical position.
Philippians 2:12-13 is important in the discussion of perseverance of the saints in light of the paradoxical tension of the believer’s responsibility and divine sovereignty in salvation expressed in these two verses (Silva, 118).
Contextually, Philippians 2:12-13 begins a section of exhortation, which goes up to verse eighteen (Lightner, 848). In the previous section, Paul has given a hymn concerning the humble attitude in which believers ought to share with Christ. As a result of the truth in the previous section, Paul applies the truth of the hymn by addressing the believer’s response and responsibility in salvation. It is clear that Paul is addressing believers, since he called them brethren.
The topic of salvation is explicitly clear, since the word “salvation” itself is mentioned in verse twelve. Attempts has been made to interpret “salvation” here in non-theological sense, such as seeing salvation a reference to health, but health and well being is not suggested within the verse nor the context. The use of “salvation” elsewhere in the epistle (1:19, 28) is clearly about spiritual salvation (O’Brien, 278-279). Furthermore, in the corpus of Paul’s epistles, there is no evidence where “salvation” is used in a non-theological sense for health (Silva, 119-120). Salvation must be understood as all of God’s work on behalf of the believer, from election to glorification (MacArthur, 211; cf. Silva, 121). Salvation understood as such, is attested by Scripture where salvation is seen as what has already been done (Ephesians 2:5, 8) and what is still yet to come (Romans 5:9-10, 2nd Timothy 4:18).
In this discussion about salvation, Paul talks about obedience, which is in the realm of human responsibility. The Philippians’ readers are described as always obeying, or for interpretation purposes, as obeying previously, and the Greek aorist tense for “obeying” is looking back to the old days (Moule, 44). Paul exhort his readers, now that he was no longer with them (“now much more in my absence”) to continue having that same obedience which Paul has witnessed previously.
Paul commanded the Philippians to show their obedience by working out their salvation. “Work out” (kataergazesthe) is the main verb of verse twelve (O’ Brien, 281). While later in verse thirteen Paul would talk about God’s role in salvation, commentator Silva correctly observes that Paul’s first concern was with human activity (Silvia, 122).
Paul even described further details in verse twelve of how the believer was to work out their salvation. Connecting to the main verb “kataergazesthe”, is the modifying phrase “with fear and trembling” (O’ Brien, 282). This phrase carries more of the thought of reverent and full conscience of God’s presence rather than the idea of tormenting misgiving attitude (Moule, 44). If readers read this verse in isolation from verse thirteen or if readers presupposes that a believer can work out their own salvation without the need of grace from God (as verse thirteen teaches), then the phase “with fear and trembling” is virtually unintelligible. Fear and trembling is the proper response, because salvation has everything to do with God, and something done by God, as verse thirteen teaches. While there is a human factor, there is also the factor of God in salvation.
Turning to verse thirteen, the presence of the Greek word “gar”, which is translated in English as “for”, should be understood as “because”. This word is introducing the ground and the reason of why there should be fear and trembling (O’ Brien, 284). There should be a reverential fear because God is the one working in the Philippians. In the Greek, there is a particular emphasis in this verse on God (“Theos”), since “Theos” is placed first in this verse (O’ Brien, 286). The presence of “gar” also demonstrates a causal relationship of God to a believer’s working out their salvation (Silva, 122).
There are two things described in verse thirteen of how God works in the lives of believers. First, God is the one who works in the believer to will. The Greek verb “to will” is “thelein”, which carries the idea of purposeful determination and the fact that it is in the Greek present tense means this will is an ongoing process (O’ Brien, 287). God is the source of the believer’s continuous desire to work out their salvation. Secondly, God’s work is also behind the believer’s actual work for God’s pleasure. It is a great awesome truth, one that believers should laud thanksgiving and joy to the Lord, that God is behind one’s desire for working out our salvation and actual sanctification. A believer should be in fear and awe of this great truth.
If God is the source of the believer’s determination and actual work which pleases God, and this is what He does as part of God’s sanctification in salvation, then it follows that godliness is inevitable for a true believer. Bryson finds this idea abhorring, and teaching this will have contrary effect (Bryson, 269). This is rather a shallow understanding of Scripture, especially when the epistles openly juxtapose the indicatives of God and the imperatives of God. In fact, O’ Brien stated it well, that “Philippians 2:12-13 gives clear expression to this relationship of the ‘indicative’ and the ‘imperative’, the theological foundation and the accompanying exhortation” (O’ Brien, 285).
In conclusion, Philippians 2:12-13 attest to the teaching that there is human responsibility in salvation, a salvation which is God’s work, in which God himself is the source of the believer’s will and actual result of perseverance and godliness. Yet, with these great truths, Scripture itself issue warnings to believers without a hint that is conflicting with the truths above. Thus, the believer is not only promised that he will be “once saved, always saved”, but also actual perseverance as a true saint of God, because of God’s sovereign grace in his progressively sanctifying life.
Bryson, George. The Dark Side of Calvinism: The Calvinist Caste System. Santa Ana, California: Calvary Chapel Publishing, 2004.
Bryson, George. “The Divine Sovereignty Human Responsibility Debate Part 2.” Christian Research Journal 24 no. 1 (2001): 22-25, 41-47.
Demarest, Bruce and Gordon Lewis. Integrative Theology. Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Academic Books, 1987.
Erikson, Millard. Christian Theology.. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998.
Lightner, Robert P. “Philippians.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary. 2 Volumes, Edited by John Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, 2:647-666. Colorado Springs: Victor, 1983.
MacArthur, John. The Gospel According to Jesus: What is Authentic Faith? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
Moule, H.C.G. The Epistle of Paul the apostle to the Philippians: With Introduction and Notes. Cambridge, England: University Press, 1936.
O’ Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. The New International Greek New Testament Commentary. Cambridge, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Silva, Moises. Philippians. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005.
Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God. Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1986.
White, James. “The Divine Sovereignty Human Responsibility Debate Part 1” Christian Research Journal 23 no. 4 (2001): 32-41.
 Sovereign Grace refers to the teaching that God’s work for a believer’s salvation began from eternity, when God elected and choose the believers to come to a saving knowledge of himself through faith in Jesus Christ. This term is used interchangeably with Reformed theology and Calvinism for the purpose of this paper.