How may believers be assured that they have eternal life? What impact do faith, good works, commitment, apostasy, and baptism have on our formulation of the biblical doctrine of assurance? In his popular treatment of these and similar questions, Zane C. Hodges, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, advances the thesis that “the New Testament Gospel offers the assurance of eternal life to all who will accept that life by faith in Christ. The assurance of the believer rests squarely on the direct promises in which this offer is made, and on nothing else” (p. 121). Concomitantly, says Hodges, any insistence that good works are a necessary or inevitable evidence of salvation fundamentally undermines the possibility of assurance and introduces works into the plan of salvation, thereby seriously, if not fatally, compromising the purity of the gospel of grace.
The seriousness of Hodge’s charge against those who would teach the necessity or inevitability of good works by the saved (theologically, an element of the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance) is unmistakable. But, while Professor Hodges displays every confidence in the correctness of his position, his efforts in The Gospel under Siege do not inspire a similar confidence on the part of his readers. In fact, in my judgment, this work does much to evoke vigorous disagreement with Hodges’s approach to the important subject of faith and works. My disagreement with the thesis of this book may be summarized in four points corresponding to the historical, exegetical, theological, and practical deficiencies of Hodges’s discussion.
First, though he acknowledges the existence of competing interpretations of the doctrine of assurance, Hodges shows a disappointing lack of historical perspective in the presentation of his opponents’ and his own viewpoints. As for the presentation of his opponents’ interpretation, those who teach the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance will hardly recognize themselves in Hodges’s book. He speaks frequently and insistently of how adherents to that doctrine make works a co-condition or proviso with faith in their proclamation of the gospel (e.g., pp. 4, 9). Contemporary sponsors of the doctrine of perseverance will reply to this charge in at least two ways. On the one hand, some will observe that in general Hodges’s discussion of good works and assurance exhibits little appreciation for the parameters of the historical debate (especially from the Reformation era). On the other hand, others will notice that his characterization of the doctrine of perseverance bears no resemblance to its historical expressions (e.g., chap. 17 of the Westminster Confession of Faith). As for the presentation of his own interpretation from the historical perspective, the credibility of Hodges’s viewpoint suffers considerably from its failure to have achieved any sustained appeal or sponsorship among evangelical interpreters during the church’s history. Indeed, Hodges’s dogmatic rhetoric appears quite incompatible with his advocacy of a position which has known only sporadic individual support without the endorsement of a single evangelical confessional community. His intention to reach a popular audience notwithstanding, Hodges may legitimately be expected to have shown more sensitivity to the historical aspects of his subject matter as he presented his own and others’ viewpoints.
Second, while Hodges constantly disparages his opponents’ exegetical work for its lack of insight, integrity, and/or textual warrant, his own exegetical work does little either to substantiate his dismissal of their interpretations or to establish our confidence in his alternatives. Only two examples can be given here. In his effort to discount appeals to James 2:14–26 as support for the doctrine of the saints’ perseverance, Hodges insists that the issue for James is the indispensability of good works for the preservation of the believer’s physical life. But with this interpretive construct, Hodges unknowingly renders James’s argument from Abraham completely irrelevant (the issue in the patriarch’s case is obviously not the preservation of his physical life). In another chapter, Hodges attempts to demonstrate that, according to the author of Hebrews, true believers can apostatize and yet be eternally secure. In supporting this point, Hodges claims that the author distinguishes between a reward for faith which may finally apostatize (i.e., salvation from eternal punishment) and a reward for faith which perseveres (i.e., preservation of physical life). Hodges’s claim, however, overlooks the author’s own claim that only faith which endures to the end (3:6) has a great reward (10:35), and that reward is the promise (10:36) of the eternal inheritance (9:15). Examples of such oversights could be multiplied, but these must suffice to indicate that the exegetical argumentation of this book seldom, if ever, carries the perspicuity or persuasiveness which Hodges intends. Accordingly, we must conclude that there is little, if any, textual evidence which should commend Hodges’s thesis to us.
Third, the historical and exegetical failings of Hodges’s work manifest themselves in assertions with disturbing theological implications. In general terms, one may say that Hodges’s doctrinal formulations reflect a self-defeating attempt to combine two incompatible principles: self-originated human obedience (faith or works) and sovereign divine grace (e.g., p, 21). In specific terms, Hodges tries to reconcile these principles by positing the defectibility of human faith. He then asks us to believe that such defectibility does not disturb the indefectibility of God’s relationship to those who exercise that faith (e.g., pp. 68, 69). By so much Hodges endeavors to debunk the necessity or inevitability of the believer’s perseverance while advocating the unconditionality of his security. Only thus, says Hodges, can the assurance of believers and the purity of the gospel be upheld.
Unfortunately, the ramifications of Hodges’s theology are not as noble as he would hope. On the one hand, of concern to all evangelicals should be the necessary implication in Hodges’s affirmations that God continually and finally applies his saving grace to people who do not continually and finally receive that grace by faith. Does this not mean that God may continually and finally save some against their will? On the other hand, of special concern to Hodges’s pretribulational-premillennial readers will be the fact that his doctrine of the believer’s defectibility jeopardizes the participation of all believers in the supposed pretribulational rapture and premillennial resurrection. For, according to Rev 3:10 and John 5:29, respectively, the pretribulational evacuation and premillennial resurrection are to be experienced only by those who, in theological terms, have persevered in faith with good works. There can be no mistake from these and similar passages (e.g., Matt 7:15–23) that the doctrine of the believer’s assurance involves (in a way which cannot be elaborated here) the indispensability of the believer’s perseverance. Contrary to Hodges’s thesis, we cannot speak theologically of assurance apart from the fact of perseverance any more than we can speak theologically of assurance apart from the fact of eternal security. Consequently, we must say that Hodges’s doctrine of defectibility undermines what the gospel of sovereign grace would teach us: the theological interrelatedness of the believer’s security, perseverance, and assurance.
Fourth and finally, while it would be improper to impugn Hodges’s truly honorable motives (to uphold the believer’s assurance and the gospel’s purity), the practical consequences of accepting his thesis must be judged as very dangerous on at least two counts. In the first place, Hodges has in principle eliminated repentance from sin as a part of proclaiming and obeying the gospel. In this connection his treatment (pp. 13–15) of the Samaritan adulteress in John 4 serves as a particularly explicit example. In the second place, though he desires to promote perseverance and to prevent apostasy among believers, Hodges inadvertently neutralizes the urgency and incentive of his appeals by espousing both the security and the defectibility of the true believer. One labors in vain to discover how Hodges’s doctrine can fail to comfort those who would rather enjoy the passing pleasures of sin than endure the momentary, sorrowful discipline which yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Surely, antinomian elements such as these must make Hodges’s position decidedly unacceptable, even unconscionable, for the practical purposes of evangelicals.
In summary, then, despite its endorsement by pastors, college professors, and some of Hodges’s seminary colleagues, I cannot recommend The Gospel under Siege as a positive contribution to the church’s greater understanding of the biblical doctrine of assurance. With its historical, exegetical, theological, and practical shortcomings, this book serves instead as a disquieting reminder that the doctrines of security, perseverance, and assurance can be juxtaposed in a fashion which undermines rather than undergirds the gospel of grace.
© R. Fowler White. All Rights Reserved.
Editor’s note: This review of Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel under Siege: A Study on Faith and Works (Dallas: Redención Viva, 1981) was originally published in Westminster Theological Journal 46 (1984) 2:426–30, and is reproduced here by permission of the author.
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