The Relationship between Warnings and Assurance: Don’t Fumble It

Paul is a puzzle. He often warned his converts that if they didn’t persevere, or behaved in certain ways, they’d miss out on final salvation. He also assured his converts that, because of the faithfulness of God and his gift of the Spirit, they’d be preserved to the end without falling. As I say: a puzzle.

Some people like the assurances (because they’re comforting), but don’t like the warnings (because they frighten believers).

Some people like the warnings (because they take sin seriously), but don’t like the assurances (because they make people complacent).

Some people don’t like either of them, because taken together they make it sound like John Calvin was right, and we can’t have that.

Some people think Paul got himself in a hopeless tangle on the subject, and we should politely ignore him.

Warnings and Assurance Combined

Then there are those—we happy few—who try to have our cake and eat it too. The warnings are real: If believers fall away into sin and never repent, they won’t be saved. The assurances are real: God, in Christ, by the Spirit, will keep all believers to the end. And the former are a God-ordained means of ensuring the latter. Paul is convinced that true believers will heed his warnings, repent of their sin, and inherit final salvation. God will act within his converts to respond to Paul’s warnings.

Grace works.

That, in a nutshell, is the conclusion of my PhD research, and the result has just been published as The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians. It’s a case I’ve tried to make through detailed exegesis, as well as close-quarter sparring with both Calvinist-Reformed and Wesleyan-Arminian interpreters. Yet as a pastor and a preacher, one of the most important questions still presses on me: So what?

This view of the warning-assurance relationship affects your pastoral and homiletic practice in at least four ways.

1. Reassures You of God’s Work

No matter how messed up God’s people are, God will carry them (and us!) through to safety. Pastoral ministry can be a frustrating and even disillusioning experience. Sometimes we can consider our efforts and wonder whether the people we serve are getting anywhere at all.

None of us, however, has served a church as potentially disillusioning and frustrating as the Corinthians—with their rivalries, drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper, idolatry, visiting prostitutes, suing each other, denying the resurrection, sanctioning incest, and boasting about it all.

Yet Paul begins his letter with a resounding assurance that, despite all of these things, the faithfulness of God guarantees their future blamelessness: “He will sustain you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful” (1 Cor. 1:8–9).

That is a tremendous comfort.

2. Elevates the Significance of Preaching Biblical Warnings

Many Reformed pastors feel anxious about preaching admonitions. We worry it will sound like we don’t believe in grace, or security, or both. So we wallow in Romans 8, waffle through Hebrews 6, and arrange to be on vacation when 2 Peter 2 comes up.

If Paul’s warnings are a means of ensuring the perseverance of his converts, however, it’s vital to proclaim them—not only out of biblical integrity, but out of a desire to ensure the assurances we know and love are actually vindicated.

We (rightly) ridicule the idea that divine election rules out the need for gospel preaching; we should equally ridicule the idea that divine preservation rules out the need for biblical warnings.

We (rightly) ridicule the idea that divine election rules out the need for gospel preaching; we should equally ridicule the idea that divine preservation rules out the need for biblical warnings.

I love the way John Piper puts it in Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: “Brothers, save the saints.”

3. Strengthens Your Response to Unrepentant Sinners in the Church

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with a woman in our congregation who, through our strong emphasis on God’s grace and mercy to everyone, concluded that no matter how much sin she committed, and whether or not she ever repented of any of it, she was completely safe. She was complacent in her “security,” even defiant.

In the end, I confronted her with the strongest biblical warning I could think of (Heb. 10:26–31), and assured her in no uncertain terms that if she didn’t repent, she wouldn’t be saved. That, I think, is the seriousness and strength with which biblical warnings need to be applied to those in the church, whether they end up repenting (as many do) or not (as this woman didn’t).

Understanding the relationship between warnings and assurances leaves us free to use the former, without worrying we’re somehow undermining the latter.

Understanding the relationship between warnings and assurances leaves us free to use the former, without worrying we’re somehow undermining the latter.

4. Reminds You the Power to Persevere Comes from God

For all the efforts we make, in ministry and in our own lives—Paul described it as running, beating his body, enslaving it, and the rest (1 Cor. 9:24–27)—it is the Spirit’s work in our lives, not ours, that ultimately ensures our inheritance.

Divine and human agents work beautifully together, both in our own lives and in the lives of all disciples:

By the grace of God [divine], I am what I am. . . . I worked harder than all of them [human], yet not I but the grace of God [divine] that is with me [human]. (1 Cor. 15:10)

For this I toil [human], struggling with all his energy [divine] that he powerfully works [divine] within me [human]. (Col. 1:29)

We work, because he works in us. Which, whether you’re resisting temptation yourself or counseling someone who is, is enormously encouraging.

So there are practical benefits to grasping the warning-assurance relationship in 1 Corinthians, in Paul, and in Scripture. It can help our preaching, and it can help our pastoral ministry. There are also huge theological benefits, as we see the integrity and balance of biblical emphases, and remember both that we’re commanded to obey God, and also that even the ability to obey is itself a gift.

“For what do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7)

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