There are countless passages that exhort believers about the seriousness of their walk of holiness before God. Scripture strongly affirms that we should flee from sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:18), flee from idolatry (1 Cor. 10:14), flee love of money (1 Tim. 6:11), flee youthful passions (2 Tim. 2:22), and resist the devil (Jam. 4:7). There is no lack of admonition that we would pursue righteousness as we live the Christian life in increasing ability to mortify sin and vivify holiness. We should not neglect these exhortations for any reason.
In addition, however, Christians should be serious not only about their own walk before God, but also about their fellow believers in theirs. This point in itself will not be surprising or shocking. Think simply of Galatians 6:1–2:
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Paul’s clear point was to come alongside other Christians who may be having difficult struggles – or failures – with particular temptations. He certainly still commends them to watch their own lives, but also commends them to bear one another’s burdens mutually, which means more than an individualistic introspection about our own Christian walk.
In this respect, however, there are biblical passages that I believe many Christians turn into reasons for introspective fear about the certainty of their own salvation when in fact the passage is urging them to have concern for someone else. The doctrine of election means that those who are looking to Christ in faith can be confident of our own standing in the heavenly places, but it also means that we cannot be entirely certain about someone else’s standing. We do not have the right to peer into God’s eternal counsel to know who are the elect. In that regard, we should be concerned about our fellow church members.
I want to use two passages to illustrate my point, one of which will not be surprising, but the second may be a new perspective for some. The first is 1 Peter 4:8, which says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Some have argued that this verse means that our acts of love actually contribute to the forgiveness of our own sin. So, when we love well, it helps to remove the guilt of our sins from us. The context of the passage, though, is about care for the community. After all, the next verse instructs readers to “show hospitality,” which establishes that the issue at hand is one that is others-centered. In other words, it is not that our personal acts of love help us to obtain forgiveness from God as individuals, but that increasing love within the community makes it easier and easier to overlook one another’s shortcomings for the sake of Christ and the unity of the church, especially in difficult times like those faced by the original readers. In sum, 1 Peter 4:8 is not about a concern for our own salvation, but for the good of others.
My guess is that most, if not all, of Modern Reformation readers will have assumed the others-oriented concern in 1 Peter 4:8. On the other hand, 1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5 is a passage that many Christians, even in Reformed churches, have understood as a warning about the stability of their own walk with the Lord. Paul writes,
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
Now, clearly there is here an exhortation about the possibility of falling away from the church. That is not at all in doubt. The question is, however, whether this passage is directed at you, the reader, so that you will be concerned about whether or not you fall away, or whether it is meant to urge the reader to be concerned about their brothers and sisters in the church so that we would be thoroughly concerned about others as they walk with Christ.
I believe that this passage is an exhortation that we would be mindful and watchful in our concern about others, rather than a reason to fear about the certainty of our own salvation. Again, the context is, as always, key. Paul does say, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” but the rhetorical question needs to be placed in its context. Is his discussion about everlasting salvation, and is it about enduring so that I obtain my everlasting salvation? These questions should have nuanced answers, which is perhaps exactly why so many have defaulted to say a simple “yes” to both. The first consideration is that Paul’s surrounding discussion – indeed much of the letter – is not focused on everlasting life but on successful ministry. All of 1 Corinthians 9 is about Paul’s sacrificial forfeiture of his apostolic rights in order to help other believers persevere in faith, so that his ministry stands approved. He was certainly focused on the value of a person’s ministry “though he himself will be saved” in 1 Corinthians 4, and he has returned to that theme of a valuable ministry again. So, the direct focus of 1 Corinthians 9:24–10:5 is not especially about whether or not anyone personally proves themself for salvation, but about enduring in an approved ministry. So, not all ministers run well and receive the prize, but Paul aims to finish strong, and he does so by being more attentive to what others need than what he needs, and giving up rights to benefit their faith.
That this passage is not meant to make readers question their own salvation but be concerned that others finish well is also clearly seen in that the scope of 1 Corinthians 8–10 is about how Christians should be ready to give up their rights so as to help others press ahead in faith. Chapter 8 outlines the issue that the Corinthians were debating, whether it was permitted to eat food sacrificed to idols. Paul argues that, although true that idols are false gods, believers need to help those with weaker consciences by giving up freedoms if need be. Chapter 9 is then about how Paul himself gave up his rights in order that they would not be hindered in their growth in faith, so they should follow his example. The question of running the race for the prize is then about valuable ministry, not about a questionable salvation. The motivating point going into chapter 10, then, illustrated by Israel as a congregation of those related to Christ though some fell away, was that they, the Corinthian church, needed to be concerned about their fellow church members who may fall away. We cannot infallibly see someone’s regenerate heart, so we should conduct ourselves so to help and promote the life of faith for those who are weak or strong in our church community.
This understanding of 1 Corinthians 9–10 as prompting readers not to be concerned about the security of their own salvation, but to be pointedly aware of their need to help fellow church members persevere in their walk of faith implies (at least) two things. First, we should be reminded not to read every single passage about endurance as a reason to doubt the security of our own salvation, since a contextual understanding of many of these passages shows that this is often not even remotely the issue. This means that these exhortations to endurance are not causes for fear, nor are they subsequent conditions that undermine the certainty of our everlasting life. They are specific charges to help us understand what it means to love our church family. Second, this understanding that enables a rich assurance of salvation is far from antinomian. The ethical thrust may not be to worry about your salvation, but there is still the ethical imperative to care about others. That does not mean that we foist upon them the introspective burden of uncertainty while remaining complacent. It means that our life of faith is others-focused and works to promote perseverance in those around us, especially when they are struggling and we need to bear their burdens.
This view of an others-oriented focus in our watchfulness in our walk of holiness does promote a deep sense of assurance in that it places endurance passages thoroughly in context to show that they are not about questioning the certainty of our salvation. Further, however, this view does not promote laxity because it also emphasizes that we do need to be watching lives of holiness in the church community, not out of personal fear, but because we look also to the interests of others.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
 Thanks to my pastor, Andy Pearson, for his recent sermon on 1 Peter 4:7–11 that motivated my thoughts on this verse.