Standing At The Door: The Problem Revelation 3:20 Creates For The Calvinist
A while back, someone in the Society of Evangelical Arminians brought up a very interesting argument against Calvinism, and someone else brought up that same argument even more recently in a Molinist Facebook group I'm a part of. The argument comes from the third chapter of the book of Revelations, the final book of The Bible.
In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Revelations 3:20 can be interpreted in two ways, both of which present problems for Calvinism.
Interpretation #1: This passage is applicable to everyone. Although Jesus is addressing the Ladocians, he uses universal language (“If anyone..”, “he who has an ear…”). Thus this passage has application to everyone and helps to establish the doctrine of prevenient grace. This is usually the Arminian and Molinist position.
Interpretation #2: Jesus is speaking only to the church in Laodicea, or just to the 7 churches in Asia. On this view, this passage of the word of God is meant to apply to the original audience, and has no application to non-believers today. This is usually the position that Calvinists take with regards to this passage.
If interpretation #1 is correct, we have a clear example of prevenient/resistible grace. The passage illustrates both the universal scope of grace, and the ability to resist that grace. Jesus knocks on the door of each person’s heart, and the person can choose whether or not to open the door. Jesus isn’t going to bust down the doors of our hearts like some member of the S.W.A.T, He’s going to be a gentleman and knock. If we answer the call, we’ll be His forever. Jesus is persistent though. He’ll keep knocking for a long time…however…If we wait too long, Jesus will leave and we’ll be lost forever.
If interpretation #2 is correct, the Calvinist unintentionally creates another predicament for himself. He disproves the doctrine of eternal security (at least the Calvinist version of it, you’ll see what I mean by that in a moment). Immediately prior, Jesus speaks of “spitting out” the Ladocians because they “are neither hot nor cold”. If Jesus is addressing only Ladocian believers, the passage indicates that those same believers can become apostate:
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” -Revelation 3:14-16
So the Calvinist is left with a dilemma. If the passage applies to non-believers, it teaches prevenient/resistible grace, Jesus is knocking on the door of the non-believer’s heart and that person can freely choose to either open the door and let Jesus into their hearts or let Him continue knocking until the day they die, to their detriment. If the passage applies to Ladocian believers, it teaches the possibility of apostasy. These people have turned their backs on the Lord they once served. Their deeds have become persistently displeasing to God and He is going to spit them out of His mouth. They are lukewarm, and He is going to spit them out of His mouth. They will forfeit their salvation if they don’t change their ways.
I will add though that I think the Laodician believers won’t actually lose their salvation if they are truly saved. I take the position that William Lane Craig and Kenneth Keathley do on the issue of apostasy, which is that Christians can lose their salvation, but they won’t lose their salvation. Christians have the ability to exercise their free will to turn their backs on their Lord, but God gives plenty of warning passages (Hebrews 3:12, Hebrews 6:4-6, 2 Peter 2, 2 Peter 3:17, etc.) because He knew before creating the universe that if He put plenty of warnings in scripture not to fall away, then those who are truly saved would freely persevere in their faith. It’s like a mother who warns her child not to touch the top of a stove because he would be burned if he touched the stove. As a result of the warning, the child is fearful of being burned and chooses not to touch the top of the stove, and hence, he never gets burned. I see these warning passages in scripture (Hebrews 3:12, Hebrews 6:4-6, 2 Peter 2, 2 Peter 3:17, etc.) in the exact same way. As a result, we can make sense of these passages telling believers to be careful not to turn their backs on Christ while at the same time, we can make sense of passages like 1 John 2:19, which essentially says that anybody who abandons the Christian faith never belonged to Christ in the first place. And also passages like Ephesians 6:24 which says that a Christian’s love for Christ is an “undying” love (meaning it will never end). Revelation 3:16 doesn’t say that these Laodician believers will forfeit their salvation, just simply that they’re about to. The purpose of these letters being sent to the 7 churches is, after all, to get them to repent of their sinful ways. For me, it's indisputable whether a Christian can forfeit their salvation, the only thing I find up for debate is whether God has actualized a possible world where anyone who truly receives The Holy Spirit will in fact, fall away. I don't think He has on the basis of passages like 1 John 2:19, Ephesians 1:13, Ephesians 6:24, John 10:29-30 and several others.
I explain my position on apostasy and security in much more detail in this blog post titled “Can A Christian Lose Their Salvation? (Molinist Perspective)”.
The problem I have with interpreting the verse as being solely about their works is that in Revelation 3:16, Jesus says "So, because YOU are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit YOU out of my mouth.” Moreover, before this, although He says "I know your deeds," he then says "I wish YOU were one or the other." It sounds like He's going to be rid of the people if they don't stop doing works that don't benefit anyone. They need to stop making the Lord nauseated with their deeds or He'll have to spit them out.
In response to this argument against Calvinism, someone said “If it refers to salvation there seems to be a problem no matter what our soteriology is, namely, why would Jesus want them to be cold in reference to their salvation? That would mean He would rather them be an unbeliever than be on-the-fence so to speak? If God is morally perfect then He would desire the salvation of all, so it would seem odd to prefer someone to be "cold" in reference to their salvation.” But I don't think interpreting this would mean that God doesn't the salvation of all, I think it would be an instance of hyperbole. God is so upset at their "lukewarmness" that He says "At least be one or the other! Be good or evil, but stop pretending to be such good Christians while you're living the life of an unbeliever. If you're going to call yourself a believer, live like one! If you're going to live like an unbeliever at least call yourself one! But enough of this nonsense of having a foot in both worlds." God's not saying that He'd rather be an unbeliever. Rather, I think it can be taken that God is pointing out their hypocrisy. He’s saying that their words and deeds ought to be in sync.
It's obvious from scripture that Jesus would rather they be "hot" given that many places in scripture explicitly state that God wants every person to be saved (2 Peter 3:9, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, John 3:16, Ezekiel 18:23, etc.), but by saying "I'd rather you be either hot or cold", I think he's bringing to their attention their inconsistency. Their being a bit of a blend of Christian and non-Christian, having Christian beliefs but a worldly lifestyle. We know the Lord hates hypocrisy (e.g Matthew 23), so this does make sense, in my opinion.