What is the uttermost?

Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25, KJV)

I use the King James version of this verse because it is the source of what is sometimes called the fourth “all” of Methodism: “All can be saved to the uttermost.” In later translations, we find translators struggling with the meaning of that word that the KJV translates as “uttermost.” I am intrigued by this but am well aware of my ignorance of Greek, so am wary of drawing any conclusions.

I know many of my readers are much more knowledgeable in Greek than I am, so I thought I would share my questions and see if you could help me out.

First, “uttermost” is from the Greek παντελές, which occurs in only two places, here and Luke 13:11, where it refers to the woman who had been crippled by a spirit and bent over for 18 years and could not straighten up. The word, transliterated as pantelos, refers to the degree to which she could not straighten up. The word includes the root word “telos,” which is frequently translated as “complete” or “perfect” in contemporary bibles. So, I hear in this the notion of being made all complete or all perfect, and some translations of Hebrews 7:25 do translate the word as “completely,” saying Jesus can save us completely (or perfectly?).

But other contemporary translations render the word as “for all time.” They suggest the meaning is not that we can be saved perfectly, but that our salvation cannot be dislodged or removed.

As you can imagine, the various readings of this word feed debates about eternal security of salvation and the possibility of backsliding. Charles Spurgeon and John MacArthur cite this verse in support of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, for instance.

Here is how Spurgeon puts it:

Then, my friends, if Christ is able to save a Christian to the uttermost, do you suppose he will ever let a Christian perish? Wherever I go, I hope always to bear my hearty protest against the most accursed doctrine of a saint’s falling away and perishing. There are some ministers who preach that a man may be a child of God (now, angels! do not hear what I am about to say, listen to me, ye who are down below in hell, for it may suit you) that a man may be a child of God to-day, and a child of the devil to-morrow; that God may acquit a man, and yet condemn him—save him by grace, and then let him perish—suffer a man to be taken out of Christ’s hands, though he has said such a thing shall never take place. How will you explain this? It certainly is no lack of power. You must accuse him of a want of love, and will you dare to do that? He is full of love; and since he has also the power, he will never suffer one of his people to perish. It is true, and ever shall be true, that he will save them to the very uttermost.

This leaves no room for doubt. Arminian and Wesleyan doctrine is accursed. From my experience “once saved, always saved” is warmly embraced by many who attend United Methodist churches. So the question of what it means to be saved to the uttermost is not merely a word game.

In his Notes on the New Testament, John Wesley writes that being saved to the uttermost means saved “From all the guilt, power, root, and consequence of sin.” Although he has no sermon that takes Hebrews 7:25 as its text, Wesley does make reference to Hebrews 7:25 in his sermon “The Repentance of Believers,” where he writes of being saved to the uttermost as being not merely about justification, but about entire sanctification:

And this also is to be understood in a peculiar sense, different from that wherein we believed in order to justification. Believe the glad tidings of great salvation, which God hath prepared for all people. Believe that he who is “the brightness of his Father’s glory, the express image of his person,” is “able to save unto the uttermost all that come unto God through him.” He is able to save you from all the sin that still remains in your heart. He is able to save you from all the sin that cleaves to all your words and actions. He is able to save you from sins of omission, and to supply whatever is wanting in you. It is true, this is impossible with man; but with God-Man all things are possible. For what can be too hard for him who hath “all power in heaven and in earth?”

So the Calvinists see in this verse evidence to support the doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” and Wesley reads it as confirmation of the doctrine of Christian perfection.

I’m curious how other people encounter this text. What does it mean to be saved “to the uttermost”?


9 thoughts on “What is the uttermost?

  1. I find that my lexicons don’t all agree on this. In the NIV Greek Lexicon παντελής is said to mean: “complete, perfect, absolute” or “at all.” But, both Louw & Nida and Mounce allow for a meaning that would suggest “for all time.” Mounce says the phrase εἰς τὸ παντελές, in this verse, is being used adverbially to mean: “throughout” or “through all time, ever.”

    Of course, one can’t build an entirely convincing case for either view simply on one phrase in one verse — using a rather rare word, to boot.

    But, I got curious what Clarke said, so I looked it up. He says:

    “Because he is an everlasting priest, and has offered the only available sacrifice, he is able to save, from the power, guilt, nature, and punishment of sin, to the uttermost, εις το παντελες, to all intents, degrees, and purposes; and always, and in and through all times, places, and circumstances; for all this is implied in the original word: but in and through all times seems to be the particular meaning here, because of what follows, he ever liveth to make intercession for them; this depends on the perpetuity of his priesthood, and the continuance of his mediatorial office.

    “As Jesus was the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, has an everlasting priesthood, and is a continual intercessor; it is in virtue of this that all who were saved from the foundation of the world were saved through him, and all that shall be saved to the end of the world will be saved through him. He ever was and ever will be the High Priest, Sacrifice, Intercessor, and Mediator of the human race. All successive generations of men are equally interested in him, and may claim the same privileges. But none can be saved by his grace that do not come unto God through him; i. e. imploring mercy through him as their sacrifice and atonement; confidently trusting that God can be just, and yet the justifier of them who thus come to him, believing on Christ Jesus.”

    It’s interesting that even Adam Clarke thought that παντελής has some sort of temporal meaning in this passage.

  2. I think you’ve described it accurately, via Wesley and the Greek. Hebrews 6 includes a pretty potent case against eternal security. It would be most inconsistent therefore to translate panteles as “for all time.”

  3. This is an interesting question, John. Especially since I’ve just chosen to “translate” Wesley’s “to the uttermost” to “to the fullest.”

    I think it’s interesting to note that Josephus’ use of the phrase εἰς τὸ παντελές (Antiquities 1.18.5[267]; 3.11.3[264]; 3.12.1[274]; 6.2.3[30]; 7.13.3[325]) is much more naturally about degree – usually best translated “entirely” – not extent of time. Try to put “for all time” in the word’s place and it can work, but a reference to degree seems much more natural.

    Use this website to see for yourself: http://pace.mcmaster.ca/york/york/showText?book=7&chapter=13&textChunk=whistonSection&chunkId=3&go.x=19&go.y=8&go=go&text=anti&version=&direction=&tab=&layout=split

    Given that, perhaps I should change my translation from “to the fullest” to “entirely.” That may be a bit more clear – and seems the best reflection of how the phrase is typically used.

    1. Utter
      “speak, say,” utern “to turn out, show, speak,” from uter “outer,” ut “out;” outen “to disclose,” utan “to put out,” , express,”

      “greatest number, amount, extent,” earlier mæst

      9 If I take the wings of the morning or dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Psalms 139

      God is able to save completely.

      Why does one have to be wrong and one right?
      Wesley is correct, IMHO, to define the passage as you state.
      Calvinists persuasion give God complete and total credit for the individuals salvation.
      Wesley highlights mans intellect and freedom to choose. Conditional Predestination?

      Calvinists say salvation of the individual is predetermined.

      “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5 )

      Those saved are called by God. Changed by God. Sustained by God and made saints of God by his decree.. No man, nothing, can steal away what God has determined to be his own. God’s sovereignty to the “uttermost” from beginning to end.

  4. The most natural way to hear it in modern American English is likely just “completely.”

    As you pointed out above, the word in question is παντελὲς (panteles) which is simply a compound of pan (all) and teles (complete). So, the unabridged Liddell & Scott notes that the base meaning is simply “all-complete, absolute, perfect.”

    However, it’s more than that. As both Craig and Teddy point out, παντελὲς doesn’t stand alone; it’s used in a phrase: εἰς τὸ παντελὲς. Literally, “to the all-complete.” This is why the KJV isn’t wrong to render it “to the uttermost.” However, in Greek the phrase εἰς τὸ παντελὲς has an adverbial force, the equivalent of παντελῶς. It simply means “completely, entirely, absolutely.”

    According to Liddell & Scott, there is a rare and less usual instance in which the phrase could mean “forever.” But, that’s not likely here. You’d likely need some time referent here to lead you in that direction. Personally, I don’t see any.

    And especially in the NT you would expect πάντοτε for the sense of “at all times, always.” That’s the more usually word, and in fact it appears in this verse: πάντοτε ζῶν εἰς τὸ ἐντυγχάνειν ὑπὲρ αὐτῶν, “at all times living to intercede on their behalf.”

    Or, for the sense of “forever,” you’d expect what you see here at the end of v.28: εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τετελειωμένον, “having been perfected forever.” The phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα is the favorite NT way of talking about forever, literally “into the age.”

    In the end, I think the most natural way to translate it today is simply to say “completely” as the NIV does. “Perfectly,” “absolutely,” or “entirely” would be just as good.

    The “for all time” bit strikes me as a theological stretch on the part of our Calvinist friends. Too much theologizing, not enough Greek to support it.

    At least, that’s my take.

    1. I find it interesting that the NRSV is one that used “for all time,” hardly the darling of Calvinism.

      1. That is interesting, isn’t it?

        And I note the RSV before it does the same. I may be wrong about this, but my sense is that most Bible publishers come from the Calvinist perspective. It’s why “predestination” gets such strong emphasis in translation when there are other ways to word it. There are very few translations, if any, that come from a truly Wesleyan-Arminian perspective. But then again, I could be wrong.

  5. What “uttermost” indicates to me is that there are *degrees* to salvation less than panteles which points to sanctification and Christian perfection? If salvation is just a forensic yea or nay, then panteles is a puzzling tautology.

Comments are closed.