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”?